Designing your study

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Research Perspectives Overview

Designing your study
In Crotty, which you should have read for today, he suggestions that in developing your research you should be concerned then with asking four questions:
What methods do you propose to use?

What methodology governs your choice and use of the methods?

What theoretical perspective lies behind the methodology in question?

What epistemology informs this theoretical perspective?

He defines these terms:
Methods – the techniques or procedures used to gather and analyze data related to some research question of hypothesis
Methodology – the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and use of methods to desired outcomes.
Theoretical perspective: the philosophical stance informing the methodology and thus providing a context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria.
Epistemology: the theory of knowledge embedded in the theoretical perspective and thereby in the methodology.
The first three questions seem rather obvious to most researchers but many question why we need to understand and be explicit about our epistemology and ontology. So I’m going to spend a little time at the top of the Crotty diagram so we are all on the same page.
Why understand research philosophies?

The lack of clarity and consistency of the social science lexicon has led to a minefield of misused, abused, and misunderstood terms and phrases. This is especially true in education which lacks conceptual cohesiveness of most fields being a collection of researchers from many different traditions – educational history, educational sociology, maths education, science educations, arts education, etc.

It is thus important to understand the underlying philosophies at work:

  1. to understand the interrelationship of the key components of research (including methodology and methods);

  2. to avoid confusion when discussing theoretical debates and approaches to social phenomena; and

  3. to be able to recognize others’, and defend our own, positions.

If we are unclear about the ontological and epistemological basis of a piece of research, we may end up criticizing a colleague for not taking into account a factor which his or her ontological position does not allow for. For example, we may criticize a positivist (if there still is such a thing) for not taking into account the hidden structures at work in society when a positivist ontology and epistemology do not allow for unseen structures.

Ontology and Epistemology: the Philosophical Building Blocks
You may see or hear the word ontology mentioned but it isn’t included in Crotty’s schema.
Blaikie (2000, pg 8) has described ontology as ‘claims and assumptions that are made about the nature of social reality, claims about what exists, what it looks like, what units make it up and how these units interact with each other. In short, ontological assumptions are concerned with what we believe constitutes social reality.’
An individual’s ontological position is their answer to the question: what is the nature of social and political reality to be investigated? In the Crotty framework it would sit alongside epistemology and also inform our theoretical perspective. We can not critique a researchers’ ontology – it is a personal assumption which is impossible to refute empirically – there are no wrong or right ontologies.


Blaikie (2000, pg 8) describes epistemology as ‘the possible ways of gaining knowledge of social reality, whatever it is understood to be. In short, claims about how what is assumed to exist can be known’.
Many researchers confuse ontology, epistemology and theoretical perspective. Because of this confusion Crotty has left ontology out of his framework. But the assumptions underlying every piece of research are both ontological and epistemological.
In his lovely children’s book, Fish is Fish, Leo Lionni tells a story of a friendship between a tadpole and a minnow. They love their life in the pond as they both grow up. Once the tadpole becomes a frog, he follows his urge to explore the world outside of the pond. When he returns, he regales the fish with tales of brightly colored birds, cows with pink bags of milk, and people who wear clothes. The illustrations in the book show that while the frog is talking, thought bubbles of the fish show fish with brightly colored wings and tails flying through the sky; fish with ears, horns and pink bags of milk; and fish wearing clothes and walking upright on their tales. The point being that what the fish ‘sees’ is a product of the nature of his reality and the ways he has come to know things. Different views of the world and different ways of gathering knowledge exist.

Crotty suggests that we have three epistemological positions:

  • Objectivism where knowledge exists whether we are conscious of it or not. It is foundationalist and absolute. Researchers with this position try to find causes, effects, and explanations. They try to predict events and test theories and hypotheses. And this stands in opposition to the other two positions which seek to understand and describe rather than explain.

  • Subjectivism may be defined as the view that comprehending human behavior consists solely in reconstructing the self-understandings of those engaged in performing them. To comprehend others is to understand their meaning of what they do and to understand this meaning is to understand them in their own terms.

  • Constructivism believes that social phenomena develop in particular social contexts. The concepts or practices in a particular context may seem obvious and natural but are actually artifacts of that context. Individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived social reality and this reality is ever evolving as social interactions occur.

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