In defence of ontology

Any social researcher has a finite set of beliefs, whether implicit or explicit, concerning the properties of the phenomena they’re investigating. Give the manifold ways in which these beliefs can influence the investigation, it’s valuable to work towards rendering them in a maximally consistent and explicit way. The absence of this doesn’t mean that good social research is impossible, far from it, only that its virtues emerge in spite of the ontology which has informed it. What is so contentious about this? To me it’s a point about the practice of social research yet I’ve never heard a counter-argument that isn’t to some degree abstracted from that practice – ironically so, given the force of the attack is often aimed at the abstraction of ontology itself.

There’s obviously much more to ontology than this. Particularly the questions of philosophical ontology and how domain specific ontology of the sort advocated above is shaped by, as well as shaping, research within that domain. But I don’t see how social research can entirely dispense with ontology. It can avoid it, suppress it or ignore it but there’s an encounter with ontological questions inherent in the practice of social research itself. My inclination is to try and explicate this dimension as thoroughly as possible. I can completely understand other responses to the dimension. I just can’t understand the denial of the dimension itself, at least assuming we believe that social research is about something ‘out there’. I don’t see how one can hold the belief that social research is concerned with the production of knowledge and yet deny the ontological questions inherent in that productive activity.

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