I know this is becoming a bit of a regular rant… but I was thinking again this afternoon about how common it is for methods courses and textbooks to start with some kind of introductory “theory chapter”, which generally informs students that, before they begin any kind of research design process, they must:
(1) know their epistemological and ontological stance; and
(2) be able to position themselves in relation to a wide range of theoretical debates.
This is so common that I’m beginning to get a bit worried about how counter-intuitive I find it to be. I mean, I love discussions of epistemology and ontology – probably a bit too much ;-P – and I’m quite happy to position myself away in theoretical debates of all sorts. But I think it’s fairly safe to say that I would never start a research design course or text with these issues. I think it’s also safe to say that these are not issues that arose – in this form, at least – early in my own engagement with either research or philosophy. Am I that much of an outlier?
Amusingly enough, my main objection to this approach is itself ontological: there’s something about formulating the issue in this way – as though the researcher is some kind of disembodied consciousness, floating around in The Matrix, saying, “I need Theory – lots of Theory!” – and then out roll the shelves of high-powered concepts from the aether, from which the disembodied consciousness then selects whatever approach makes it feel most secure. What about the relationship of the theory to the object of analysis? What about the relationship of all of this to some underlying question? How do students make sense of and understand their theoretical choices, when this is how theory is presented to them?
Then there’s the pedagogical issue: maybe I overcompensate, but I tend to assume that most students – most peers, for that matter – won’t be as interested in abstract theoretical discussions as I am… Unless forced to start with these issues because the students are confronting them in assigned texts, I tend to sidle my way up to terms like “epistemology” and “ontology”, because I think it takes a bit of intellectual grounding for students to be able to understand why someone would care about what appear, on their face, to be rather abstract concerns. My experience has been that students find the concepts terrifyingly fuzzy – and that their fear isn’t assuaged by the tendency of “theory chapters” in methodology texts to rush past a definition of these concepts, and into long lists of competing ontological and epistemological stances one could conceivably adopt – all lined up in a row, in neat boxes – sometimes with light bulbs flashing beside them – as though people make a common practice of dealing with significant ontological and epistemological questions by trundling their conceptual carts down the theoretical aisles in some vast grocery store of human knowledge…
I know I’ve said this before – recently enough that I shouldn’t still be ranting about this topic – but my impulse is to start with something much more grounded – much more solidly within students’ experiential frame: with what students are curious about, where their passions lie. From here, they can begin to ask questions – and those questions will then, eventually, give them the basis for finding ontological and epistemological questions meaningful – and for translating their interests into something that might fall within the boundaries of academic research.
I realise that textbooks don’t have the flexibility I have in the classroom, to build a discussion around students’ questions and dreams… But still… Wouldn’t it be possible, at least in principle, for a text to talk about curiosity as the origin point for a research process? To sketch some examples (which surely wouldn’t be any more misleading that the text box versions of theoretical positions these texts already supply) of how particular researchers found their way to problems, which then teased and thwarted them into methodological strategies – and then to unpack the concepts of epistemology and ontology from there?