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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology
  4. Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology
  5. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
  6. The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

The teaching and learning of ontology and epistemology is an important element of political science, as it helps students to appraise, differentiate and choose between competing philosophies, theories and analytical traditions. Thus, it encourages reflexive learning through the strategies of inquiry, role taking and benign disruption. However, we argue that there are aspects within the most prominent introductory material on these meta-theoretical issues which may undermine these processes. In particular, definitional inaccuracies and a lack of sustained reflection on the contested nature of the directional relationship between ontology and epistemology tend towards a prescriptive ‘path dependency’ and curtail the possibility of reflexive learning. By subjecting this received knowledge to critical reflection, we hope to overturn these weaknesses and open up a debate on the teaching and learning of ontology and epistemology.

‘One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.

And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels?’

Nietzsche (1961, p. 103).

Introducing complex theories, concepts and issues to students is one of the more difficult tasks of lecturing and teaching. Theories, concepts and issues must be rendered accessible, while at the same time remaining accurate. Thus, the necessary act of simplification, which enables initial understanding, must maintain the possibility of critical engagement, yet not result in any distortion which would misrepresent positions and confuse subsequent learning processes. Moreover, the simplified version must remain broad and inclusive so as to allow complexity, nuance and specificity to be reincorporated at a later date. This is especially true with regard to the meta-theoretical concepts of ontology and epistemology, which are basic to all research inquiry and in which the complexities are enormous and controversial, their definitions1 and relationship disputed and their necessity for political science often not rendered explicit.

In this article, we argue that, despite some very obvious strengths and important contributions, the dominant literature on ontology and epistemology within political science retains some unacknowledged and problematic assumptions. First, definitional and explanatory ‘short cuts’ have been taken which do not correspond closely enough with their original form in philosophy. The result of which is an inaccuracy which can cause confusion in the minds of both student and teacher. Moreover, it raises the possibility of students having to ‘unlearn’ some of this introductory information if they go on to study these issues in more detail. Second, there is a tendency to present, indeed prescribe, a particular directional relationship between ontology and epistemology as a given, or ‘correct truth’, rather than as dissonant and contested students. This can lead to some philosophical traditions appearing more problematic than others. Thus, a ‘path dependency’ emerges which leads to students ‘choosing’ positions underpinned by that particular directionality. Consequently, reflexive learning and the development of critical analysis, the very activities promoted by an understanding and appreciation of ontology and epistemology, are paradoxically undermined and become stunted at this meta-theoretical level. In this article, we aim to provide a corrective to some of these shortcomings, as well as provoke a debate on how best to introduce these complex meta-theoretical issues.

The article is structured in four sections. First, we briefly outline why reflexive learning is important and provide some reasons why ontology and epistemology should be introduced to students of political science in terms of their facilitation of this. Second, we introduce the dominant introductory material on ontology and epistemology within political science. Third, we highlight examples of definitional inaccuracies and inconsistencies before, fourthly, discussing the lack of engagement with the debate on ontology and epistemology's relationship and the consequent impact on the ability to foster reflexive learning.

Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology
  4. Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology
  5. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
  6. The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Within literature on stages of intellectual development, a stress is placed on the importance of the move from instructional surface learning to deep structure, or reflexive, learning and independent, critical analysis (see, for example, Bligh, 1982; Buckler, 2001; Elton, 1992). An instructional surface approach is a regurgitation and memorisation of key isolated facts without reflection or engagement on the ideas which inform them (Entwistle, 1997). Moreover, it is informed by the expectation on the part of the student/teacher that the ‘role of the authority is to teach the right answers’ (Roberts, 2002, p. 2). In contrast, Steve Buckler suggests that a reflexive approach to learning involves ‘recognition of the constitutive character of the conceptual frameworks within which our understandings of the world subsist …[L]earning about the world involves an element of construction’ (2001, p. 73). Taking a reflexive approach to learning is important for two main reasons: learners develop a theoretically informed, innovative and research-oriented disposition; and teachers learn to cultivate ‘conceptual facility and analytical flexibility’ with respect to the presentation of different ideas which figure in their research (Buckler, 2001, p. 75).

As such, teaching and learning within political science should not be about the instruction and regurgitation of knowledge. Instead, teaching should mean alerting students to different ways of thinking. It should provide a non-prescriptive basis from which students can reflexively engage with the material in order to uncover relationships, connections and underlying patterns and, consequently, partake in critical analysis (Entwistle, 1997). Engaging in this ‘critical analysis’ does not constitute an attempt to teach students to be critical theorists, critical realists or a particular kind of critic, in any theoretical sense. Rather, critical analysis refers to the crucial capacity to engage with, interrogate and challenge other perspectives. This allows learners to throw up ambiguities and inconsistencies in received knowledge; critique, revise and, perhaps, reformulate conceptual claims; and, ultimately, formulate and defend independent arguments.

We believe teaching and learning ontology and epistemology are important in political science for fostering the processes and strategies of inquiry, role taking and benign disruption, which enable this reflexive learning. Developing a capacity for inquiry – the ability to ask questions – is crucial if students are to interrogate and challenge the differences between, the assumptions made, and the knowledge produced by, particular theoretical and analytical traditions. This can be cultivated by invoking ontological questions concerning the nature of social and political reality and epistemological questions relating to knowledge and its justification. Together, these form the foundations upon which contending perspectives are built. For instance, reflecting on whether there are universal truths helps students to differentiate, in part, between behaviouralism and post-structuralism.

In general, role-taking experiences are important for intellectual development because they enable students to critique their own position from the point of view of another and, concurrently, allow them to comprehend another's position. An appreciation of meta-theoretical principles enables students to achieve these outcomes through preventing students from talking past each other. For example, recognition of the surface realism of rational choice theory by a Marxist allows them to realise why rational choice theory does not analyse class differences, while, at the same time, bolstering their understanding of Marxism's focus on structural inequalities due to an ontology of depth realism.

Finally, benign disruption involves ‘disjunctive experiences that engage a person's attention …[and] provoke him or her to reconsider, reinterpret or reject prior assumptions or beliefs’ (King and Kitchener, 1994, p. 228). Engaging with ontology and epistemology can lead to a benign disruption of, for example, a rational choice theorist's belief in the predictive capability of political science through highlighting the open and contingent nature of the social world, or a ‘malestream’ political scientist's assumptions of objectivity through feminist critique.

In summary, the vital movement towards reflexive learning can be facilitated through engaging with ontological and epistemological issues, as it enables understanding and adjudication between contending theoretical and analytical traditions. Many of the differences and disputes between political scientists are more profound than students often assume, based, as they are, on fundamental meta-theoretical differences. Learning and teaching ontology and epistemology discloses these philosophical divergences and, thus, can foster reflexive thinking by encouraging students to confront and justify their own ideas, beliefs and positions.

Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology
  4. Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology
  5. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
  6. The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Probably the most prominent and influential accounts of ontology and epistemology in political science, especially at an introductory undergraduate level, can be found within the two editions of Theory and Methods in Political Science (TMPS) edited by David Marsh and Gerry Stoker (1995 and 2002) and Political Analysis by Colin Hay (2002). Marsh and Stoker are to be commended for virtually ‘double-handedly’ introducing the importance of ontological and epistemological reflection for political science students. This contribution has been reinforced by Hay's endorsement of meta-theoretical engagement. Although not explicit within their work, Hay and Marsh and Stoker greatly encourage the development of reflexive learning by imaginatively highlighting issues of the nature and the study of the political. The significance of these interventions should not be understated, as it allows students to take a far more sophisticated and involved approach to their work, as well as providing the premises upon which a pluralistic political science can be built.

However, this prominent literature contains weaknesses. First, there are a number of inconsistencies and inaccuracies within explanations of ontological and epistemological positions in TMPS. Second, this literature promotes a view of the ontology/epistemology relationship as uncontested and unproblematic. Consequently, there is, perhaps, a tendency towards ‘intellectual gatekeeping’ which, paradoxically, given the benefits of reflecting upon these issues, may hinder critical analysis and reflexive learning. Overall, there is a lack of inquiry and benign disruption at the meta-theoretical level, which could result in shaping the preferences of students' philosophical positions and, thus, their choice of theoretical traditions.

Inconsistencies and inaccuracies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology
  4. Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology
  5. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
  6. The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Ontological and epistemological definitions within TMPS are inconsistent and, consequently, sometimes inaccurate. For example, Stoker and Marsh assert, ‘ontology is concerned with what we can know about the world and epistemology is concerned with how we can know it’ (Stoker and Marsh, 2002, p. 11). These definitions are, at best, problematic and, at worst, incorrect.2 What exists, which is an ontological concern, is not necessarily the same as what we can know, which is an epistemological concern. Yet, as this is an isolated mistake, it can be put down to a rather glaring and unhelpful editorial error. However, there are more serious inaccuracies within TMPS which cannot help but confuse.

Perhaps the most prominent of these is the use of the terms ‘foundationalism’ and ‘anti-foundationalism’. In the chapter entitled ‘A Skin not a Sweater’, Marsh and Paul Furlong refer to both as ontological concepts. They argue, ‘Positivists adhere to a foundationalist ontology … The realist is also foundationalist in ontological terms’ (Marsh and Furlong, 2002, p. 20). Furthermore, referring to the argument that differences between men and women are socially constructed, Marsh and Furlong contend that this viewpoint ‘reflects a different ontological position that is anti-foundationalism’ (Marsh and Furlong, 2002, p. 18). This terminology continues throughout the chapter and highlights the definitional short cuts sometimes taken by political scientists when they borrow from philosophy. Far more precision needs to be shown if students are fully to understand and employ ontology and epistemology within political research. Here, the good work carried out by Marsh, Furlong and Stoker in introducing these concepts is undermined through the conflation of ontological and epistemological concerns.

Even a cursory glance at philosophical dictionaries and introductory texts to philosophy of (social) science is enough to discover that foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are epistemological concepts. James Ladyman defines foundationalism as:

‘In epistemology the theory according to which our justified beliefs fall into two categories, namely basic beliefs, which are justified independently of all other beliefs, and non-basic beliefs, which are those that are justified by their inferential relations to basic beliefs’ (Ladyman, 2002, pp. 265–266).

In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, foundationalism is: ‘The theory that knowledge of the world rests on a foundation of indubitable beliefs from which further propositions can be inferred to produce a superstructure of known truths’ (Jones, 1995, p. 289). Consequently, anti-foundationalism is a theory which posits that there is no one foundation which grounds beliefs and knowledge claims.

This inclusion of epistemological terms when defining ontological positions can be viewed as part of a broader conflation of ontology/epistemology when Marsh and Furlong delineate their different meta-theoretical positions. For example, they state that ‘Realism shares an ontological position with positivism, but, in epistemological terms, modern realism has more in common with relativism’ (Marsh and Furlong, 2002, p. 30). There are a number of problems with this statement. First, realism is an ontological position. It is the contention that there are aspects of the (social as well as the natural) world that are independent of our knowledge of them. As such, positivism also has a realist ontology. However, it is a particular type of realism, a shallow, or surface, realism, rather than the depth realism which characterises the position outlined by Marsh and Furlong. Second, this meta-theory, which can be most closely associated with critical realism, does not, in epistemological terms, have ‘more in common’ with relativism. Rather, it is relativist at an epistemological level. Critical realism is underpinned by an epistemic relativity, which ‘asserts that all beliefs are socially produced, so that all knowledge is transient, and neither truth-values nor criteria of rationality exist outside historical time’ (Bhaskar, 1998a, p. 58). Indeed, central to critical realism is its claim to ‘combine and reconcile ontological realism, epistemological relativism and judgemental rationality’ (Bhaskar, 1998b, p. xi).

The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology
  4. Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology
  5. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
  6. The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

In addition to these definitional weaknesses, there is the important, but unrecognised, issue of the relationship between ontology and epistemology. There appears to be total agreement on the relationship's directionality within these texts. Marsh and Furlong argue, ‘Ontological and epistemological positions are related, but need to be separated. To put it crudely, one's ontological position affects, but far from determines, one's epistemological position’ (Marsh and Furlong, 2002, p. 18). Although there are some references to opposing views, Hay also claims:

‘ontology logically precedes epistemology … we cannot know what we are capable of knowing (epistemology) until such time as we have settled on (a set of assumptions about) the nature of the context in which that knowledge must be acquired (ontology)’ (Hay, 2006, p. 8).

We do not wish to argue this directionality is wrong. Instead, we wish to argue this position must be explicitly recognised as a contested perspective, rather than a given. Within other disciplines, the relationship is often perceived quite differently. Steve Smith asserts:

‘ontological claims … without an epistemological warrant is dogma … epistemology matters because it determines of what we can have knowledge; moreover, it is not possible to wish it away, or undermine its importance, by arguing, as is fashionably the case … that ontology is prior to epistemology … I see neither ontology nor epistemology as prior to the other, but instead see the two of them as mutually and inextricably interrelated’ (1996, p. 18).

Furthermore, Derek Gregory contends, ‘Many scholars would now accept that … ontology is “grounded” in epistemology’ (Gregory, 2000, pp. 226–227). As Deborah Dixon and John Paul Jones III similarly assert, from a post-structuralist perspective:

‘ontological assumptions put the cart before the horse, for any ontology is itself grounded in an epistemology about how we know“what the world is like”; in other words, the analysis of ontology invariably shows it to rest upon epistemological priors that enable claims about the structure of the real world. For example, the ontological divisions between physical and social phenomena, or between individual agency and sociospatial structure …[are] the result of an epistemology that segments reality and experience in order to comprehend them both. But how do we draw the boundaries of nature, or, for that matter, of the individual? And when and where did these categories emerge? So much of geography is predicated upon analyzing variables structured upon such dualisms, and yet the categories and their derivatives are not “natural”, in any “real” sense, but are the sociohistorical outcomes of representational processes … analysis must first begin at the epistemological level’ (Dixon and Jones, 1998, p. 250; see also 2004a and 2004b).

Other strands of post-structuralism3 consciously conflate ontology and epistemology and deny ‘that there are real distinctions between ontology, epistemology, and value systems’ (Shusterman, 1998, pp. 126–127). Moreover, while not explicitly denying ontology's priority, Nietzsche's and Foucault's genealogical inquiries operate as a challenge to dominant ontologies, developing from a perspectivism which suggests that truth is a thing of this world.

There are a number of incommensurable positions on the ontology/epistemology relationship. As such, the lack of recognition of, and reflection on, alternative perspectives by Hay and Marsh and Furlong must be seen as problematic from both philosophical and pedagogical viewpoints. As Foucault (1980) contends, the power to define the parameters, absence or existence of what constitutes significant knowledge is profound and ubiquitous. In their efforts to render accessible these complex meta-theories, Hay and Marsh and Furlong have, perhaps unintentionally, acted as ‘intellectual gatekeepers’ in allowing themselves the right to decide the answer, yet concealing the question by excluding or, at least not fully acknowledging, alternative perspectives. ‘Intellectual gatekeepers’ possess the ability to limit access to the knowledge upon which students build. This is in conflict with the pedagogical task of fostering reflexive learning. As Paulo Freire argues:

‘The fundamental task of the mentor is a liberatory task. It is not to encourage the mentor's goals and aspirations and dreams to be reproduced in the mentees, the students, but to give rise to the possibility that the students become the owners of their own history … teachers have to transcend their merely instructive task and to assume the ethical posture of a mentor who truly believes in the total autonomy, freedom and development of those he or she mentors’ (Freire, 1997, p. 324).

As this quotation suggests, problems can arise from instructing students that ‘ontology comes first’.

This instruction4 may lead to an outcome where students are more prone to support and defend particular theories, and reject, find contradictions within and fail to understand others. As this particular directionality would not be recognised by post-structuralism for example, it becomes difficult to present theoretical traditions on an even playing field. There is a lack of recognition by Hay and Marsh and Furlong that the directionality they support is a reflection of their own philosophical positions.

Ultimately, there is something prescriptive about current teaching of ontology and epistemology in political science. It puts in place a form of ‘path dependency’ in which it becomes difficult for students to stop being pupils, in the Nietzchean sense, and become independent thinkers. Indeed, Jonathan Grix admits, in reference to a figure adapted from Hay outlining the interrelationship between the building blocks of research, that he ‘may come across as somewhat prescriptive or, in the words of one reviewer of this article, it may remind readers “of old style methods books of the 1950s” ’ (Grix, 2002, p. 179). If students are encouraged meekly to follow this directional path, then it may constrain their ability fully to engage and reflect upon the various philosophies and related theories. The advantages of ontological and epistemological reflection for the development of reflexive learning are, paradoxically, undermined by a lack of reflection on their relationship.

At present, students are not given the opportunity to make any directional judgements and, as such, their meta-theoretical choices are hindered by the position of these teachers. Consequently, there is a potential foreclosure of the plurality within political science that both Hay and Marsh desire.5

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology
  4. Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology
  5. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
  6. The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Despite some very obvious and important strengths, the dominant literature on ontology and epistemology in political science does not encourage the full development of reflexive learning. This is due to some inaccuracies and a failure to present the directionality of the ontology/epistemology relationship as a contested area of meta-theory.

Ontological and epistemological consideration can facilitate reflexive learning. For this to flourish further, we must improve the accuracy of definitions, as well as providing a framework which renders concepts accessible. Moreover, we need to acknowledge competing perspectives surrounding the directional relationship between ontology and epistemology in addition to acknowledging the competing positions within meta-theory. Alerting students to this dissension is particularly important because it encourages them to challenge assumptions and premises and, therefore, make up their own minds about what kind of political scientist they are, rather than blindly ‘following the leader’.

The development of such an open and inclusive pedagogical strategy on the subjects of ontology and epistemology is no easy task and the aim of this article is to move towards this. However, it is crucial to continue pursuing this end if we are to develop an environment within which students can take greater ownership of their own learning and ‘repay’ their teacher by not remaining a pupil.

Notes
  • We would like to thank Judi Atkins and three anonymous referees for comments on earlier drafts of this article. We would also like to thank various members of the critical geography e-mail list for useful literature suggestions.

  • 1

    Although recognising the existence of alternative definitions, we employ the popular Blaikie definitions. Ontology refers to ‘the claims or assumptions that a particular approach to social inquiry makes 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’ (Blaikie, 1993, p. 6). Epistemology is ‘a theory of knowledge; it presents a view and justification for what can be regarded as knowledge – what can be known, and what criteria such knowledge must satisfy in order to be called knowledge rather than belief’ (ibid., p. 7).

  • 2

    This is also a problem for other authors writing on this topic (see Grix, 2001, p. 27 and 2002, p. 177).

  • 3

    Derrida most notably rejects the concept of ontology due to its operation in a ‘binary’ and thus ‘undecidability’ (see Norrie, 2005).

  • 4

    Hay and Marsh and Furlong do not explicitly argue that this directionality should be taught. However, as the only prominent introductory sources within political science, there is an increased probability that this directionality will become hegemonic.

  • 5

    See Marsh and Smith (2001) and Marsh and Savigny (2004). Moreover, Hay states, ‘it is not my intention to hide my preference for certain analytical strategies and perspectives over others’ (2002, p. 2). In foreclosing the argument on directionality, it could be argued that he goes against this objective.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Reflexive learning, critical analysis and ontology and epistemology
  4. Introductory literature on ontology and epistemology
  5. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
  6. The directionality of the relationship between ontology and epistemology
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
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