14 November 2014

The Reluctant Subjectivist

Ontology

As previously mentioned, the weekly social research workshops I’ve been attending have covered ontology and epistemology, the nature of reality and approaches to investigating it. My next two posts will cover how my perspectives shape and suit my research, exploring and (hopefully) explaining my theoretical approach.  As a researcher, the two questions I need to answer in relation to my research are “the ontological question” and “the epistemological question.” These are related; it is not possible to have an ontological position that doesn’t correlate with an epistemological position. Similarly it is not possible to state your perspective without rejecting the other options with reason, but I can’t pretend to have found this part of becoming a researcher easy in any way.

Ontology concerns the form and nature of reality. It is, in short, “what exists?” and “what is reality?” This was very hard for me to comprehend. There are a lot of ontologies to wade through and many scholars with differing perspectives. This isn’t the place for a detailed critique of each viewpoint and I am certainly not, with very little in the way of a philosophical background, the person to even attempt a summary. I can just about put into words where I am now, after weeks of thinking about this.

I do not sit at the realism/objectivism end of the scale. Maybe this stems from me not understanding natural science. I blame having been through English secondary education in the 1990s where all natural science had to be categorised into one of chemistry, biology or physics. Science = a Bunsen burner (chemistry), woodlice (biology) or - actually, I can’t honestly remember what we did in physics. I don’t believe social entities/phenomena are external facts and exist separately to social actors. My understanding of the world is not that it is concrete and external; I don’t think reality is facts waiting to be discovered. I believe social actors shape phenomena.

At first, I felt I was a relativist. I’m not one for the middle ground or fence-sitting and on thinking further about myself, my approach to life and the way I have previously approached research projects, uncertainty crept in. Why did I think I was a relativist? It felt like the simpler yet comprehensive approach I was looking for. I was a relativist for eight weeks because going further meant acknowledging what I didn’t want to acknowledge. I asked myself why I wanted to stop there. It is the language issue, the idea that discourse plays a part. Similar to my reluctant feminism (see previous post) I’m going to have to admit that I’m a reluctant subjectivist.  

I’ve spent over fifteen years writing and critiquing fiction, the essence of which is viewpoint, character and story. As a writer; I construct meaning. I create stories from ‘facts’ that enable readers/viewers to experience universal truths. After a career spent primarily on creative writing my first concern was that positions towards the nominalism end of the sliding scale seemed to lead to a creative, shifting explanation of existence. I wanted nothing to do with what seemed to be storytelling, influenced by first person narration. Then I thought of my own shifting sense of existence. I thought about my relationship to my own life, and how after a year of immense change I no longer feel like myself anymore. I thought about the structures around me, how they used to influence me and how they influence me now. I thought about how these social entities have not changed but that I have. I thought about how at the same time these social entities have changed over time due to the impact of social actors. I realised I believe this: nothing is definitive and reality is in a constant state of revision.
With that settled, I hope to not have to return to ontology. If asked, I know where I am. 

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