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Careers and professional development, Education, Teaching and learning

The importance of engaging with ontology and epistemology as an ECR

Yalda Natasha Tomlinson reflects on ontology and epistemology, two key philosophical ideas underpinning methodology in psychological research.

03 January 2023

In this piece, I will argue that ontology, which can be defined as the assumption of what entities and processes are real, and epistemology, which can be defined as how we can generate dependable knowledge, are complex but important ideas that are best learned through early research communities and networks.

Through my studies, I have seen the way in which knowledge assumptions are made both consciously and unconsciously on a day-to-day basis. One of the challenges as an early career researcher (ECR) is to be aware of the way in which our own assumptions of knowledge impact the ways in which we relate to and engage in research. I will begin by arguing for the importance of identifying personal epistemological and ontological beliefs, before highlighting the opportunities offered through reflexivity and learning communities.

My belief is that learning about personal ontology and epistemology is a process that can be encouraged through reflexivity and peer learning.

There are several reasons why I believe ECRs, such as myself, should engage with ontological and epistemological debates. Bracken (2010) highlighted that awareness of ontological structures can enable researchers to identify the impact of historical, cultural, and philosophical contexts on knowledge claims. However, there exists a lack of transparency within research with regard to epistemology and ontology. Koch (1981) argued that historically, research has favoured epistemology and the knowledge gathering process, whilst ignoring ontology. A potential reason for this is the complexity of ontology as an area of study, which in turn can act as a deterrent for researchers. Despite this, understanding our assumptions surrounding what constitutes ‘real’ knowledge is crucial as it significantly influences how we choose to investigate knowledge. It is therefore not surprising that ontological discussions are considered vital in research journals as well as throughout undergraduate and graduate training.

My belief is that learning about personal ontology and epistemology is a process that can be encouraged through reflexivity and peer learning. Lazard and McAvoy (2020) define reflexivity as ‘a form of critical thinking which aims to articulate the contexts that shape the processes of doing research and subsequently the knowledge produced’. In other words, reflexivity can be seen as the analytical scrutiny of the self as a researcher. As highlighted by Berger (2015), a researcher’s beliefs and ideological stance are parts of their positioning and are useful areas to explore as part of a reflexivity statement. Epistemology not only captures an individual’s personal relationship with their study but also includes the nature, scope and limitations of knowledge, thereby helping to ground personal reflections.

Through grounding my reflexive statements in my personal epistemology, I was able to recognise that my journey was partly a product of different research communities across my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. This realisation was important as it highlighted to me the personal emphasis that I place on environment and discourse in creating meaning. This, in turn, has influenced both my choice of research methodology and the argument that I am making here. Through my own reflexivity journey and peer learning across different disciplines, I was able to explore and develop my ontological and epistemological beliefs. Overall, this experience enabled me to understand my relationship, not just with my own research, but my peers’ research and pre-existing research. 

 I believe there is a strong rationale for establishing communities to enable ECRs to explore these philosophical areas together.

Peer learning refers to the process through which learners acquire knowledge and skills through actively helping and supporting matched companions. As a trainee counselling psychologist, I am fortunate to be surrounded by peers during teaching and placements. My experience reflects that identified by Mustafa (2017), who highlights that peer learning can occur through many different forms. On the one hand, my learning was facilitated through academic teaching and discussions with peers in lectures. But significant learning also occurred outside of formal teaching including in conversations over lunch and during breaks. There is good evidence for the academic benefits of peer learning, including the enhancement of critical thinking skills, the involvement of students in learning processes, and reinforcement of problem-solving techniques (Mustafa, 2017). More specifically, within doctoral programmes, learning from peers enables students to engage reflexively across both practitioner and research roles (Fenge, 2012). Considering the evidence supporting the importance of ontology and epistemology as well as peer learning, I believe there is a strong rationale for establishing communities to enable ECRs to explore these philosophical areas together. By presenting and sharing our own ontological and epistemological beliefs, we can identify ways in which our knowledge assumptions are similar or contradictory to others.

Overall, I have argued for the importance of both epistemology and ontology and highlighted the importance of peer learning. Implications for the future could include more workshops or seminars on ontology and epistemology, including opportunities for networking and peer learning. Other ideas could include an ECR special interest group focused on assisting students in grappling with the complex concepts of ontology and epistemology. Not only will this help increase transparency in the field of psychology by helping students to feel more comfortable engaging with these important ideas, but I believe that it will also help us engage more with epistemology as a vital part of reflexivity in research.

About the author 

Yalda Natasha Tomlinson is going into her third year of the Counselling Psychology PsychD at the University of Roehampton. Her thesis uses Conversation Analysis to investigate how interactions in Psychotherapy lead to moments of meaning in Psychotherapy. Prior to studying Psychology, Yalda completed a European Politics BA at the University of Nottingham. 

Key sources

Berger, R. (2015). Now I see it, now I don’t: Researcher’s position and reflexivity in qualitative research. Qualitative Research, 15(2), 219-234.

Bracken, S. (2010). Discussing the importance of ontology and epistemology awareness in practitioner research. Worcester Journal of Learning and Teaching, (4).

Lazard, L. & McAvoy, J. (2020). Doing reflexivity in psychological research: What’s the point? What’s the practice?. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 17(2), 159-177.

Fenge, L.A. (2012). Enhancing the doctoral journey: The role of group supervision in supporting collaborative learning and creativity. Studies in Higher Education, 37(4), 401-414.

Mustafa, G.M. (2017). Learning with each other: Peer learning as an academic culture among graduate students in education. American Journal of Educational Research, 5(9), 944-951.

Yanchar, S.C. & Hill, J.R. (2003). What is psychology about? Toward an explicit ontology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 43(1), 11-32.