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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Ontology: the visibility of the researcher

PhD students in Education are commonly faced with the word Ontology, so here are a few of my thoughts that I hope are helpful.
What is Ontology?
The term comes from the Greek 'study of being' - the study of what is, of reality.
There is an issue here, how do we know 'what is' as opposed to 'what we think is'. An ontology cannot be written in absolute terms: we have to be satisfied with exploring what we consider to be reality. We may have a realistic certainty about some things - about our bodies and environment, for example, believing these to be real rather than fantasy. Nevertheless, some individuals live in fantasy with little perception of reality.
There is an alternative term, phenomenology, meaning 'study of appearances'. This ties in well with 'what we consider to be real' and it is no surprise that phenomenology has become an alternative or replacement term. Phenomenology tends to refer to biographical rather than autobiographical information.

How are Ontologies Used?
Mainly to locate the researcher vis a vis the research. In any research there are issues of bias and reliability so it is useful to see how the researcher came to be in the position of researcher. This will give a clue about the nature and objectives of the research, and even its significance and importance. Research into education by a practitioner will be different in many ways from research done by an outsider. That is not to say it will be better or worse, just different. Ethnography has traditionally been done by outsider observers, which need not imply that it is better than an insider observer.
Thus, the ontology provides a description of the personal involvement of the researcher with the research, which is part of the general context of the research.

The ontology has a particular role to play in an action research where the focus is centrally placed on the researcher as actor in the action - i.e. researching one's own actions in context. Action research is far more than 'this is my problem, this is my plan, this is how it went'. There has to be an inherent criticality to all issues involved. In particular, the place of the researcher in the action needs to be decontructed. A teacher beginning an action research may have a completely false view of their own performance and influence in the social nexus that we call the school or classroom. Teachers generally will not see themselves as the source of the problem but focus on the pupils being the problem: this may be an entirely false position. The ontology therefore needs some sort of critical underpinning to ask questions about the assumptions being taken for granted. We use the word 'critical' as shorthand for a wide range of fundamental questions.

Autobiography in research.
Research is wrongly stereotyped as 'objective'. In all research, the researcher has to make choices and decisions based subjectively on attitudes, values and assumptions. However, research labelled as positivist (e.g. experimental science) sidelines this area of researcher choice. Thomas Kuhn's hard-hitting study (1961 and with later expanded editions) showed that research assumptions are consolidated into a paradigm, or generally accepted framework, which prevented new contradictory research from being funded, and its results being accepted. The first step of autobiography therefore is to challenge assumptions, however unassailable they seem at the time.

Various fields use autobiography as a central methodology, in particular those on the critical research paradigm. These traditionally focus on race, class, gender or disability, but could address any aspect of social oppression. Paulo Freire was a key figure in the movement. Of these, feminist research has taken autobiography the furthest, examining the psyche of women in society. Here nothing is sacred - even academic studies of female bodyshock after mastectomies. The key question is are there areas relevant to human life worthy of research which can only be researched using an autobiological methodology. This is not dissimilar to the question faced by Glaser and Strauss which led to qualitative methodology and grounded theory: how can people's experience of the closeness of death be researched?

Dangers and threats in the use of autobiography.
The greatest danger is of self-deception leading to bias. To strengthen reliability triangulation should be sought - other people's views and memories of the same events. This is not totally dissimilar to threats to reliability on positivist paradigms, but demonstrating reliability in autobiographical research is perhaps more challenging. Some methods bracket away truth claims to solve this: autobiography makes a truth claim but need not be accepted as truth. The research therefore focuses on perceptions rather than their absolute truth.

All research contains a danger of over-claiming significance in making generalisations. Autobiography has to be particularly cautious in this.

Ontology is a statement of where, why and how a researcher stands vis a vis his/her research, stating what they regard as reality. The statement should explain why. Thus, ontology declares the researcher's engagement with the research topic, explaining why the topic is important. It should also contain details of distancing techniques to ensure that the autobiographical interpretations are not fantasy.

Monday, 11 February 2013


A lot of politicians are being accused of plagiarism at the moment -

10 of my students have been awarded PhDs and I have as many ongoing students - none have plagiarised. How do I know?

Because I have alerted them to the dangers and monitored them step by step and chapter by chapter. Their work is about their professional practice and is therefore unique. Similar material not downloadable. No one else has done their particular research focus before . 

If students have plagiarised, their supervisors should have spotted it. Universities in their turn need to give supervisors sufficient paid time to supervise properly. One of my Masters students once plagiarised in his dissertation draft. One third of the dissertation was copied and pasted from an uncited article on the internet. It was easily found, via google, not even the specialist software. He had to resubmit honestly. I suspect he had a history of academic cheating never picked up before.

Less deliberate acts of plagiarism are much more common, and it is these that may be getting the politicians into trouble, as they do not appear to be aware that they have plagiarised. It happens because of poor research practice. They read a book, jot down points they are interested in but don't remember to put quotation marks around verbatim notes. Later, they read their notes and use the passage, not remembering that it is a verbatim quote and treating it as their own words. So a little bit of plagiarism creeps in.

I recommend therefore research hygiene: always put quotation marks where they are needed even in rough notes - it is not arduous. And put the page number in the margin to save you trying to find the page reference later.

Some plagiarism is academic incompetence and some is deliberate deception. Deception (cheating) should put politicians out of a job, but incompetence is a different matter. Few politicians are competent anyway.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Philosophical Roots of (American) Anthropology

This book, by William Y(ewdale) Adams (1998) has been on my shelves making me feel guilty. No longer. Why do anthropologists do what they do, indulging in the natural history of the human species. They don't look at themselves but leave that to sociologists. They concentrate on 'other', people different from white middle-class Americans - people in tribes, the Papua or Amazonian rain forests and so on. Is this studying humans in their raw state? (and are these people really 'primitive'?). Is the fact that they are uneducated (into western values) part of the attraction? I am not going to summarise the book, a survey of many philosophical schools. The conclusion indicates that the author doesn't know the answer either, either for the anthropology profession as a whole, or for individual anthropologists. We can't keep the 'primitive' in aspic, in a cultural museum, so many now educated descendants of classic studies may well not appreciate what has been concluded in their family name.  The anthropologist goes in, observes, listens, and then describes. They have then had pet theories - evolutionism (we still talk of stone-age aboriginees and bushmen), functionalism, structuralism - most of which have now withered. The answer may be the same as why do we bother, with great discomfort for the professionals,  to follow moose and snow tigers and watch them killing and having sex.  Seeing rare things, admiring, the thrill of the chase, the collecting instinct perhaps. 'I have seen a trance dance, got the photos and the tea-shirt'.

An educational parallel are those who go into schools as observers, watch, listen, comment. They may use a theory or two to help find a way through the dense forest of words, gestures and transactions. They may believe people they should be more sceptical of, and seek out people whose voices might otherwise be silent. They purpose, perhaps to cast light on something that needs attention and suggest improvements. That is a political philosophy, a demand for quality, for justice, for equity, and for respect. Tom Harrisson the anthropologist did this in the 1930s in Savage Civilisation - the savages of course meaning us, the imperial powers. Others, like  Napoleon Chagnon, on the Yanomami, did great damage (for status and profit) by describing the tribe as chronically violent and providing excuses for genocide by loggers. An anthropologist today has to be socially critical: in schools, this excites an interest in power and powerlessness, democracy and voice, freedom and repression, sarcasm and support, bullies and victims (adult as well as young), deception and honesty, lies and truth. An educational anthropologist with such an interest would probably not be invited into school twice. 

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Garden Blog

To see our garden on Christmas morning, see
Christmas Greetings, Stephen

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Marriage and statistics

Nick Clegg criticises tax breaks for married couples as social engineering.
The Tory Centre for Social Justice think-tank's  Gavin Poole said: "Nick Clegg's stance flies in the face of all the evidence, completely ignoring national and international data demonstrating how important marriage is to the health and well-being of children and families."Marriage is important because one in three couples who live together when a child is born split up before that child is five, compared to only one in 11 married couples."
The logic then is that if more people are bribed to marry, they will stay together longer. I am not against marriage, having been married 43 years and counting, but am against the abuse of statistics. Those couples with a deep commitment tend to stay together longer and tend to get married. Those who don't get married may have a deep commitment (2 out of 3 stay together on these figures and some would marry over time) leaving a comparatively larger number (as compared with the married group) of insecure couples in this non-married group. These are not suddenly going to become more secure because they have a marriage licence.
The argument is therefore statistical nonsense. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Children on the street.

A long absence, my apologies. Too much other writing.

This item is about my former PhD student, Barnabe D'Souza in Mumbai. He has worked tirelessly for most of his life working with street children, attempting to rehabilitate them into jobs and worthwhile lives. This means educating them about drugs and safe behaviours, and offering them a sense of togetherness and purpose. Needless to say their lives judder from one crisis to the next. Abandoned once, society at large would continue to abandon them unless strong people get up and struggle on their behalf.
Congratulations to Barnabe. His PhD thesis is available on His book From Ecstasy to Agony and Back: Journeying with Adolescents on the Street is available from Sage. 

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Visual Methods in Social Research

I have found the following helpful: on

Banks, Marcus. (2001) Visual Methods in Social Research London, UK: Sage and 

Collier, John, Malcolm Collier and Edward T. Hall (1986) Visual anthropology: Photography as a research method  University of New Mexico Press. [New edition of Collier, John Jr., (1967) with the same title, published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.]