Totem-Picture-400x265What Our PhD Has Taught Us So Far

Part of the process of writing up my PhD has demanded a theoretical review of concepts such as ontology (the nature of reality) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge & meaning).

This has taken me through the world of philosophy, meta-physics and back to psychology. Have no doubt…. My brain hurts! But I’ve found that the result of the mulling has really helped in decision making at work, in planning and in challenging myself and others to think more creatively.

What if you are a part of a leadership team trying to evaluate options or strategies for the future?

I thought it might be interesting to share a couple of the big questions that were involved in that journey…. And how I now have become more comfortable on the fence!

So the two big questions, philosophers and theorists have asked that relate to how research is designed:

  • What is reality?
  • Where does meaning come from?

In terms of the first question about reality, theorists call this your ontological perspective. In simplest terms it’s a question of whether we are uncovering reality (i.e. it is pre-existing) or whether we are discovering reality as a product of engaging with the world (i.e. it is relative to experiences and frames of reference)1.

Totem Lollipops

If I think that facts need to be uncovered then my approach is going to be about measurement and numbers.   My experience as a business owner highlights that whilst I can get a whole lot of measures and numbers to describe the state of the business, the reality can sometimes be very different.

My profit and loss might say one thing but comparing that to the market, our vision, expectations and the experiences we have had along the way mean that I may draw very different conclusions than when I simply look at the numbers. It is the conclusions that we draw that inform what we do so the value of both viewpoints on reality is helpful.

If we are taking the view that reality is pre-existing, it is also helpful to challenge ourselves to consider the frame of reference that we are describing that in and consider other frames of reference – surely that gives a more considered view?   Equally if we are taking the view that reality is relative, it is helpful to challenge ourselves to consider what measures we have to describe that.

Acknowledging where our thoughts are on that question will help us to know where we need to focus our extra efforts – to get the fuller picture.  That fuller picture will involve numbers and words.

Jelly Bean Diversity

The second question is all about the nature of knowledge, how do we know what we know?  Theorists call this your epistemological perspective, this time there are three camps: the objective stance suggest that meaning exists independently; the constructionist stance takes the view that meaning is developed; and the subjectivist stance suggests that without the person there is no meaning1.

This actually completely informs the way that we make sense of our world.  If we are looking for the objective truth we are seeking a measure of success.  If we are looking for how that truth has been developed then we can get a sense of growth and change.  If we are looking for how each individual interprets their world, our search may be longer but certainly there will be many colours to the interpretation!

In my work as a psychologist, I cannot avoid the evidence that I have that people interpret things in different ways and change their views based on their interactions with people.  Does that actually mean there is no objective truth?  Some would say yes, I am not sure that the two statements are necessarily linked.

Totem Gummi Bears

What is more important is to acknowledge what we are wanting to get to and the limitations that will have: a statement of fact (that may be flawed in some contexts); clarity on development (that may be difficult to define); or a very personal clarity (that may not be clear to others).

So whilst my brain hurt as I read about the differing philosophical stances I had to conclude that whilst I may have a preferred camp, acknowledging that and looking at the differing views can only add to my experience and the value of the research that I will produce.  You might not be sitting on the fence like me but asking yourself these questions can only help you develop a fuller more meaningful picture of the context and world that you are operating in:

  • Do I think reality is relative or needs to be uncovered? How does that inform my conclusions?  What else can I do to get a fuller picture?
  • Do I think that meaning is personal, developed or objective? How does that inform what I do?  What else can I do to get a fuller picture?

1 Crotty, M. (1998) The Foundations of Social Research. London: Sage