Volume 8, Spring 2009
Educational Research: An introduction to basic concepts and terminology By: Hilda Freimuth Introduction One of the major deterrents to pursuing a Ph.D. for many educators is the esoteric language used in research. This paper is meant to de-mystify some of the terminology as well as present some basic ideas studied in an educational research program. Although not perfect, this paper provides an easily-understandable perspective of some educational research concepts. The hope is to dispel fears other educators may have of pursuing higher levels of research study due to the difficulty of various concepts and terminology in the field. The paper concludes that there are many ways of conducting research and many ways in which the research process itself is influenced.
Concepts of Epistemology and Ontology The first two terms often associated with educational research, epistemology and ontology, frighten even the most educated of us. Before a discussion begins on epistemology and ontology and their effects on one’s choice of research paradigms, methods, and techniques, a definition of both is best presented to help us ease into the matter.
The term ‘epistemology’, according to Johnson and Duberley (2000), remains to this day, despite its philosophical roots extending back to the times of Aristotle and Plato, still somewhat obscure. The word itself stems from two Greek words: episteme (meaning knowledge or science) and logos (meaning theory or account or knowledge). The two combined, then, form the following easily-understood meaning: the knowledge of/about knowledge (Johnson & Duberley, 2000).
This term is further clarified by Walker and Evers (1988) and Somekh and Lewin (2005) with a general definition of epistemology presented as the study of the nature and extent of knowledge and truth. 1
Volume 8, Spring 2009
Thayer-Bacon (1996) tries to widen this traditional definition of epistemology by suggesting there is a need too expand the concept itself to ‘relational epistemology’. She points out, by quoting Kant, that what human beings ‘know’ is not independent of their external or internal world. She contends that the knowing of absolute truth is impossible since what we see as ‘truth or knowledge’ is inherently flawed by our own social constructions (Thayer-Bacon, 1996). She goes on to say that we are born in a certain time, place, and within a given culture. As a result, we are not ‘neutral’ beings. David Hustler concurs with this, stating it would be “silly to imagine that you should (or could) ‘enter the field’ with a blank mind” (as cited in Somekh & Lewin, 2005, p. 18). Popper felt that ‘truth’ is hard to find and even more difficult to define, and he went as far as to create a formula measuring ‘truthlikeness’, which he called verisimilitude, to assist with the concept of ‘truth’ (Corvi, 1997).
Ontology, on the other hand, is the branch of study concerned with the nature of being, reality, and existence. The word can be broken down into two Greek words as well: ‘ont’ meaning ‘to be’ and ‘logos’ meaning knowledge, theory, or account of something. So, in layman’s terms Ontology means knowledge of/about one’s or another’s existence. This field of study was formerly known as metaphysics, dating back to the word ‘metaphysica’ used in Aristotle’s time (Sowa, retrieved Nov.2008). Sowa broadens this definition by suggesting it is also the study of categories of existence (retrieved Nov. 2008).
The two terms, then, Epistemology and Ontology have to do with the essence of knowledge and truth and being. Perhaps in easier terms Ontology can be defined as the study of what we know or rather what we think we know and Epistemology as the study of how we achieve knowledge or rather how we think we achieve knowledge. As a researcher, it stands to reason that one’s knowledge and truths (which may easily be confused with one’s beliefs and worldview) can influence...