Jeff Noonan. Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Editor: Lisa M Given. Sage Publications, 2008.

Ontology derives from the Greek words for thing and rational account. In classical and speculative philosophy, ontology was the philosophical science of being. Its general aim was to provide reasoned, deductive accounts of the fundamental sorts of things that existed. Ontology was not concerned with the specific nature of empirical entities, but rather with more basic questions of the universal forms of existence. Examples of classical ontological questions are as follows: Are bodies the only things that exist, or are immaterial forms real? Is there a supreme intelligence in the universe, or is all activity reducible to mechanical motion? Are individuals alone real, or are collectivities independently real? Are there real objects of universal terms, or are universals simply names that humans give to mental abstractions? The very generality of these questions means that they will always have some connection to the investigation of natural and social phenomena. In the contemporary era, however, it would be wrong to continue to think of ontology as a fundamental science given that hypothetical-empirical methods of research (at least in the natural sciences) have permanently displaced the deductive-rationalist methods of classical philosophy.

The last systematic attempt at fundamental ontology in the work of Martin Heidegger hoped to displace the domination of empirical science by demonstrating that its conclusions were relative to unexamined frames of meaning. The answer to the question, “What is being?” differs depending on the frames of meaning within which the question is asked. The scientific answer to this question refuses to admit all nonquantifiable data into an acceptable account of reality. The consequence of this method is that the world is reduced to the sum total of individual things. Since these things are assumed to be meaningless in themselves and anything that might exist beyond individual things but is not quantifiable is ruled irrelevant, the entire world is reduced to mere raw materials for scientific and technological manipulation. The importance of this aspect of Heidegger’s work has not impeded the further extension of the hegemony of quantitative methods in both the natural and social sciences. His alternative, to let beings be, has not proven a globally convincing alternative.

Nevertheless, ontological questioning remains an essential moment of any adequate social scientific research. The importance of ontological questioning, however, does not mean that it is reasonable any longer to expect deductive expositions of the essential nature of social reality. It would be anachronistic to pose these questions with the goal of arriving at a totalized system of universal principles in mind. In the contemporary period, ontology, or more particularly, social ontology, remains essential as a critical propae duetic to empirical research.

Social Ontology

The term social ontology derives from the work of Carol C. Gould. In this more restricted sense, ontology aims at providing general accounts of the nature of social reality. Its practice is linked explicitly to the goal of avoiding a naive (unreflective, uncritical) empiricism that would reduce the nature of social reality to that which is disclosed by statistical and empirical methods of research. From an ontological perspective, the problem of statistical-empirical methods is not that they cannot uncover important data about social dynamics or patterns of behavior, but rather that they rest upon an untheorized and undisclosed ontological assumption: Social reality is identical to the conclusions of statistical-empirical research. In other words, the empirical researcher who does not explicitly pose ontological questions fails to ask the most important question of social research: How did the given social reality come to be constituted as it appears? The social ontologist recognizes that unlike the objects of natural science, which are not produced by human action and thus constitute a reality that truly is given to the mind to investigate, social reality is the result of complex forms of human action and interaction. That fact means that social reality is dynamic in a way that natural reality is not. The fundamental forms of social reality can change precisely because they are determined by forms of action and interaction that create a field of possibilities, but that simultaneously exclude the realization of most of them. Posing critical ontological questions thus opens up the field of social possibilities, whereas proceeding on the assumption that that which is real in society is identical to the conclusions of statistical-empirical research keeps the field of possibilities hidden. An example will clarify this claim.

The newspapers are regularly full of stories about crime. Quite detailed demographic and statistical analyses of the causes and trends of crime are easy to find in the popular press. These analyses are generally accompanied by definite psychological and sociological assumptions that can differ within a narrow range of alternatives (some accounts give relatively more weight to sociological factors such as class and race; others tend toward a more psychologistic approach, linking criminal activity to a specific mindset that increases the propensity for antisocial behavior). What one rarely finds in these accounts, however, is an inquiry into the meaning of crime. That is, these accounts generally assume without argument that crime is some independently real entity and the criminal, thus, an objective variable that can be studied as one would study the behavior of a neutrino or a magnetic field. In other words, empirical research proceeds on the basis of assumptions that the investigator may not even be aware of, but these assumptions predetermined the sorts of questions asked and the range of answers that will prove acceptable. This predetermination of questions and answers at the same time limits the range of policy options that will be defended by the conclusions of the research. If sociological factors are paramount, then various projects of social development (poverty reduction programs, education, etc.) will be favored. If psychologistic assumptions rule, then strategies of deterrence (designed to make a life of crime less appealing) will be favored. The aim of social ontological investigation is not to support one policy option over the other, but rather, to work beneath the givens of empirical research to disclose the wider field of possibilities for social action and organization closed off to empirical methods because of their unreflective approach. As opposed to the positive nature of empirical research (positive in the sense of being governed by the goal of accumulating data that can support policy), social ontological research is primarily negative. Negative here means aimed at the breaking up of fixed and untested assumptions that illegitimately limit the field of questions and answers that guide empirical inquiry.

Social Ontology and Social Criticism

The negative form of inquiry proceeds by taking the givens of empirical research and making them the target of ontological questioning. That is, it asks whether or not, or under what conditions, the fixed object of empirical research actually exists. Consider the example of crime and the criminal once again. Positive methods assume the objective reality of crime and criminals and seek to draw inductive generalizations about causes, behaviors, and practical remedies. Ontological investigation asks deeper questions: What constitutes criminal behavior? Is being a criminal being something fundamentally distinct from being a not-criminal? What general social conditions must obtain for their being the categories of crime and criminal? Are these conditions universal (transhistorical and cross-cultural), or are they historically specific terms, apart from specific policy options in any given society? Is it possible to conceive on the basis of real social potentialities a different form of social organization in which crime and criminals would no longer exist?

These sorts of focused questions are only the beginning of negative inquiry. As the questioning proceeds, it will lead the questioner into more fundamental questions, questions that establish contact between social ontology and the deeper questions of classical ontology. If the first set of questions reveals that specific factors must be in place for a given social reality to appear in the form that it does (to use the example of crime once again, a civil legal institution separate from religious authority that permits the distinction between crime and sin), then the general conclusion follows that social reality is more fluid than natural reality. From this general conclusion follow more general questions: In what sense can institutions be said to exist independently of the individuals whose behaviors they govern? Does institutional reality depend upon the beliefs of people, or is it a reified whole that determines people’s beliefs and actions? In what sense is society an object of research? Is social reality distinct from the individuals who make it up? The general methodological implication of this form of questioning is to open up a difference between the given appearances of social belief and the action and general underlying processes that produce changes in the institutional configurations in which beliefs and actions develop. In short, social ontology undermines the plausibility of uncritical empiricism that identifies social reality as such with given forms of organization, belief, and action.

Empirical approaches to understanding society that simply assume that what the researcher sees is the truth about society run the risk of not only ignoring the historical development of different social forms (and thus, the possibility of deeper social transformations in the future) but also misunderstanding the nature of individuals whose belief and action purportedly constitute the foundation of social life. Methodological individualism—the claim that only individuals are real and that collective entities such as classes and movements are understandable only if their behavior is reduced to the behavior of the individuals who make them up—is the necessary counterpart to empiricist social research. Since the empiricist necessarily refuses the distinction between apparent forms of reality and essential underlying, constitutive structures and relations, the possibility of collective subjects, is ruled out from the beginning. It does not follow from this argument that there are in fact collective agents; that is a question that can be decided only by fundamental inquiry into the nature of social reality. The point of ontological questioning is to test presupposed assumptions by working beneath the manifest forms of action in given social formations. This deep questioning extends all the way down into those elements of human subjects that appear most natural: sex, skin color as an objective determinant of race, the biological needs that structure the human organism, and so on. There can be no certainty that what appears to be natural (i.e., fixed independently of institutional structure) is in truth natural without ontological investigation.

Contemporary Relevance of Ontology in Social Research

The need for this form of ontological questioning of given social reality follows from the basic structure of human thought. Although he did not use the term social ontology, Theodor Adorno’s inquiry into the basic relationship between thinking consciousness (subject) and the object of thought reveals clearly its necessity. Adorno demonstrates in Negative Dialectics that human thinking is essentially contradictory. Because thought depends upon universal concepts to organize the raw material of sense data, but the objects of that sense data are material particulars, the very processes by which human beings cognize the world distances the human mind from it. That is, there is always a cognitive deficit between the conceptual forms through which the world is known and the intrinsic (particular) structure of the things of the world itself. The same point holds whether one is referring to natural or social reality. To simply assume that a categorical system corresponds to a nonconceptual reality (as positivism must) is to ignore the essential difference between universal concepts and particular things and the relations between them. Since concepts are necessary for there to be objects of thought at all, there can be no question of abstracting from conceptual structures to get at the things themselves as Edmund Husserl argued. Instead, genuine thinking for Adorno must engage in an ongoing dialectical process of conceptualization and criticism of achieved conceptualization, constantly reopening the conceptual closure the mind must impose upon the world. The point of this constant reopening is not to end up with some definite ontology (general or social), but rather it is to remind subjects that no particular conceptual system is ever fully adequate to the complexity of reality.

In this sense, ontology today is best practiced as a critical discipline rather than a positive philosophical science. Positive knowledge of social, like natural, reality cannot do without empirical and statistical methods. These methods, however, must be located in a more fundamental matrix of critical (ontological) thought. Critical thinking here does not mean what it has come to mean in the social sciences today—problem solving—but rather, it refers to the essentially negative nature of thinking. That is, thinking negates the givenness or independence of the object. Any object of thought must become an object of consciousness before it can be named and classified. All systems of naming and classification follow from the structure of human consciousness itself, which, as noted above, converts material particulars into universal concepts. Critical thinking remains mindful of this dialectical conversion process and thus, refuses just what the empiricist demands—total closure of the field of thinking by the given forms of reality that constitute the object of its claims. The general ontological conclusion of this approach to the problem is simply that reality is not a fixed object that can be known once for all. What is real is determined by the dynamic processes implicit in both nature and society and the structures of mind upon which active cognition of those processes depends. Without this, awareness of the dynamic and changeable nature of the real empirical knowledge continually compromises its truth value by falsely universalizing conclusions drawn from particular sets of data.

It would appear, then, that the sort of ontological investigation that remains vital today entails both relativistic and idealist conclusions. Such a conclusion, however, is too hasty. Ontology is essentially a form of questioning. Questions open up the field of research; they do not determine answers. Hence, whether relativism or idealism is true cannot be decided simply from a process of critical questioning of apparent natural and social forms. In fact, to assume that some definite systematic conclusion follows from a process of questioning is the result of a demand that questioning cease, whereas the whole point of ontological investigation is to make clear the reasons why questioning cannot terminate in any absolutely final conclusions. Since the real is a dynamic process (or processes) of change and development, there can be no final, one-sided conclusions as to its essential nature. To argue that everything is relative or that the implication of consciousness in the cognitive determination of material reality leads to idealism is to miss the real point of ontological criticism. The real point, once again, is to undermine the positivist drive to reduce reality as such to its apparent forms in any given moment of time. To grasp natural and social reality as processes of change and development is thus to grasp that the opposites that structure classical ontology (ideal-material, relative-absolute) are always both present in the object. One does not exclude the other; each implies the other. That social and natural realty change means that there is always going to be an element of relativity in empirical knowledge; it does not mean that truth is relative. The first formulation is not a general theory of truth; the second is. The second contradicts itself (by absolutizing relativity); the first asserts a particular conclusion of critical investigation.

It is, therefore, as the necessary foundation of critical understanding that ontology remains relevant to social research. Unless fundamental questions are posed, social research runs the risk of being determined by immediate appearances, to the detriment of both understanding and making efficacious contributions to public policy. Policy recommendations that follow from unreflective assumptions about the nature of social institutions and agents necessarily remain hostage to given modes of social action. If those modes of social action are problematic, however, then policies that assume their necessity will serve to exacerbate rather than ameliorate their effects. The various social wars of the last 3 decades, on poverty, on crime, and so on, are cases in point of manifest policy failure owing to the naive assumptions about the nature of the social problem (and thus, about the basic nature of social institutions and agents) that guided them. Thus, although ontology as a fundamental philosophical science may no longer have an important role, the deep questions that motivated it remain an essential element of illuminating social research.