What is ontology and epistemology?

In preparation for next weeks lesson I am going to investigate what I think epistemology and ontology are, their history and how they relate to research.

  1. What is ontology? How is it relevant to research

What is ontology?

The word ontology derives from the Greek words ‘onto’ which is existence/being and ‘ology’ which is study. Ontology “is the study or concern about what kinds of things exist – what entities there are in the universe” (Rouse, n.d.)

Ontology does not just investigate whether things exist, but it also questions how those existing entities relate and if they can be grouped together into logical categories. This is all very abstract so here’s an example: A thought; this is a mental process, but can it be considered as a existent entity? i.e. does a thought exist?

Well there are two sides to this argument: According to Plato’s teachings a thought would be considered an existent entity because it is a noun. This type of ontological justification is known as Platonic Realism

Whereas other ontological thinkers (known as nominalists) did not believe all nouns are existent entities, and so they would probably say a thought is not an existent entity.

It is thought that the first ontological thinker was Parmenides, a philosopher from Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) who lived around 500BC.


(“Parmenides – Wikipedia,” 2017)

In ontology there are two sub-domains:

  • Ontological materialism: This is the belief that physical forces and objects are more real than a non-observable entity like the human mind. In other words, even if there is no human to observe them physical forces like sunlight exist.
  • Ontological idealism: This is the belief that non-observable entities like the human mind are more real than physical forces and objects. In other words reality is based in peoples minds.


Having a science based background here is a example of how ontology can be applied that makes sense to me.

Every organism in the world has a phenotype and a genotype. Simply put phenotype’s are observable characteristics in an organism, that might be fur colour, or body size. Whereas a genotype is the genetic material that actually controls the phenotype.

Is a phenotype more real than a genotype? Well until the last few years genotypes could not actually be observed and so the answer would have been yes. However now with technological advances allowing humans to decode the organisms genomes (the human genome was first decoded in 2001) we can see both the genotype and phenotype.


(“Predicting and Calculating Phenotype & Genotype Ratios/Probabilities – http://www.geneticsmadeeasy,” n.d.)

So this is an interesting example how technical advances change ontological thought. Another application of ontology to this example is that once both genotypes and phenotypes are classed as real the relationship between the two will need to be determined. Well this is fairly easy because the genotype determines the expressed phenotype.

Another way I like to to look at ontology, using an IT perspective is that ontology is similar to the process you go through when designing a relational database:

    1. You look at the problem domain to determine the entities that exist which will eventually have their own table, and you justify why you believe these entities exist in the problem domain

You look at the relationship between the entities which will become the relationship between the tables

In in summing up, ontology investigates the level of reality that something has, and how it relates to other entities.

How is it relevant to research?

Ontology is the questioning of what exists, and how things that do exist relate to other entities. In research we have to look at data (if performing primary research), or information (if we are performing secondary research) and determine what insights there are in the data and how these insights relate to each other.

i.e. We must see/read in the data/information to see trends/concepts existing in it, and then we must see how the trends/concepts relate to each other.

      2. What is epistemology? How is it relevant to research?

What is epistemology?

This is another philosophical concept from the ancient Greek world. In this case epistemology is again from the Greek language; ‘episteme’ is knowledge whilst ‘ology’ is study. The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophone was one of the first people to have epistemic thoughts.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, it aims to define what knowledge is, and question if what you have is knowledge based on three criteria (discussed below).

Epistemology states that knowledge is made up of three concepts: belief, truth and justification.

  • Belief – We must believe our knowledge is valid, this concept does not assume that the knowledge is correct but just that we believe it is.
  • Truth – To know something means that it is true, you cannot know something if it is false.
  • Justification – To know something means that you must be able to justify it, whether that is through observable facts or experience.


(“Epistemology – Wikipedia,” 2017)

To ensure that our belief and justification of our knowledge is solidly based we have to align it with the related concept of skepticism. Skepticism is basically the devils advocate making us question our knowledge to make sure we can actually class it as knowledge, i.e. does it meet the three criteria: truth, belief, justification.

In other words I see skepticism as the gate keeper ensuring everything we think of a knowledge is actually valid.


(Jorgustin, 2012)

There are two sub-concepts of skepticism:

  • Academic skepticism – This is the belief that our senses can fool us, and so it considers knowledge of the world is impossible
  • Pyrrhonian skepticism – This encourages people to doubt and question everything

How does epistemology relate to relate to research?

Primary research involves gathering data and refining it to information. Whilst secondary research gathers together information from many credible sources, but the thing they have in common is that the information gathered is analyzed to gain insights; it is these insights which are considered knowledge.

Knowledge that we gain through primary and secondary research must consist of the epistemic components of being  believable, justifiable (this is where critically analyzing the source and comparing opposing arguments is used to determine a justifiable conclusion), and based on the truth.

Whilst skepticism relates to research because it is the way we check that our insights are valid knowledge i.e. we question our insights to make sure they are justifiable, believable, and truthful.

  1. What is the connection between ontology and epistemology in a research context?

Ontology investigates a problem domain (this could be the world or an environment where a new information system is needed) and it identifies entities, defines them, and determines how they inter-relate.

Whereas epistemology ensures our research insights are built on a basis of justification, belief and truth.

So I see the connection between these two philosophical concepts as ontology identifies insights/trends in information as well as the relationship between the insights/trends forming knowledge whilst epistemology is the process of validating the knowledge. For example critically analyzing  the sources to ensure credible sources covering all viewpoints is used in secondary research.

Rouse, M. (n.d.). What is ontology? – Definition from WhatIs.com. Retrieved March 10, 2017, from http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/ontology

Parmenides – Wikipedia. (2017, January 29). Retrieved March 11, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parmenides

Predicting and Calculating Phenotype & Genotype Ratios/Probabilities – http://www.geneticsmadeeasy. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2017, from http://geneticsmadeasy.weebly.com/predicting-and-calculating-phenotype–genotype-ratiosprobabilities.html

Epistemology – Wikipedia. (2017, March 7). Retrieved March 11, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

Jorgustin, K. (2012, April 24). Healthy Skepticism: A Survival Trait. Retrieved March 11, 2017, from http://modernsurvivalblog.com/modern-survival-ideology/healthy-skepticism-a-survival-trait/