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What is Ontology and What is Epistemology? 

Ontology is the nature of reality (Hudson and Ozanne 1988) and the epistemology can be defined as the relationship between the researcher and the reality (Carson et al. 2001) or how this reality can be known.

Positivism:  

According to the positivist ontology there is a single, external and objective reality to any research question regardless of the researchers belief (Carson et al. 1988; Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Thus, the positivist researchers take a controlled and structural approach in conducting research by initially identifying a research topic, constructing appropriate research questions and hypotheses and by adopting a suitable research methodology.

They also attempt to remain detached from the participants of the research by creating distance between themselves and the participants. Especially, this is an important step in remaining emotionally neutral to make clear distinctions between reason and feeling as well as between science and personal experience.  Positivists also claim it is important to clearly distinguish between fact and value judgement. As positivist researchers they seek objectivity and use consistantly rational and logical approaches to research (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

Statistical and mathematical techniques are central in the research methods adopted by positivist researchers and they adhere to specifically structured research techniques to uncover single and objective realities. The goal of positivst research is to make time and context free generalizations and they believe this is possible because human actions can be explained as a result of real causes that precedes their behaviours (Carson et al. 2001; Hudosn et al. 1988).  

Interpretivism:

On the contrary positivists, interpretivists believe that the reality is relative and multiple. According to this tradition there can be more than one reality and more than a single structured way of accessing such realities. Lincoln and Guba (1985) explains that these multiple meanings are very difficult to interpret as they depend on other systems for meanings. The knowledge generated from this descipline is perceived through socially constructed and subjective interpretations (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

Since interpretivist research knowledge is expected to generate from value-laden socially constructed interpretations researchers follow more personal and flexible research structures than in the positivist paradigms. Thier research approaches have to be more receptive to meanings in human interaction and capable of making sense of what is perceived as multiple realities.

Interpretivist researcher enteres the field with some sort of prior insight about the research topic but assumes that this is insufficient in developing a fixed research design due to complex, multiple and unpredictable nature of what is perceived as reality. During the data collection stage the researcher and his informants are interdependent and mutually interactive with each other and construct a collaborative account of perceived reality. The researcher remain open to new ideas throughout the study and let it develop with the help of his informants. The use of such an emergent approach is also consistant with the interpretivist belief of human’s ability to adapt and that no one can gain prior knowledge of time and context bound social realities (Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

The goal of interpretivist research is to understand and interpret human behaviour rather than to generalize and predict causes and effects. For an interpretivist researcher it is important to understand motives, meanings, reasons and other subjective experiences which are time and context bound (Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

The following table provides a summarized version of ontological and epistemological differences of each paradigm.

(From Carson et al. 2001, p. 6) 

 



Ontology

Positivist

Interpretivist

Nature of ‘being’/ nature of the world

 

Reality

Have direct access to real world

 

 

Single external reality

No direct access to real world

 

 

No single external reality

Epistemology

 

 

‘Grounds’ of knowledge/ relationship between reality and research

Possible to obtain hard, secure objective knowledge

 

Research focus on generalization and abstraction

 

Thought governed by hypotheses and stated theories

Understood through ‘perceived’ knowledge

 

Research focuses on the specific and concrete

 

Seeking to understand specific context

Methodology

 

 

Focus of research

 

 

Role of the researcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Techniques used by researcher

Concentrates on description and explanation

 

Detached, external observer

 

 

Clear distinction between reason and feeling

 

Aim to discover external reality rather than creating the object of study

 

Strive to use rational, consistent, verbal, logical approach

 

Seek to maintain clear distinction between facts and value judgements

 

Distinction between science and personal experience

 

Formalized statistical and mathematical methods predominant

Concentrates on understanding and interpretation

 

Researchers want to experience what they are studying

 

Allow feeling and reason to govern actions

 

Partially create what is studied, the meaning of phenomena

 

Use of pre-understanding is important

 

Distinction between facts and value judgements less clear

 

Accept influence from both science and personal experience

 

Primarily non-quantitative

 


 


This is about two knives which I came across when I was doing my Masters dissertation and it all began with a small argument in the kitchen.

Husband: “This is the best. I like it because it is a one strike knife. It is very skinny but very sharp”

Wife: “I think this knife is better. This is very sturdy. That one is difficult to hold and doesn’t cut that well either”

Husband: “Well, it is because you don’t know how to use it”

On surface this sounds like any other simple argument in our homes. As we live our lives we always exchange such dialogues with our partners, parents, children and other household members. Yet we don’t necessarily pay much attention to deeper meanings and emotions which can be hidden within such concise sentences. These two knives do not have any brand associations. Both knives are purchased from a local car boot sale by the husband before each other adopted those into their very own selves. Why these two knives are important in this family? Why is it important to understand the roles played by these knives in the family? We can seek some answers from Tim Dant, the author of materiality and society. Then also we can rely on works of Daniel Miller, who is probably the most insightful and respected academic in material culture research. Both these academics and many others have provided inspiration for me to begin my academic life and my only intention is to extend the existing theoretical foundations in material culture research. I firmly believe in what Miller has constantly argued over the years saying that theorizing consumption is in need of a material culture perspective.

We interact with mundane material objects in our everyday lives and these objects interact back with us in various forms. Dant (2005) extensively discusses about the process of material interaction and I think it is one of the important perspectives in understanding these two knives as well.

Someone had given a specific set of characteristics for these knives when they were manufactured. For an example, the manufacturer made it skinny, edgy, and sharp. It is obvious that a certain form of skill, method and manoeuvring are required to efficiently use it in consumption practices. As the husband argues, the wife does not know how to use it properly. The knife needs a thump, an adjustment of the holding angle and a specific movement to cut through tougher bones. What he really indicates is that she has not acquired the necessary level of skills to competently use the knife. So, it could be argued that the manufacturer intended the users to acquire necessary skills before using the object. Such skills can be provided at times but not always they are readily available and most of these skills are aquired through trial and error by the consumers. Consumers redefine and reinvent products during the process of seeking solutions to their existing consumption problems. We can question where and how the wife could learn skills to use the knife properly, especially when it was acquired from a second-hand market. Are there any instructions which came with it? Are there any helpful demonstrations provided by the manufacturers or marketers? These are just a few questions for corporate managers to ponder on but is a diversion from the objectives of this writing. Manufacturer embedded qualities pre-define the sorts of communication which will occur between the object and its users. However, it is not accurate to conclude that this will completely dominate all forms of material communication targeting the object. We routinely interact with objects on a daily basis and this is usually a socially or culturally acquired behaviour which is often taken for granted. In the case of the knife it cuts through meat or other types of material, as long as it is encountered with harder bones. In order to overcome this obstacle the users need to consciously change their actions, which is theorized as intentionality of act (Dant, 2005). This is a conscious alteration of existing material interaction with the object in order to continue its functionality to achieve an intended outcome. This is exactly the thump, jerk and movement indicated by the husband, which must be acquired and excelled. Manufacturers and marketers can aim to enhance overall consumer experience by providing such information.

From a large number of past research we have come to understand that humans are materialistic creatures and try to attach various meanings to objects which they come to contact. For an example the knife I got from my mother may remind me of her and how she used to cook. So it is not just a knife but also a vessel which transported my mother and her culinary practices to my household. However, the question I should really be asking is that how far I will go to include this object in my household practices if it is not really serving its intended function, which is cutting. How long will I tolerate its lack of practical use considering its symbolic attachments to my mother? I think this is a question that consumer researchers or corporate managers must raise when talking about consumption of objects (products). Many products that surround us have functional duties. We spend our hard earn money on these objects. Also we draw a line of reasonable expectations in which we measure and compare value for money of these objects. The BMW or Lexus I drive might say something about who I am, my social status, or about my success. However, it is still a ride on four wheels which takes me from one place to another and there are other functional expectations I have entrusted upon this machine. There are also my preferences in terms of color, comfort, precision, control and safety. Am I willing to compromise any of these attributes to uphold another? Such as, am I willing to forget about safety just to display my social status and success? It is true that we cannot afford to be completely polarized in explaining such consumption choices. Understanding the level of compromise which we are willing to accommodate is probably more relevant in terms of understanding these sorts of choices. As consumers we make similar compromises in many of our purchases. We balance the combination between important physical benefits and sentimental meanings of products and make compromises in making such choices. Some products are trivial in facilitating our routine lives thus the physical benefits of such products out weight the symbolic values. But on the contrary we also have objects which we hate to let go because of the symbolic meanings. The main argument of this entry is to argue that it is important to understand the interplay of different biographies of market place objects and to understand how people make choices by considering sorts of different symbolic and functional attributes of objects. It is also important to understand the sorts of factors that influence and contribute to such consumer decision-making.

On surface it is a simple argument and an everyday phenomenon. Yet it is an important concept which leads us to question the sufficiency of a long line of symbolic research in explaining the material culture, especially in theorizing consumption. Thus my long term objective and suggestion is to urge material culture and consumption researchers to explore the overlapping significances of symbolic and functional meanings of objects in defining consumption in market places and in our domestic spheres.

Prabash Edirisingha

We live surrounded by a plethora of objects which we interact with in our daily lives. Some of these object belong to us but some belong to other people and various social institutions. When we like or need something we usually plan and purchase it. But it is also important to notice that there are objects that we possess due to requirement and necessity rather than for wanting and preference. And most of the objects in our households are not owned by a specific individual.  They may be purchased by the adults but they are mostly shared with other household members.
The concept of sharing has gained little attention in the past but it is increasingly been recognized as one of the most common and important consumption practices in domestic environments. Is sharing is actually caring? This entry extends the argument that it is a consumption phenomenon that is complex and broad and should be conceptualized as something more than just caring. It is not only objects that we share with other household members. We also share what we have done, what we like to do and what we plan to do in our futures. Also we share a multitude of meanings with our partners, loved ones and other domestic members. For an example children may not need to own objects in their homes in order to use them. There is a culturally and socially bounded norm which makes them entitled to use domestically shared objects and stuff such as food, utilities, furniture and electronics. At the same time young children are guided and expected to take part in family consumption practices which are recognized as important and adopted by parents. However, as children grow older they may develop their own preferences in the process of defining themselves as individuals which can cause them to diverge from parental influences.  However the understanding is that they will not be given an itemized bill for consuming household resources once they plan to leave the parents.

Discussing this broad and rich topic is not the intent of this article. The goal of this article is to discuss the nature of shared meanings which we attach to objects in our lives and how such meanings define us as individuals and families. To be human is to make attachments. We keep on constructing and de-constructing attachments throughout our lives and we convince our selves that attachments compose an important entity of ourselves. We believe that our relationships with objects and other important things that we relate make us who we are. Consumer and material culture researchers have argued that possessions act as vessels which transport meanings from one generation to another. For an example, I came across a butter dish during my master’s research exploration which has traveled through generations and was idling in its new home at the time. However, it was a symbol of important meal time practices such as eating meals together and eating healthy meals. It was also an object which reminded the owner of her mother, aunt and their consumption practices. This example is representative of most of us and our relationships with objects. We all can recall of time which we held on to specific objects just because of the various meanings which were attached to these objects.

On the contrary we also dispose objects in our desperate attempts to de-construct existing attachments. This is perhaps why it is the engagement or the wedding ring that is usually left behind when a couple dissolves their affiliations. At one point in their lives they injected a stream of meanings, intentionally or unintentionally, into their rings and started to believe that the rings would signify and uphold the meaning of their marriage or whatever the future they anticipated together. The same meanings which are imbued in such objects would provide us comfort, security and motivation to adapt to uncertainties and challenges in our new lives. Ironically, we also believe that abandoning such sentimental possessions aids us in leaving the unpleasant memories from our failed relationships behind. This may be true for many objects which we associate with in our relationships. It also extends to relationships other than marriage or cohabitation. It could be our relationship with colleagues, our friends at school, our relatives, or our parents. These sorts of materialistic measures and representations are established to bring individuals together in relationships in our lives. Objects do not have to be expensive, old or rare in order to be significant for a relationship. Any object can be used to connect individuals. For an example, the rings represent a promise of important values for couples such as love, caring and support. Individuals have expectations from one another when they are in a relationship. These expectations can be any quality or value they view as important to them as individuals as well as for their relationship collectively. The object, whichever it is, becomes a representative of these expectations within the relationship. Not always these expectations are communicated, at least not verbally. They can easily be reservations of the individual and may surface when these are challenged by the other or by external social forces. People get frustrated and vulnerable when individual and collective expectations of a relationship are not met. We usually display our disappointment and frustration through communication with important objects that surround us. Abandoning the objects which are shared in a relationship between two individuals is a display of frustration and disappointment in the relationship. It is also a display of wanting to separate and how individuals communicate their feelings of despair and disregard for the other. Individuals may also believe abandoning such objects in a relationship as the best way to hurt the other by publicly displaying their discontinuing commitment to that relationship. It is true that we all are materialistic being and cannot live without interacting with the material world. The degree of materialistic  significance and intensity of attachment vary from one individual to another.

It is not just the objects that are shared domestically but also the meanings attach to those objects. As discussed these meanings can influence how we react in our lives and what sorts of factors influence our decisions. It is not just the display of caring. It is also a display of what consist of a specific family. As we understand the perception of family is a subjective term and it vary upon many factors. Whatever we share in our household and social relationships could stand for various important meaning. Understanding sharing as a form of consumption is a much complex task and the objective of this article is to provide a small entry to an array of related topics which may open up in time.

 

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