Compare, contrast and evaluate positivism and constructivism in terms of their ontology, epistemology and methodology.
This essay will explore the ontology, epistemology and methodology used in Positivism and Constructivism. Positivists believed in a universal approach to both social science and natural science. They believe empiricism is critical, and by establishing causal relationships and developing models, social science is measurable (Marsh and Stoker 2010: 9). Constructivists argue that our actions are based upon certain ideas we have. They use qualitative data to interpret our actions as they argue behaviour cannot be scientifically measured. They see the world as being built upon ‘social constructs’ that determine how we view the world. (Marsh and Stoker 2010: 80). This essay will compare, contrast and evaluate the two ideological standpoints in favour of Constructivism.
Ontology is defined as ‘the science or philosophy of being’ (Hay 2002). It questions what is and what exists. Is the world socially constructed? Or is there a real world out there, independent of our knowledge?
Constructivists are anti-foundationalists and believe that the world is built on social constructs and focuses on the meaning of behaviour. They reject that a separate reality exists and believe we act in certain ways due to the world being socially constructed. What a person believes in, their perceived identity or their ideas change the way they view the world (Marsh and Stoker 2010: 80). Ontological constructivism implies a consensus theory of truth which is a shared understanding of what it means to be true. Ludwig Wittgenstein said ‘the limits to my language means the limit to my world’; in other words, no world exists outside of the language that we can mutually use and share (). All of our knowledge of the world is mediated through the use of our language.
Positivists on the other hand generally have a foundationalist ontology and believe that an external world exists and is made up of casual relations. They view the world as composed of objects existing independently to the researcher and observer. Ontological realists, who are similar to Positivists, also suggest an independent truth is out there. They imply a correspondence theory of truth; when what we say matches the facts then truth can be established.
Epistemology is ‘the science or philosophy of knowledge’ (Hay 2002). It is the study of necessary conditions for obtaining knowledge or truth. Marsh and Stoker argue the relationship between ontology and epistemology is contested. Colin Hay argues that it is impossible to prove an ontological stance or the relationship between ontological and epistemological positions (Hay 2007). However, since epistemology is about how we can question and understand ontology, shouldn’t the two be seen as co-constitutive? In Bates and Jenkins response to Hay, Smith argued so; stating they are ‘mutually and inextricably related’ (Bates and Jenkins 2007:60).