My name is Suresh Sharma and I come from the land of Mount Everest, a small landlocked country in South Asia, called Nepal. Currently, I am a doctoral student in my 4th year at the College of ACES, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, United States. Professionally, I used to serve as an Extension official in the capacity of an under-secretary based on my prior job experience in the Government of Nepal at the Department of Agriculture. From an academic standpoint, I have a double Master's degree in (i) Regional Development Planning and (ii) Socio-Anthropology and currently focusing my doctoral dissertation research towards understanding the socio-psychological factors that could influence the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices in rural Nepal. My broad areas of research interests are regenerative agriculture, resource conservation, sustainable management of natural resources, land restoration, food security of vulnerable communities, ecosystem resilience, low carbon emission, zero-waste production, efficient management of natural resources, and climate change mitigation science. My best hobbies are reading, hiking, gardening/ farming, countryside traveling and hanging out with close friends during my leisure time.
Some Philosophical Thoughts
We, humans, are inquisitive by our very nature. All our life, starting from our childhood journey through adulthood till old age, we try to understand and know things around us that could make sense and give meaning to the purpose of our inquiry. In other words, we constantly engage ourselves in research to find the truth about our reality and existence. For the sake of discussion, let us delve a little deeper and try to conceptualize some concept and terminologies such as ontology, realism, relativism, and epistemology, that researchers often use from the philosophical standpoint, in their search for truth and knowledge.
Ontology is an esoteric or fancy word about our beliefs of reality. It is defined as the metaphysical study of the nature of being and existence. More specifically, it is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of human beings’ existence as individuals, in society, and in the universe. For instance, who are we? What are we here for? Do we make real free will choices? Or, are external forces controlling our outcome that is beyond our control? These are ontological questions. Another ontological question would be: “Are we humans best understood as individuals? Or, is our nature best understood as part of a larger group or social system?” For example, in the movie I, ROBOT featuring the actor Will Smith, the storyline shows that a sophisticated robot named Sunny is trying to figure out “why the guy who made him, made him?” What is the purpose that inspired him to create Sunny? And that’s an ontological question. Other similar ontological questions would be: “Why life is created on planet earth?” Why are we born? and why we die?
Philosophies about reality can be understood in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are two types of ontologies that are opposites. They are Realism and Relativism. Falling in-between the two opposite end of the spectrum are other philosophical beliefs such as Pragmatism, Constructive Empiricism, Positivism, and Instrumentalism, just to name a few. For the sake of this discussion, we will not go into their details. In a nutshell, realists believe that there is one truth that exists, and that truth doesn’t change. They also believe that truth can be discovered using objective measurements. Once we figured it out what the truth is, then we can generalize it to other situations. If this is what the researcher thinks about reality, then it will affect every single decision that is made in the study or research. On the other hand, relativists believe in multiple versions of reality. In their view, what is real, depends on the meaning attached to truth. Since reality is created by how we see things, it evolves, and changes based on our experiences. According to their logic, reality cannot be generalized since it is context-dependent. It can only be applied to other similar situations.
Epistemology means what relationship the researcher has with the research. It is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge and knowing. In other words, epistemology is the philosophical theory of knowledge. “How do we discover knowledge? How do we know what we claim to know?” These are classic epistemological questions found in a lot of theory and research textbooks. Ontological beliefs normally dictate or guide epistemological beliefs. In other words, the researcher’s belief about the nature of reality will dictate the kind of relationship the researcher should have with whatever is being studied. This will further guide in their choice of methodology and methods to be adopted in the research.
Ontology and epistemology address the often-unspoken assumptions that rest beneath the surface of research and theory we read and conduct. Most researchers don't say much explicitly about their underlying assumptions, but they give clues through their write-up and approach they followed. So, based on the two schools of thought i.e. realism and relativism, theorists have different epistemological assumptions in their approach for searching new knowledge and truth. Some researchers might assume that knowledge is already out there waiting to be discovered, so it is our job to uncover this universal, unchanging and absolute truth. So, these researchers have an objective approach to reality and don’t influence the data that is gathered. They, therefore, adopt an etic approach, i.e. stay outside the subject or research area under investigation. These researchers adopt the realist perspective and deductive reasoning process, often seen in many quantitative and natural science studies.
On the other hand, some researchers take an emic approach or subjective view of reality especially those that hold the relativistic viewpoint. They believe that people develop knowledge based on how they perceive the world and through their experiences. They believe that’s how knowledge is created. To these researchers, knowledge is merely a social construction. There is no universal or absolute truth. Whatever we treat as knowledge by assigning meanings through our deeper understanding is knowledge. These researchers often held the view that first-hand-experience gained through involvement and interaction is the best way to know by adopting an inductive process of reasoning. For example, ethnographic and phenomenological studies as well as sociological and anthropological research employing mostly qualitative but also sometimes mixing quantitative methodology generally adopt this approach of acquiring knowledge.
Based on my upbringing in the peri-urban as well as rural setting in the early part of my life, first in the hill station of Shillong, in the state of Meghalaya, India and later in different regions of Nepal, I have grown up very close to nature. I have lived and experienced both rural village life and the modern way of life predominant in cities. When I realize that life and death are inexorable laws and that we all are born without our consent and one day will eventually die so without warning, desire or will, then this led me to believe that everything is predestined. This gives me a sense of realism, i.e. the truth is certain and already known. On the other hand, when I spent time working with farmers and country people in the villages of Nepal living in different agroecological belts, I often tend to blend myself with their way of life, their version of reality and context, which is so different from place to place and region to region. Then, I suddenly have a revelation that knowledge and truth are also contextual. For example, people in various parts of our world tend to have different belief systems, they worship different deities, speak different languages, adopt different lifestyles, and they are perfectly okay with that and happy in their own way. Through traditional means of knowledge transfer from their earlier generations, these people have acquired their own indigenous knowledge of nature and its surroundings and found a way of tackling problems and issues in their own unique way, beyond our realm. This implies that knowledge and the quest for truth are often subjective interpretations.
Let's take another example. We all learned in our school days and accepted as a universal truth that the sun rises from the East. Hardly any rational human being will argue with that established belief. However, if one observes our planet Earth from outer space, say from the edge of our solar system as shown by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft, by sending pictures back to Earth, then we might question ourselves. Hmm...wait a minute? There is no East or West. The sun never rises or sets. All the planets including our planet Earth move around the sun in their own elliptical orbit and the sun never stops shining and the planets never stop moving. Actually, it is a matter of perspective based on where we position or place ourselves that actually defines reality. So, based on my personal knowledge and understanding of science so far, I put myself in the middle ground and often held a belief in adopting both the approaches depending on the research question or point of inquiry when it comes to either adopting a realistic or relativistic approach towards getting to knowledge and truth.
Alex Lyon (2017). Epistemology, Ontology, and Axiology in Research. Organizational Communication Channel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhdZOsBps5o
Carena J. van Riper (2019). Class Lectures Powerpoint slides posted in Compass 2g, entitled:
Overview of Environmental Social Sciences &
Human Impacts on the Environment
NASA (2017). Voyager 2 Trajectory through the Solar System. https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4140
NASA/JPL-Caltech (2019) https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/536/voyager-1s-pale-blue-dot/
Nurse Killam (2015). Ontology, Epistemology, Methodology and Methods in Research Simplified.