A short guide to ontology and epistemology: why everyone should be a critical realist

If you’re looking for a short and accessible intro to ontology and epistemology, then you’ve come to the right place.

Especially if you’re just starting out on your PhD, this guide will help you to navigate this aspect of your research design and give you a simple framework to understand all the different philosophical positions.

“For the beginner, ontology, epistemology and the whole philosophy of social science can be a maze: it’s hard to know which way to turn because it’s impossible to see the map. Tom Fryer has been through that maze recently enough to remember exactly how that feels and he has sketched out the main contours of the map to get you started on the route. Accessibly. Brilliantly. Critical realist-ly. I thoroughly recommend reading it.”

Dr Dave Elder-Vass, Loughborough University

“Cristián Navarrete he hecho un gran trabajo traduciendo esta guía de conceptos básicos de Tom Fryer. Se trata de un texto simple pero sofisticado, que busca explicar no solo la terminología más importante en el debate de la filosofía de las ciencias sociales, sino también por qué hemos de tomarnos en serio esas reflexiones. Es, además, una muy buena introducción a los conceptos centrales del realismo crítico.”

Daniel Chernilo – Profesor de sociología, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez 

Every PhD student, and a few (un)lucky Master’s students will get asked:

‘What philosophical paradigm are you going to use?’ 

‘What’s your ontological and epistemological position?’ 

Now it’s completely fair to panic and have no idea where to begin. You might have heard a ridiculous number of terms used to describe different philosophical positions like subjectivism, constructivism, interpretivism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, positivism, objectivism, post-positivism, post-modernism, critical realism, critical theory, post-colonialism, pragmatism, structuralism… The list could go on and on. But which one are you going to pick? 

Let me let you into a secret. The person asking you these questions probably also hasn’t got the foggiest what a philosophical paradigm is. Like you, they keep getting all these terms mixed up. Like you, they think that ontology and epistemology sounds like a hospital department focussing on bones and stem cells. Like you, they’ve probably been put off from looking into philosophy because too much of it seems dense for the sake of being dense, complex for the sake of being complex, discombobulated for the sake of being discombobulated. 

That’s where this guide hopes to help out.

It starts off by explaining the concepts of ontology and epistemology.

It then defines what a philosophical paradigm is, before giving you a general framework to understand all the different positions.

It ends with a short pitch on why everyone should be a critical realist.

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