My 12-year-old son loves computer games such as Minecraft and Roblox. He is totally absorbed by them and loses himself in the blocky little worlds on his computer screen. He has an avatar, an alter-ego and becomes that character when playing the games. Left to his own devices (both literally and metaphorically) he would play the games all his waking hours.
And one day he had been so immersed in the game that he waited until the house was completely quiet at night, then got up and played for about six hours while everyone else was asleep. The next day he was so exhausted that he fell asleep while eating his lunch. In the afternoon he went to his room to play some more of his game, but instead fell asleep, face down on the floor, for about an hour. When he woke up at about 6pm, it was still daylight and he thought it was the morning and therefore time for breakfast. Down the stairs he came, expecting breakfast, only to find we were making our evening meal. Oh, the howls of confusion!
‘Mummy!’ he shrieked, ‘is this real?’
‘What?’ I asked, not having a clue what the problem was, and being quite busy chopping some carrots.
‘Is this real, now?’ he asked. He was starting to get upset.
‘Yes, of course this is real,’ I replied.
‘Are you sure? Because this might be a dream and we might wake up in a minute.’
‘Don’t worry – this is real. It’s not a dream.’
‘But it should be breakfast time.’
‘It’s 6 o’clock, lovely. It’s time for tea, not breakfast.’
‘It can’t be!!’ he wailed, ‘I’ve only just woken up.’
‘Ah, now I see what’s happened. You’ve just woken up from a daytime nap and have got a bit confused, that’s all.’
‘But what if you’re wrong?’ he continued. ‘What if this isn’t the true reality at all? What if none of this is real?’
Then, sobbing and panicky, he finished with, ‘I don’t know which version of reality this is!’ and then had a proper meltdown for about two hours.
While this is clearly a lesson in why one should not let one’s children (a) spend many hours playing computer games (b) have access to the computer at night and possibly (c) have daytime naps, it is also a great question about the nature of reality.
What is real? What is real for me may not be real for you. And how do we know that reality is true and not fake? And how do we know if reality will stay the way it is or whether it will change, has changed or is changing? You may like to have a little sit down to ponder these questions, because how I view reality has a bearing on how I understand and approach research, and the same will be true for you.
Ontology is all about the nature of being and reality. Do you think reality is a construct entirely separate from you as a researcher? Is it something that may be observed and measured without that observation and measurement affecting it and therefore potentially changing it and the results of your research? If this is how you see the world you are an objective ontologist. If, on the other hand, you believe that reality is affected by the actors within it, including yourself as a researcher, and that reality is constructed by the actors within it, you are a subjective constructivist. (There are other ontological positions, but let’s just look at these two for now.)
Your understanding and view of reality – your ontological position – will affect your research philosophy. I believe that reality is constantly changing and that any research involving humans has to take into account the fact that human actions, beliefs, values and motivations may affect that reality and how it is shaped. I believe that reality is not static and that it changes over time. This makes me a social constructivist. However, a researcher engaged in research in another subject area, such as natural science, chemistry, medicine or physics may have a completely different view. ‘Reality’ for a researcher in the field of chemistry may necessarily be confined to the chemicals used in the research, and these will be closely controlled such that nothing outside of the experiment comes into contact with them, so they are not affected by human action. Or a researcher may be observing the behaviour of a colony of ants that is totally unaware of any human observation or human society or measuring the rate of growth of a plant that has no consciousness at all. In these cases reality is confined and closely defined. This means that some researchers may approach research from an objective ontological position.
As a subjective constructivist I am interested in the fact that there may be many views of reality – many perceptions of an event or a process or a product – dependent on each individual’s own attitudes, beliefs and motivations. We all have different opinions about things. For example, while an objective ontologist might test a vacuum cleaner to see how efficient it is by putting it through a number of standard tests and reporting how long the parts last and how many decibels the noise level reaches in various modes, consumers’ views of how efficient the vacuum cleaner is will be based on entirely different criteria, based on their own usage of the machine. How long the individual parts last may be completely immaterial. The consumer may be more interested in how easy it is to use, whether it has a pet or pollen filter, whether it has a selection of little tools, how easy it is to use in corners or on the stairs, whether it’s too heavy for their elderly parent, etc. etc. In fact, consumers may just be interested in what colour the machine is and whether it will fit in the intended cupboard. So the subjective constructivist would want to ask completely different questions from the objective ontologist. How did I get onto vacuum cleaners?
The point is that we all have our own view of what reality is and how it is constructed, and this affects our approach to our research. Sensibly, although I really wanted to, I didn’t explain all this to my son while he was having his meltdown. He recovered enough to eat his tea and to watch some television before going to bed. Unless of course, I dreamed that and it wasn’t real at all.