Considering the ontological properties of a research phenomenon

Recently, I was using a different lens on my camera to take photos around my garden. Although I should not have been too surprised, I was amazed to see just how different things looked through a new lens. What I took to be an “ordinary” piece of moss was hardly recognizable to me when viewed through a new lens. (Although Elizabeth Gilbert’s exploration of moss in her novel The Signature of All Things, suggests that moss is anything but ordinary…but that is another topic.) 

moss in my backyardA close-up of moss on a tree in my yard

The same sort of thing happens when we look at research phenomena through a different “lens”, or what social scientists call a “theoretical perspective” (Crotty, 1998) or tradition (Prasad, 2018). Different theoretical perspectives have different ontological (i.e., the nature of reality) and epistemological (i.e., how we might develop knowledge) assumptions about the phenomena that they study.

One of the sources that I have found helpful in teaching is Jennifer Mason’s (2018) writing about the ontological properties of phenomena that social scientists study. You will find a handy chart on p. 5. Mason writes, “the list is intended to suggest the enormous variety and exciting range of ways that social scientists might see the social world” (p. 5). Mason lists dozens of properties, including the familiar (people, social actors, humans, bodies, subjects, objects, minds), as well as those that may be less familiar (relationalities, connectedness, associations, assemblages).

It is helpful to think about the ontological properties that one wants to examine because that will guide one’s search for how one might develop knowledge about that. For example, if one wanted to examine “interactions” and “actions” pertaining to a topic (e.g., teacher-student interaction), a potential source of data would be to examine those in naturally occurring contexts (e.g., classrooms). That could mean observing or audio- and/or video recording what goes on in classrooms to examine the “interactions” and “actions” that are accomplished. If one were to examine “perspectives”, “experiences” and “stories” (e.g., to do with teaching), one would be better served to sit with teacher or students and talk about these (i.e., in individual interviews or focus groups).

Different theoretical lenses produce different interpretations. For example, teacher-student interaction could be examined via ethnographic observation, which is based on the idea that the researcher’s “being there” for an extended period of time can yield understanding of what is going on (Barker, 2012). Alternatively, ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts could use audio/video-recordings to analyze interactions, focusing on how parties to the interactions oriented to one another. These approaches would result in different interpretations or viewpoints of what is going on, just as my close-up picture of moss provides a very different viewpoint than if I had taken a photo of the tree as a whole.

Sometimes, newcomers to qualitative inquiry will seek to find the “right” or “best” approach to examine a topic. It’s useful to remember that no approach will help us understand everything about a topic – but each approach that one might consider will offer a partial view that will contribute further knowledge about a particular aspect of a topic. Whatever approach one chooses will also entail thinking through limitations and critiques. Although it can be challenging to work through the nuts and bolts of developing a new study, it is also exciting to consider that qualitative inquiry is flexible in that  researchers can develop studies that incorporate innovative approaches to research that will yield new insights concerning topics examined. Just as the moss on the tree pictured above could be examined closely under a microscope or viewed using a much broader lens (e.g., the environmental context in which the tree is growing) – topics for social sciences research can be viewed from very different perspectives. The “findings” produced will yield different insights into what is going on, that will, we hope, contribute to a field of study.

Kathy Roulston


Barker, J. (2012). The ethnographic interview in an age of globalization. In R. Fardon, O. Harris, T. H. J. Marchand, M. Nuttall, C. Shore, V. Strang, & R. A. Wilson (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of social anthropology London: SAGE.

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mason, J. (2018). Qualitative researching (3rd ed.). London: SAGE.

Prasad, P. (2018). Crafting qualitative research: Beyond positivist traditions (2nd ed.). New York & London: Routledge.

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