Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Ontology is the theory of the nature of being or existence.

explanatory context

Ontological enquiry is concerned with either or both of the following. First, the assumptions about existence underlying any conceptual scheme, theory, system of ideas, etc. Second, different ways in which entities belonging to various logical categories may be said to exist.


Marx's view, for example, that people are essentially creative is an ontological position.

analytical review

Hofweber (2011) wrote:

As a first approximation, ontology is the study of what there is. Some contest this formulation of what ontology is, so it's only a first approximation. Many classical philosophical problems are problems in ontology: the question whether or not there is a god, or the problem of the existence of universals, etc.. These are all problems in ontology in the sense that they deal with whether or not a certain thing, or more broadly entity, exists. But ontology is usually also taken to encompass problems about the most general features and relations of the entities which do exist....

Cambridge Social Ontology Group (undated) referred to social ontology as:

... the systematic study of the nature and basic structure of social reality....

Broadly a distinction is drawn between philosophical ontology, the study of features possessed by all phenomena of any domain, and scientific ontology, interpreted as the study of specific phenomena of a domain. Thus for the social realm, philosophical ontology might be concerned with the manner in which social phenomena depend on us (and its results have included claims that social reality is an emergent realm that is everywhere open, structured, processual, interrelated and so on); whilst scientific ontology might concern itself with the nature of technology, money, gender, markets and so forth.


Stevens (2007) wrote:

Ontology is the study or concern about what kinds of things exist - what entities or `things' there are in the universe (Blackburn, 1996). The computer science view of ontology is somewhat narrower, where an ontology is the working model of entities and interactions either generically... or in some particular domain of knowledge or practice, such as molecular biology or bioinformatics. The following definition is given:

'An ontology may take a variety of forms, but necessarily it will include a vocabulary of terms, and some specification of their meaning. This includes definitions and an indication of how concepts are inter-related which collectively impose a structure on the domain and constrain the possible interpretations of terms.' (Uschold et al., 1998)
Gruber (1993) defines an ontology as 'the specification of conceptualisations, used to help programs and humans share knowledge' . The conceptualisation is the couching of knowledge about the world in terms of entities (things, the relationships they hold and the constraints between them). The specification is the representation of this conceptualisation in a concrete form. One step in this specification is the encoding of the conceptualisation in a knowledge representation language. The goal is to create an agreed-upon vocabulary and semantic structure for exchanging information about that domain.....

The main components of an ontology are concepts, relations, instances and axioms. A concept represents a set or class of entities or `things' within a domain. Protein is a concept within the domain of molecular biology....


New World Encyclopedia contributors (2015):

Ontology is a major branch of philosophy and a central part of metaphysics that studies questions of being or existence. The questions include a wide range of issues concerning being or existence such as: the meaning of being or what it means "to be" for each of such beings as physical entities, souls, God, values, numbers, time, space, imaginary objects, and others; what is real existence; why something exits rather than nothing.

The conceptual division of this branch of philosophy was established by Aristotle. He distinguished "a science of that studies being in so far as it is being" (Metaphysics, IV.1; 1003a21) and called it the "First Philosophy." Thomas Aquinas (1224/1225–1274) further developed it within a Christian context and the issues were continually discussed as the central issue in philosophy by Scholastics. The term "ontology" is, however, a modern coinage by Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) (1591–1609) and Rudolph Göckel (Goclenius) (1547–1628)....

Although Christian von Wolff (1679–1754) further developed it, ontology was superseded by epistemology as a major concern by major modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant. In the twentieth century, Nicolai Hartmann, Martin Heidegger, and Neo-Thomists shed new light on ontology and revived its popularity. In the tradition of Analytic philosophy, questions of being are approached through linguistic analysis


associated issues


related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section 1,6


Blackburn, S., 1996, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Cambridge Social Ontology Group, undated, The Cambridge Social Ontology Group, available at, accessed 8 February 2013, available 24 December 2016, not available 11 June 2019.

Gruber, T.R. 1993, 'Towards Principles for the Design of Ontologies Used for Knowledge Sharing', in Guarino, G.P.N. (Ed.) International Workshop on Formal Ontology, Padova, Italy, 1993, available as technical report KSL-93-04, Knowledge Systems Laboratory, Stanford University.

Hofweber, T., 2011, 'Logic and ontology' in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published 4 October 2004, substantive revision 30 August 2011 , available at, accessed 8 February 2013, still available 24 December 2016, updated 11 October 2017, accessed 11 June 2019, quote unchanged.

New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2015, 'Ontology', New World Encyclopedia, last updated 19 February 2015, available at:, accessed 21 May 2017, still available 11 June 2019.

Stevens, R., 2001, 'What is an Ontology?', 19 July 2001, available at, accessed 8 February 2013, still available 11 June 2019.

Uschold, M., King, M., Moralee, S., and Zorgios, Y., 1998, 'The Enterprise Ontology', Knowledge Engineering Review, 13(1) pp. 31–89.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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