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Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with theories about the structure and behavior of the worlds that humans perceive. Ontologists seek to articulate the fundamental types of phenomena that exist in the world and the relationships that can arise among these different types of phenomena. Ontologies can be proposed at various levels of abstraction. At the most general level, an ontology articulates the fundamental constructs we need to be able to describe any phenomenon in the world. At any intermediate level, an ontology articulates the constructs needed to describe particular types of phenomena that occur in some domain--for example, architecture, law, nursing, and carpentry. At lower levels, ontologies articulate the constructs needed to describe specific worlds--for example, the world faced by a particular business as it attempts to survive in a particular context.
Why are theories of ontology relevant to the information systems field? The answer is that the essence of an information system is that it is intended to be a faithful representation of a world that a human or group of humans perceives. Theories of ontology provide us with an artifice for describing a perceived world. Our descriptions will only be as good as our ontologies. Accordingly, our information systems will only be as good as our ontologies.
In the mid-1980s, we happened on the field of ontology by chance. We were seeking to identify the core--the essence--of an information system and to determine whether we had any theories of this core (whatever the core might be). After substantial discernment, we had concluded the core pertained to "representation" of some world. Thus, we began to seek theories that would account for the nature of good and poor representations. In part, work that had been done by semantic modelling researchers seemed relevant. We found this work inherently unsatisfying, however, …