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Research Philosophical Schools
• Ontology and epistemology are two different ways of
viewing the research philosophy.
• Ontology can be defined as “the science or study of being”
and it deals with the nature of reality.
• Ontology is a system of belief that reflects an interpretation
of an individual about what constitutes a fact.
• In simple terms, ontology is associated with a central
question of whether social entities need to be perceived as
objective or subjective.
• Objectivism (or Positivism) and Subjectivism (or
Interpretivism or Constructivism) can be specified as two
important aspects of ontology.
• Objectivism (Positivism) “portrays the position
that social entities exist in reality external to
social actors concerned with their existence”.
• “is an ontological position that asserts that
social phenomena and their meanings have an
existence that is independent of social actors”.
• Subjectivism (also known as constructionism or
interpretivism) perceives that social phenomena
is created from perceptions and consequent
actions of those social actors concerned with
• Formally, constructionism can be defined as
“ontological position which asserts that social
phenomena and their meanings are continually
being accomplished by social actors”.
• Epistemology as a branch of philosophy deals
with the sources of knowledge.
• Specifically, epistemology is concerned with
possibilities, nature, sources and limitations of
knowledge in the field of study.
• Epistemology can be branded as the study of
the criteria by which the researcher classifies
what does and does not constitute the
• Sources of knowledge related to business research in
particular can be divided into the following four categories:
• 1.Intuitive knowledge is based on intuition, faith, beliefs
etc. Human feelings plays greater role in intuitive
knowledge compared to reliance on facts.
• 2.Authoritarian knowledge relies on information that has
been obtained from books, research papers, experts,
supreme powers etc.
• 3.Logical knowledge is a creation of new knowledge
through the application of logical reasoning.
• 4.Empirical knowledge relies on objective facts that have
been established and can be demonstrated.
• Research process may integrate all of these
sources of knowledge within a single study. For
example, intuitive knowledge can be used in
order to select a specific problem to be explored
within a selected research area, whereas
authoritative knowledge is gained during the
process of literature review. Moreover, logical
knowledge is generated as a result of analysing
primary data findings, and conclusions of the
research can be perceived as empirical
• Epistemology has many branches and include
essentialism, historical perspective,
perennialsm, progressivism, empiricism,
idealism, rationalism, constructivism and
• Empiricism and rationalism can be specified as
the two major constructing debates within the
field of epistemological study that relates to
Rationalism versus Empiricism
• The dispute between rationalism and empiricism
concerns the extent to which we are dependent
upon sense experience in our effort to gain
• Rationalists claim that there are significant ways
in which our concepts and knowledge are gained
independently of sense experience.
• Empiricists claim that sense experience & sensory
perception (5 senses) is the ultimate source of all
our concepts and knowledge.
• Rationalists generally develop their view in two
• First, they argue that there are cases where the
content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips
the information that sense experience can
• Second, they construct accounts of how reason in
some form or other provides that additional
information about the world.
• Empiricists attack the rationalists' accounts of
how reason is a source of concepts or knowledge
• Empiricism, in philosophy, the view that all
concepts originate in experience, that all concepts
are about or applicable to things that can be
experienced, or that all rationally acceptable
beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable
only through experience.
• This broad definition accords with the derivation
of the term empiricism from the ancient Greek
word empeiria, “experience.”
A posteriori vs. A priori
• Concepts are said to be “a posteriori” (Latin: “from the
latter”) if they can be applied only on the basis of
• Concepts are called “a priori” (“from the former”) if they
can be applied independently of experience.
• Beliefs or propositions are said to be a posteriori if they are
knowable only on the basis of experience and a priori if
they are knowable independently of experience.
• Empiricism: the view that all concepts, or all rationally
acceptable beliefs or propositions, are ‘a posteriori’
• Rationalism: all concepts, or all rationally acceptable beliefs
are ‘a priori’
• In epistemology, rationalism is the view that
"regards reason as the chief source and test of
knowledge" or "any view appealing to reason
as a source of knowledge or justification".
• Rationalism is defined as a methodology or a
theory in which the criterion of the truth is
not sensory but intellectual and deductive.
‘I think therefore I exist’ (Descartes)
• Rationalists believed that reality has an intrinsically logical
• Rationalists argue that certain truths exist and that the
intellect can directly grasp these truths.
• Rationalists asserted that certain rational principles exist in
logic, mathematics, ethics, and metaphysics that are
• The rationalists had such a high confidence in reason that
empirical proof and physical evidence were regarded as
unnecessary to ascertain certain truths
• There are significant ways in which our concepts and
knowledge are gained independently of sense experience
• Axiology is a branch of philosophy that studies
judgements about the value.
• Specifically, axiology is engaged with assessment
of the role of researcher’s own value on all
stages of the research process.
• Axiology primarily refers to the ‘aims’ of the
• This branch of the research philosophy attempts
to clarify if you are trying to explain or predict the
world, or are you only seeking to understand it.
• Axiology of research philosophies and relevant
data collection techniques.
• When discussing axiology aspect of the
research philosophy in your qualitative
research, you need to make your values
known in the study and reports your values
and biases as well as the value-laden nature of
information gathered from the field.
Four Research Philosophies
• Positivistic approaches to research are based on research methodologies
commonly used in science.
• They are characterised by a detached approach to research that seeks out
the facts or causes of any social phenomena in a systematic way.
• Positivistic approaches are founded on a belief that the study of human
behavior should be conducted in the same way as studies conducted in
the natural sciences (Collis & Hussey, 2003, p.52).
• Positivistic approaches seek to identify, measure and evaluate any
phenomena and to provide rational explanation for it.
• This explanation will attempt to establish causal links and relationships
between the different elements (or variables) of the subject and relate
them to a particular theory or practice.
• There is a belief that people do respond to stimulus or forces, rules
(norms) external to themselves and that these can be discovered,
identified and described using rational, systematic and deductive
• As a philosophy, positivism adheres to the view that only “factual”
knowledge gained through observation (the senses), including
measurement, is trustworthy.
• In positivism studies the role of the researcher is limited to data
collection and interpretation through objective approach and the
research findings are usually observable and quantifiable.
• Positivism depends on quantifiable observations that lead
themselves to statistical analysis. It has been noted that “as a
philosophy, positivism is in accordance with the empiricist view that
knowledge stems from human experience. It has an atomistic,
ontological view of the world as comprising discrete, observable
elements and events that interact in an observable, determined and
• In positivism studies the researcher is
independent from the study and there are no
provisions for human interests within the study.
• Positivist studies usually adopt deductive
approach, whereas inductive research approach
is usually associated with a phenomenology
• Positivism relates to the viewpoint that
researcher needs to concentrate on facts,
whereas phenomenology concentrates on the
meaning and has provision for human interest.
• Researchers warn that “if you assume a positivist
approach to your study, then it is your belief that
you are independent of your research and your
research can be purely objective. Independent
means that you maintain minimal interaction
with your research participants when carrying
out your research.”
• In other words, studies with positivist paradigm
are based purely on facts and consider the world
to be external and objective.
• The five main principles of positivism philosophy can be summarized as
1. There are no differences in the logic of inquiry across sciences.
2. The research should aim to explain and predict.
3. Research should be empirically observable via human senses. Inductive
reasoning should be used to develop statements (hypotheses) to be tested
during the research process.
4. Science is not the same as the common sense. The common sense should
not be allowed to bias the research findings.
5. Science must be value-free and it should be judged only by logic.
Positivism as an epistemology is associated with the following set of
• Firstly, positivism relies on experience as a valid source of
knowledge. However, a wide range of basic and important concepts
such as cause, time and space are not based on experience.
• Secondly, positivism assumes that all types of processes can be
perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or
relationships between individuals.
• Thirdly, adoption of positivism in business studies and other studies
can be criticized for reliance to status quo. In other words, research
findings in positivism studies are only descriptive, thus they lack
insight into in-depth issues.
• Realism research philosophy relies on the idea
of independence of reality from the human
• As a branch of epistemology, this philosophy is
based on the assumption of a scientific
approach to the development of knowledge
• Direct and Critical Realism
• Direct realism can be described as “what you see
is what you get”. In other words, direct realism
portrays the world through personal human
• Critical realism, on the other hand, argues that
humans do experience the sensations and images
of the real world. According to critical realism,
sensations and images of the real world can be
deceptive and they usually do not portray the
• Direct realists accept the world as relatively unchanging. They
concentrate on only one level only be it individual, group or an
• Critical realists, on the other hand appreciate the importance of
multi-level study. Specifically, as a researcher following critical
realism research philosophy you have to appreciate the influence
and interrelationship between the individual , the group and the
• There is a consensus among researchers that critical realist is more
popular and appropriate than direct realist approach due to its
ability to capture the fuller picture when studying a phenomenon.
Accordingly, if you have chosen realism as your research philosophy
you are advised to assume the role of critical realist, rather than
• Interpretivism, also known as interpretivist involves
researchers to interpret elements of the study, thus
interpretivism integrates human interest into a study.
• Accordingly, “interpretive researchers assume that
access to reality (given or socially constructed) is only
through social constructions such as language,
consciousness, shared meanings, and instruments”.
• Development of interpretivism philosophy is based on
the critique of positivism in social sciences
• Interpretivism is “associated with the philosophical
position of idealism, and is used to group together
diverse approaches, including social constructivism,
phenomenology and hermeneutics; approaches that
reject the objectivist view that meaning resides within
the world independently of consciousness”.
• According to interpretivist approach, it is important for
the researcher as a social actor to appreciate
differences between people.
• Interpretivism studies usually focus on meaning and
may employ multiple methods in order to reflect
different aspects of the issue
• Interpretivist approach is based on naturalistic
approach of data collection such as interviews
and observations. Secondary data research is
also popular with interpretivism philosophy. In
this type of studies, meanings emerge usually
towards the end of the research process.
• The most noteworthy variations of interpretivism include
• Hermeneutics refers to the philosophy of interpretation
and understanding. Hermeneutics mainly focuses on
biblical texts and wisdom literature and as such, has a little
relevance to business studies.
• Phenomenology is “the philosophical tradition that seeks
to understand the world through directly experiencing the
• Symbolic interactionism accepts symbols as culturally
derived social objects having shared meanings. According
to symbolic interactionism symbols provide the means by
which reality is constructed
• In general interpretivist approach is based on the
1. Relativist ontology. This approach perceives
reality as inter subjectively that is based on
meanings and understandings on social and
2. Transactional or subjectivist epistemology.
According to this approach, people cannot be
separated from their knowledge; therefore there is
a clear link between the researcher and research
Pizam and Mansfeld (2009)
Assumptions Positivism Interpretivism
Nature of Reality Objective, tangible, single Socially constructed,
Goal of Research Explanation, Strong
Focus of Interest What is general, average
What is specific, unique
Disadvantages & Advantages
• Main disadvantages associated with interpretivism relate to
subjective nature of this approach and great room for bias on
behalf of researcher.
• Primary data generated in interpretivist studies cannot be
generalized since data is heavily impacted by personal viewpoint
and values. Therefore, reliability and representativeness of data is
undermined to a certain extent as well.
• On the positive side, thanks to adoption of interpretivism,
qualitative research areas such as cross-cultural differences in
organizations, issues of ethics, leadership and analysis of factors
impacting leadership etc. can be studied in a great level of depth.
• Primary data generated via Interpretivism studies might be
associated with a high level of validity because data in such studies
tends to be trustworthy and honest.
• Generally, if you are following interpretivism research philosophy in
your dissertation the depth of discussion of research philosophy
depends on the level of your studies. For a dissertation at
Bachelor’s level it suffices to specify that you are following
Interpretivism approach and to describe the essence of this
approach in a short paragraph. For a dissertation at Master’s level
discussion needs to be expanded into 2-3 paragraphs to include
justification of your choice for interpretivist approach.
• At a PhD level, on the other hand, discussion of research philosophy
can cover several pages and you are expected to discuss the
essence of interpretivism by referring to several relevant secondary
data sources. Your justification for the selection of interpretivism
need to be offered in a succinct way in about two paragraphs…
• Constructivism is the recognition that reality is a
product of human intelligence interacting with
experience in the real world.
• As soon as you include human mental activity in the
process of knowing reality, you have accepted
constructivism” Davis Elkind
• Constructivism accepts reality as a construct of human
mind, therefore reality is perceived to be subjective.
• This philosophical approach is closely associated with
pragmatism and relativism.
• Positivism argues that knowledge is generated
in a scientific method
• Constructivism maintains that knowledge is
constructed by scientists and it opposes the
idea that there is a single methodology to
• Social constructivism is a sociological theory of
knowledge according to which human development is
socially situated and knowledge is constructed through
interaction with others.
• The phrase was coined by Peter L. Berger and Thomas
Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality.
• Based on a combination of Alfred Schutz' Sociology of
Knowledge and Durkheim's concept of institutions,
their theory aims to answer the question of how
subjective meaning becomes a social fact.
• Social constructivism focuses on an
individual's learning that takes place because
of his or her interactions in a group.
• A person's cognitive development will also be
influenced by the culture that he or she is
involved in, such as the language, history and
• 'Strong' social constructivism as a
philosophical approach tends to suggest that
"the natural world has a small or non-existent
role in the construction of scientific
• Constructivist philosophy stressing the importance of
interactions in the construction of knowledge.
• Each of us is shaped by our experiences and interactions.
Each new experience or interaction shapes our
perspectives and behavior.
• Social constructivism extends constructivism into social
settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one
another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared
artifacts with shared meanings.
• Social constructivism is a theory of knowledge and learning
which contends that categories of knowledge and reality
are actively created by social relationships and interactions.
• Pragmatism research philosophy accepts
concepts to be relevant only if they support
• Pragmatics “recognize that there are many
different ways of interpreting the world and
undertaking research, that no single point of
view can ever give the entire picture and that
there may be multiple realities”.
• According to pragmatism research philosophy,
research question is the most important
determinant of the research philosophy.
• Pragmatics can combine both, positivist and
interpretivism positions within the scope of a
single research according to the nature of the
Deductive versus Inductive
• Deductive reasoning starts with a general
theory, statement, or hypothesis and then
works its way down to a conclusion based on
• Inductive reasoning starts with a small
observation or question and works it’s way to
a theory or understanding or exploration by
examining the related issues
• Phenomenological approach is research from the
perspective that human behavior is not as easily
measured as phenomena in the natural sciences.
• Human motivation is shaped by factors that are
not always observable, e.g. inner thought
processes, so that it can become hard to
generalize on, for example, motivation from
observation of behavior alone.
• Furthermore, people place their own meanings
on events; meanings that do not always coincide
with the way others have interpreted them.
• Phenomenology in business research studies
ideas are generated from rich amount of data by
the means of induction and human interests, as
well as stakeholder perspective may have their
reflection on the study.
• A study that attempts to assess the impact of
leadership style on employee motivation in an
organization via conducting in-depth interviews
with employees is a relevant example for
research with a phenomenology philosophy.
• Advantages associated with phenomenology
include better understanding of meanings
attached by people and its contribution to the
development of new theories.
• Its disadvantages include difficulties with
analysis and interpretation, usually lower
levels of validity and reliability compared to
positivism, and more time and other
resources required for data collection.
Phenomenology:Adv vs disadv
1. Can look at change
processes over time
1.Data gathering can take up a
great deal of time and
2. Help to understand
2.The analysis and
interpretation of data may be
3. Help to adjust to new
issues and ideas as they
3.May be harder than
positivist approach to control
pace, progress and end points
4. Contribute to the
development of new
4.Policy-makers may give low
credibility to a
5. Gather data which is seen
as natural rather than
Positivism: Adv vs disadv
1.Wide coverage of the
range of situations
1.Methods tend to be flexible
2.Can be fast and
2.Not very effective in
understanding processes or
the significance people attach
3.May be relevant to policy
decisions when statistics are
exaggerated in large
3.Not very helpful in
4.Because it focuses on what
is or what has been recently, it
makes it hard for policy
makers to infer what actions
should take place in the future
• A proposition made as a basis for reasoning,
without any assumption of its truth
(ex: the hypothesis that every event has a cause)
• Variable is an element, feature or factor that is liable to
vary or change
• A characteristic, number, or quantity that increases or
decreases over time, or take different values in
• Two basic types are:
1. Independent variable: that can take different values
and can cause corresponding changes in other
2. Dependent variable: that can take different values
only in response to an independent variable
Epistemology: the researcher’s view
regarding what constitutes acceptable
Either or both observable phenomena and subjective
meanings can provide acceptable knowledge dependent
upon the research question.
Focus on practical applied research, integrating different
perspectives to help interpret the data
Only observable phenomena can provide credible data,
Focus on causality and law-like generalizations, reducing
phenomena to simplest elements
Observable phenomena provide credible data, facts.
Insufficient data means inaccuracies in sensations (direct
phenomena create sensations which are open to
misinterpretation (critical realism).
Focus on explaining within a context or contexts
Subjective meanings and social phenomena.
Focus upon the details of situation, a reality behind these
details, subjective meanings motivating actions