Epistemology & Ontology: Scary Words or Fun Choices?

Choosing a Research Paradigm: Epistemological and Ontological Premises

First of all, I need to start this blog post off by saying that my own research studies come under the umbrella of the management research domain of the social sciences. I’ve adapted this piece of writing from a section of the research methodology section of my PhD because I think it’s important to put some key thoughts into easy (easier?) to understand terms for the sake of conversation and understanding each other.

A month or so ago I tweeted something mid-twitter conversation thread, asking the question, “What are your epistemological and ontological biases?” Someone replied, “You’re scaring me now”. Although that made me laugh, I was a bit frustrated, because it does genuinely interest me to know what someone’s starting point is.

As all researchers know, your starting point that guides any action you take as a researcher rests on a basic set of beliefs, or, an interpretive paradigm. Basically, being able to articulate that paradigm would allow you to answer a question like, “what glasses do you put on to see the world when you are doing research?”

With some people this is glaringly obvious immediately, for reasons that shall become glaringly obvious, but some who are just stepping out into the world of research are a bit foggy on this topic, and, as indicate above, a bit scared.

Anyway, back to your interpretive paradigm: the basic set of beliefs you rest your action on as a researcher. How do you see the world? You present this in terms of frightening terms, your epistemological and ontological premises held and how these are understood to relate to the research carried out. The epistemological premise assumed by my own research for my PhD was one of a combination of subjective, postmodern, and humanist perspectives (and for the benefit of dyed in the wool engineers, yes, that is considered real and valid research, too, thank you very much). The ontological position I took for my research was that of relativist, constructivist co-creation, supported by the use of a grounded theory and a constructivist grounded theory methodological approach.  I’m not going to go into that here (“Phew”, I hear you say), but I will give it a summary in another blog post another time.

But enough about me, what about you? What epistemological premises do YOU have??? Going back to basics, an epistemological premise refers to the theory of knowledge held by which a researcher understands their relationship with the known, while an ontological premise has to do with the nature of social reality and how a researcher understands their perception of the world at large and the people in it; bringing these two things together, an interpretive paradigm encompasses both epistemological and ontological positions as well as methodological premises (Audi, 1998; Collin, 1997; Denzin and Lincoln, 2003). Got that? Good. (*swiftly moves on*)…

The fun part is perusing the list of interpretive paradigms and seeing which one takes your fancy, as well as which one actually fits the nature of the research questions you are exploring and the research objectives you are developing. For starters, consider that Denzin and Lincoln (2003) identify seven interpretive paradigms, which include: positivist and postpositivist, constructivist, feminist, ethnic, Marxist, and, cultural studies. If any of these do spark your imagination, then it’s probably best to look them up, but, for example, they describe the positivist and postpositivist paradigm as working from within a realist and critical realist ontology and objective epistemologies, while relying upon experimental, survey and rigorously defined qualitative methodologies. On the other hand, for Denzin and Lincoln, the constructivist paradigm is said to assume a relativist ontology where multiple realities are assumed, a subjectivist epistemology where the knower/researcher and research participant are understood to co-create understandings, and a naturalistic set of methodological procedures – i.e. as occurring in the natural world. In this case findings are often presented through grounded theory or pattern theories (the subject of another blog post). Again referring to my own PhD, I would describe that as being undertaken from the perspective provided by the constructivist paradigm.

Any of those paradigms take your fancy yet? Have another look at that last paragraph and reflect on it for a moment or two…

To go a bit deeper, interpretive paradigms, epistemologies and ontologies are largely associated with the time periods in which they originated. Once you grasp this it can actually be quite helpful, as then you will understand how some of them had more relevance for certain types of research that were probably in their burgeoning hay-day or embryonic phase during that era. Necessity is also the mother of invention for interpretive paradigms, not just technological stuff.

Denzin and Lincoln (2003) refer to successive waves of epistemological theorizing over time and its meaning to research:

“The traditional period is associated with the positivist, foundational paradigm. The modernist or golden age and blurred genres moments are connected to the appearance of postpositivist arguments. At the same time, a variety of new interpretive, qualitative perspectives were taken up, including hermeneutics, structuralism, semiotics, phenomenology, cultural studies, and feminism. In the blurred genres phase, the humanities became central resources for critical, interpretive theory, and for the qualitativeresearch project broadly conceived. The researcher became a bricoleur, learning how to borrow from many different disciplines. The blurred genres phase produced the next stage, the crisis of representation. Here researchers struggled with how to locate themselves and their subjects in reflexive texts. A kind of methodological diaspora took place, a two-way exodus. Humanists migrated to the social sciences, searching for new social theory, new ways to study popular culture and its local, ethnographic contexts. Social scientists turned to the humanities, hoping to learn how to do complex structural and poststructural readings of social texts. From the humanities, social scientists also learned how to produce texts that refused to be read in simplistic, linear, incontrovertible terms. The line between text and context blurred. In the postmodern experimental moment researchers continued to move away from foundational and quasi-foundational criteria. Alternative evaluative criteria were sought, criteria that might prove evocative, moral, critical, and rooted in local understandings” (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003:3-4).

This description is portrayed in the figure below:


Figure: Waves of Epistemological Theorizing (adapted from Denzin and Lincoln, 2003)

According to this framework, the work embedded in my own PhD thesis was epistemologically positioned, roughly, between the humanist pursuit of seeking to locate the research and its participants in its local ethnographic context, and the postmodern, experimental approach that seeks evaluative criteria rooted in local understandings (what are people doing locally and how do they personally make sense of it – what does it mean to them?). This made sense because of the research questions I had and the research objectives. I don’t advocate it as a research path and interpretive paradigm per se. That wouldn’t make sense. You choose an interpretive paradigm because of the research questions and objective you have; they have to match.

The interpretive paradigm you then choose will have implications for what research methods you then go on to use. The methodological implications of my own research position for my PhD needed to be seen in relation to acceptance of postmodern ‘sensibilities’, capturing the individual’s point of view, examining the constraints of everyday life, and securing rich descriptions (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003). I’d put this into easier to understand terms as follows:

Acceptance of postmodern sensibilities means: the use of quantitative, positivist methods and assumptions are largely rejected; positivist methods are seen as only one way of telling stories about society or the social world; positivist and postpositivist evaluation criteria are sometimes rejected; members of the critical theory, constructivist, poststructural and postmodern schools of thought often seek methods such as emotionality, multivoiced texts and dialogues with subjects as alternatives for evaluating their work; and, positivists and postpositivists often see postmodernism and poststructuralism as attacks on reason and truth (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003:15).

Capturing the individual’s point of view is relevant in that: detailed interviewing and observation is given priority in order to get closer to the research participant’s perspective; and, remote, inferential empirical methods and materials as used in quantitative research are not acknowledged as enabling the capture of a research participant’s perspective (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003:16).

Examining the constraints of everyday life is seen as important because: these constraints confront qualitative researchers, who acknowledge them and embed their findings in them; while quantitative researchers are seen to make objective abstractions based on large sample sizes or randomly selected cases, qualitative researchers take a case-based position, directing their attention to the specifics of particular cases (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003:16).

Securing rich descriptions is important because: such rich descriptions of the social world are valued because they provide great detail, which differs from the high-level generalisations produced through quantitative research (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003:16).

For the purposes of my own PhD study I had to take these implications into consideration when implementing the research. These factors therefore influenced, for example, the choice of methods which would permit the collection of rich description from the perspective of the research participant in order to understand them and their world, from which findings were derived in order to respond to the research question. None of any of this I’ve talked about above disregards or negates the value of positivist or quantitative research at all. But what it does say is that there are many different interpretive paradigms to choose from, which in turn will influence the methods you use to do your research, collect data, and analyse it.

I hope you have fun choosing your interpretive paradigm and associated methods… I did J … All feedback welcome…

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