Choosing an appropriate research philosophy

By Priya Chetty on August 25, 2016

Choosing an appropriate research philosophy is an important part of the research methodology. In fact as Guba & Lincoln, (1982) have propounded, philosophical paradigm within research hold utmost importance, as it is the “basic belief system or world view that guides the investigation” (p. 105). The term philosophy in research refers to the development of knowledge and the nature of that knowledge.

Research philosophy
Research philosophy

Key nature of research philosophy

Research philosophy is a particular way of developing knowledge that defines the philosophical paradigm. This development and understanding of knowledge depend on certain assumptions based on our perspective of the world, i.e. the practical considerations while selecting a topic of research (Holden & Lynch, 2004; Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2009).

For instance, the world perspective and practical consideration of a researcher are different. On one hand, the researcher may focus on product quality processes adopted by manufacturers of supply chain management. On the other hand, one may be concerned with psychological strategies applied by suppliers to lure consumers, in the same supply chain management sector.

While the former is concerned with facts, the other one is concerned with feelings. Hence, based on their different perspectives, their strategies and methods will also differ. This will depend on their (strategies) importance and usefulness in achieving the purpose of the study.

The philosophical approach enables the researcher to decide which approach should be adopted and why. Hence before selecting the appropriate research philosophy, it is important to know about various types of philosophies in research (Saunders et al., 2009). The important assumptions in research philosophy explain the researchers’ views regarding the world. These assumptions will determine the research strategy and the methods of that strategy.

Intrinsic elements of epistemology

a) Positivism refers to working with observable social reality and outcome is always law-like generalizations, as is the case with physical or natural scientists. The researcher is said to adopt a positivist research philosophy approach when s/he is more concerned with reality/facts associated with product manufacturing. This may include quality maintenance like machines, computers, raw materials, and such others. A methodology that needs to be adopted here is highly structured involving hypotheses testing and statistical tools– a quantitative method.

b) Interpretivism based on understanding human nature and their varying role as social actors. It interprets the social roles of other individuals in accordance with our own set of meanings or perspectives. This particular position has been taken by the “feelings”  researcher, who is keen on analyzing human emotions and social roles. For example, interpreting the psychological strategies undertaken by suppliers and the demands of consumers. Naturalistic use the methods like, interview, observation, and analysis of existing texts. A qualitative approach is applied to interact with individuals in order to collaboratively construct a meaningful reality (Rowlands, 2005).

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c) Realism refers to scientific inquiry emphasizing on the reality projected by our sense as truth. It believes that objects have an independent existence from the human mind. This element is more related to positivism. However, the view contrasts between direct realist and critical realists.

While direct-realist believes what we see or perceive through our senses as real. On the other hand, critical realist argues that what we see through our senses is only a picture of the real object and not the actual one itself. Precisely critical realists believe in virtual reality. In terms of direct realism, the quality standards used by the manufacturer through machines and raw materials seen by us are the real and only facts behind the quality of the product. While in the case of critical realism, what the research has perceived observing the manufacturing process is only a part of the greater quality. It varies from products to products and over time too.

Similarly, direct-realist emphasizes on changing the social world within which participants live. Hence, use action research and participant observation. Critical realists use qualitative methods such as case studies and convergent interviews (Sobh & Perry, 2006).

Ontology and the nature of reality

a) Subjectivism emphasizes on–social phenomena are created from the perceptions and consequent actions of social actors. This social phenomenon is constantly getting revised through continuous social interaction. Interpretivist approach can be applied in developing psychological strategies to lure customers. Subjectivists believe that customers as social actors interpret a situation based on their perception of the world and through their interaction with the environment. Therefore, to make strategies influencing customers’ psychology, the suppliers need to understand the subjective reality of the customers and their motives in a meaningful way. Qualitative methodology, similar to interpretivism is applicable.

b) Objectivism believes that social entities exist in reality external to social actors. For example, the process of supply chain management (social entity) remains unchanged (reality) despite the change or replacement of all its actors including manufacturers, producers, logistics providers, suppliers, and consumers (social actors). Similarly, an organization and its internal functioning (social entity) remain unchanged (reality) despite the change in its workforce (social actors). In this case, Quantitative or mixed methodology is applicable.

Selecting either epistemology or ontology

Pragmatism emphasizes in utilizing both positivist and interpretivism philosophy and views both of them as a continuum rather than contradictions. Precisely a pragmatist avoids going into an argument on concepts of truth and reality. Rather they focus on studying the issues of interest and value and use different ways to bring out positive consequences. When a researcher wants to observe how the quality of a product and various advertising strategies leads to increased satisfaction of the end-user in a supply chain management process. Here all the role of manufacturers, logistics provider, and supplier comes into purview and hence, a pragmatic approach will be appropriate than any one of the above two approaches. In this case, a mixed-method is applied, including both quantitative and qualitative studies.

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Making judgment using axiology

Axiology studies judgments about value or is the process of social inquiry. In other words, researchers demonstrate axiological skills by being able to articulate their values as a basis for making judgments about what research they are conducting and how they go about doing it.

For example, to conduct a study where you place great importance in data collected through interviews. This suggests that you value personal interaction with your respondents more highly than their anonymous views expressed through survey data. Since methods essentially depend on the researcher’s axiological skills, it cannot be particularly defined.

Hence a statement of personal values held by the researcher in relation to the topic of interest is important to provide in the study. Similarly, it is also related to parties like a mentor, peers, university research ethics committee, and such others. Such a process will clarify the researcher’s stand on the topic and their value of judgment on the choice of topic, data collected, and ways of pursuing the research.

Appropriate philosophy for subjects other than natural sciences

Characteristic features of research philosophy and their underlying approaches explain appropriate applicability based on the research questions. However, researches related to:

    • business,
    • management
    • humanities
    • social science

Most of them use a positivist and interpretivist approach, along with a realist reflection.

Heres another article by Susweta to help you understand better.


  • Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1982). Epistemological and methodological bases of naturalistic inquiry. ECTJ, 30(4), 233–252.
  • Holden, M. T., & Lynch, P. (2004). Choosing the Appropriate Methodology: Understanding Research Philosophy. The Marketing Review, 4(4), 347–409.
  • Kothari, C. R. (2012). Research Methodology: An introduction. In Research Methodology: Methods and Techniques (p. 418).
  • Rowlands, B. (2005). Grounded in Practice: Using Interpretive Research to Build Theory. The Electronic Journal of Business Research Methodology, 3(1), 81–92.
  • Saunders, M., Lewis, P., & Thornhill, A. (2009). Research Methods for Business Students (5th ed.). Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited.
  • Sobh, R., & Perry, C. (2006). Research design and data analysis in realism research. European Journal of Marketing, 40(11/12), 1194–1209.


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