Understanding research philosophy

By Priya Chetty & Susweta GuhaThakurta on June 25, 2015

Research philosophy is an important part of research methodology. Research philosophy is classified as ontology, epistemology and axiology. These philosophical approaches enable them to decide which approach should be adopted by the researcher and why, which is derived from research questions (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2009). The important assumptions are present in research philosophy which explains the researcher’s view regarding the world. These assumptions will determine the research strategy and the methods of that strategy.

There are different types of research philosophy, which are described below:


Ontology is based on the nature of reality. It is classified on the basis of objectivism and subjectivism. The first aspect of ontology, objectivism portrays the position that social objects persist in reality external to social actors. Secondly, subjectivism is concerned with the social phenomena which are emerged from the perceptions and consequences of those social actors concerned with their existence.


The Filmfare Award ceremony is a high cultural experience which is organized by the Government of India. Government officials, ministers, and celebrities at the national level as well as international level are invited to this programme. The researcher wants to map the attitudes and temperament of this crowd which is spread over three days of the festival. The researcher adopts a subjectivism philosophy to determine their temperament and attitude.


Epistemology is understood as the acceptable knowledge of a particular area of study. It can be divided into two aspects;

  1. resources researcher and,
  2. feeling researcher.

Resource research deals with the data from the perspective of the natural world. On the other hand, the feeling research is concerned with the feelings and attitudes of the workers towards their managers. So resource research involves developing a positivist philosophy. Whereas the feeling research is focused on interpretivism philosophy. Epistemology is therefore classified as Positivism, Realism and Interpretivism in the domain of research philosophy.

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The philosophical approach of natural scientists is observed in positivism as the work of natural scientists is based on observable social entities. The research strategy is approached on the basis of data collection and hypothesis development. These hypotheses will be tested and confirmed which can be used for further research. Another feature of this philosophy is that the positivist researcher follows a highly structured methodology in order to facilitate the hypothesis. Furthermore, positivism works on quantifiable observations and accordingly statistical analysis is obtained.


The researcher cannot manipulate the resources during the data collection procedure as they are independent of the subject of the research.


Consider a study on the basis of flexi working of the female workforce throughout India. The researcher would study the literature which is based on previous studies based on factors like:

  • the importance of flexi-working,
  • types of flexi-working,
  • increased rate of flexi-working and,
  • future of flexi-working.

The hypotheses can be:

  • the influence of flexi-working on our socio-economic life;
  • influence of regular work life on the women’s family life;
  • influence of flexi-working on the economic life of the flexi-worker.  

In positivism, these hypotheses are tested and the result is confirmed by the researcher to develop a theory.


Realism is another philosophical branch of epistemology which relates to scientific enquiry. The core feature of realism is pertained to disclosing the truth of reality and the existence of the objects is prevalent independently in the human mind. Realism is classified as direct realism and critical realism. Direct realism explains what is experienced by our senses and what is attained by the researcher. On the other hand, critical realism expresses that what is experienced by our sensations are images of the real world, not reality. The difference between the two is that the first is related to the capacity to research what is studied and the critical realist recognizes the importance of multi-level study in the context of the individual, the group and the organization.

There is a difference between direct realism and critical realism. Critical realism claims that there are two stages to experiencing this world. Firstly, the sensation is conveyed to experience the object or people or event and the next stage is our mental process starts working after the sensations.


In a cricket match, a critical realist while providing the umpiring decisions says, ‘I give them as I see them!’. Whereas, the umpire who is a direct realist would say ‘I give them as they are!’ So according to direct realism, the first stage of critical realism is enough to understand our experience level of us.


Interpretivism is a branch of epistemology which is focused on the assessment of the differences between humans as social actors. The issue of difference is emphasized on the difference between conducting research among people rather than objects such as medicines and computers. In this philosophy, the interpretation of social roles has been presented with respect to their own set of meanings. In addition, we interpret the social roles of others in accordance with our own set of meanings.

This approach is based on social life and the difference between the earlier approach and interpretivist approach is that natural scientists are intended for the reliabilities of the data in order to infer ‘laws’ whereas social science deals with the individual’s actions.


In an organization, all the stakeholders’ approach is different and they act according to their interpretation. The interpretations regarding employee turnover of an HR manager and a trade union leader are completely different as they both belong to different social roles.


Axiology is a branch of philosophy which is concerned with judgments, aesthetics, and ethics. The process of social enquiry is involved in this approach. Researchers’ axiological skill is executed in order to make judgments about the research content and its conduct. For example, Researchers’ philosophical approach is reflected in their values as well as in their research work, especially in the area of data collection or data analysis procedures. However, this method creates an impact on social sciences research.


A study was conducted among customers of banks to determine their experiences of using a credit card in terms of convenience, security, privacy and phone banking. The results of the study revealed that there was a lack of communication and an absence of awareness among customers. Most customers are not interested in this product.

However, the bank did now allow the researcher to publish the findings. But the researcher and the bank must consider the ethical perspective of this issue for the welfare of their customers.

FeatureThe observer is independent of what is being presented.The observer becomes a part of the system
CausalityThis is aimed to identify causal explanations of social entities existing in reality with/without being concerned with social actors associated with the entities.The aim of the researcher is to understand the social phenomenon from the perception of social actors and their consequent actions
ReductionismProblems can be better understood if they are reduced to the simplest possible elements.Problems are better understood if the process of social interaction is continued so that the social phenomenon is in a constant state of revision.
Research MethodQuantitativeQualitative
Research ParadigmObjectivistSubjectivist
Application of Research Philosophy in research

So it can be said that qualitative research is based on interpretivism and quantitative research is based on positivism. Positivists prefer to collect data about an observable reality and search for regularities and causal relationships in data to create law-like generalizations whereas interpretivists intend to grasp the subjective meaning of social action in order to conduct research methodology.


Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).



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