Understanding research philosophy

By Susweta GuhaThakurta and Priya Chetty 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 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 about the researcher’s’ view regarding the world. These assumptions will determine 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 on the social phenomena which are emerged from the perceptions and consequences of those social actors concerned with their existence. For example, the Filmfare Award ceremony is the high cultural experience which is organized by the Government of India. The government officials, ministers, celebrity of national as well as international level are invited in this programme. The researcher wants to the map the attitudes and temperament of this crowd which is spread over three days’ festival. The researcher adopts subjectivism philosophy to determine their temperament and attitude.


Epistemology is understood about the acceptable knowledge of a particular area of study. It can be divided into two aspects; resources researcher and feeling researcher. The ‘resource researcher’ deals with the data from the perspective of natural scientist. On the other hand, the ‘feeling researcher’ is concerned about the feelings and attitudes of the workers towards their managers. So the ‘resource researcher’ is involves  developing positivist philosophy whereas the ‘feeling researcher’ is focus on interpretivist philosophy. Epistemology is therefore classified as Positivism, Realism and Interpretivism in the domain of research philosophy.


The philosophical approach of natural scientist is observed in positivism as the work of natural scientist is based on observable social entity. 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 highly structured methodology in order to facilitate the hypothesis.Furthermore, positivism works on quantifiable observations and accordingly statistical analysis is obtained.

For example, the resources researcher cannot manipulate during data collection procedure as they are independent to the subject of the research. For example, a research was conducted on the basis of flexi working on the female workforce throughout India. The researcher would study the literature which is based on previous studies based on which identify factors; like the importance of flexi working, types of flexi-working, increased rate of flexi-working and future of flexi-working and develop hypotheses have been developed like the influence of flexi-working to our socio-economic life; influence of regular work life to the women’s family life; influence of flexi-working to the economic life of the flexi-worker.  In positivism, these hypotheses are tested and 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 disclose the truth of reality and the existence of the objects are 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 that are attained by the researcher. On the other hand, the critical realism expresses that what is experienced by our sensations those are images of the real world, not the reality. The difference between the two is that the first is related to the capacity of 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 experience this world. Firstly, sensation is conveyed to experience the object or people or event and the nest stage is our mental process starts working after the sensations. For example, in a cricket match, as a critical realist, while providing the umpiring decisions, the umpire 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 the experience level of us.


Interpretivism is a branch epistemology which is focused to the assessment 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 computer. In this philosophy, interpretation of social roles has been presented with respect of own set of meaning. In addition, we interpret the social roles of others in accordance with our own set of meanings.

This approach is based on social life world and the difference between the earlier approach and interpretivist approach is that the natural scientists are intended for reliabilities of the data in order to infer ‘laws’ whereas the social science deals with the  individual’s actions. For example, in the organization, all the stakeholders’ approach is different and they act according to their interpretation. The interpretation regarding employee turnover of HR manager and trade union leader are completely different as they both belong to different social roles.


Axiology is a branch of philosophy which is concerned about 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 on his or her values as well as in their research work, especially in the area of data collection or data analysis procedures. However, this method creates impact in social sciences research.

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For example, a study was conducted among customers of bank to determine their experiences of using credit card in terms of convenience, security, privacy and phone banking. The results of the study revealed that there was lack of communication strategies and absence of awareness level within the consumers, and that most of the consumers are not interested in this product. However, the bank authorities did now allow researcher to publish the findings. But the researcher and the respective organization must consider the ethical perspective of this issue for the welfare of the consumers.

PositivismInterpretivismThe observer interacts with subject being showed.Problems as a whole are clearly understood if the totality of the situation is projected.

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 of 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 into the simplest possible elements.Problems are better understood if the process of social interaction is continued so that the social phenomenon are in constant state of revision.
Research MethodQuantitativeQualitative
Research ParadigmObjectivistSubjectivist

Application of Research Philosophy in research

So we can say that the 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 your data to create law-like generalizations whereas interpretivists intend to grasp the subjective meaning of social action in order to conduct research methodology.


Understanding researchImportance of research approach in a research
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