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Interpretivism and Postivism (Ontological and

Epistemological Perspectives)
Filed under: Research Paradigms and Approaches — 9 Comments
March 14, 2012
What is Ontology and What is Epistemology?
Ontology is the nature of reality (Hudson and Ozanne 1988) and the epistemology
can be defined as the relationship between the researcher and the reality (Carson et
al. 2001) or how this reality can be known.
According to the positivist ontology there is a single, external and objective reality
to any research question regardless of the researchers belief (Carson et al. 1988;
Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Thus, the positivist researchers take a controlled and
structural approach in conducting research by initially identifying a research topic,
constructing appropriate research questions and hypotheses and by adopting a
suitable research methodology.
They also attempt to remain detached from the participants of the research by
creating distance between themselves and the participants. Especially, this is an
important step in remaining emotionally neutral to make clear distinctions between
reason and feeling as well as between science and personal experience. Positivists
also claim it is important to clearly distinguish between fact and value judgement.
As positivist researchers they seek objectivity and use consistantly rational and
logical approaches to research (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).
Statistical and mathematical techniques are central in the research methods
adopted by positivist researchers and they adhere to specifically structured research
techniques to uncover single and objective realities. The goal of positivst research is
to make time and context free generalizations and they believe this is possible
because human actions can be explained as a result of real causes that precedes
their behaviours (Carson et al. 2001; Hudosn et al. 1988).
On the contrary positivists, interpretivists believe that the reality is relative and
multiple. According to this tradition there can be more than one reality and more
than a single structured way of accessing such realities. Lincoln and Guba (1985)
explains that these multiple meanings are very difficult to interpret as they depend
on other systems for meanings. The knowledge generated from this descipline is
perceived through socially constructed and subjective interpretations (Carson et al.
2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).
Since interpretivist research knowledge is expected to generate from value-laden
socially constructed interpretations researchers follow more personal and flexible
research structures than in the positivist paradigms. Thier research approaches
have to be more receptive to meanings in human interaction and capable of making
sense of what is perceived as multiple realities.
Interpretivist researcher enteres the field with some sort of prior insight about the
research topic but assumes that this is insufficient in developing a fixed research
design due to complex, multiple and unpredictable nature of what is perceived as
reality. During the data collection stage the researcher and his informants are
interdependent and mutually interactive with each other and construct a
collaborative account of perceived reality. The researcher remain open to new ideas
throughout the study and let it develop with the help of his informants. The use of
such an emergent approach is also consistant with the interpretivist belief of
human’s ability to adapt and that no one can gain prior knowledge of time and
context bound social realities (Hudson and Ozanne 1988).
The goal of interpretivist research is to understand and interpret human behaviour
rather than to generalize and predict causes and effects. For an interpretivist
researcher it is important to understand motives, meanings, reasons and other
subjective experiences which are time and context bound (Hudson and Ozanne
The following table provides a summarized version of ontological and
epistemological differences of each paradigm.
(From Carson et al. 2001, p. 6)

Ontology Positivist Interpretivist
Nature of ‘being’/ nature of
the world

Have direct access to real world

Single external reality
No direct access to real world

No single external reality
‘Grounds’ of knowledge/
relationship between reality
and research
Possible to obtain hard, secure objective

Research focus on generalization and

Thought governed by hypotheses and
stated theories
Understood through ‘perceived’

Research focuses on the specific
and concrete

Seeking to understand specific
Focus of research

Role of the researcher

Concentrates on description and

Detached, external observer

Clear distinction between reason and

Concentrates on understanding and

Researchers want to experience
what they are studying

Allow feeling and reason to govern

Techniques used by
Aim to discover external reality rather
than creating the object of study

Strive to use rational, consistent, verbal,
logical approach

Seek to maintain clear distinction
between facts and value judgements

Distinction between science and
personal experience

Formalized statistical and mathematical
methods predominant
Partially create what is studied, the
meaning of phenomena

Use of pre-understanding is

Distinction between facts and value
judgements less clear

Accept influence from both science
and personal experience

Primarily non-quantitative

Hudson LA & Ozanne JL, Alternative ways of seeking knowledge in consumer
research, Journal of consumer research, vol 14(March 1988), pp. 508-521

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