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Philosophy of Social Research Methods

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Today’s society is highly technology focused with an abundance of data available through simple internet searches therefore the researcher needs to be skilled in selecting and using data in a meaningful way. To do this effectivity the researcher must understand the philosophical foundations of research to widen perspectives, improve research skills and have confidence that the most suitable methodology has been selected. An inappropriate research methodology may produce poor results therefore researchers must fit their philosophy and methodology to the specific research activity.

Research philosophy is principally concerned with the source, nature and development of knowledge. In basic terms it is about the ways in which data should be collected, analysed and used in order to solve problems and add meaningful knowledge to existing literature. Research methods enable a researcher to assess flaws in the design of their experiments ensuring their research provides a valid contribution to scientific knowledge.

Kuhn, introduced the concept of paradigms, a set of basic beliefs about how the world is viewed. Hesse-Biber, defined a paradigm as a framework in which theories or hypothesises are built, whilst Trochim and Donnelly, suggest a research paradigm is a shared set of attitudes, values, and techniques that create a framework of understanding. Whilst Atieno views a paradigm as an approach or design. Cohen, Manion and Morrison note that Kuhn identifies that scientific truth changes over time affecting long held paradigms.

Gouldner, recognised the significance of a researcher being able to understand their own research philosophies so that they can question their thinking and rationale referred to as reflexivity. Reflexivity minimises the impact of any long-held beliefs interfering with the research results, considers the type of research undertaken, resource and time availability. Johnson and Clark note that business management researchers need to be conscious of their own beliefs and research philosophies as it affects their choice of research strategy and subsequently the investigation process. Tsoukas and Knudsen, suggest that business and management researchers do not agree that there is one best philosophy, conversely Polit and Beck, and Alvesson and Skoldberg, suggest that positivism is the philosophical stance for science and engineering but has little relevance to social sciences; whilst Lincoln and Guba, raise the issue of ethics in social research noting that a positivist inquiry can have serious failings.

In order to distinguish between paradigms, various taxonomies have been used to explain world views; ontology, epistemology and methodology. Guba and Lincoln and Orlikowski and Baroudi suggest four paradigms; positivism, post-positivism, constructivism and critical theory and their dimensions; ontology, epistemology, and methodology. Whilst Creswell uses ontology, epistemology, axiology, rhetorical and methodology. Saunders et al, refers to 6 paradigms positivism, realism, interpretism, objectivism, constructionism and pragmatism and their dimensions epistomology, ontology and axiology thus highlighting the difficulties associated with research programmes. The different descriptions, categorisations and classifications of both research paradigms and philosophies, all with overlapping boundaries and meanings makes the identification of paradigms and research philosophies difficult particularly to the novice researcher. Despite their definitions of ontology, epistemology and axiology demonstrating a common theme there appears to be little consensus in the categorisation of these paradigms.

Ritchie and Lewis’s ontological perspective includes realism; materialism, critical realism, idealism and relativism. Whilst their epistemological perspective includes positivism and interpretivism. However, Saunders et al. and Guba and Lincoln view philosophies (positivism, realism, interpretism and pragmatism) from an ontological, epistemological and axiological view point. Several authors refer to the concept linkages of ontology preceding epistemology which precedes methodology and methods. Research involves different methodological positions throughout its lifestyle requiring different theoretical positions. Marsh and Furlong, suggest there is interdependence between epistemology and methodology. Mason, suggests that epistemology leads to knowledge and explanations about the ontological components of society. Therefore different ontological and epistemological positions can result in opposing views of the same social occurences. These philosophies may share core hypotheses but they focus on different connotations and adopt different classifications hence their relationship is often contested and confused. Tu et al., proposed using an ontology based configuration for problem solving methods, whilst Francisco et al., developed an ontology based intelligent web portal system, Lee et al., presented a nebulous ontology and applied it to news summarisation indicating the diversity of ontological based applications.

Two main research philosophies have been identified, positivist and interpretivist. Orlikowski and Baroundi, Dickson and DeSanctis, and Alavi and Carlson suggest that positivism is more widely applied in information system research linking the philosophy to the field of social sciences whilst Pollit and Beck associate positivism to natural sciences. Hirschheim, questions whether the positivist paradigm is suitable for social sciences. Evidence suggests that information system research crosses the boundaries between social sciences, computer science and business studies. In business and management research Tsoukas and Knudsen, identified that there is no single ideal philosophy and philosophical disagreements occur regularly. Marsh and Furlong, suggest positivism is centred on realist ontology with an aim in social science to make original statements. However, interpretists disagree whilst Quine, critiques positivism from a pragmatist position. However, on a positive note Johnson and Onwuegbuzie suggest that the differences in philosophy categorisations do not define the data collection and analytical methods used. Guba and Lincoln support this view, recognising that the data collection method is unimportant to the paradigm and does not affect the research methodology.

There are two types of approach to theory formulation; inductive and deductive. Quantitative research from a positivistic approach assumes hypotheses are derived from a theory and deductive in nature. On the other hand, a qualitative or constructivist approach to research may be considered inductive as the purpose is to generate theory. Focussing on business and management research ontology refers to the organisation, management, and working activities focussing on how resistance to change can be used to benefit organisations. In considering business management there are many different types of business knowledge numerical data, textual, visual data, facts, interpretations, stories hence researchers will adopt different epistemologies in their research. This variety of epistemologies provides a greater choice of methods but can result in limitations in research findings. A positivist view that objective facts offer good scientific evidence is likely to result in quantitative research methods, however results will be unlikely to provide a view of organisational realities or individual differences.

The primary data collection methods are quantitative based on mathematical calculations and qualitative focusing on questionnaires. However, research indicates that several studies have used different descriptions of qualitative and quantitative methods mentioning empirical research and deductive explanatory. Rosenau, suggests that there is no reason why positivists using an empiricist epistemology cannot use qualitative methods. Conversely, Neelankavil, and Bernard, refer to qualitative research as exploratory research whilst Saunders et al., and Engel and Schutt, refer to it as inductive and Khotari, uses the term formulative. Some researchers note the similarity between the terms whilst others treat each approach separately leading to considerable confusion with the research approaches. Cavaye, suggests that inductive and deductive approaches can be used in the same research however, Perry, suggests that a balanced view should be taken between the two. Bryman, suggests that there are 3 main research approaches qualitative, quantitative and mixed method or multi method. For mixed method data collection both types of data can be collected at the same time, but the methods cannot be combined according to Saunders et al. Creswell and Clark, and Sandelowski, argue that the mixed method provides more widespread evidence than a single method of data analysis which overcomes the weaknesses associated with individual data collection methods. Quantitative methods are usually short in duration, have been standardised so are easier to compare findings, cheaper to apply than qualitative methods but weak in identifying context. Qualitative research methods are usually associated with words, sounds, feelings, emotions, colours and other non-quantifiable elements, may include bias and allow little statistical analysis but can offer an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a research problem. It has been suggested that quantitative data collection is used for natural sciences and qualitative for social sciences. The selection of the data collection method depends largely on a research area and the aims and objectives however, the pragmatic paradigm means a researcher can go back and forth between induction and deduction  as it is impossible to operate effectivity in a single approach.

The chosen research strategy is usually dependent on the research questions and objectives, research time and resource availability. Work places surveys are frequently distributed, add little value to research data as a deductive approach is often adopted. Benbasat et al., observed that each research methodology has merits and weaknesses, so it is desirable to use a combination. However, selecting a research method is not a simple process due to the mass of methodologies available.

Research is important to society as it defines our beliefs about the world around us but it is easy to see why this subject is difficult and confusing. The ambiguity of definitions, different descriptions and categorisations of the same philosophy are difficult to comprehend. Research will remain the researcher’s view of reality, but by considering the different philosophies a researcher can understand the importance of limiting their own ignorance and bias when developing new knowledge.    

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Philosophy of Social Research Methods. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
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