QR: Epistemology


Source: adapted from Gray (2014) and O'Gorman and MacIntosh (2015)

Source: adapted from Gray (2014) and O’Gorman and MacIntosh (2015)

In one of my earlier posts I talked about methodology and methods. However, this was only part of the story of choosing a research framework. The way you go about collecting and interpreting data is strongly influenced by how you interpret knowledge and truth. This is about the epistemology.

In simple terms, epistemology is the theory of knowledge and deals with how knowledge is gathered and from which sources. In research terms your view of the world and of knowledge strongly influences your interpretation of data and therefore your philosophical standpoint should be made clear from the beginning.

Knowledge can be seen as empirical or intuitive, for example. Whilst intuitive knowledge stems from beliefs and faith, empirical knowledge is related to anything that can be objectively described and proven. With this simple example, it becomes clear how your interpretation of knowledge will influence your choice of methodology and methods, and will also impact your data analysis.


Within epistemology there are several approaches and branches, such as for example positivism and interpretivism. These two are by far not the only branches within epistemology. You may look at the world from a feminist or postmodernist viewpoint, or you may consider critical enquiries as a valid approach. However, looking at these two philosophical approaches that are situated at the most extreme ends of a spectrum will help you see the relationship between the different branches and the impact this may have on your research.


The underlying principle for positivism is a scientific outlook on knowledge and the world. Data collection is undertaken on the basis of statistics and large numbers of participants. Using a positivist approach would mean that your research moves on through a hypothesis and deductions and you attempt to look at the data objectively. Positivist research therefore is quantitative and looks at high levels of generalisability.



This branch of epistemology is in a way an answer to the objective world of positivism that researchers felt wanting. The underlying idea of the interpretivist approach is that the researcher is part of the research, interprets data and as such can never be fully objective and removed from the research. Interpretivists are interested in specific, contextualised environments and acknowledge that reality and knowledge are not objective but influenced by people within that environment. This philosophical outlook is more subjective and subject to biases, thus cannot be generalised in the way that positivist research can be.



Gray, D. E. (2014). Doing research in the real world. London: Sage.

O’Gorman, K. and MacIntosh, R. (2015). “Mapping research methods”. in: O’Gorman, K. and MacIntosh, R. Research methods for business and management. Oxford: Goodfellow Publishers Ltd.


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