Research Research Research Methods

The research paradigm – methodology, epistemology and ontology – explained in simple language

I have put together this post to explain what a research paradigm is, which includes ontology, epistemology, theoretical framework and methodology, and why it is important for your research or PhD. It took me a while to understand this properly, and below is a summary of my understanding of the topic, which I hope will help you. I suggest you go easy on yourself (I was pulling my hair out on the second day). I would also love to be corrected if anything below is wrong (though as you are aware, there are so many disagreements amongst philosophers and epistemologists – there is no one right answer!). So, let’s get started …

[This post is also available to read in Arabic here.]

What is a research paradigm?

According to Guba (1990), research paradigms can be characterised through their:A research paradigm is “the set of common beliefs and agreements shared between scientists about how problems should be understood and addressed” (Kuhn, 1962)

  • ontology What is reality?
  • epistemology How do you know something?
  • methodology How do you go about finding it out?

The diagram below explains the above terms and the relationship between them:

Ontology and epistmeology2

If the above still doesn’t make things clear, don’t worry. I would now recommend you watch this video which explains the above in very simple terms, and explains the two major paradigms: positivism and constructivism.

Why is it important?

Your ontology and epistemology create a holistic view of how knowledge is viewed and how we can see ourselves in relation to this knowledge, and the methodological strategies we use to un/discover it. Awareness of philosophical assumptions will increase quality of research and can contribute to the creativity of the researcher. Furthermore, you will be asked about it in your viva and are expected to narrate it when you write up your research findings.

Which research paradigm does my research belong to?

In really simple terms, the three most common paradigms are explained below (and are shown in this epistemology diagram too, taken from here):

  • Positivists believe that there is a single reality, which can be measured and known, and therefore they are more likely to use quantitative methods to measure and this reality.
  • Constructivists believe that there is no single reality or truth, and therefore reality needs to be interpreted, and therefore they are more likely to use qualitative methods to get those multiple realities.
  • Pragmatists believe that reality is constantly renegotiated, debated, interpreted, and therefore the best method to use is the one that solves the problem

The table below (which I created) gives a more detailed overview of each paradigm (and contains subjectivism and critical too), and your own research paradigm could very well sit in between one of the paradigms. You could use a top down or a bottom up approach (Rebecca explains here) to decide where your research sits. In a bottom up approach, you decide on your research question, then you decide which methods, methodology, theoretical perspective you will approach your research from. In reality, I believe its probably neither strictly a top down or bottom up approach, you probably go back and forth till you find the right fit. I believe each research project would have a different research paradigm and hence a different theoretical perspective.

research Paradigm

Table adapted from various sources, including Crotty (1998). Crotty left ontology out of his framework, and also didn’t include Pragmatism and Critical. But the assumptions underlying every piece of research are both ontological and epistemological.

Where does most social science research sit?

According to Eddie, and quoting directly, most social science sits into the following:

“1. Experimental (Positivist), with a more realist ontology (i.e. reality is out there), with an empiricist epistemology (i.e. and I’ll gather sense data to find it);

2. Postmodernist constructivism, with a less realist ontology (i.e. reality is just a load of competing claims), and a constructivist epistemology (i.e. and I’ll analyse those competing accounts to explore it)

Applied, then to social psychology, it is important to understand the tension, throughout its history, between:

1. A more traditional experimental (quantitative) approach, which sees social reality as a set of facts to be known for all time by measuring people in the laboratory;

2. A more critical, discursive (qualitative) approach, which sees social reality as mutually constructed between people in the real world.”

However, I must add that pragmatism (and hence mixed methods research) is also being increasingly used in social sciences.

What impact will my chosen paradigm have on my research?

It will have a huge impact. Let me give you an example of an interview based research that is constructivist:

“So as GP trainers, constructivism means that to understand our trainees and their learning, beliefs or behaviours we have to be aware of their experience and culture (the historical and cultural contexts) and recognise that they don’t just potentially see the world differently to us, but experience it differently too.” Source.

Useful reading and references

Texts I found useful:

Crotty, M., 1998. Foundations of social research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. p.256.

Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. and Jackson, P.R., 2012. Management Research. [online] SAGE Publications. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 Jul. 2015].

Scotland, J., 2012. Exploring the philosophical underpinnings of research: Relating ontology and epistemology to the methodology and methods of the scientific, interpretive, and critical research paradigms. English Language Teaching, 5(9), pp.9–16.

Blog posts that were useful: 

Useful video:

Assumptions of researchers:



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