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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:


Published in Research Research Research Methods


    • Nasrullah Anwar Nasrullah Anwar

      Jazakamullah Khair

    • Vuyiswa Vuyiswa

      Thank so much. I have been struggling with the research terminology. This is now so clear. Help me now understand the difference between a conceptual framework and theoretical framework.

      • Salma Patel Salma Patel

        Thanks Vana, I’m pleased to hear it was useful. I think that looks fine.

  1. Anthony Anthony

    Thanks a million brother Salma Patel. A scholastic, helpful post that made me understand the subject crystal clear. God bless you.

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      You’re very welcome Anthony, I’m glad it was helpful!

  2. Sandra Sandra

    Oh my gosh, this is amazing. And so, so helpful. Thank you for making it so clear. That table alone is worth a million bucks. THANK YOU! You’re amazing.

  3. Thank you so much for the knowledge you shared for us who are working on research as I was confused about these long words but the explanation provided for each word and their meaning, enlightening myself in research terminology for words like epistemology, ontology, and many more. Thanks again and God bless .

  4. lauren lauren

    Thanks Salma
    This is very helpful, clearly laid out information. it helped with my assignment.

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Hi Lauren,
      Thank you for your comment. I am very pleased to hear it was useful for your assignment.
      Best wishes,

  5. Kopinath Kopinath

    What an excellent explanation you have given brother.. It is really useful for my thesis works. Decided to keep in touch with your site… Thanks

  6. khalid khalid

    in research conducts , how important is it to consider the relationships between research paradigms, approaches, and methods? need an clarification

  7. Rowley Moore Rowley Moore

    Many thanks Salma. I’ve just begun my journey in doctorate research and the biggest learning curve so far is simply understanding academic language. Your explanation has made it all that much simpler. Brilliant – thank you!!

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Thanks Rowley, I’m pleased to hear it was useful.
      Best wishes,

  8. Bernice Lawrence Bernice Lawrence

    I re-read this information, and now I am now certain that I am locating my research in the correct paradigm of Pragmatism. So I am also using genealogy, which is part critical. Therefore, mixed methods.

  9. Krishna S. Khaitu Krishna S. Khaitu

    Dear Salma, I found it very useful and learn lots out of it. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Shahida Shahida

    I have been pulling my hair out! Thank you for your explanation at least I can attempt my assignment

  11. very informative. Thank you Salma. I have been really pulling my hair out. Now I can attempt my assignment.

  12. Siyanda Khuzwayo Siyanda Khuzwayo

    Hi Salma

    Thank you so much for your sharing such an informative information, it was very helpful for me.

  13. Lucy Lucy

    I Love charts. This is so ridiculously helpful of you. Very generous.

  14. Emma Parker Emma Parker

    Brilliant! Felt like I was a little lost until I came across your page. Thanks for your hard work!

  15. Hani Sophea Hani Sophea

    Alhamdulillah. A very useful review. Shared. JazakAllah Khair Kathira.

  16. John M Shaetonhodi John M Shaetonhodi

    Absolutely useful guidelines as I embark on my doctoral journey. I am busy with my research proposal and your post has come in handy and is helping me clarify my research methodology. Many thanks Salma.

  17. Georgina Martin Georgina Martin

    thanks very much this has being of good help.


    mashalla brelient assumption JZ KL

  19. moni moni

    this is amazing!!!! I actually understand it!! this should be in text books, books and everything ! amazing amazing amazing !!!

  20. Aleksandra Aleksandra

    What a great article and video! It was extremely helpful! I was reading the whole day a lot of shitty articles about the philosophy of research and couldn’t interpret it according to my research. Holistic and very useful materials. Thanks a lot!

  21. Nusrat Jahan Nusrat Jahan

    Thank you so much.. very useful for research.

  22. Very useful, BIG thank you from UK.

  23. Luis Luis

    Just wanna say thanks for the explicit / definitive explanation!! An exampler of a best teacher!

    • Abel Abel

      This is very helpful, thanks

  24. Osa Osa

    I must confess that this post helped to lift the burden of understanding this process few hours to the before submission of my Mphil-PhD transfer report. This is absolutely resourceful Patel. Presented in such a manner that a layman can understand this process. Thanks once again as you have just saved a brother.

  25. Nick Williams Nick Williams

    Thanks for this article and the youtube video. Breaking the concepts down as you have done has really helped grasp these concepts as I commence my PhD studies. Great job!

  26. Dennis Kipkirui Dennis Kipkirui

    Thanks Patel.The work is superb.It has assisted me great deal.May be if you have PDF versions of Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology, you can assist me to use in my Masters degree.

  27. Shilmoni Moktan Shilmoni Moktan

    Great site to make sense of big words in simple terms. Thank you for the insight and simplicity of approach.

  28. Salma Patel Salma Patel

    Thank you everyone for your lovely comments. I am truly pleased to hear this article has been useful to so many of you! Wishing you all the best with your research endeavors.


    • noel hasha noel hasha

      Thanks Salma, this was helpful, easy to understand and interesting above all. The presentation simplifies everything about research. Thanks so much

  29. Barde John iyam Barde John iyam

    I really appreciate your great effort for helping students who have been facing challenge with research.

  30. Babangida Y. Tanko Babangida Y. Tanko

    You have lucidly and successfully explain the technical terms to the novice

  31. helubi helubi

    Can you use the ontology and epistemology at the same time in the dissertation? Example say ontology of power is socially constructed and my epistemology to explain power is what?

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Hi Helubi,

      You would normally make reference to both Ontology and Epistemology in the thesis. I am not sure if the example you have given is correct though.

      Best wishes,

      • helubi helubi

        Ontology is let say What is AIDS and epistemology is finding how you find AIDS? So ontology is a topic and epistemology finding how you arrive with the knowledge. Ontology can be positivist or non-positivist, subjective and objective.

  32. Njioh serge Njioh serge

    Grt work man. Learnt a lot from ur simple explanations
    Thanks n keep up

  33. Mrs Bilal Khan Mrs Bilal Khan

    Thanks for information.. it’s really good and very helpful for me to complete my assignment and also for my exams.

    • Hastings Tembeta Hastings Tembeta

      This has been very helpful. thanks a million

    • persange persange

      Very useful, You made this so simple. Well done and thanks for relieving me of some of the stress.

  34. Tariq Tariq

    Hi . if anyone can guide. Can i only use the quantitative research approach while following the pragmatism paradigm

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Yes Tariq, I don’t see why not.

  35. Natalie Natalie

    Thanks very much for this – after reading many text books and articles and still feeling lost, this was super helpful!!
    One thing that i’m still not sure on though is where it is best to include your epistemological stance in the dissertation? Is it in the Analysis part of your methods? Or is it in Design as it is supposed to influence your whole study? I haven’t ever seen anyone reporting it in a journal article before so don’t have any insight into this, yet we are expected to include it ‘somewhere’. Any recommendations or thoughts would be much appreciated!

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Hi Natalie,
      I have usually seen it reported in the methodology chapter – that is also where I placed mine. I hope that helps.
      Best wishes,

  36. Naomi Naomi

    This is amazing, thank you so much – I’ve been trying to get my head around this for months and you’ve done such a great job of explaining it in ways that are easily understood. Why aren’t you my lecturer haha :'(


    Your information is very useful. I have really enjoyed reading it. I have little understanding of ontoloy and epistemology now


      Hello,thank you so much saima,i am very happy that i found it the meaning of research paradigm.i have many learn about methodology and also thank you that you are sharing your knowledge with us.
      God bless you saima patel!!!!

  38. Cindy Cindy

    Wow, thank you so much for making this clear. It will certainly help with my assignment.

  39. Cindy Cindy

    Thank you for sharing, this has been so helpful for my understanding of the different paradigms.

  40. Minda Girma Minda Girma

    Thank you for helping us to know critical things in precise ;concise; and simple manner. honestly speaking it is crucial and insightful in doing of my assignment and i owed to acknowledges you ideas dully. How ever, I would like forward one question for you.Is there an instance in which two or more research paradigm may likely included in single research?

  41. Fitri Fitri

    Hi, Thank you so much for this. However. I would like to ask something: is it possible to conduct a phenomenological research with a deductive analysis?
    Thank you very much.

  42. Aimee Davis Aimee Davis

    Thank you so much. Your comments really helped with my assignment in understanding ontology & epistemology

  43. […] What Paradigms are there?  Read The research paradigm – methodology, epistemology and ontology – explained in simple language at… […]

  44. Sarah L Sarah L

    Thank you so much for creating this post Salma! I struggled with these concepts during undergrad, now that I’m completing my masters I had to get to grips with them, this post helped a lot and so did your recommendations for further reading 🙂

  45. Reaksmey Lorn Reaksmey Lorn

    Thank you so much brother! Your article has helped me a lot in my thesis review.

  46. Mr Adnan Mr Adnan

    Thanks so much salma for sharing the very useful information. I appreciate you. I have more learn about various types of research paradigm. Best of luck. Again thanks for sharing us. Stay blessed

  47. J Nayak J Nayak

    you page saved my time and reading , well analyzed document

  48. Sophia Sophia

    This is amazing. You really simplified it to a point where it’s understandable yet sticks to the core of what it is. Huge props.

  49. Kristina T. Subido Kristina T. Subido

    Dr. P, thank you so much for this explanation! I haven’t explored the rest of your blog but just this one has been so helpful. Glad to know I have some place to go to for clarity 🙂

  50. Claudio kisake Claudio kisake

    i really appreciate your work, for me, knowingly that I am a young scholar, your work is going to be my motivational device to get puberty academically

  51. Willie Willie

    This was good and helpful,,,i was about to begin pulling my hair out. Thank you

  52. CeeB CeeB

    I came to this post seeking information to address an article reviewer’s request to restructure a methodology section that directly contrasted with the second reviewers’ request for the same article. this is not the first time this has happened. I wish all reviewers would read your article it is useful and clear. I certainly will keep it in mind for my own future reviews. Thanks.

  53. Simon John Williams Simon John Williams

    Hi, thanks for the information. I have a question that maybe you or someone can help me with. If symbolic interactionism is influenced by pragmatism, how did it end up being a interpretist theoretical perspective? I get that pragmatism states to use the best methods possible, but is there any more information on this? Many thanks in advance

  54. Emily Emily

    Thank you. This is a clear, logical post that provides explanation in an easily accessible fashion.


    Many thanks Salma, that ‘s really helps clearing up lots of confusions and same me much more time.

  56. Cleopatra James Cleopatra James

    Truly appreciate this information, it could not have been any clearer,

  57. This is brilliant. I am currently writing my Methods chapter and was struggling to understand a lot of the philosophical underpinnings piece. What you have provided here is very clear and comprehensive. Thank you for sharing.

  58. Sue Dawson Sue Dawson

    I just wanted to say Thank you!
    Finally, someone who can explain all the jargon simply. I am so much better equipped both in my personal studies and in my academic career.
    Best wishes.

  59. Becca W Becca W

    Salma, I have shared this with many researchers and students and keep coming back to it. It is really an invaluable post and you have done the academic community a great service in sharing it. Just wanting to say thank you. x

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Thanks you Becca, that’s very kind!
      Best wishes,


  60. amina ashraf amina ashraf

    That was extremely helpful. your explanation, and the videos you have linked to. It is just so good!

  61. nikita nikita

    Great help for my dissertation thanks!!!

  62. Mary Harrison Mary Harrison

    thank you thank you – even pronouncing the words was a task in itself but your simple guidelines enabled an understanding and have formed good foundation to build upon.

  63. Jennifer VanHoesen Jennifer VanHoesen

    I am a PhD candidate and return to this page time and again. Thank you for putting it together. It’s been a tremendous help.

  64. Surendra Parajuli Surendra Parajuli

    Thank you for this very useful information. Please anyone, help me to understand that, where is the definition of Paradigm mentioned in the book of Kuhn 1962.

  65. Priscilla Ramirez Priscilla Ramirez

    Salma, Thank you so much for your time, effort and sharing your knowledge. Your website is invaluable and has really helped me feel confident about starting my thesis, after feeling completely lost and hopeless. you are a genius!

  66. Nokuthula Nokuthula

    thank you so much Patel i benefited a lot I was confused of the methodological approach and the interpretative if still apply in qualitative

  67. […] at the back of my mind. Ideally I should be able to clearly articulate to others what my research paradigm is, though I often find myself oscillating between different poles depending on the day of the […]

  68. Thank you so much. Really helped.

  69. Noel Noel

    Very useful to me as a newbie.Thank you so much Mr Salma Patel.

    • noel jailo noel jailo

      its very clear and simple to understood

  70. A well written article on the paradigms of research in social science. I found many insights regarding the topic. The tabular form is much interesting and comprehensive. thanks for sharing such information on one of the important aspects of conducting research in social science

  71. Kizito Kizito

    Thanks so much for this. Its simply awesome

  72. radha radha

    a vivid explaination (i was so confused)
    thank you maam

  73. Sharon Sharon

    This has been fantastic and has saved me from losing my mind. The detail is clear, simple and understandable. I thank you for this.

  74. Fares Daradkeh Fares Daradkeh

    thank Dr Amjad, it relays very helpful and interesting videos and notes all the best with the new post.

  75. Jeanette Jeanette

    This was really helpful! I struggle with epistemology and what to actually say about it when writing up how I did a mini study.

  76. Zanah Alshehri Zanah Alshehri

    I would like to take your permission to translate this post into Arabic with reference to the source.

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Hi Zanah, thanks, that would be helpful! Could you drop me a quick line please on me (at) Thanks! Salma

  77. Agnes Arach Agnes Arach

    I like the whole presentation, made things a little clearer
    Where do i talk about the theoretical perspective and paradigm when it comes to developing the proposal. Which chapter and section?

    • Salma Patel Salma Patel

      Hi Agnes,

      I’m pleased to hear you found it useful. It usually goes in the methodology chapter, which is normally found after the literature review chapter. All the best, Salma

      • Agnes Arach Agnes Arach

        Thank you Salma. Now, Can someone use phenomenology as a theory to base the research or it is inadequate. What do you think?

  78. Crystal Lujan Crystal Lujan

    This was awesome! It was simple and easy to understand. Thank you so much! I’m sure I’ll be back with more questions though!

  79. Charlotte Stacey Charlotte Stacey

    So very helpful Salma. Clearly written and in brilliantly simple terms. You have helped me to no end with the design of my research, thank you.

  80. […] am very pleased to share that my popular post (335,894 views to date) on The research paradigm – methodology, epistemology and ontology – explained in simple language has now been very kindly translated into Arabic by Zanah Alshehri, a doctoral researcher in […]

  81. Nicholas Bwebare Nicholas Bwebare

    Thanks, its a wonderful explanation.

  82. cindy chita cindy chita

    this has been very helpful. am happy I read.

  83. Sally Sally

    This saved me! Thanks. I was feeling really overwhelmed by the terminology. thanks so much.

  84. meliza f. balundo meliza f. balundo

    Good day salma may I ask your help? how would I write a research paradigm about Identification and assessment of learners with learning disabilities? please help. thanks

  85. Pascal Pascal

    Thank you, this helped me so much. What all the information my uni tried to give me but I didn’t need to filter through everything I couldn’t understand.

  86. Zuley Zuley

    Thank you Salma; this has deepened my understanding.

  87. Thando Miya Thando Miya

    Thanks Salma, its a wonderful and simple explanation

  88. Michelle Kelly Michelle Kelly

    Thank you so much, this article and video has made my life so much easier, I was really struggling with research paradigms and you have made the subject very clear!

  89. Jasson Compuesto Jasson Compuesto

    Hi Salma!

    Thank you so much for your effort in explaining all the aspects about research in many forms. Your materials have really clarified all my confusion especially about the terms involved in research. I salute you for your intelligence and simplistic method of explaining research to those who are not well-versed about it. May the force be with you, man!

  90. Edgar Nyanga Edgar Nyanga

    Thank you so much for the write. I know what to do now

  91. Anastassiya Anastassiya

    Very useful, understandable. Thank you

  92. Michael Michael

    Very easy to understand ,useful content
    Thank you

  93. Laila Laila

    Thank you! This has been most helpful!

  94. Neetha Shetty Neetha Shetty

    Very simple and clear explanation . Really useful. Thank you for posting this.

  95. Gasegapele Gasegapele

    This was very helpful I even cited you. Continue the good work Dr Patel. Very informative

  96. Nnadi Nnadi

    Thanks so much for this detailed but simplified explanation. It is of great help.

  97. Remmy A Remmy A

    Thank you. This is the most useful explanation I have ever come across with in Research Paradigms

  98. Joyce Joyce

    This is insightful. Thank you for the clear explanations. I have fully understood the terms and now able to apply them. Thank you a million times

  99. Joyce Joyce

    This came at a time when I am struggling understanding their meanings and trying to apply them to research philosophical underpinning. Thank you Salma for this simplified explanation. I salute you

  100. Angela Mandie-Filer Angela Mandie-Filer

    Thank you, very clear explanation.

  101. Sam Alara Sam Alara

    Thank you Dr Salma for the ever green demystification of research paradigm. God Bless You.

  102. sharm sharm

    I read a book for 5 hours and I didn’t get it. I read your post in 5 mins and I completely understood. Thank you

  103. Linda Theus-Lee Linda Theus-Lee

    Salma, thank you so much for this scholarship of knowledge. I am just starting my Research Paradigm journey on what system (s) I will use for my Dissertation Research. I am not sure if it will be Qualitative, Quantitative or both. I’m Just diving in!

  104. Sharon Sharon

    Oh my goodness. Sanity at last!! Thank you so much for sharing this comprehensive and easy to understand post. Your videos are also wonderful!

  105. Julie Maxwell Julie Maxwell

    Thank you so much. This has been really helpful and – I think – the information has finally gone in!!

  106. alexandra alexandra

    This is INCREDIBLY complex and yet tremendously easy to understand. Thank you for sharing. It helped me with my placement research. 🙂

  107. Mary Mary

    Hi Salma
    Found this very helpful and it was referred to in a recent text on Community and Human Services. However my supervisor is not keen on me referring to a blog in my PhD. Just wondering if you have submitted this to peer reviewed journal. I am particularly interested in the sections on constructionism and pragmatism. I am using mixed methods with qualitative data based on phenomenological interpretation with quant data which I have got from an organisation.
    Look forward to your reply! Mary

  108. ahmed elabyad ahmed elabyad

    Very Useful Content

    I would like to suggest Recep Senturk Maratib Alwujud for an Islamic Ontology, Epistemology, and Methodology guide.


  109. Jackie Jackie

    OMG Thank you so much, this is so helpful and the best explanation I have seen yet. I am currently studying Qualitative research at Uni for my Master of Nursing and this has helped me a lot.

    Thanks Jackie

  110. Donna Donna

    Thank you so much. This article and table has made life much easier. Much appreciated.

  111. Claire urch Claire urch

    Brilliant, thank you so much. An easy to read guide and explanation. I can actually now start writing my methodology section

  112. moorthypnt moorthypnt

    It is simply Super.
    If willing, convert it into well structured journal article.
    that will increase its reach beyond imagination like crotty

  113. Stan Seerden Stan Seerden

    Thanks for the clear info, really helpful article!

  114. Elizabeth Elizabeth

    I am in the second of three research courses, all building up to my doctoral thesis proposal. This is very helpful!



  115. ryan ryan

    Thank you! this made everything much easier to understand.
    Very clear

  116. Paul Paul

    Thank you very much For information on research paradigms Dr. Salma Patel they are very difficult to grasp, this will brighten my understanding of research report together with referencing ??

  117. Y du Plessis Y du Plessis

    I cant thank you enough for this! I was on the verge of giving up on my Phd until I read this! Wonderfully written and made it so easy to understand

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