Assumptions underlying research practice

Before deciding to apply any research method, it is important to understand the theories underlining your practice and the basic assumptions underpinning these theories. This will assure an in-depth understanding of the research process and can defend your position if necessary.

This page summarises major concepts of ontology and epistemology and provides a very summarised overview of thinking about how knowledge is acquired including rationalism, empiricism, positivism, falsification theory, Kuhn’s paradigms, post-positivism, post- modernism and realism. The aim of this page is not to provide an in depth overview of these theories, but to set out how they are related to each other.

Ontology and epistemology

Ontological and epistemological positions are often not spelled out in research papers. However, since they underpin research practice, understanding them is important to master research methods. The use of qualitative or quantitative research methods tends to be underpinned by ontological and epistemological approaches.

These pages propose to explore the terminology/concepts used and provide an overview of how all these concepts relate to each other. These are often misunderstood. What makes it even harder is that terminology is often used in different ways, given different meanings.


Refers to assumptions about the nature of things, the nature of reality and truth. Truth/reality can be seen as real, universal and therefore existing independently from anyone. Truth/reality can also be seen as constructed and therefore always changing depending on who explores the truth.
watch video iconWhat is ontology? A general introduction to the word and the concept.


Epistemology is about the nature of knowledge and how knowledge is produced. Epistemology has to do with how we believe we might discover knowledge and what constitutes knowledge.

watch video iconWhat is epistemology? Introduction to the word and the concept

Introduction to epistemology

If reality exists independent of anyone’s experience or consciousness, it can be known through an objective approach based on rigorous research  This view is sometimes referred to as objectivism.

If reality is constructed, it can only be known subjectively. This viewpoint is referred to as subjectivism, constructionism or sometimes interpretivism. Each of these terms has a slightly different meaning, but at this stage remember that they refer to knowledge as subjective, as something that is constructed and is the object of interpretation. The focus of research is then on understanding how meaning is produced, rather than finding a truth.

watch video iconIntroduction to epistemology

What is knowledge?

Any research has to deal with knowledge, generally by exploring or building up on existing knowledge. But what is knowledge? Where does it come from? What can be known? How much can be known?

What knowledge has always been at the centre of philosophical questioning. How to start talking about knowledge, since without some knowledge as a starting point any reflection is impossible? And what do we talk when we don’t know what is to be known?

These page provide a very summarised overview of how thinking about knowledge has changed over the years.

Deriving knowledge through deductive reasoning

Meno’s paradox  reflects this dilemna: if you know the answer to a question, why ask it? If you do not know the answer, you will not recognize the correct answer even if it is given to you. Therefore, inquiry never produces new knowledge, but only recapitulates things already known.

In the Dialogues, Plato has Meno ask Socrates (Grinnell, 2009):

How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know?

And Socrates answers:

I know what you want to say, Meno … that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for (2)

Aristoteles’ answer to this was that somehow we know more than we think we know. Learning then becomes knowing what we already known, through demonstrating what we know.

The use of demonstration, of statements to derive knowledge is also at the centre of Plato’s (428-347BC) definition of knowledge as a justified true belief. The following excerpt from Plato’s Meno (lines 97e and 98a) shows how  belief or opinion can become a source of knowledge, when rationally explained.

To true opinion. For these, so long as they stay with us, are a fine possession, and effect all that is good; but they do not care to stay for long, and run away out of the human soul, and thus are of no great value until one makes them fast with causal reasoning. And this process, friend Meno, is recollection, as in our previous talk we have agreed. But when once they are fastened, in the first place they turn into knowledge, and in the second, are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more prized than right opinion: the one transcends the other by its trammels.

For Plato then knowledge depended on whether

  • one believed that a proposition was true
  • there was a justification for believing it was true – a justification which for Plato relied on a logic, rational demonstration that the belief is true.

Plato assumed the existence of innate ideas which can generate further knowledge through deductive reasoning. Known as rationalism, this philosophy posits that knowledge flows from pure reason (reason that is not influenced by experience).


Rationalists tend to be very sceptical of experience, which can be misleading. Plato’s story of the prisoners in the cave was an example of how our senses can mislead us. This scepticism was found Descartes (1596-1650), known for his development of Cartesian rational philosophy which signalled the beginning of what has often be called ‘The age of Reason’. For Descartes knowledge had to be founded on doubt since our senses can mislead us, we can never be entirely sure not to be dreaming our existence, nor that are our beliefs are manipulated by some devil. Knowledge has to be developed from doubt. Descartes however believed in one certainty that he is thinking – Cogito ergo sum.

Knowledge then for Descartes developed from thinking based on

  • Innate ideas. Descartes saw these as concepts that we have from birth and that serve as a foundation for all other ideas. Innate ideas are impossible to acquire through experience, they are part of us even if we only become aware of them later in life. Such ideas include infinity, causality, god….
  • Deductive reasoning is used to deduce concepts from our innate ideas. This is largely based on the deductive method used in mathematics where from known proven, known, statements we deduce others.

Unlike Descartes, who held on to one certainty (I think), some philosophers argued that belief on every possible issue should be suspended. David Hume (1711-1776) thus believed that human reason cannot be trusted as the process is inherently flawed. It is impossible therefore to make any claims to knowledge.

The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. [Treatise of Human Nature,]

Such radical scepticism is however incompatible with normal life. Life cannot be lived if everything is to be questionned. Hume himself argued that normal behaviour is only possible because of the existence of natural beliefs (e.g. in causality) that override and coexist with sceptical doubts

Radical scepticism itself is accused of being logically flawed because

  • Nothing can be known with absolute certainty
  • I know with absolute certainty that nothing can be known with absolute certainty


The rationalist approach that sees innate ideas which are then demistrated through logic as basis for acquiring knowledge was criticised by Locke, for whom experience is at the centre of acquisition of knowledge. This is referred to as empiricism. Empiricism sees knowledge as experiential. Experience leads to acquisition of knowledge

Empiricism: the only source of real knowledge about the world is experience (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p8

Empiricists such as John Locke (1632 – 1704) strongly challenged the theory of innate ideas. Instead Locke saw the human mind as starting from a blank slate, which changes through experience.

Because empiricists do not believe in innate ideas, they challenge the rationalists’ mathematical approach of deducing new concepts from basic concepts. Instead they see knowledge as generated through induction, through making generalizations of experiences. Initially empiricism did not go unchallenged as illustrated in this example (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, p 9):

worked in a hospital in Vienna of the mid nineteenth century; he was able to show by simple empirical tests that if doctors washed their hands before delivering babies, the risk of infection in the mothers was hugely reduced. For this radical claim he was opposed and eventually driven out of hospital.

Immanuel Kant

Kant argued that we need both experiential and non-experiential knowledge. For him empiricism explained part of the problem of knowledge acquisition, but did not explain how non-experiential knowledge, such as complex mathematics, is acquired. Rather than assuming these come from innate ideas he argues that the mind has pre-existing mental structures that are used to make sense of experience. Basic concepts such as space, time and causation cannot come from experience but are used to explain experience.

Rationalism and empiricism as developed by Descartes and Locke are largely out dated, but illustrate two very different ways to approach acquisition of knowledge.

Positivism and empiricism as common scientific approach

Positivism is rooted in empiricism. The development of positivism is generally attributed to August Comte (1798-1857). His thinking, as that of many of the enlightenment thinkers developed from an opposition to the dominance of religion in all explanations made.

Positivism focuses on the need for logically verifying what has been observed, experienced.  Therefore, positivism has developed universal scientific methods to research only that what can be observed. Positivism presupposes objectivity and presents science as the only way to really know the world. And in science personal opinion and subjective beliefs and feelings have no place. Positivism applies to natural as well as to social sciences.

The scientific method is positivist. Knowledge is largely derived through proving hypotheses (deductively) or to induce them from observation. The method aims to generate statements that have to have been verified to hold (Bryman & Bell, 2011, p 15).

Problems of positivism 

Positivism sees scientific knowledge as proven knowledge. But

  • what consists as proof?
  • how many observations/experiences are needed for there to be proof?

Science is based on observation and scientific knowledge is tested knowledge. Scientific theories are then derived from the facts. But

  • what are facts?
  • which laws and theories can be derived from facts?

Chalmers (1999, p 1) defines facts as presumed to be claims about the world that can be directly established by a careful, unprejudiced use of the senses. But

  • observation is not neutral, what people see is not only based on eyes alone but also on experience.
  • science requires recording what is observed. Recording practices are limited by the existence and knowledge of concepts used to record. If we all had to record knowledge about a rose – we’d all do it differently depending on what we know about roses.
  • judgments about observation draw from presupposed knowledge. See example in Chalmers (1999, pp 15 – 16) indicating that observations tend to show that earth is stationary. Broader scientific understanding is needed to prove that earth is be moving even if we do not observe it that way.


Inductivists argue that science is based on a special method that proceeds in a rigorous way to derive theories or laws – called universal statements – from observations. Once such laws and theories have been defined, they can be used to make predictions. Scientific knowledge is perceived as true because it relies on the logic of induction to move from a finite list of statements to a universal statement

  • I observe swans many times – each swan is white
  • I observe swans are white under many and varied conditions
  • There are no observations that contradict the generalisation that all swans are white
  • Therefore all swans are white


The problem  with induction is that it is always logically possible that tomorrow an observation statement that contradicts observation statements to date will occur.

watch video icon The Problem of Induction (University of Oxford, 2010)

Karl Popper and falsification theory

As a critic of logical positivism, Karl Popper (1902-1994) came up with an alternative to induction, referred to as falsificationism. For Popper the accumulation of facts could not lead to scientific progress.

For Popper scientific hypotheses and theories were no more than conjunctions. The scientific process and method then consists in falsifying such conjunctions. To go back with the example on swans

  • A swan which was not white was observed in Canberra
  • Conclusion: not all swans are white

One statement has falsified the universal statement about swans.

For falsificationists, science is about tentatively proposing hypotheses that must be falsifiable Examples (from Chalmers 199, p 62)

  • It never rains on Wednesday
  • All substances expand when heated

Science is about proposing highly falsifiable theories, attempting to falsify them, reject these theories and replace them with new falsifiable theories. Theories that have been falsified must be rejected. Scientific theory is always falsifiable or refutable. A hypothesis, proposition, or theory talks about the observable only if it is refutable. The theories that best survive such attempts of falsification are the best theories.

Advantage of falsification: falsity can be deduced from one single observed fact (e.g. one black swan).

watch video icon Karl Popper’s falsification and Sir Karl Popper’s on Science as Falsification

The problem with Popper’s theory of falsification

According to the theory of falsification, science progresses by refuting false conjectures. By eliminating falsehoods, we get closer to the truth. Falsehoods are eliminated as hypotheses are tested through observation and hypotheses rejected if observation does not confirm the tested hypothesis. BUT it is generally difficult, if not impossible, to test hypotheses in isolation. Generally a certain number of background assumptions – ‘auxiliary hypotheses’- are made when testing hypotheses.


Water boils at 100º.  But observation at high altitude shows that water boils below 100º, in a vacuum water boils immediately. This shows that atmospheric pressure is an important variable. Auxiliary hypotheses in a test of the hypothesis that water boils at 100º are that altitude and atmospheric pressure do not matter.

Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms

Kuhn’s (1962) book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions challenged the inductivist and falsificationist view of science. His work emphasised that the research process is influenced by ‘paradigms’.

(Kuhn, 1962) defined a paradigm as

universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of researchers.

Scientists work within a conceptual paradigm that influences what they see. While dominant paradigms are hard to change, over time failures will be encountered and these can announce a crisis in a paradigm that may lead to rejection of the paradigm and its replacement by another alternative.

A good example of how paradigms work is given by Chalmers (1999, p2) and refers to the Copernican revolution. Copernicus came up with a new astronomy, involving a moving earth. This did not fit with existing ideas of a fixed earth around which the sun, planets and stars moved. Observations on things thrown from a high tower indicated that the earth was not moving, could not be moving (Chalmers, 1999, p 95). Only when Galileo and Kepler developed new mechanical theories did Copernicus ‘s ideas make sense. This indicates that what we see is dependent of our theoretical frameworks.

How knowledge progresses is modeled in the Kuhn Cycle, described by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)


Post positivism

To address the many criticism against positivistm, post-positivism developed arguing that this realty that positivists try to reach can only be known only imperfectly and probabilistically. For  postpositivists objectivity is not possible, as perceptions of reality depend on experience. Reality can therefore never be fully apprehended

Post modernism

Postmodernism, as a reaction to the belief in objectivity, in progress emphasising relativism and the importance of history, economics and politics in the development of scientific theories. Postmodernists interpreted Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about scientific paradigms to mean that scientific theories are social constructs, and philosophers like Paul Feyerabend argued that other, non-realist forms of knowledge production were better suited to serve personal and spiritual needs.

Post-modernism is criticised for its relativist approach, but has generated various schools of thought, which developed theories that take into account the influence of class, gender and race.

Structuralism, post-structuralism, critical theory, cultural studies are closely entertwined with postmodern thought

Realism and anti-realism

Kuhn’s ideas had challenged the traditional claim that scientific belief is determined by evidence and reasoning, putting in place a more subjective and relativist approach to science. Realism developed as a reaction. The concept of common sense realism posits that we all inhabit a common reality, which has a structure that exists independently of what people think and say about it, except insofar as reality is comprised of, or is causally affected by thought, theories and other symbols (Godfrey-Smith 2003, p 174). Realism is the view that things exist independently of how they are perceived or the theories made about them.

For realists science describes not just the observable but also what lies behind observed (Chalmers 1999, p 15). Once what lies behind (e.g. a theory) has outlived its usefulness, these underlying theories can then be discarded. They do not matter so much, since for realists the enduring part of science is what is and can be observed and experimented on.

Anti-realism came as a response to realism and stresses the inconclusiveness of evidence – past theories were proved to be inaccurate, new theories may go the same way. For antirealist any scientific theory is no more than a claim that can be substantiated. Not only do we lack direct access to reality, but we are also trapped within language as it is our only tool to describe reality.


toolboxThe methods map. A tool for building your own map, including ontology, epistemology, methodologies and techniques.


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