As I explained in my post on Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill’s (2011) metaphor of the ‘Research Onion’, the outermost layer of the Research Onion focuses on the issue of research philosophy. At this stage of designing a piece of research, there are several research philosophies you can choose from. Each philosophy will shape how you approach your research questions, select your methods, and interpret your findings (Sahay, 2016).
The major research philosophies are positivism, interpretivism, pragmatism, and realism. However, before you choose one of these, you should reflect on your own assumptions and beliefs in relation to each philosophy. This is because there is no ‘best’ philosophy for a research project; instead, your choice must be well-thought-out and, importantly, based on a clear understanding of each individual research philosophy (Saunders and Tosey, 2013).
If you choose your research philosophy at random, it is likely that you will eventually discover a clash between your choice and your own assumptions and beliefs. This can create problems and cost you valuable time as a researcher. One basic view of a research philosophy is that it represents a ‘way of seeing’ your research issue (Saunders et al., 2011). Therefore, since you don’t choose your prescription glasses at random, it follows that you shouldn’t do so for your research philosophy.
So far, we have found that the following are the all-important points when considering research philosophies and deciding which one to choose when peeling back our Research Onion:
Therefore, the aim of this blog post is to provide a systematic and more academic definition of what is meant by the term ‘research philosophy’. By having a clearer understanding of what a research philosophy is, I expect that you will understand the importance of carefully choosing one of the four major research philosophies: positivism, interpretivism, pragmatism, and realism.
Please note that a full list of references (in Harvard style) is given at the end of this document.
Although the term ‘research philosophy’ sounds very profound and complex, the concept is rather simple.
Remember how I asserted earlier that you yourself have a set of assumptions and beliefs? In other words, that you take things for granted about your place in the world, how the future will be, and the types of things you can understand as a human being? (If you doubt the credibility of this assertion, Sherman and Harman (2010) wrote an excellent article that will convince you otherwise).
Well, just as you have a set of assumptions and beliefs, a research philosophy can be defined as a consistent set – or system – of well-thought-out assumptions and beliefs about the development of knowledge (Saunders et al., 2011).
Note how crucial the ‘about the development of knowledge’ part of the above definition is. Fundamentally, this is what separates your personal philosophy from a research philosophy. After all, pieces of research are exclusively concerned with developing knowledge in a specific field.
Another important point to note is that, while your personal set of assumptions and beliefs is likely to change over time, the collection of assumptions and beliefs associated with a research philosophy typically remains stable over time. That is to say, the positivist research philosophy, or any other research philosophy, is a consistent system of assumptions and beliefs.
With the above in mind, we can take Saunder’s et al.’s (2011, p. 124) definition of research philosophy as an operational definition: "The term research philosophy refers to a system of beliefs and assumptions about the development of knowledge."
In the next section of this blog article, I outline the three categories of research assumptions that lie at the heart of any research philosophy.
Figure 1: A reflexive approach to developing your research philosophy
The positivist, interpretivist, pragmatist, and realist philosophies differ and, thus, are distinguished by the types of ontological, epistemological, and axiological assumptions they make. That is to say, because research philosophies are systems of beliefs and assumptions, what marks each one is the way it differs from the others in terms of its core assumptions.
To appreciate the differences between the major research philosophies, the differences in the assumptions each makes are, therefore, critical to analyse. It is useful to note, then, that Saunders et al. (2011) divided research assumptions into three types: ontological assumptions, epistemological assumptions, and axiological assumptions.
It is beyond the scope of this blog article to provide a detailed account of each of these types of assumptions. However, to set you on your way towards developing the tools and understanding needed to appreciate what the differences between the major research philosophies are, an overview of the concept of ontological assumptions is given in the next section.
Ontology, the study of ‘being’, is concerned with ‘what is’ and the nature of reality (Al-Saadi, 2014). From a social research perspective, the SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods (2006), which can be found online, defines ontology as follows: "A concept concerned with the existence of, and relationship between, different aspects of society, such as social actors, cultural norms, and social structures."
Ontological research assumptions, therefore, are assumptions that a researcher makes about the nature of reality (Saunders et al., 2011). This may sound abstract, so let’s consider an example.
Suppose you want to conduct a research project exploring the relationship between music preferences and academic attainment. If you make the ontological assumption that specific music preferences will always have a negative impact on academic attainment, as some researchers did in the 1990s (Giovacchini, 1999), this will frame how you focus your research (e.g., ‘How can we shape music preferences in a way we think is positive?’).
Contrastingly, if the ontological assumption is made that confounding variables mediate the relationship between music preferences and academic attainment (which appears to be the case) (Cundiff, 2013), this will result in a new strand of research.
This example shows that your ontology has a strong influence on the way you see the world, how you view your research topic, and – therefore – the nature of the decision you ultimately make about what to focus on in your research project.
The research philosophy you choose, as the first layer of Saunders et al.’s (2011) Research Onion, has major implications for your research design. In particular, it will profoundly affect the types of research questions you pursue, the methods you use to answer these questions, and the way you interpret your findings.
This article has provided a clear definition and explanation of what a research philosophy is. It has also demonstrated how you can begin to explore the way each major research philosophy differs from its counterparts (i.e., by examining the beliefs and assumptions that underpin each one).
Al-Saadi, H. (2014) Demystifying ontology and epistemology in research methods. Available from https://www.researchgate.net [Accessed 20 September 2019].
Cundiff, G. (2013) The Influence of Rap and Hip-Hop Music: An Analysis on Audience Perceptions of Misogynistic Lyrics. Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications. 4 (1), 1-4.
Creswell, J. W. (2014). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 4th edn. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.
Giovacchini, A. M. (1999) The Negative Influence of Gangster Rap And What Can Be Done About It. EDGE. Available from https://web.stanford.edu [Accessed 19 September 2019].
Jupp, V. (2006) The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods. London: SAGE Publications.
Saunders, M. and Tosey, P. (2013) The Layers of Research Design. Available from http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/806001/ [Accessed 15 May 2019].
Saunders, M., Lewis, P., and Thornhill, A. (2011) Research Methods for Business Students. New York: Pearson.
Sherman, B. and Gilbert, H. (2010) Knowledge and assumptions. Available from https://www.princeton.edu [Accessed 20 September 2019].