Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature, origin and scope of knowledge. When it comes to understanding human behaviour, there are two contrasting ‘epistemologies’ which can be used.
The first is called the ‘positivist’ view, which claims that, as part of the natural world, human behaviour should be examined using methods comparable to those used to study the natural world. In other words, we can somehow measure human behaviour using scientific methods, and design experiments which work out whether behaviours are predictable in certain circumstances, and so on.
The second epistemology is called the ‘interpretivist’ (also referred to as the ‘phenomenological’) view of behaviour, which claims that, because humans are self-interpreting (we attach meanings to what we do), they cannot be studied in the same way as other natural phenomena.
These two competing points of view (see Fig 1) actually form the two ends of a continuum: there are a number of ‘positions’ in between.
Fig 1: Competing points of epistemological considerations
In social science subjects there is frequently no ‘right answer’. Everything depends on the perspective you adopt, and whether that particular perspective is appropriate for the problem you are intending to solve, or the issue you want to investigate.
Ontology is concerned about the nature of social entities and whether ‘things’ that exist are objective and have a reality external to social actors or whether they are social constructions formed by the insights and actions of social actors. When it comes to understanding social ontology, there are two contrasting ontological positions.
The first is called the ‘critical’ view or objectivism, which seeks to place research within society as a whole and then tries to generalize from where society is and aims to improve society as a whole.
The second ontological perspective is called ‘constructionism’ , which is about the way that ideas are formed and the fact that they rely on each other within the world.
These two competing points of view (see Fig 2) actually form the two ends of a continuum: there are a number of ‘positions’ in between.
Fig 2: Competing points of ontological considerations
Qualitative and quantitative research represents different approaches to social investigation and embrace significant epistemological and ontological features. Theory can be depicted as something that precedes research – as in quantitative research; or as something that emerges out of it, as in qualitative research. Bryman (2001,p.20) summarises the differences as shown in table 1 below: