Epistemology and Research

If you are wanting conduct epistemology research, please see my introduction to ontology. If, however, you are in the Social Sciences and your supervisor, colleague, co-author, reviewer or editor is suddenly wanting you to talk about epistemology or defend your epistemological position like some demented pseudo-philosopher who has just swallowed a dictionary: Welcome!


What is Epistemology?

It is the study the theory of knowledge. Don’t panic! take a breath and relax.  It really is all very simple.  However, before you explore epistemology, make sure you have your ontology nailed down! Your ontological position is central to your selection of an epistemological stance.

Epistemology Triangle
Epistemology – The study the theory of knowledge

The suffix ‘logy’ is derived from the Greek ‘logos’, which in this context can be taken to mean the ‘study of.’  ‘Episteme’ in classical Greek means knowledge and therefore, epistemology is the study of knowledge.  By being clear about the way in which we might obtain valid knowledge we are in turn being clear about the nature of any knowledge claim that we might make. As researchers, we are required to draw connections between the assumptions we hold about reality (ontology) and the ways in which we might develop valid knowledge (epistemology).


Epistemology explores how valid knowledge is gathered in the research process. The branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity. It is:

  • The study of knowledge
  • Theories of what constitutes knowledge and understanding of phenomena
  • How we explain ourselves as knowers, how we arrive at our beliefs


Five Ways of Considering Epistemology

Five epistemological positions: positivism, pragmatism, realism, action research, and interpretivism are shown below. There are many others… but these five are here to whet your appetite and provide a guide.  When discussing your epistemological stance make sure you articulate what constitutes reliable knowledge in the context of your research.

  • Positivism: Positivists belief that methodological procedures of natural science may be directly adapted to the study of human social actions. The outcomes of research in the social sciences will take the form of causal laws.  The results of social research are value-free.
  • Pragmatism: Pragmatists argue that there are many different ways of understanding reality and undertaking research.  One view point can not provide the entire picture and the phenomenon may be better understood from multiple perspectives.
  • Realism: Realists assume that there is a reality that exists independently of human perceptions, but that our access to this reality is always limited and skewed by those perceptions.
  • Action Research: Range of styles of research unified by a shared emphasis on effecting change to the situation being studied. Normally with organisational members on matters of genuine concern to them and over which they have a need to take action.
  • Interpretivism: Research reveals trends rather than laws. There is a clear interrelationship researcher and the researched.  It allows the focus to be fixed on understanding what is happening in a given context rather than just measuring it.


You can also gain knowledge through logical reasoning. There are three main ways:

  • Deductive Reasoning: a priori argument – deriving a proof or using evidence to test a hypotheses.
  • Inductive Reasoning: a posteriori argument – deriving knowledge from empirical investigation.
  • Abductive Reasoning: is a form of logical inference that starts with an observation or set of observations and then seeks to find the simplest and most likely conclusion from the observations.