Ontology, Epistemology and Business Research

Oh why, oh why, oh why on earth are you wasting your time with ontology, epistemology and business research – there must be better things for you to do!


Now, just for the avoidance of doubt there are.  Especially if you are an undergraduate or masters (not doing an MRes or MPhil)… there are many, many, many better things.  If you are unsure, think about all the things you enjoy doing, and go and do one of them!  I am sorry, if you are PhD student, you really do need to get your head around this.  Even if you have a well balanced and sensible supervisor, your never know what might happen on the day of your viva… one of your examiners might have suffered a bump to their head on the way to the exam to care about ontology, epistemology and business research.


So where did all this nonsense come from, I hear you cry.  Ontology, Epistemology and Business Research is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Comparative to what, you may well ask, the history and evolution of philosophical thought for a start.  The ‘Love of Wisdom’ or philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.  In the Western World the term Philosophy was first attributed to Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BC).  Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation;  philosophical questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved.


The problem with Social Science research, and management research in particular, is the need to prove  it is / pretend to be / present itself as ‘scientific’.  This is questionable, at best, but not going to be solved before you submit your thesis or dissertation, so, time to suck it up and get on with it.  Ontology, Epistemology and Business Research didn’t even began with the advent of the contemporary Business School.

Ontology, Epistemology and Business Research
René Descartes, who according to Monty Python, was ‘a drunken fart’ and incidentally the Father of modern philosophy.


The ‘Ontology’ part of Ontology, Epistemology and Business Research

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies of reality. Don’t panic! take a breath and relax.  It really is all very simple.  You are writing about something or researching a phenomenon.  For example why do people stand patiently in queues? or Does time seem to drag when queuing to get into a ride at a theme park?  Hang on, you shout, can I study queues at theme parks, I didn’t know I could do that! Yes, you can, it has been done.  Don’t lose focus, back to your reality.


Principal questions of ontology include:

  • What can be said to exist?
  • What is a thing / entity?
  • Can we categorise things?
  • What is reality?
  • What are the meanings of existence?



The ‘Epistemology’ part of Ontology, Epistemology and Business Research

Epistemology is 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


So as far as ontology, epistemology and business research goes, you can just adapt it from a trusted textbook, of which there are many if you are an undergraduate.  However, if you are a PhD student, it really is time to do some reading. If you really don’t know what your ontology and epistemology are before you start your research, don’t worry.  It can normally be retro-fitted afterwards.