Research Philosophy


To begin your research studies it is useful to understand the ontology, epistemology, pedagogy, and methodology used by researchers because social science research is often influenced by the researchers' positions on these ologies. It can help you understand your own research, but also the research of others at a much higher level if you understand the underlying perspectives researchers' have when conducting and reporting on their research.

While in philosophy and social science in general, ontologies explore a wide range of categories, in computer science, ontologies are more specifically a representation, formal naming and definition of the categories, properties and relationships between concepts, data and entities. While you are being asked to define your personal ontology in relation to educational technologies using the various categories and perspectives we will explore, you need to be mindful that in computer science, an ontology is framed in a much more specific way.

This understanding of Ontology is, however, becoming increasingly important as we develop AI-based teaching and research tools that require specification and categorisation of approaches that we often take for granted. The Semantic Web is an extension of the World Wide Web, and aims to make all Internet data machine-readable, using a Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL). This type of Ontology can describe concepts, relationships between entities, and categories of things, and these embedded semantics let AI systems reason about available data and sources.

For your purposes though, Ontology is the study of being. Ontological assumptions are concerned with what constitutes reality and an Ontology is a system of belief that reflects an interpretation by an individual about what constitutes reality.

An ontological position refers to the researcher relationship with the reality of their study. For example, whether they consider reality to be independent of their knowledge, or whether they participate in the construction of that reality.

There are many philosophies of research: Logical Positivism, Relativism, Pragmatism and Realism. Ontologically speaking, realism and logical positivism both view reality as objective, i.e. independent of our cognition; while pragmatism and relativism regard reality as subjective, though their ontological positions are somewhat different. Pragmatism considers that reality places constraints on human action, while in relativism, reality is socially constructed.

Realist ontology is objective

Realist epistemology is objective

Relativist ontology is subjective

Relativist epistemology is subjective

Clear as mud? All you need to decide is where on the spectrum from Realist to Relativist you are most comfortable. Things will become a little clearer as we progress.


Once you have a basic understanding of your position on what exists in reality, you can consider how we create knowledge about this reality. This is called your Epistemology. While the study of Epistemology can become quite complex, for this course we are going to consider three main perspectives, roughly corresponding to the Ontological spectrum:

  • Objectivism

  • Constructionism

  • Subjectivism

and once you have decided upon an Epistemological position, we can explore how these can be applied as a Theoretical Perspective to guide your research.

Objectivism is the belief that knowledge exists independently of human knowledge or perception of it. Reality exists independently of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, and that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic. Research is a process of uncovering these existing truths about the natural world, and research objectivity requires that the methods and results of research should not be influenced by particular perspectives, value commitments, community bias or personal interests.

Constructionism is the belief that knowledge is developed through a constructed process, and while the world is independent of human minds, knowledge of the world is always a human and social construction. Constructivism opposes the philosophy of objectivism, embracing the belief that we can come to know the truth about the natural world without necessarily the rigour of scientific approximations. According to constructivists, there is no single valid methodology in research, but rather a diversity of useful methods.

Subjectivism is the belief that our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience, and instead of shared or communal, there is no external or objective truth. For example, you may consider the reality is that chocolate is tasty, but this may not necessarily hold for everybody, and just because we have a socially agreed view that chocolate is tasty, this does not make it so in all cases. In research, subjectivism dominates qualitative methodologies, where we construe interactions between researcher and subjects (through interviews in particular) and the active interpretation of data—which are central features of qualitative research—as a license for the free exercise of subjective processes.

Theoretical Perspectives

Now you have a basic grasp of what reality is (Ontology) and how we can understanding it (Epistemology), you can take a Theoretical Perspective on the process of research. This is again on a general spectrum from considering the process of research (Knowledge acquisition) to be deductive, value-free, and generalisable, through to the process of research being inductive, value-laden, and contextually unique.

Within this perspective, we apply our research to Predict, Understand, Emancipate or liberate, or deconstruct, using different Theoretical Perspectives. Each perspective uses a range of research methodologies that we will consider in more depth next week when we explore Research Methodologies. It is important to note that we may use different Theoretical Perspectives depending on the type (Application) of the research question being explored.

Having articulated your Ontology, Epistemology and Theoretical Perspective lets see how accurate you have been! Complete these two quizzes:

How closely did the quiz results match the Ontology, Epistemology and Theoretical Perspective you framed for yourself?

You have only touched the surface of the philosophical issues involved. The point is not to lock down exactly what your philosophy is, that will not occur in a few days or weeks, for many researchers it never occurs completely, and yours may very well change during your studies and career, but what you should have is a better understanding that different researchers approach conducting research and present their finding from very different perspectives. This is important - it will let you understand their research better, and by being able to articulate a perspective, even if imperfect, let others understand your research better.

Additional Readings

Brown, G. L. (2007). An ontological turn: reconceptualising a teacher education course using a realist framework. Conference proceedings of the Australian Teacher Educators Association (ATEA) 2007 (pp. 1-20). Wollongong: University of Wollongong.

This paper explores how a faculty considered their ontology and epistemology in redesigning their courses.

Moon, K., & Blackman, D. (2014). A guide to understanding social science research for natural scientists. Conservation Biology, 28(5), 1167-1177. doi:10.1111/cobi.12326

This paper explores in more detail the Onology, Epistemology and Theoretical Position framework discussed this week and a summary is available