What is Ontology and What is Epistemology? 

Ontology is the nature of reality (Hudson and Ozanne 1988) and the epistemology can be defined as the relationship between the researcher and the reality (Carson et al. 2001) or how this reality can be known.


According to the positivist ontology there is a single, external and objective reality to any research question regardless of the researchers belief (Carson et al. 1988; Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Thus, the positivist researchers take a controlled and structural approach in conducting research by initially identifying a research topic, constructing appropriate research questions and hypotheses and by adopting a suitable research methodology.

They also attempt to remain detached from the participants of the research by creating distance between themselves and the participants. Especially, this is an important step in remaining emotionally neutral to make clear distinctions between reason and feeling as well as between science and personal experience.  Positivists also claim it is important to clearly distinguish between fact and value judgement. As positivist researchers they seek objectivity and use consistantly rational and logical approaches to research (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

Statistical and mathematical techniques are central in the research methods adopted by positivist researchers and they adhere to specifically structured research techniques to uncover single and objective realities. The goal of positivst research is to make time and context free generalizations and they believe this is possible because human actions can be explained as a result of real causes that precedes their behaviours (Carson et al. 2001; Hudosn et al. 1988).  


On the contrary positivists, interpretivists believe that the reality is relative and multiple. According to this tradition there can be more than one reality and more than a single structured way of accessing such realities. Lincoln and Guba (1985) explains that these multiple meanings are very difficult to interpret as they depend on other systems for meanings. The knowledge generated from this descipline is perceived through socially constructed and subjective interpretations (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

Since interpretivist research knowledge is expected to generate from value-laden socially constructed interpretations researchers follow more personal and flexible research structures than in the positivist paradigms. Thier research approaches have to be more receptive to meanings in human interaction and capable of making sense of what is perceived as multiple realities.

Interpretivist researcher enteres the field with some sort of prior insight about the research topic but assumes that this is insufficient in developing a fixed research design due to complex, multiple and unpredictable nature of what is perceived as reality. During the data collection stage the researcher and his informants are interdependent and mutually interactive with each other and construct a collaborative account of perceived reality. The researcher remain open to new ideas throughout the study and let it develop with the help of his informants. The use of such an emergent approach is also consistant with the interpretivist belief of human’s ability to adapt and that no one can gain prior knowledge of time and context bound social realities (Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

The goal of interpretivist research is to understand and interpret human behaviour rather than to generalize and predict causes and effects. For an interpretivist researcher it is important to understand motives, meanings, reasons and other subjective experiences which are time and context bound (Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

The following table provides a summarized version of ontological and epistemological differences of each paradigm.

(From Carson et al. 2001, p. 6) 





Nature of ‘being’/ nature of the world



Have direct access to real world



Single external reality

No direct access to real world



No single external reality




‘Grounds’ of knowledge/ relationship between reality and research

Possible to obtain hard, secure objective knowledge


Research focus on generalization and abstraction


Thought governed by hypotheses and stated theories

Understood through ‘perceived’ knowledge


Research focuses on the specific and concrete


Seeking to understand specific context




Focus of research



Role of the researcher


















Techniques used by researcher

Concentrates on description and explanation


Detached, external observer



Clear distinction between reason and feeling


Aim to discover external reality rather than creating the object of study


Strive to use rational, consistent, verbal, logical approach


Seek to maintain clear distinction between facts and value judgements


Distinction between science and personal experience


Formalized statistical and mathematical methods predominant

Concentrates on understanding and interpretation


Researchers want to experience what they are studying


Allow feeling and reason to govern actions


Partially create what is studied, the meaning of phenomena


Use of pre-understanding is important


Distinction between facts and value judgements less clear


Accept influence from both science and personal experience


Primarily non-quantitative



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