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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 is captured or known. There are two dominant ontological and epistemological traditions/ideologies: 1)Positivism, 2)Interpretivism.


The positivist ontology believes that the world is external (Carson et al., 1988) and that there is a single objective reality to any research phenomenon or situation regardless of the researcher’s perspective or belief (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). Thus, they take a controlled and structural approach in conducting research by identifying a clear research topic, constructing appropriate hypotheses and by adopting a suitable research methodology (Churchill, 1996;Carson et al., 2001). Positivist researchers remain detached from the participants of the research by creating a distance, which is important in remaining emotionally neutral to make clear distinctions between reason and feeling (Carson et al., 2001). They also maintain a clear distinction between science and personal experience and fact and value judgement. It is also important in positivist research to seek objectivity and use consistently rational and logical approaches to research (Carson et al., 2001). Statistical and mathematical techniques are central to positivist research, which adheres to specifically structured research techniques to uncover single and objective reality (Carson et al., 2001). The goal of positivist researchers is to make time and context free generalizations. They believe this is possible because human actions can be explained as a result of real causes that temporarily precedes their behaviour and the researcher and his research subjects are independent and do not influence each other (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). Accordingly, positivist researchers 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 consistently rational and logical approaches to research (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).


The position of interpretivism in relation to ontology and epistemology is that interpretivists believe the reality is multiple and relative (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). Lincoln and Guba (1985) explain that these multiple realities also depend on other systems for meanings, which make it even more difficult to interpret in terms of fixed realities (Neuman, 2000). The knowledge acquired in this discipline is socially constructed rather than objectively determined (Carson et al., 2001, p.5) and perceived (Hirschman, 1985, Berger and Luckman, 1967, p. 3: in Hudson and Ozanne, 1988).

Interpretivists avoid rigid structural frameworks such as in positivist research and adopt a more personal and flexible research structures (Carson et al., 2001) which are receptive to capturing meanings in human interaction (Black, 2006) and make sense of what is perceived as reality (Carson et al., 2001). They believe the researcher and his informants are interdependent and mutually interactive (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). The interpretivist researcher enters the field with some sort of prior insight of the research context 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 (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). The researcher remains open to new knowledge throughout the study and lets it develop with the help of informants. The use of such an emergent and collaborative approach is consistent with the interpretivist belief that humans have the ability to adapt, and that no one can gain prior knowledge of time and context bound social realities (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988).

Therefore, the goal of interpretivist research is to understand and interpret the meanings in human behaviour rather than to generalize and predict causes and effects (Neuman, 2000; Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). 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; Neuman, 2000).

The following table summarizes the differences between the two research paradigms:

Ontology and epistemological differences of positivism and interpretivism 

(Adopted 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 judgments


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 judgments less clear


Accept influence from both science and personal experience


Primarily non-quantitative


Prabash Edirisingha, PhD Research Scholar, Department of Marketing, University of Otago, New Zealand


  • Berger, P. L., and Luckman, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in Sociology of Knowledge, New York: Irvington Publishers.
  • Black, I. (2006). The presentation of interpretivist research. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 9(4), 319–324.
  • Carson, D., Gilmore, A., Perry, C., and Gronhaug, K. (2001). Qualitative Marketing Research. London: Sage.
  • Churchill, G. A. (1996). Basic Marketing Research (3rd Ed.), Fort Worth, TX: The Dryden Press.
  • Hirschman, E. C. (1985). Primitive Aspects of Consumption in Modern American Society. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 237-249.
  • Hudson, L., and Ozanne, J. (1988). Alternative Ways of Seeking Knowledge in Consumer Research. Journal of Consumer Research, 14(4), 508–521.
  • Hunt, S. D. (1983). Marketing Theory. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin
  • Lincoln, Y., and Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. London: Sage.
  • Neuman, L. W. (2000). Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (4th Ed.), USA: Allyn and Bacon.

                                                                  Dr. Prabash A Edirisingha

                                                                   Faculty of Business and Law

                                                                        Northumbria University

                                                                     Newcastle upon Tyne, UK


This is about two knives which I came across when I was doing my Masters dissertation and it all began with a small argument in the kitchen.

Husband: “This is the best. I like it because it is a one strike knife. It is very skinny but very sharp”

Wife: “I think this knife is better. This is very sturdy. That one is difficult to hold and doesn’t cut that well either”

Husband: “Well, it is because you don’t know how to use it”

On surface this sounds like any other simple conversation in our homes. As we live our everyday lives, we always exchange such dialogues with our partners, parents, children and other household members. Yet we don’t necessarily pay much attention to deeper meanings and emotions which can be hidden within such subtle and concise statements. These two knives did not have any brand associations. Both knives were purchased at a local car-boot sale in west midland England by the husband. However, not long after both individuals integrated the knives into their own cooking practices. Why these two knives were important in this family? Why was it important to understand the roles played by these knives in the family? We can seek some answers from Tim Dant (2005), the author of materiality and society. Then also we can rely on works of Daniel Miller (2008), who is one of the prominent academics in material culture research. Both these academics and many others have provided inspiration for me to begin my academic life. I firmly believe in Miller’s (2008) argument for a material culture lens to understand and theorize consumption.

We interact with mundane material objects in our everyday lives and these objects interact back with us in various forms. Dant (2005) has extensively discussed the process of material interaction and I think it provides an important framework to understand these two knives.

Someone had given a specific set of characteristics for these knives when they were manufactured. For an example, the manufacturer made it skinny, edgy, and sharp. It is obvious that a certain form of skill, method and manoeuvring are required to efficiently use it in consumption practices. As the husband argues, the wife does not know how to use it properly. The knife needs a thump, an adjustment of the holding angle and a specific movement to cut through tougher bones. What he really indicates is that she has not acquired the necessary level of skills to competently use the knife. So, it could be argued that the manufacturer intended the users to acquire necessary skills before using the object. Such skills can be provided at times but not always they are readily available and most of these skills are aquired through trial and error by the consumers. Consumers redefine and reinvent products during the process of seeking solutions to their existing consumption problems. We can question where and how the wife could learn skills to use the knife properly, especially when it was acquired from a second-hand market. Are there any instructions which came with it? Are there any helpful demonstrations provided by the manufacturers or marketers? These are just a few questions for corporate managers to ponder on but is a diversion from the objectives of this writing. Manufacturer embedded qualities pre-define the sorts of communication which will occur between the object and its users. However, it is not accurate to conclude that this will completely dominate all forms of material communication with the object. We routinely interact with objects on a daily basis and this is usually a socially or culturally acquired behaviour which is often taken-for-granted. In the case of the knife it cuts through meat and selected other foods, but struggles with harder meat bones. In order to overcome this obstacle the users needs to consciously change their actions (or the way he interacts with the knife), which is theorized as intentionality of act (Dant, 2005). This is a conscious alteration of existing material interaction with the knife in order to continue its functionality to achieve an intended outcome. This is exactly the thump, jerk and movement indicated by the husband, which must be acquired and excelled over time. Manufacturers and marketers can aim to enhance overall consumer experience by providing such information.

From a large number of past research we have come to understand that humans are materialistic creatures and try to attach various meanings to objects which they come to contact (Miller, 2008). We also try to extend our values, believes, and expectations (our identity) through our most cherished possessions (Belk, 1988). For example the knife I got from my mother may remind me of her and how she used to cook. So it is not just a knife but also a vessel which transported my mother and her culinary practices into my household.

The question I was really asking was that how far I will go to include this object in my household practices if it is not really serving its intended function, which is cutting. How long will I tolerate its lack of practical use considering its symbolic attachment to my mother? I think this is a question that consumer researchers or corporate managers must raise when talking about consumption of objects (products). Many products that surround us have functional duties. We spend our hard earn money on these objects. Also we draw a line of reasonable expectations in which we measure and compare value in use for the money we paid for these objects. The BMW or Lexus I may drive (maybe never) might say something about who I am, my social status, or about my success. However, it is still a ride which takes me from one place to another and there are other functional expectations I have entrusted upon this machine. There are also my preferences in terms of color, comfort, precision, control and safety. Am I willing to compromise any of these attributes to uphold another? Such as, am I willing to forget about safety just to display my social status and success? It is true that we cannot afford to be completely polarized in explaining such consumption choices? Understanding the level of compromise which we are willing to accommodate is probably more relevant in terms of understanding the ways in which we negotiate these sorts of choices in everyday practice. As consumers we make similar compromises in many of our purchases. We balance the combination between important physical benefits and sentimental meanings of products and negotiate these when making such choices. Some products are trivial in facilitating our routine lives, thus, the physical benefits of such products out weight the symbolic values. But on the contrary we also have objects which we hate to let go because of their symbolic meanings. The main argument of this entry is to argue that it is important to understand the interplay of different biographies (Kopytoff, 1987) of market place objects and to understand how people make choices by considering sorts of different symbolic and functional attributes of objects. It is also important to understand the sorts of factors that influence and contribute to such consumer decision-making.

On surface it is a simple argument and an everyday phenomenon. Thus, my long term objective and suggestion is to urge material culture and consumption researchers to explore the overlapping significances of symbolic and functional meanings of objects in defining consumption in market places and in our domestic spheres.



 Prabash Edirisingha

PhD Scholar, Department of Marketing, University of Otago, New Zealand


Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the Extended Self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139–168.

Dant, T. (2005). Materiality and society. McGraw-Hill International.

Kopytoff, I. (1986).The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process. In A. Appadurai (Ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (pp. 64–91). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, D. (2008). The comfort of things. London: Polity.



We live surrounded by a plethora of objects which we interact with in our daily lives. Some of these object belong to us but some belong to other people and various social institutions. When we like or need something we usually plan and purchase it. But it is also important to notice that there are objects that we possess due to requirement and necessity rather than for wanting and preference. And most of the objects in our households are not owned by a specific individual.  They may be purchased by the adults but they are mostly shared with other household members.
The concept of sharing has gained little attention in the past but it is increasingly been recognized as one of the most common and important consumption practices in domestic environments. Is sharing is actually caring? This entry extends the argument that it is a consumption phenomenon that is complex and broad and should be conceptualized as something more than just caring. It is not only objects that we share with other household members. We also share what we have done, what we like to do and what we plan to do in our futures. Also we share a multitude of meanings with our partners, loved ones and other domestic members. For an example children may not need to own objects in their homes in order to use them. There is a culturally and socially bounded norm which makes them entitled to use domestically shared objects and stuff such as food, utilities, furniture and electronics. At the same time young children are guided and expected to take part in family consumption practices which are recognized as important and adopted by parents. However, as children grow older they may develop their own preferences in the process of defining themselves as individuals which can cause them to diverge from parental influences.  However the understanding is that they will not be given an itemized bill for consuming household resources once they plan to leave the parents.

Discussing this broad and rich topic is not the intent of this article. The goal of this article is to discuss the nature of shared meanings which we attach to objects in our lives and how such meanings define us as individuals and families. To be human is to make attachments. We keep on constructing and de-constructing attachments throughout our lives and we convince our selves that attachments compose an important entity of ourselves. We believe that our relationships with objects and other important things that we relate make us who we are. Consumer and material culture researchers have argued that possessions act as vessels which transport meanings from one generation to another. For an example, I came across a butter dish during my master’s research exploration which has traveled through generations and was idling in its new home at the time. However, it was a symbol of important meal time practices such as eating meals together and eating healthy meals. It was also an object which reminded the owner of her mother, aunt and their consumption practices. This example is representative of most of us and our relationships with objects. We all can recall of time which we held on to specific objects just because of the various meanings which were attached to these objects.

On the contrary we also dispose objects in our desperate attempts to de-construct existing attachments. This is perhaps why it is the engagement or the wedding ring that is usually left behind when a couple dissolves their affiliations. At one point in their lives they injected a stream of meanings, intentionally or unintentionally, into their rings and started to believe that the rings would signify and uphold the meaning of their marriage or whatever the future they anticipated together. The same meanings which are imbued in such objects would provide us comfort, security and motivation to adapt to uncertainties and challenges in our new lives. Ironically, we also believe that abandoning such sentimental possessions aids us in leaving the unpleasant memories from our failed relationships behind. This may be true for many objects which we associate with in our relationships. It also extends to relationships other than marriage or cohabitation. It could be our relationship with colleagues, our friends at school, our relatives, or our parents. These sorts of materialistic measures and representations are established to bring individuals together in relationships in our lives. Objects do not have to be expensive, old or rare in order to be significant for a relationship. Any object can be used to connect individuals. For an example, the rings represent a promise of important values for couples such as love, caring and support. Individuals have expectations from one another when they are in a relationship. These expectations can be any quality or value they view as important to them as individuals as well as for their relationship collectively. The object, whichever it is, becomes a representative of these expectations within the relationship. Not always these expectations are communicated, at least not verbally. They can easily be reservations of the individual and may surface when these are challenged by the other or by external social forces. People get frustrated and vulnerable when individual and collective expectations of a relationship are not met. We usually display our disappointment and frustration through communication with important objects that surround us. Abandoning the objects which are shared in a relationship between two individuals is a display of frustration and disappointment in the relationship. It is also a display of wanting to separate and how individuals communicate their feelings of despair and disregard for the other. Individuals may also believe abandoning such objects in a relationship as the best way to hurt the other by publicly displaying their discontinuing commitment to that relationship. It is true that we all are materialistic being and cannot live without interacting with the material world. The degree of materialistic  significance and intensity of attachment vary from one individual to another.

It is not just the objects that are shared domestically but also the meanings attach to those objects. As discussed these meanings can influence how we react in our lives and what sorts of factors influence our decisions. It is not just the display of caring. It is also a display of what consist of a specific family. As we understand the perception of family is a subjective term and it vary upon many factors. Whatever we share in our household and social relationships could stand for various important meaning. Understanding sharing as a form of consumption is a much complex task and the objective of this article is to provide a small entry to an array of related topics which may open up in time.



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