Interpretivism and Positivism (Ontological and Epistemological Perspectives)

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


  • 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

46 thoughts on “Interpretivism and Positivism (Ontological and Epistemological Perspectives)

  1. […] At this point, you might ask whether arts and sciences are so different. Can’t one person be an artist and a scientist? Perhaps they can, but when researching into writing theory I came across a lot of literature that would suggest there are pretty big differences between what kinds of things arts and science people value about writing – basic beliefs and attitudes. Chandler, for example, has approached characteristic differences between Classical and Romantic ways of thinking. Classical writers value planning, logic, order, structure, purpose, rigour, and objectivity. Romantic writers, by contrast, favour discovery, freedom, lack of structure, enjoyment, and emergent form. Classical relates to the sciences, Romantic relates to the arts. Similar characteristic differences can be found between positivism and interpretivism. […]

  2. I know I’m late to the game, but this is good information. Can you send me your reference page for this information. You never posted it. Thanks! I would have emailed you, but I don’t see how on this page. If you need my info, let me know.

    • Hello, Do you have a reference Black (2006).

      great article, Much needed a simple way of understanding these process . Well done and nice one

  3. Will Mr Prabash help me to understand more?

    I’m lost with my understanding on certain things regards to ontological and epistemological.

  4. Research Strategy

    Once you have an idea of the research approach that you are going to take, you next need to think about a research strategy that will lead you to find answers to your research question. That is, you need to think about your methodology and methods. You should get going on this near the start of your project and certainly before you do any data collection. It is at this stage that you would consider, for instance, whether your research is going to involve a survey, one or more case studies, some action research, participant observation, or some other methodology. Whatever choice you make, you must be able to justify it in terms of your learning objectives, your research question, and your research approach.

    Your thinking at this stage should involve quite a high level of detail. For example, if your project were to involve in-depth interviewing, you would need to justify:

    who is to be interviewed, and why

    what questions are to be asked, and why

    how open ended you would like the responses to be, and why how will the responses be recorded, and why

    how will these responses be analysed and why

    how will conclusions be drawn from the analysis, and why.

    You are expected to be methodologically aware; – this means not only that you know what you are doing but also that you are able to provide the rationale for why you are doing it. For example, the design of interview questions should (normally) be based upon appropriate theory. Therefore, you will be expected to read and refer to appropriate textbooks on research methodology. Your reading might begin with the recommended text book (see section 3.1 in these guidelines) and move on from there as your needs become more specific.

    Issues that you are likely to encounter in the course of your thinking and discussion about methodology include:

    what your learning objectives might mean in terms of practical implementation

    how to ensure ethical conduct in your research

    how to derive research questions, hypotheses or a project brief what reading you should focus on and when

    how to identify, contact and talk to clients or to staff in study organisations

    the design of your data-gathering approach or instrument pilot-testing your data-gathering approach or instrument

    what tools you will use to record and organise your data what methods you will use to analyse your data

    the synthesis of data and how to derive theory (or learning) from it review and redesign of objectives, methodology, and reading project management (timetable, resources, review dates etc.) critical engagement with your methodology and results

    learning review

    alternative (creative) ways of writing up.
    As with objective setting, your methodology should be the subject of continuous review and revision in the light of progress so far.


    You need to be methodologically aware to get the best learning from your project.

    You need a methodology that is consistent with your research approach, and is designed to both answer your research question and fulfil your learning objectives.

    Your methodology should describe not only how you will undertake the research, what data you will use and how you will analyse it, but also, why this is an appropriate design for your particular project.

    Once you have begun an investigation, you have invested time in it. It is generally not rewarding to have to repeat work simply because you did not spend the time, in advance, planning how you were going to use (or analyse) the results of your investigation.

    There is never time to do the planning perfectly! You do need a record of actions though.

  5. please help me with this question’compare and constrast the positivist and naturalist perseception in social work

  6. Thank you for this.

    It has really helped me wrap my head around some of the philosophical underpinnings of research and the references are also very helpful, as I plan to do more reading.

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