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


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  • Lincoln, Y., and Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. London: Sage.
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