Assignment 2.1: Research Paradigms1. There are three basic research paradigms (positive, interpretive, and critical). Briefly describe the different assumptions of each paradigm regarding the “nature of reality”?2. Why is it important to understand each of them?Assignment 2-2: Epistemology 1. The video link for this video can be accessed via the Multimedia Resources. The video is intended to get you to think about your view of knowledge and the world and how this view will affect how you will plan and carry out research.Assignment 2-3: Scientific Revolution Kuhn 1. The video link for this video can be accessed via the Multimedia Resources. You’re ask to engage in a general discussion about the video and its content in relation to your developing thought process about designing a course-based research projectvideo link



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Many years ago, when still a child, I read a book whose name I have long since forgotten.
In it was written the following: ‘The power of the pack is the wolf, and the power of the
wolf is the pack.’ This was a striking statement, and one which exercised an immense
influence on how I perceived both the world and its people. Now, decades later, being
confronted with issues of knowledge, existence and logic, the quote came back to me as
almost an epistemology of ontology – one that explains the world in which I have lived
and survived for so many interesting years. But, perhaps I am a little too hasty in my
employment of those terms right now. Just what is the difference between epistemology
and ontology? And why are these concepts important?
Epistemology is the study of knowing; essentially it is the study of what knowledge is
and how it is possible. It consists of ideas about the natural world and focuses on how we
can (and ought) to obtain knowledge, and how we can (and ought) to reason: the forms
into which our models are cast, and their relationships to the world (i.e. what we are
trying to model/know about).
Ontology, on the other hand, is more concerned about the natural world – how it came to
be rather than an analysis of what is. In the power of the pack, the pack of wolves would
be the natural given – one can say it is ‘where it all begins’, or, its ontology. The fact that
the wolves gain their power from the strength of the individuals in the pack is the
epistemology for the nature of the pack. Some analysis has gone in to the nature of the
pack and why it forms a strong unit.
In epistemology we strive to generate truthful (valid or plausible) descriptions and
explanations of the world. This said, the ‘world’ need not incorporate the earth’s entirety
– if one were to study the habits and activities of a pack of wolves in a particular area,
that would become the “world of study”. This would usually be termed the scope or
target of our research. Thinking and theorising about society in our world is what we call
our epistemology. When studying the pack of wolves, one is required to think about what
one sees, make conclusions (theorise) about them and ultimately, based on one’s thinking
and theorising, explain what is seen. Concluding that ‘the power of the pack is the wolf
and the power of the wolf is the pack’, is a good example of this kind of thinking,
theorising and explaining. The pack of wolves is the basis of the study. It is visible as a
society under study, and is therefore one’s ontology.
Ontology is concerned with how you, as the observer of a phenomenon, may know. It is
not concerned with what you may know thereby. It implies a study of existence based on
the assumption of its absolute and metaphysical meaning, and not on its cognitive
meaning. Epistemology, on the other hand, seeks to understand the origin, processes and
limitations of observation. These include operations such as drawing distinctions,
establishing relations, and the creation of constructs. In addition, it includes all
consequences of knowledge resulting from communication between observer and
observed, within a community of observers who may, in addition, observe each other.
Ontology asks, “what is?”, or “what can we know?”, where epistemology asks “how do
we come to know?”.
At this stage you would probably have noticed that ontology precedes epistemology –
you need to identify a “world” or target for your study (ontology) before you can acquire
any further information from your target (epistemology).
At this point, I trust that it is clear that epistemology is the theory of knowledge. It
includes the methods, validity and scope of knowledge that we employ in our research. It
is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Epistemology
implies the provision of evidence for your conclusions – how will we know that what you
conclude from your research is the truth and not just an opinion, perhaps even an
unfounded one? In quantitative research one would normally use statistical evidence to
support our notions, but in qualitative research it is not always as easy. There are,
nevertheless, many ways in which you can support the validity of your conclusions and
findings. Methods such as triangulation, authentication of target groups and referrals to
similar research, for example, may be used to support your inferences.
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
Ontology is a branch of metaphysics 1 that deals with the nature of being which does not
require much evidence for validity – one can normally see it. We could say that ontology
is “the science of being”, whereas epistemology is “the science of the methods or grounds
of knowledge”. Ontology thus focuses on what there is. In order to understand it, we need
to understand and agree upon the notion of existence. A person who was born and has
lived in a jungle, completely cut off from the modern world will know trees, the animals
that live in the jungle, and so forth. We can say that his ontology is limited to what he has
experienced and seen in the jungle. Things like cell phones and computers will not be
included in his ontology.
Epistemology goes one step further. Throughout the history of qualitative research,
investigators have always defined their work in terms of hopes and values, religious faith,
and occupational and professional ideologies. Qualitative research has always been
judged on the standard of whatever the work communicates, or on how we conceptualise
our reality and the world around us. Epistemology defines these standards of evaluation.
Questions of representation, the forms of theories/models, the kinds of evidence that are
or can be brought to bear on these models, and especially the relationships between all
these elements, are all central to epistemology. It is therefore the general theory of
cognition that focuses on the questions:
How do humans recognise, mentally, what “really” exists?
What are the limits of such recognition/cognition?
Epistemology is mostly linked to a modernist approach to research, whereas ontology is
said to belong with a postmodernistic approach. I have my doubts whether one should
separate the two based on such an oversimplification, because modernism and
postmodernism cannot be separated so easily. In addition, research may also not always
be so purist as to focus on either one or the other. From the following diagram on
generic 2 qualitative research activities you will notice that both ontology and
Metaphysics = the science that investigates ultimate reality.
Generic – activities that will be present in (almost) all qualitative research projects.
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
epistemology occupy a position, with ontology defining the research framework, and
epistemology determining the set of research questions:
Research framework
Set of questions
The way in which the
set of questions is
The net that contains the
ontological and
methodological premises
is called the premise,
paradigm or interpretive
framework, a “basic set of
beliefs that guides action”.
Figure 1: Generic qualitative research activities.
We can simplify the qualitative research activities models above by focusing on three
main and interrelated activities, namely ontology, epistemology and methodology.
Together, ontology, epistemology and methodology form an all-encompassing system of
interrelated practice and thinking that defines for researchers the nature of their enquiry.
We call this our research premise, paradigm or interpretive framework. Ontology
specifies the nature of reality that is to be studied, and what can be known about it.
Epistemology specifies the nature of the relationship between the researcher (knower)
and what can be known. Methodology specifies how the researcher may go about
practically studying whatever he or she believes can be known.
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
This can be illustrated in terms of positivist, interpretive and constructionist paradigms as
follows (TerréBlanche and Durrheim, 1999: 6):
Stable, external
‰ Objective
‰ Detached
Internal reality of
‰ Empathetic
‰ Observer
‰ Suspicious
constructed reality ‰ Political
‰ Observer
The three dimensions of paradigms shown in the table above represent different
approaches to research. If the researcher believes that what is to be studied consists of a
stable and unchanging external reality (e.g. economic laws, cognitive mechanisms, the
law of gravity for example), then he can adopt an objective and detached epistemological
stance towards that reality, and can employ a methodology that relies on control and
manipulation of reality. The aim of such research would be to provide an accurate
description of the laws and mechanisms that operate in social life. You may recognise
this as a positivist 3 approach. If, on the other hand, the researcher believes that the reality
to be studied consists of an intersubjective and interactional epistemological stance
toward that reality, he will probably use methodologies (such as interviewing or
participant observation) that rely on a subjective relationship between researcher and
Positivism employs the language of objectivity, distance, and control because they are believed to be the
keys to the conduct of real social science.
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
subject. This is characteristic of the interpretive 4 approach, which aims to explain the
subjective reasons and meanings that lie behind social action. Finally, if the researcher
believes that reality consists of a fluid and variable set of social constructs, he may adopt
a suspicious and politicised epistemological stance, and employ methodologies that allow
the researcher to deconstruct versions of reality. This is characteristic of constructionist 5
research, which aims to show how versions of the social world are produced in discourse,
and how these constructions of reality make some actions possible, and others
unthinkable (TerréBlanche and Durrheim, 1999: 6). The difference between positivism,
interpretive research and social constructionism can be illustrated as follows:
Artwork by Evette Nel-Fry.
Interpretive research focuses on what is being accomplished, under what conditions, and out of what
resources. It relies on first-hand accounts, tries to describe what it sees in rich detail and presents its
‘findings’ in engaging and sometimes evocative language.
Constructionism is the research approach that seeks to analyse how signs and images have powers to
create particular representations of people and objects.
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
You should by now have a good idea of what the difference between epistemology and
ontology is. In summary:
‰ Epistemology is a set of questions based on a framework; ontology is the
‰ Epistemology refers to the how of research. Ontology refers to the what of
Perhaps you will find the questions in the following table useful in discriminating
between epistemology and ontology (TerréBlanche and Durrheim, 1999: 443):
How to interpret the world?
Which world is this?
Our place in the world?
What is to be done in it?
What is there to know?
Which of my selves is to do it?
Who knows it?
What is a world?
How do you know?
What kinds of worlds are there?
How sure are they?
How are they constituted?
How is knowledge transmitted?
How do they differ?
What are the limits of the
What happens when worlds are in
knowable? (4)
What happens when boundaries are
Text versus world?
We can now move on to some more intricate questions.
An important concept that you will probably require in your research is the issue of
critical epistemology. Critical epistemology is an understanding of the relationship
between power and thought, and power and truth claims. You should uphold the
epistemological principles that apply to all researchers, but here you need to be really
careful – it is easy to twist your arguments to fit your particular preferences by describing
them in terms of an unfounded epistemology. Writers and researchers often put on a
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
particular political or social ‘hat’, with the intention of gaining support from a particular
group, rather than striving for the real truth, for scientific validity. For example, through
the years we’ve seen numerous researchers adopting an epistemology justifying
“apartheid” when it was still policy in South Africa (and when some first world
governments silently supported or at least tolerated the policy). Unfortunately we have
seen and are currently seeing as many researchers who adopt the opposite stance based on
as little scientific truth as the former. You will only truly make a positive epistemological
contribution to science if you are objective and honest in your interpretation and analysis
of information. This brings us to what Babbie and Mouton (2004) call the epistemic
In the world of science our aim is to generate truthful (valid/plausible) descriptions and
explanations of the world. This is called the epistemic intent of science. “Epistemic” is
derived from episteme, the Greek word for “truthful knowledge” (Babbie and Mouton,
2004: 8). We use “truthful” as a synonym for “valid” or “close approximation of the
truth”. We accept knowledge to be “truthful” when we have sufficient reason to believe
that it is an accurate representation or explanation of some phenomenon in the world. To
put it less philosophically, scientists accept claims to be “truthful” or “valid” if there is
enough evidence to support such claims. Such evidence usually accumulates over time.
Claims have to withstand repeated testing under various conditions in order to be
accepted as valid or, at least, plausible. There is no such thing as “instant verification” of
an hypotheses or theory. Even when the scientific community accepts certain points of
view, hypotheses or theories as valid and plausible, this “acceptance” is based on the best
available evidence at a given point of time. It is always possible that new empirical
evidence might come to the fore in the future which would force scientists to revise their
opinions and change their theories.
This means that the commitment to “truth” does not equate with the search for certainty
or infallible knowledge, or for truths that hold absolutely – without concern for time and
space. The notions of “certainty” and “infallibility” suggest that we can never be wrong.
If we are to accept a particular point of view as “certain” or “infallible” we are in fact
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
saying that no amount of new evidence can ever lead us to change our beliefs. Such a
view is not only obviously false, but clearly makes a mockery of scientific enterprise. The
commitment to true and valid knowledge is, therefore, not a search for infallible and
absolute knowledge.
In contrast to pre-scientific forms of knowledge, the “epistemic imperative” demands that
scientists commit themselves unconditionally to the pursuit of the most truthful claims
about the world. This has at least three implications:
The idea of an imperative implies that a type of “moral contract” has been entered
into. It is neither optional nor negotiable. This “contract” is intrinsic to scientific
inquiry. Being a member of the global science community assumes that you have
made this commitment. When you embark on a scientific project, or undertake
any scientific enquiry, you tacitly agree to the epistemic imperative – to the search
for truth. But the epistemic imperative is not merely an ideal or regulative
principle. It has real consequences. This is evident in the way that the scientific
community deals with any attempt to suspend or violate the imperative.
The “epistemic imperative” is a commitment to an ideal. Its goal is to generate
results and findings which are as valid or truthful as possible. The fact that it is
first and foremost an ideal, means that it might not always be attained in practice.
Methodological problems and practical constraints (such as lack of resources)
may lead to the ideal not being fully attained. We usually have to suffice with
results that are, at best, approximations to the truth.
The meaning that we attach to the concept “truth” presupposes a loose, somewhat
metaphorical relationship between our scientific proposition and the world.
Contrary to the classical notion, according to which “truth” means the literal
correspondence of our statements with reality, we accept that this relationship is a
much more complex one. The notion of “fit”, or even “modelling” is a more
appropriate term for two reasons: Firstly, it suggests that a statement or set of
statements can be more or less true. The notion of “fit” is not an absolute one, but
allows for degrees (from a “loose fit” to a “good fit”). Secondly, the term “fit” can
refer to both the relationship between our statements and the world (the traditional
Article by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com
©Mentornet 2007
notions of “representation” or “correspondence”), as well as to the relationships
between our statements. In the latter’s case, we would use the term “coherence”.
This means that “fit” is used to refer to both empirical and conceptual fits. When
our conceptual system exhibits a high degree of internal coherence, we could also
speak of the concepts as “fitting” well (Babbie and Mouton, 2004: 8-9).
So we now know that we should strive towards the truth or validity in our research. Let
us return to the concept of critical epistemology. The example of a Eurocentric versus an
African approach to research belongs to what is called critical race theory. This theory
enacts an ethnic epistemology, arguing that ways of knowing and being are shaped by the
individual’s standpoint or position in the world. This standpoint undoes the cultural,
ethnical, and epistemological logic (and racism) of the Eurocentric paradigm. It is often
advisable to keep clear of ethnicity, unless ethnicity forms a part of or is the purpose of
your research. The important point is that you avoid using biased arguments to gain
political or economic power.
The quality of your research will be judged according to the criteria of validity and
authenticity. Validity and authenticity are prerequisites for understanding. It is in this that
epistemology and ethics are brought together. It is also a meeting point between
epistemology and ontology, because the way in which we know (ontology) is tied up with
what we know (epistemology).
Ontological and educative authenticity on the other hand, were designated as criteria for
determining a raised level of awareness; in the first instance, by individual research
participants and, in the second, by individuals who surround them or with whom they
come into contact for some social or organisational purpose. Is it e …
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