Kevin O’Gorman is Professor of Management and Business History and Head of Business Management in the School of Languages and Management in Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. He trained in Glasgow, Salamanca and Rome as a philosopher, theologian and historian. His research interests have a dual focus: Origins, history and cultural practices of hospitality, and philosophical, ethical and cultural underpinnings of contemporary management practices. Using a wide range of methodological approaches he has published over 80 journal articles, books, chapters, and conference papers in business and management.

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Robert MacIntosh is Head of the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University. He trained as an engineer and has researched strategy development and strategic change for twenty years in a range of public, private, family and charitable organizations. He has published extensively in top rank journals including Strategic Management Journal. He sits on the Council of the British Academy of Management, is a board member for the charity Turning Point Scotland and for Heriot-Watt University Malaysia as well as being a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. His latest books include “Strategic Management: strategists at work” published by Palgrave and “Research Methods” (2nd Ed) published by Goodfellow. His status as a shareholder in Aberdeen Football Club demonstrates his sense of optimism.


Don’t worry about the words

The “ology” words are not commonly used even in Greek, the language from which they are derived.

When you begin writing for research you’ll need to get to grips with some challenging academic language. In particular, you need to get on top of three very important concepts: Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology. For no apparent reason, research philosophy tends to send research students into a mild panic. The befuddlement caused by a range of new terminology relating to the philosophy of knowledge is unnecessary when all that you are trying to achieve is some clarity over the status of any knowledge claims you make in your study. Within the broader context of the social sciences, there are standard philosophical positions required to specify the particular form of research you plan to undertake. Collectively, these positions will define what is sometimes referred to as a research design. To comprehensively specify your research design there are five interlocking choices that you, the researcher, should make when specifying how you plan to execute your research: 1. Ontology  and 2. Epistemology (which together form your research paradigm) then 3. Methodology 4. Techniques (your data gathering) and 5. Data Analysis Approaches.  There is no single ‘right’ way to undertake research, but there are distinct traditions, each of which tends to operate with its own, internally consistent, set of choices.

Choose your Ontology

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the trivial issue of the nature of reality.

In choosing an ontological position, you are setting out the nature of the world and your place within it.  Simple yet fundamental stuff.  Ontology is rarely used beyond academic institutions and it can therefore be difficult to know how to use it confidently. The word ‘biology’ means the study of life (since ‘bios’ means life). Using the same logic, ‘onto’ translates as ‘being’ or ‘reality’ hence ontology concerns the nature of reality.  Beyond the realms of science fiction or fantasy novels, we tend to go about our daily lives with a view that there is only one reality. Yet the Matrix, Narnia and many other fictions are inspired by the idea that this is an unnecessarily limited view of the world. Perhaps, the most well-known of these is the brain-in-a-vat scenario, whereby scientists stimulate a disembodied brain with such precision that it emulates a realistic sense of participation in what we call reality. Does the brain experience reality, or is the experience of the scientist somehow more real?

Know your Epistemology

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge and is therefore central to any research claims to contribute new knowledge.

Epistemology concerns the way(s) in which we set about obtaining valid knowledge. For instance, if you are asked for the time, and guess it correctly without a watch, is this reliable knowledge? Or should this guess be verified somehow? Would hearing the familiar beeping that announces the time having struck the relevant hour represent definitive confirmation of the precise time.  Or, would you be unsettled to know that transmissions in AM, FM and digital forms of radio can generate varying delays when replayed through particular devices? The importance placed on the verified accuracy of the time would depend upon the context in which you need to know.  If you’re trying to catch a connecting flight the acceptable level of variation may extend to a few minutes. If you are trying to choreograph an Olympic opening ceremony it probably doesn’t.  The term epistemology can be also be deconstructed; ‘episteme’ means knowledge and in literal terms, epistemology is the study of knowledge.  By being clear about the way(s) in which we might obtain valid knowledge we are in turn being clear about the nature of any knowledge claim that we might make.  The observation that happier workers tend to be more productive is one such knowledge claim.  As a researcher, you may wish to debate the validity of such a claim, citing other factors that might influence happiness, productivity, or the relationship between the two.  Hence, we are required to draw connections between the assumptions we hold about reality (ontology) and the ways in which we might develop valid knowledge (epistemology), even if we often tend not to do so explicitly in anything other than the formal, and somewhat erroneously labelled, setting of a methodology chapter.

Establish your Methodology

Don’t default to contrasting quantitative and qualitative, define your methodology in more sophisticated terms.

Methodology is the most commonly used of the ology words. It tends to be used as a shorthand for the ways in which your epistemology, ontology and methodology interconnect. Certain methods of data gathering and analysis tend to follow from certain research paradigms, although it is important to notice that these implied pathways are not fixed. What is truly important is your ability to recognise and justify the interlocking choices which represent your own research design. That is essentially what any PhD examiner or journal editor is looking for when reading your methodology chapter/section.  Someone expressing an objective ontology with a positivist epistemological approach would be making two choices that are naturally aligned in what would often be seen as the conventional and scientific tradition.  Trying to understand whether happy workers are more productive from within such a tradition would likely involve statistical techniques, control groups and the generation of generalizable laws setting out reliable relationships between happiness and productivity.  The same research topic could equally be approached from a subjective ontology generating a more interpretivist approach but both the research itself and the nature of the claims made would be fundamentally different. Telling the reader that you chose quantitative over qualitative (or vice versa) simply doesn’t cut it.

So what is the difference between ontology, epistemology and methodology?

They each set-out aspects of the knowledge claim you are making from your research

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Simply put, ontology relates to the assumptions we make about the nature of reality, epistemology sets out beliefs about how one might discover knowledge about that reality and methodology specifies the tools and techniques that we use in the conduct of our research.  Critically, these three words form relationships to each other. You ontological and epistemological positions should have some bearing on your methodology, which in turn sets out the data collection and analysis techniques that you will employ (assuming of course that your ontology and epistemology don’t challenge the very idea of either data or analyses). In the social sciences getting on top of these individual concepts and their relationship(s) to each other is vital if you want to (a) be able to write articulately for publication and (b) want to avoid social gaffes in your viva / thesis / dissertation.

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Ideally, choose your techniques last

Don’t start gathering data until you have taken a position on the ologies.  Techniques flow from ologies and not the other way around.

Asking how many interviews will be enough depends critically on why you are doing them. You could be doing interviews ‘as counting’: how many times when people say A do they also say B.  Alternatively, the same interviewer and interviewees could be trying to explore meaning such that you begin to understand how people make sense of A happening when B has not.  What would constitute good practice in terms of your research is therefore contingent on the nature of the knowledge claim that you hope to make. You will only be able to articulate a defensible position by setting out your position in relation to the ologies.  This is why a PhD is a doctorate in philosophy and why you have to “defend” your thesis.

Mix your techniques not your ologies

Mixed data collection techniques are de rigueur, however mixed ologies represent an academic faux pas

Vegan rarely order steak, democrats rarely vote republican.  Both options, whilst hypothetically possible, represent a lack of consistency that tends to be read as untrustworthy.  Be clear and consistent in your choice of ologies in order to avoid being seen as flaky, out of your depth or downright deceptive. Individual researchers can mix their ologies but not within the same research project.  These three key concepts emanate from philosophy but it isn’t necessary to have studied philosophy in order to make sense of the terminology.  In essence, you need to set out your research philosophy in order to signal to other researchers where your research fits in their world. If you are being examined (for a PhD or perhaps by an editor or reviewer), you need to show that you have engaged in a conscious set of choices that are internally consistent. Historically, certain research philosophies may have been used for certain topics and methods, yet it would be foolhardy to dismiss the potential for innovation to be found in combining ideas and mixing methods.

Classify your heroes

The seminal authors on your field will probably don’t state their choice of ologies explicitly in their written work. However, you should be able to classify their works

The seminal authors in your field will have been read by many. This is what confers on them their status as a hero, often earning them the right to be named as the definite article in the coffee breaks of international conferences and airport lounges … “that’s THE [insert name]”.  Despite their extensive readership and weighty H index, they probably don’t use the ology words in their written output. Indeed, it is relatively rare to find a paper that states that the research was conducted from within a subjective ontology and was interpretivist in its epistemology, whilst adopting a qualitative methodology.  There are many reasons for this, not least the one that is springing into your mind just now! However, as a means of checking your understanding of these terms, you could and should attempt to classify the empirical works of the seminal figures in your field.

Think of simple example.

Regardless of what you are studying it is helpful to check your understanding of these obscure terms using a simple example like temperature [Graphic – Thermometer]

From an empirically positivist point of view the temperature outside is currently +10.5°C. This could be presented as an unambiguous fact, verifiable independently by individual observers normally using a thermometer. Largely it shouldn’t matter who is holding the thermometer or taking the reading, it should still read +10.5°C.  In contrast, a constructionist view of temperature would be influenced by social norms, upbringing and beliefs. It would vary between contexts and individual such that it would matter very much who was holding the thermometer. Someone whose childhood was spent near the equator would find +10.5°C decidedly chilly whereas someone whose childhood was spent in the Arctic Circle might find it positively balmy.  Further nuances would be revealed by considering whether warm clothing was seen as a sign of opulence or an indication that you were in some way weak-willed. Fond childhood memories of family holidays spend on the tundra / sand dunes (delete as appropriate) would likely add further colour to one’s perception of the temperature. Remember above all that you, the research should choose a thermometer or a diary study as the appropriate methods for your study once you have made your initial choice of ology.

Check in with your supervisor

Having classified some of your heroes check whether your supervisor agrees with your classification.

First, be sure to classify your supervisors as a heroes.  Even if the thought of them in tights armed with a handy cape become uncomfortably rooted in your subconscious, it will help the supervision process go well (though you may wish to report any actual instances of dressing up, even on graduation day).  Second, some of your actual heroes are likely to be heroes to your supervisors too.  This should mean that some of their empirical works will be well known and should represent shared points of reference for you and your supervisors. Look for different method e.g. interviews, questionnaires, focus groups etc. and ask yourself if your heroes deploy these in the same or different studies and whether, across research projects, your heroes transition from one set of ologies to another.   Finally, reflect on what the same research topic would look like approached from a different set of ologies.