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The research paradigm – methodology, epistemology and ontology – explained in simple language

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❶Various philosophers have provided different answers to these questions. These three paradigms I have referred to, and that coexist in social sciences, make up what I call the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject.

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As with any other form of knowing, rather than being exclusive, it complements the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject in which I place such paradigms. Epistemology raises many questions including: It makes up a persistent, creative activity that is renewed time and again. Social sciences require that particular epistemological reflections are approached from characteristic theoretical developments and empirical research practice.

Such reflections, that are present in scientists' practical activity, even though they may not be named as such, are closely linked with the elucidation of the paradigms in force in the production of every discipline. The notion of paradigm, generated as a consequence of observing the development of a given area of knowledge KUHN, , is not applicable to other areas. The answers to questions arising from epistemological reflection in the context of a given science do not constitute the kind of a priori knowledge scientific research employs in the remaining sciences.

These questions result from the knowledge heritage of each discipline in relation to daily research practice. I therefore understand that it is not possible to think about a one and only epistemology for all scientific disciplines, or even for a same and particular one.

Epistemological reflection is what enables us to elucidate the different paradigms which give different answers to the questions raised by epistemology. As a result of epistemological reflection on social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, I conclude that there are three main coexisting paradigms, two of them already established: Such paradigms, emerging from established theoretical perspectives, have different ontological, epistemological and, consequently, methodological assumptions; so much so that evolution or reflection produced in one of them is not applicable as such to the others.

Likewise, those paradigms are, more often than not, at the basis of the interpretive models used by the speakers to describe social reality.

The development of the social sciences is not, then, progressive in the sense of "one theory replacing another" KUHN, , p. Accumulation, reformulation, improvement and updating of such theories is produced within each paradigm and their appearance is associated with the presence of relevant social events, such as the industrial revolution, which the two, so far, most forcefully established paradigms in these sciences, i.

The acceptance of such co-presence develops hand in hand with the need for different methods, set in those various paradigms, to grasp "the complex and multi-faceted" nature of reality rather than to guarantee findings validity MORAN-ELLIS et al. These three paradigms I have referred to, and that coexist in social sciences, make up what I call the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject.

This kind of epistemology focuses on subjects that know, spatially and temporally located in their theoretical-epistemological background and methodological tools. These subjects, supplied with those cognitive resources, approach the subjects that are being known and the situations they are in.

Those subjects may be understood by assuming, or not, that their characteristics are identifiable with those of an external, objective and objectifiable element, depending on whether the knower's perspective is close to or far away from the positivist paradigm. So, the closer the knowing subjects' orientation to the interpretive paradigm, the shorter the distance between them and those other subjects who are being known. Nevertheless, a distance between the knower and the known, rendering the former "an impartial observer and the other to be subject to the observer's gaze" SAVAGE, , p.

The Epistemology of the Known Subject I propose does not stem from pure speculation, but from an attempt to approach, with the theoretical-methodological contributions of the three mentioned coexisting paradigms, the study of extreme poverty in the city of Buenos Aires, with a focus on people who define their home address as "on the streets," comparing them to that group of families with precarious accommodation who run the risk of losing it and being also left homeless or "on the streets" 1.

For the Epistemology of the Known Subject, one condition of scientific knowledge is for subjects not to be seen as objects but as subjects, subjects whose ontological reality differs from what the previous epistemology, that of the knowing subject, assumed. For the Epistemology of the Known Subject, the reluctance of researchers to see the subjects participating in the knowledge process as objects is not based on the fact of having a different view of the ontological nature of social reality, but on the fact of claiming different ontological characteristics in relation to the human being's identity.

This identity has two components: The former is common to all human beings, is the foundation of their dignity, and constitutes what makes them equal. The latter constitutes the differential aspect, distinguishing each human being from the others and making each individual unique.

Thus, for instance, in a given context, a person's social, political and work identity would represent expressions of the existential component of their identity. Both identity components need to be known; you cannot know one through the other. For example, the essential component cannot be known through the existential one, as is the case when identity characteristics end up being assimilated to those of the situation in which the person is acting. Although knowing people cannot be isolated from knowing their situation, for the Epistemology of the Known Subject the person and the situation belong in two different orders of knowledge, and each has its codes, its assumptions, its ways of giving evidence, its legitimacy, its ontology and, therefore, its epistemology.

This statement has a fundamental bearing on the whole research process, from the purpose and research question to the definition of analysis units; from sampling decisions to the options on data analysis strategies and, likewise, on the possibility of resorting to triangulation, since it could well be asked: The Epistemology of the Known Subject is not a finished product nor does it aim at substituting the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject.

On the contrary, the Epistemology of the Known Subject is in the making as a result of applying qualitative methods. It raises a voice where the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject is silent, restricting, mutilating, or limiting.

It tries to prevent the voice of the known subject from disappearing behind that of the knowing subject; that is, becoming distorted by having been translated by the "codes" of socially admitted ways of knowing.

The Epistemology of the Knowing Subject and the Epistemology of the Known Subject become complementary, without excluding each other, in the Meta-epistemology I propose and whose characteristics are as follows: Qualitative research comprises different orientations and approaches, various intellectual and disciplinary traditions grounded, often, in different philosophical assumptions.

All these different orientations, approaches and assumptions generate new data-gathering and analysis strategies. This variety of views on what is known, what may be known, how it is known and on the way findings are to be transmitted demands an acknowledgment that there is not one legitimate way to conduct qualitative research.

However, it is important to highlight that, in spite of such differences there is also a whole group of marked similarities when it comes to designing the features of qualitative research. These similarities revolve around their salient characteristics, which will be specified by returning to the path of epistemological reflection [ 24 ].

A systematization of the ever increasing contributions that have tried to define and, at the same time, characterize qualitative research enables those characteristics to be grouped according to: Qualitative research is interested, in particular, in the way in which the world is "understood, experimented, or produced" MASON, , p.

It makes use of flexible analysis and explanation methods, sensitive to both the studied people's special features and the social context in which data is produced MASON, , p. It focuses on real, located practice, and it is based on an interactive research process involving both the researcher and the social actors FLICK, , p.

Qualitative research seeks to "discover the new and to develop empirically grounded theories" FLICK, , p. It attempts at understanding, at making the individual case significant in the context of the theory, it opens up new perspectives on what is known.

It "explains, defines, clarifies, elucidates, illuminates," constructs, and discovers MORSE, , p. It develops valid causal descriptions analyzing how certain events have an influence on others, and understanding cause-effect processes in a local, contextualized, placed way MAXWELL, b, p.

A deep analysis of the mentioned characteristics enables me to sort them into two relevant groups. Those two groups identify the purpose of qualitative research, which determines the distinctiveness of its method:. If qualitative research were carried out, for instance, on documents, on specific textual corpus or pictures, it would be the people's features and their actions, the productions and situations they develop or have developed, and their existence in those which would be examined to answer the research question in order to continue the analysis on the basis of those features.

To get on with the epistemological reflection I have presented so far, it is necessary to remember that the two groups of qualitative research features, defined as the most relevant, do not belong to the same order. It is on social actors, their senses, perspectives, meanings, actions, productions, works, and achievements that qualitative research is focused. The person is, then, the vital nucleus of this kind of inquiry and it is those characteristics referring to the people that constitute the primary characteristics , those which are fundamental to qualitative research.

On the other hand, it is the characteristics referring to the context, to the situation in which senses are created, perspectives are defined, and meanings are constructed, which make up the secondary characteristics of qualitative research, because what matters is the person, but the person placed in a given context. Actors and their situations can hardly be separated in the studies undertaken by social sciences, but it is necessary to establish, at this point, their different ontological condition.

As already stated, people cannot be known other than in their context, but they cannot be known through their context. This cognitive assumption, so dear to deterministic theories, deprives the people of action and therefore, of freedom and autonomy by means of a mechanism: The different paradigms, which I placed within the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject, have different ontological assumptions. That is, they determine the particular nature of what is to be known, so much so that they propose different methods for knowing and different validation criteria to assess research quality.

In other words, the various philosophical assumptions and theoretical orientations influence qualitative research in such different ways that they are bound to generate "contrasting set of criteria for judging the quality and credibility" QUINN PATTON, , p. According to its characteristics, what is to be primarily known by qualitative research is the person; hence, the Epistemology of the Known Subject should aim at bringing about an ontological rupture as far as human beings' identity is concerned.

The following question could, then, be asked: A rupture because the way of knowing proposed by the Epistemology of the Known Subject is focused on identity, but a type of identity which is, at one and the same time, essential and existential, the same and different. That is why there is a break with previous ontological proposals regarding that identity, especially, regarding those relying on the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject.

The question of who is known is here prior to the question on how it is known. Given that the person is at the core of qualitative research, and that what is turned into who , it is necessary to point out once more that that who is, for the Epistemology of the Known Subject, essentially the same although existentially different from the researcher, because the basic principle of essential equality is the foundation of that epistemology.

That surrounding world, constantly seen as the background, the arena, the permanent basis for researchers' subjective mental work, is precisely what enables them to become a topic of reflection HUSSERL, , pp. By means of the Epistemology of the Known Subject, I hereby put forward renewed ontological and epistemological foundations for qualitative research, since the ontological proposal of such epistemology is grounded in a different conception of identity.

Such conception reaches out to the various subjects that participate in cognitive interaction. Neither does it attempt to account for the multiple constructions produced in relation to this reality.

Those questions are answered in different ways by the paradigms I spoke of in second section dealing with epistemological reflection and its objectives. It could also be argued that it is the interpretive paradigm that adequately answers, in particular but not exclusively, the requirements of the secondary characteristics of qualitative research, that is, those focusing on the study of contexts and social situations. To that effect, this paradigm leaves out the model of natural sciences, and gives an account of the constructed feature of meanings, norms, orientations, production, and reproduction of the social world through social practices, among which language is to be found.

The interpretive paradigm is, then, the foundation of qualitative research within the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject. In keeping with that kind of epistemology, the approach to the known subject is mediated, in general, by a veil woven from theoretical representations of that "other" in the various disciplines, and in relation to the current paradigmatic trends which, more often than not, coexist in the various contexts and moments in which knowledge production operates.

In this way, while studies based on this epistemology, that is, on the different paradigms that operate in social sciences, were interested in marking the differences between individuals and groups by classifying and ranking them according to those concurrent differences, the Epistemology of the Known Subject understands that those differences make up exclusively the existential aspect of identity and that singling them out must, inevitably, be accompanied by the indication of the essential, common aspect of that identity 2.

Acceptance of the principle of essential equality is a necessary condition for cognitive interaction to take place in the research process, and without that interaction cooperative knowledge construction cannot occur. The path of epistemological reflection leads us, in this way, first from the object to the subject and then from the different subject to the same, but different subject or, what amount to the same, from the existential component to the two components of identity.

In other words, it leads us from the Epistemology of the Knowing Subject to the Epistemology of the Known Subject and from the latter to meta-epistemology, because both identity components must be known without either of them being left out. For the Epistemology of the Known Subject the relationship between this subject and the knowing person is egalitarian.

This statement represents a challenge to the traditional ways of knowing since for them knowers know insofar as they apply the rules, notions and strategies of the so called "scientific knowledge.

If this is so, how can the participant actors prevent his identity from being denied, distorted, or ignored? The danger of such technical versions is that they may, inadvertently, reinforce and uphold some actors' world views and overshadow others'. In this fashion, social researchers have to consider the consequences that their theoretical background, which take certain descriptive social categories for granted, may bring about. Thus, from the perspective of the Epistemology of the Known Subject, questions such as the following could be asked: Likewise, accepting the current value of certain theories that "'establish' the relevance of class, gender, race, etc.

So, names construct and reify human bonds and social divisions, are rooted in actions and give rise to specific practices CHARMAZ, , p. So, it is necessary to ask oneself how stereotypes constructed around the research participant actors influence their identity, their capacity for action and decision.

These stereotypes are constructed following scientific knowledge instructions that lead into grouping the similar within the different and into categorizing, then ranking, assessing those differences in relation to an order which is, later on, reproduced in daily interaction. A serious reflection on such aspects enables the avoidance of the ontological distortion of those actors' identity.

Consequently, people who carry out an inquiry in which some "other" participates will have to question themselves on who they want to know, what they think they know about that person, on the origin of that knowledge— for instance, academic, experiential, the mass media—and, very particularly, on the place, the value, and the relevance they will assign to the knowledge with which that person provides them.

Given the egalitarian relationship between the knower and the known, the new ways of knowing proposed by the Epistemology of the Known Subject are not those characteristic of the knowing subject, but of both subjects in cognitive interaction. Because the common identity component determines that those two subjects have the same capacity for knowing, it is the knowledge arising from that shared capacity that acquires pre-eminence.

There will be specific, technical, particular knowledge some may be lacking in, but there is, besides, knowledge shared by everyone alike.

For example, that which enables people to know they are equal in essential identity to other people and, therefore, in dignity, or that constitutes grounds for people's reluctance to let their identity be distorted. Were this not so, the unfairness deriving from disregarding that equality could hardly be recognized.

What brings the knowing and the known subjects together in cognitive interaction, in which they are identical, is what makes communication possible. It is the contact with "others," sharing their time, situations, relationships, hopes, achievements, and misfortunes that makes us modify our ways of knowing. But especially, what changes them is attentive listening in the certainty that what is conveyed to us as their truths are no less important than ours.

Only the mark of humility in dialogue that heeds "affinities or similarities, as well as alterity or differences" SAUKKO, , p. If the researcher considers them different, belittled in their capacity and ways of knowing, he will not be able to find that he is identical to each one and in that identity, in that sameness, find himself.

So, new ways of knowing entail knowing through what is common in identity, through shared identity, through its essential component. On that account, ontological considerations come before epistemological and methodological ones. That is why we must deal with the question about who is known before the one about how it is known.

That is why it is necessary to ask ourselves what identity of the known subjects is being assumed, what concepts they are being approached through and to what theories, set in which paradigms, those concepts belong. It is not about simply establishing theory limits, what is to be considered is the being's unlimited nature shown in communication. Hence the openness of the listeners, of the receivers. Hence the need for acknowledgment of their own biases, their own deficiencies, but, at the same time, of that shared element which enables both to "understand each other.

Knowing through theories may, therefore, jeopardize communication and the egalitarian relationship, because no hierarchy, rank, order, privilege, or subordination taken as true in these theories or outside their scope should mediate the link between the knower and the known. Notions, concepts, and explanations provided by theories prove, many times, to be vacuous, hollow, inert, or dumb faced in respect of the utterances with which women and men narrate their existential vicissitudes and causally link different events, in turn creating theory themselves.

Qualitative research is nourished, mostly, by the different nature of the information provided by the people participating in the inquiry. Resorting to the knowledge of "others" and the validity of the collected data is usual practice in social sciences, whether taken, for example, from surveys or interviews. This situation talks about a feature of the knowledge process which the Epistemology of the Known Subjects highlights: Knowledge that subjects know with and know "themselves" as equals in cognitive interaction with is not limited to the existential aspect of identity, nor to the human beings' work, relationships, expressions, or productions.

Based on what people have in common, that is, on essential identity, this kind of knowledge empowers, makes human communication possible and this is the case because it expresses and interprets the two identity components at a time. Consolidated ways of knowing, focusing on the subject that knows, have given priority to existential characteristics of identity, laying the stress on what is factual, observable, accessible to sensitive register and which has a validity that can be proved.

However, what would be the sense of coming up to people with questions inquiring about what can be apprehended by simply resorting to observation? What the Epistemology of the Known Subject is about, then, is recognizing the limitations of those traditional ways of knowing and showing the need for the open-mindedness of the researcher to the plenitude of what can be perceived in a different way.

Communication between subjects of cognitive interaction is, thus, a suitable means to express the essential and existential components of identity, or what amounts to the same, to show, at the same time, what a person is equal to all the others in, that is, his "shared humanity" ANGEN, , p. Facing a researcher is, then, not a different "other," but an equal "other," but also different from the ones who understand, for they share the same humanity.

He is one and the same with him or with her, and in that being the same, all distance, hiatus, and separation, which, in a moment, were the conditions for the objectivity of knowledge are surmounted.

If in such communication a researcher is not grounded in the essential dimension of identity, as is the case in the usual ways of knowing, he is bound to construct the human beings he interacts with according to the measure of observable objects and, although he may question them when external observation is not enough, he is also likely to register the differences rather than the common features that identify him with the others, since the difference is, in general, what he has become used to perceiving on approaching the "others.

Without the acceptance of the common component of identity, neither cognitive interaction nor cooperative knowledge construction will be possible, and hopes, needs, claims, questions and proposals of those "others" will hardly be understood. Simply because, as is usual, their actions are not liable to interpretation through the common dignity bringing both subjects of cognitive interaction together, but through the alleged difference separating them.

When those differences are not tolerated and are marked as significant where essential equality should have been stressed, that is, when those differences become essential, scientific knowledge appears to be contributing to the strengthening of discriminatory processes. An example of this is when poverty is associated with crime, or unemployment to a lack of suitable capacity to meet market requirements, reproducing, in this way, the deterministic model of natural sciences and, consequently, taking for granted causal relationships prescribed by general laws that are supposed to enable prediction and phenomena control.

Acknowledgment of the common-union of subjects of cognitive interaction characterizes the Epistemology of the Known Subject: In such interaction, as stated, two subjects, essentially equal, make different contributions derived from their same capacity of knowing and their own biography, circumstances, struggles and achievements of their own existence. Validity of knowledge resulting from cooperative construction does not therefore match that of the so called scientific knowledge, because it is not its norms, rules, directions, and methods that must be applied, followed, and obeyed to enable that construction.

The attained knowledge, being of a different nature, lies in a different legitimacy, a legitimacy conferring a scope, depth, development, magnitude of its own. That kind of knowledge, to be valid, must account for the two components of identity at the same time, that is, focusing on what is common to all, it must be able to display the differences without essentializing them and without turning them into the axis of cognitive interaction.

Such differences constitute nonessential features that do not represent people's integrity nor do they have any bearing on their dignity. Would extolling the differences to the detriment of equality not enable those self-appointed "knowers" the use of an advantage given by those differences which, in part, they have contributed to consolidate? Likewise, does acknowledging the equal knowing capacity, common to all human beings, not jeopardize the foundation of the pedestal that so called "science" stands on?

However, does questioning that equal capacity for knowing not attack the validity of the produced knowledge as a consequence of resorting to the information "others" provide us with? Why should we collect their stories? Why should we ask them about the meaning they assign to their actions? Why should we appeal to them to understand the situations they live in, the processes they go through? On the other hand, even from the assumption of attempting theory creation, researchers frequently resort to the current theories of different disciplines, first to lead their research question and then to be assisted in data interpretation, or to show the pertinence of their findings.

This appeal to theories constitutes a threat for both cognitive interaction, as already stated, and for cooperative knowledge construction. So much so that, for example, if researchers assume social reality is subjected to some sort of normativity, of law and that, in consequence, the autonomous capacity of the person's will is constrained, determined, or conditioned, what value will they ascribe to the subjective meaning actors assign to their actions?

Will they consider that the actors' words will provide them with some knowledge they lack? Reflection on the answers to these questions enables a recognition of the obstacles researchers often, and even unintentionally, raise to cooperative knowledge construction.

This cannot be attained while they believe that only some, and in particular theory creators, scientists, and philosophers, may understand the sense, the destiny of mankind in the world, and of the person in society. For cognitive interaction and cooperative knowledge construction to take place it is necessary to bear in mind that different theories do not constitute a mirror in which people's identity and life in society is reflected.

Those theories have their own ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions and, if we incorporate the concepts of these theories cognitively, the subjects who are to be known will be observed, and their actions interpreted, along the line of those assumptions. The weight of notions and categories with which the knowledge of the "other" is attained is, in general, so strong that it does not just hinder access and recognition of the common aspect of identity, but it also overshadows it, darkening the differences between individuals and groups, as well.

In these cases cooperative knowledge construction does not take place because inquirers, far from allowing the participant actors' manifestations and expressions of their own knowledge, try to explain them, interpret what they observe, listen to or read "data" with codes which are alien to those of the people whose actions they try to understand, imposing on them the violence of a code, a narrative, or a law they do generally not know, nor consider guides their actions.


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Ontology and epistemology are two different ways of viewing a research philosophy. Ontology in business research can be defined as “the science or study of being” and it deals with the nature of reality. Ontology is a system of belief that reflects an interpretation by an individual about what constitutes a fact.

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Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.

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What on earth are Ontology and Epistemology? Dr Sally Vanson I am an NLP Master Trainer, sit on the accreditation panel of ANLP, the Research Committee of ICF and am CEO of The Performance Solution where as well as training professional coaches to get accreditation through ICF, we have designed, developed and run the world’s first NLP based Masters’ degree. 3. Choose a spokes person to report back on: (i) how your research brief grew out of your epistemological starting point(s); (ii) any difficulties you faced in agreeing on epistemological and ontological positions in relation to your proposed research; (iii) potential limitations to the research: e.g.

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There is also a 2nd (ie alternate) meaning of `ontology' in the Digital Humanities (and, information science), which is sort of more like a `key term' in a `list of key . Nevertheless, a distance between the knower and the known, rendering the former "an impartial observer and the other to be subject to the observer's gaze" (SAVAGE, , p), often persists in those who, despite carrying out qualitative research, cannot get rid of an empiricist ontology and epistemology.