Every research has a philosophy behind it and an approach or approaches for studying a phenomenon. What is philosophy? What are the broad philosophies underpinning research? In this article, I would address these questions.
What is Philosophy?
Philosophy, from the Greek ‘love of wisdom’ is difficult to define since it does not possess a specific object of inquiry. In a broad sense, philosophy is concerned with fundamental problems that arise in every area of human thought and activity, and which cannot be resolved by a specific method. Thus, philosophy is an activity of human reasoning about problems that come up in the world of humans. If research is a study of a phenomenon with a view of understanding it, then there is a relationship between research and philosophy – they both seek to understand problems, but understanding alone is not enough; research acts after understanding to solve problems; thereby making the world a better place to live in.
What Philosophies Underpin Research?
There are three philosophies behind research – positivism, post-positivism and pragmatism.
Positivism as an epistemology (a way of knowing how knowledge is derived and how it is to be validated) is based on the idea that science is the only way to learn about the truth. The positivist determines truth a priori (a Latin term meaning, ‘from what comes before’. And a priori proposition is one that is known to be true or false, without reference to experience). As a philosophy, positivism adheres to the view that only ‘factual’ knowledge gained through observation (the senses), including measurement, is trustworthy. This school of thought posits that the researcher is limited to data collection and interpretation in a subjective way; and that, research findings are usually observable and quantifiable. In the positivism paradigm, the researcher is independent of the study and there are no provisions for human interests within the study; he or she depends on facts to deduce results from the research. Positivism is applied mainly in Basic Science in which experiments are used to discern natural laws through direct manipulation and observation. So to the positivist, research is subjective; the findings must be subjected to natural laws and principles to make them valid. Positivism employs the Quantitative approach to research which is much more numbers-driven. The emphasis is on the collection of numerical data that can be studied and categorized into frequencies and described in percentages and other descriptive statistical methods such as mode and mean charts and graphs. The conclusion then makes inferences based on that data.
Post-positivism is a rejection of the central tenets of positivism. Post-positivists are constructivists who believe that we each construct our view of the world based on our perceptions. A post-positivist determines truth a posteriori (a Latin term meaning ‘from what comes after’. A posteriori propositions are true or false in relation to known established facts of experience). The epistemology of the post-positivist is that; truth can be known objectively by recognizing the possible effects of biases. The post-positivists postulate that theories, background knowledge and values of the researcher can influence what is observed. They are of the view that research is objective; the findings are open-ended because they could be influenced by a number of factors, including the biases of the researcher. Finding of research on a topic may differ from one researcher to the other because they see reality from different perspectives. Post-positivists use their thought in applied research. Most of the research in the Social Sciences is Applied Research. In other words, the research techniques, procedures and methods that form the body of the methodology are applied to find solutions to practical problems and develop innovative technologies, rather than to acquire knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The post-positivist considers both quantitative and qualitative methods as valid approaches to research. The Qualitative research approach is descriptive in nature because it deals with non-numerical and unquantifiable things. The research might involve some numerical data in that the researcher would document the number of observations; however, the observations themselves would be descriptive of what the animals do.
Pragmatism is derived from the Greek word pragma, meaning action. Pragmatism is a deconstructive philosophy in which truth is not seen as an absolute but a moveable and usable construct for understanding the reality of nature. The pragmatists’ epistemology is that truth is ‘what works’ rather than what might be considered absolutely and objectively ‘true’ or ‘real’. The pragmatists hold the view that there are many different ways of interpreting the world and that in conducting research, no single point of view can ever give the entire picture because there may be multiple realities. In terms of research, the pragmatists integrate multiple approaches and strategies such as Qualitative, Quantitative and Action research methods within the same study. Action research is an approach applied in the Social Sciences. Action research goes through a cycle – planning, acting, observing, reflecting, planning and then reporting the findings.
Are you a researcher or an upcoming researcher? You may want to try your hands on the following questions.
- In what sense can you say that research findings are not absolute truths?
- Propose a research topic in your field of study and determine which methodological approach you would prefer to use for the study? Justify your choice of approach.
Crowther, D. & Lancaster G., Research Methods: A Concise Introduction to Research Management and Business Consultancy (Butterworth: Heinemann, 2008).
Kumar, R., Research Methodology: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners 3rd Edition (London: SAGE Publications, 2011).
The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 3rd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
This article is published with the kind courtesy of the author – Prof. Jonathan Edward Tetteh Kuwornu-Adjaottor. He is an Associate Professor of New Testament and Mother Tongue Biblical Hermeneutics in the Department of Religious Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.