Contending Epistemological Perspectives in Social Science Research Method

A journey into the world of knowledge could be made through many routes; so that right from the beginning of the earth, men had employed one or more of those routes in their quest for knowledge. “Research is only one of several ways of knowing,” ( Knowledge gives wisdom. The quest for wisdom has generally been tagged as philosophy. The branch of philosophy that deals with how knowledge is gained is called epistemology, (Ibid.)
Epistemologists are chiefly concerned on how Universe of Discourse (UoD), i.e, realities is made sense of. “Sense-making from a constructivist point of view is a process of attributing meaning to constructions according to the actor's local reality and simultaneously influencing the local reality,” (
Epistemologists basically recognize these four different sources of knowledge:
Intuitive Knowledge: This takes forms such as belief, faith, intuition, etc. It is based on feelings rather than hard, cold "facts." In order words, intuitive knowledge is not sensory perceptible. Knowledge from dreams, visions and hunches fit into this category.

Empirical Knowledge: Unlike the intuitive, empirical knowledge is sensory perceptible. It is based on demonstrable, objective facts which are determined through observation and/or experimentation. Scientific method of study is one the means to this category of knowledge.
Authoritative Knowledge: This type of knowledge is derived from a source that is considered authoritative such as people, books, a supreme being, etc. Its strength depends on the strength of these sources. For instance, the broad leaved national dailies would not hesitate to float statements made by our distinguished Political Scientist, Dr. Aiyede, concerning politics in Nigeria on their front banners, given that the source is highly authoritative: a University Don and a Political Scientist.
Logical Knowledge: This is arrived at by reasoning from "point A" (which is generally accepted) to "point B" (the new knowledge) (See op. cit.). It is a knowledge by deduction; moving from general to particular. For instance:
Old universities are good.
UI is an old university.
Therefore, UI is good.
The Concept of Epistemology
As stated supra, epistemology is a branch of philosophy which deals with how knowledge is gained. Etymologically, epistemology is rooted in two Greek words, ‘episteme’ and ‘logos.’ The former means ‘knowledge’ while the latter means ‘study’; so that epistemology could loosely be defined as the study of knowledge.
According to Carson et al (2001), epistemology can be defined as the relationship between the researcher and the reality or how this reality is captured or known. “It is the different forms of knowledge of (a) reality, (U.O.C 2013).
Epistemology is comprehensively seen as the "the nature of human knowledge and understanding that can possibly be acquired through different types of inquiry and alternative methods of investigation,” (See Hirschheim et al., (1995).
In the attempt to demystify the concept of epistemology, Vasilachis de Gialdino, (2009) delineated what he perceived as the concerns of epistemology. According to him,
Epistemology raises many questions including: 1. how reality can be known, 2. the relationship between the knower and what is known, 3. the characteristics, the principles, the assumptions that guide the process of knowing and the achievement of findings, and 4. the possibility of that process being shared and repeated by others in order to assess the quality of the research and the reliability of those findings
He differentiated the concept of epistemology from what he called epistemological reflections. He argued that epistemological reflection is what enables us to elucidate the different paradigms which give different answers to the questions raised by epistemology, (Ibid.).
Suffice it to say here is that this epistemological reflection constitutes the interest of this paper which discusses the contending epistemological perspectives, nay, paradigms in social science research.
The Concept of Ontology
The concept of ontology is also a branch of philosophy, but that which is “concerned with articulating the nature and structure of the world,” (Wand and Weber (1993:220) in, op. cit.).
It maintains a strong semantic affinity with the concept of epistemology so that one could safely call them twin brothers. Ontology is interested in the nature of both essential and existential realities while epistemology is interested in the means of understanding them. The understanding of realities manifests itself as knowledge; the interest of epistemology.
Ontology is the ways of constructing reality, “how things really are” and “how things really work,” (Denzin and Lincoln, (1998; 201) in U.O.C (2013).
The Concept of Methodology
Methodology in research method embraces the procedures and methods involved in data gathering, presentation, processing and analysis, (Olutuah 2000). According to Bamiro et al (2000), the following information should be included in the methodology. In other words, the scope of methodology include:
A brief statement describing the general research methods to be followed;
Provision of support materials required to facilitate the development of the research and achievement of its objectives;
Dissemination and/or extension activities that are intended to present, to the policy-making community, preliminary or final results of the project.  These include meetings, seminars, workshops and conferences, media events, etc, that take place during, immediately upon the conclusion, or sometime after the project; and
Intended publications to be prepared as part of the project. These could include working papers, journal articles, conference papers and books. Mechanism to be used for distribution should also be listed when possible. Issues relating to fieldwork and staff training should also be discussed.
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (U.O.C) (2013) believes that methodology is a tool to knowing a reality. They argued that a typical methodological question is what tools do we use to know a reality? ( U.O.C, op. cit.).
Methodology therefore could be seen as an instrument used to harness knowledge out of a reality. It also could be seen as an interface between epistemology and ontology. That is, a situation where epistemology pursues ontological knowledge using methodology.
The Concept of Paradigm
Paradigm is “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated” (Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2007). It is also “the set of common beliefs and agreements shared between scientists about how problems should be understood and addressed” (See Kuhn, 1962 in U.O.C 2013). The epistemological perspectives in the social science research are coterminous if not the same thing with philosophical and theoretical paradigms on the nature of knowledge and the means of inquiry into it.
The Concept of Weltanschauung or worldview
Weltanschauung can be described as (Merriam-Webster, 1997) "a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint." There are two different worldviews: An objectivistic and a constructivistic world views.
From an objectivistic point of view, the Universe of Discourse is comprised of distinct objects with properties independent of the inquiring observer (Hirschheim et al., 1995:58 quoted in op. cit). It is generally possible for humans to investigate the world without influencing it (Guba and Lincoln, 1994:110, in Ibid.). Hence, sense-making from an objectivist point of view is considered as rational analysis of data in a mental problem space and construction of deductive arguments of cause-and-effect (Boland and Tenkasi, 1995:353 in Ibid.).
Concerning constructivist worldview, Schwandt (1994:125) argues that what constitutes a constructivistic worldview is shaped by the use and users of the term, and there is no widely agreed upon view of the paradigm, (Ibid.). By this, constructivist worldview is basically subjective and particularistic.
Contending Epistemological Perspectives in Social Science Research Method
There are two basic contending epistemological paradigms in social science research method; viz. Positivism and Interpretivism (Edirisingha 2012).
This epistemological paradigm projects an objective worldview in the pursuit of knowledge. “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 judgment. It is also important in positivist research to seek objectivity and use consistently rational and logical approaches to research (Ibid.). Statistical and mathematical techniques are central to positivist research, which adheres to specifically structured research techniques to uncover single and objective reality (Ibid.). The goal of positivist researchers is to make time and context free generalizations, (Edirisingha 2012).
Positivist epistemological approach is inductive and theory-testing; having the natural sciences as a model and its researchers as scientists (Raddon n.d).
Positivists claim that it is important to clearly distinguish between fact and value judgment. As positivist researchers seek objectivity, (they) use consistently rational and logical approaches to research (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).
In the words of Rene Descartes quoted in U.O.C (2013), “those who are seeking the strict way of truth should not trouble themselves about any object concerning which they cannot have a certainty equal to arithmetic or geometrical demonstration.”
Positivism favours empiricism. Its rigid belief in empirical facts is epitomized by the employment of scientific method as the only valid method of research. To a positivist researcher, knowledge is valid only when it is gotten from an objective observation or empirical experimentation.
According to Raddon (n.d) positivist epistemological paradigm boasts of the following advantages:
Economical collection of a large amount of data;
Clear theoretical focus for the research from the outset;
Greater opportunity for the researcher to retain control of the research process;
Easily comparable data;
However, they have these challenging problems below to confront with:
Inflexibility as direction often cannot be changed once data collection has started; weakness at understanding social processes and; often, it does not discover the meanings people attach to social phenomena; (Ibid.).
The interpretivist position on epistemology is that realities are multiple and relative; and are dependent on other systems for meaning, (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). The knowledge acquired in this discipline is socially constructed rather than objectively determined (Carson et al., 2001).
Similarly,, (op. cit.) quoting (Guba and Lincoln, 1994:110) and (Dahlbom, 1992:101), argues that:
Firstly, realities are local and specific in the sense that they vary between groups of individuals.
Secondly, reality is actively constructed, i.e., not merely discovered. Hence, the distinction between ontology and epistemology is blurred, as what constitutes reality depends on a particular actor and his values.
Thirdly, reality is socially constructed, i.e., the constructions are not personal or technical.
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).
The interpretivists’ worldview is constructivist and subjective. They believe that sense-making of the Universe of Discourse is a venture of multiple variables.
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).
They largely employ logic, intuition and sense perception in their quest for knowledge of the realities.
Interpretivism has the following advantages over the contending paradigm of positivism:
Facilitates understanding of how and why;
Enables the researcher to be alive to changes which occur;
Good at understanding social processes;
Allows for complexity and contextual factors;
The positivist paradigm however did not hesitate to remind interpretivism of these problems below which constitute a blow to the paradigmatic sanctity of interpretivism. The positivists argue that in interpretivism, data collection can be time consuming; data analysis is challenging and can be complex; researcher has to live with the uncertainty that clear patterns may not emerge and; generally perceived as less credible by ‘non- researchers (See Raddon n.d).
The Epistemological and Methodological Dichotomy of Positivism and Interpretivism
Possible to obtain hard, secure and objective knowledge
Understood through ‘perceived’ knowledge
Grounds of knowledge/ relationship between reality and research
Research focuses on generalization and abstraction
Research focuses on specific and concrete
Thought governed by hypotheses and stated theories
Seeking to understand specific context
Concentrates on description and explanation
Concentrates on understanding and interpretation
Detached, external observer
Researcher want to experience what they are studying
Clear distinction between reason and feeling
Allow feeling and reason to govern actions
Aim to discover external realities other than creating the object of study
Partially creates what is studied, the meaning of phenomena
Strive to use rational, consistent, verbal, logical approach
Use of pre-understanding is important
Seek to maintain clear distinction between facts and value judgments
Distinction between facts and value judgment less clear
Distinction between science and personal experience
Accept influence from both science and personal experience
Techniques used by researchers
Formalized statistical and mathematical methods predominant
Primarily non-quantitative
Source: Carson et al (2001) Pg. 6
Positivism and Interpretivism: The Synergy
The duo paradigms of positivism and interpretivism have their limitations. These limitations deny ‘knowledge’ the comprehensive grasp of the nature of realities or the universe of discourse. This brings to the front burner the need for synergy.
One of the apostles of the science of politics, David Easton, who promotes a water-tight separation of values and facts declared that ethical valuation and empirical explanation… should be kept analytically, distinct,” (Easton n.d).
“But, the chastity or neutrality of facts have been queried on several grounds,” (Ayoade 1985). This is because, “values are prior to any investigation,” (Kim 1961 in Ayoade 1985). A mere choice of subjects to study is value-judgement, (Barbrook 1979).
Given the reasons above, attempts to separate positivism from interpretivism would be tantamount to an exercise in futility.
Nwolise (2013) accused science of arrogance as it claims that whatever it can not understand, capture, measure, control, or predict, does not exist. He wrote thus:
The unending confrontation between science and non material or spiritual things is well known…. Science and its baby – technology – are concerned with physical things, that is matter. Matter is a physical material of the universe defined as “anything that occupies space and has mass” (Ukwueze 2011). Science being concerned with matter, has its iron rule that whatever cannot be seen, touched, measured or weighed does not exist. But is this the whole TRUTH? Is this universal reality? Is this social reality, especially for those of us in the Social Sciences.
Is Science not being too cowardly, pompous, despotic, or arrogant in insisting that whatever it can  not understand, capture, measure, control, or predict, does not exist?
Prof. Osisioma Nwolise was able to marshal evidences that really proved that there are realms beyond the empirical world. Capturing the all the empirical and metaphysical knowledge in the world is only realizable with the union of positivist and interpretivist epistemological persuasions.
There are two basic epistemological traditions/perspectives in the Social Science research method – Positivism and Interpretivism. These epistemological paradigms disagree on several areas including on the nature of reality, knowledge and the best method of gaining knowledge about realities. The former proposes an objectivist worldview while the latter favours subjectivism.
Be that as it may, it has been established that attempts at the compartmentalization of the duo paradigms would amount to an exercise in futility; hence, the position that both of the epistemological persuasions should become partners in progress in the quest for sense-making on the universe of discourse.

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