Research Philosophy, Design and Strategy

Session Overview

The principles of research philosophy.
Contrasting research paradigms.
The importance of validity and reliability in research.
Designing your research project.
Differences between quantitative and qualitative approaches to research design and data collection.
Differences between ‘Deductive’ and ‘Inductive’ approaches to theory development.
The significance of a ‘Line of Sight’ in research design.
Introduction to the ‘heightening awareness of research philosophy’ (HARP) tool.

The Research ‘Onion’ (Saunders et al. 2015)
Developing your research philosophy: a reflexive process (Saunders et al. 2015)

Principles of Research Philosophy: Ontology

What is nature or being, becoming, existence and reality?

Ontology is concerned with philosophical questions such as:-

What is real? What is reality?
What exists?
What are the fundamental parts of the world?
How are they related to each other?

Principles of Research Philosophy: Epistemology

How do we know?

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It concerns the following questions:-

How is knowledge attained?
What should be believed?
Epistemology is concerned with the origin, structure, methods and validity of human knowledge.
It deals with mental phenomena such as thinking, perceiving, knowing and understanding.

Principles of Research Philosophy: Axiology

From the Greek word meaning ‘Worthy’
The philosophical study of value.
Concerned with:-
Nature, type and criteria of values.
Value judgements.


Empiricism is the theory that the only source of human knowledge is experience.
Empiricism argues that experiments and observation are the main instruments for the acquisition of knowledge.


Positivism is an extension of empiricism, in that knowledge is derived from experience, but it also believes that nothing is innate and that only that which can be measured is worth worrying about.
Positivism argues that metaphysical speculation is nonsensical, and moral or value statements merely emotive.
Positivism asserts that verification is essential and that a proposition has meaning only if it can be proven.

Critical Realism

Critical realism argues it is possible to acquire knowledge about the external world as it really is.
This suggests there is a reality ‘out there’ that is independent of the mind.
Realism is opposed to idealism, which argues only the mind and its contents exist.
Knowledge of the external world can only be acquired by critical reflection on perception and its world.


Interpretivism relates to idealism. Idealism holds the view that the world is the creation of the mind; the world is interpreted through the mind.
It challenges the scientific methods of investigation put forward by empiricism and positivism.
It argues that we cannot know the ‘true’ nature of the object world, separate from our perception of it.
It assumes that access to reality (given or socially constructed), is only through social constructions such as language, consciousness, shared meanings and instruments (Myers 2008).

Validity and Reliability (Saunders et al. 2019)

Validity is concerned with whether the findings are really about what they appear to be.
Validity determines whether the research truly measures that which it was intended to measure, or how truthful the research results.
In other words, does the research allow you to hit “the bull’s eye” of your research object?
Reliability is the consistency of a set of measurements or measuring instrument. It can be assessed by posing the questions:-
Will the measure yield the same results as on other occasions?
Will similar observations be reached by other observers?
Is there transparency on how the data was analysed?

Threats to reliability

Participant sample selection bias.
Subject or participant error.
Subject or participant bias.
Observer error or bias.

Designing your research

How and what you decide will be influenced by:
Your question(s)
Your philosophy
Your approach to theory building (deductive/inductive/abductive)
The context (situation)
The ‘taken for granted’
Your research strategy (case study, action research, experiment, ethnography, grounded theory etc.)
Your data collection methods
The participant sample
The time horizon (longitudinal/cross sectional)
Your ability

Methodological Choice (Saunders et al. 2015)

The distinction between quantitative and qualitative approaches

It is important to be able to identify and understand the research approach underlying the study…
…because the selection of a research approach influences the methods chosen, the analysis used, the inferences made and the ultimate goal of the research.
Some argue that these differences are not really important as they simply represent different ways of looking at a problem.

Qualitative Approaches

A qualitative enquiry has the goal of understanding a social or human problem from multiple perspectives.
The researcher therefore attempts to investigate some larger reality by examining it in terms of its context and in a holistic way.
Assumption that there are multiple realities.
The researcher interacts with those s/he studies.
Research is based on inductive forms of logic: categories of interest emerge from participants; rather than being identified before by the researcher.

Qualitative Research

Involves in-depth, intense and/or prolonged contact with a field or life situation.
Aims to gain a holistic view through the participants own words.
Seeks to understand and provide insights into the ways people, in particular settings, come to understand, account for, act, and otherwise manage their everyday situations.
The researcher is the main instrument of research.

Types of Qualitative Methods

Case Studies
Action Research
Ethnography – (including participant observation)
Interviews – structured, semi-structured, in-depth, unstructured
Focus groups
Narrative accounts

Quantitative Approaches

Enquiry into a problem/issue based on: –
Testing a theory
Measuring with numbers
Analysis using statistical techniques
The goal of Quantitative Research is to be able to predict accurately.

Principles of Quantitative Methods

Reality is objective, ‘out there ‘and independent of the researcher.
The values of the researcher should remain distant and independent of what is being researched.
The research is based primarily on deduction.
The goal is to develop generalization that contributes to theory that allows the researcher to predict, explain and understand phenomena.

Types of Quantitative Methods

Objective Observation

Variables and Quantitative Methods

What variables do you need to control for and identify?
What data do you need to obtain?
What independent variables would be of interest to your research?
Which variables will you discuss in your analysis?

Mixed-Method Approaches

Includes a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection.
May include a combination of philosophical approaches.
Mixed-method research designs can be fixed or emergent.
Enables exploration of a research problem from multiple perspectives.

Deductive, Inductive or Abductive?

Are you testing a theory, hypothesis, proposition?
Are you searching for relationships, influences, understanding, answers, etc.?
Are you moving back and forth between data and theory?

Line of sight

What type of data suits your research?
What type of data suits you?
What type of data has been obtained previously?
What type of data can you obtain?
What type of data can you analyse?
What is your philosophy (ontology, epistemology, axiology)?
All parts of research need a line of sight between each facet.

Heightening awareness of research philosophy (HARP) (© Bristow and Saunders 2014)

HARP is a reflexive tool, designed by Bristow & Saunders (2014) to help students explore their research philosophy.
It is just a starting point to help you ask yourself more refined questions about how you see research.
It will not give you a definitive answer on your preferred research philosophy, but it will give you an indication as to where your views are similar to, and different from, the following five major philosophical traditions:
Critical Realism

Further reading and information:

Bristow, A. & Saunders, M.N.K. (2014) Heightening awareness of research philosophy: the development of a reflexive tool for use with students. British Academy of Management Conference Proceedings, Belfast.

Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R., Jackson, P.R. & Jaspersen, L.J. (2018) Management and Business Research (6th edition). London: Sage. See Chapters 3 and 4.

Kumar, R. (2011) Research Methodology. Sage: London. See Chapter 8.

Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill (2019) Research Methods for Business Students (8th edition). Harlow: Pearson Education. See Chapter 4: Understanding research philosophy and approaches to theory development.

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