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Coghlan and Brannick (2010,40) have a small section on research paradigms and action research which helpfully adds some more detail to my previous post on Epistemology and research.

First there are some useful explanations:

Epistemology = the grounds for knowledge

At one end of a continuum we have the ‘objectivist’ view of epistemology which accepts that language can be theory-neutral – i.e. it is possible to describe the external world objectively.

At the other end of the continuum we have the ‘subjectivist’ view of epistemology which denies the possibility of a theory-neutral language.

Ontology = the nature of the world

At one end of the continuum we have the ‘objectivist’ view of ontology which assumes that social and natural reality have an existence independent of human cognition.

At the other end of the continuum we have the ‘subjectivist’ view of ontology is that what we accept as reality is an output of human cognitive processes.


So, there are three possible combinations leading to different paradigms.  Each of these paradigms will lead to different types of reflexivity, different claims about theory developed through such an approach and a different relationship between the researcher and the data.

Objectivist ontology with objectivist epistemology = positivism

Here the concern is for generalizable theory, reflexivity that focusses on the quality of the method and its application and for a distant, neutral relationship with data.  Historically positivism has been the dominant approach in organisational and mgmt studies.

Subjectivist ontology with subjectivist epistemology = hermeneutics and postmodernism

Here the concerns is for particular theory, reflexivity is hyper because you focus on the deconstruction of your practice (what is it I do when I do what I do?) and the researcher seems themselves close up to data, integral to research and understands that their actions change the situation they are studying.

Objectivist ontology but subjectivist epistemology = critical realism and action research

Here the concern is also for particular theory.  Reflexivity is epistemic in that there is a focus on the researchers belief system, the need to expose interests and enable emancipation.  Again the researcher is close to the data.


The important principle here is that research based on one paradigm should not be evaluated within the frame of reference of another paradigm.  Each must be evaluated within its own frame of reference.

Writing this up reminded me of Bawden’s cognitive basis of your worldview (1999 and 2009) which I came across in TU812 and summarised in this post.  It is interesting that his explanations of epistemology and the dimension of relativism (subjectivism) and objectivism are very similiar to Coghlan and Brannick’s but this is not so with the explanations of ontology.  Bawden’s focus was on ontology as what you believe about the nature of nature and named his dimensions holism and reductionism.  Bawden was making his distinctions in order to explain how worldview can influence your perceptions whereas Coghlan and Brannick’s distinctions are about drawing attention to research paradigms and claims about knowledge produced.

Don’t think I’ll worry myself too much about the differences – just goes to show it is best to think of ontology and epistemology from a ‘subjectivist’ view of epistemology 🙂


Coghlan, D. and Brannick, T. (2010) “Doing action research in your own organisation”, 3rd edition, Sage Publications, London.

Bawden, R (1999) The Community Challenge: the learning response in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Bawden, R. (2009) Messy Issues, Worldviews and systemic competencies in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London


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Another diversion into epistemology and research