Epistemology & isms

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines epistemology as: “the study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. The term is derived from the Greek episteme (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”), and accordingly the field is sometimes referred to as the theory of knowledge.”

The Encyclopaedia’s definitions for objectivism and positivism are below. Gray (2009, p18) opines that positivism is closely linked with objectivism in holding that “there is an objective reality out there. So research is about discovering this objective truth.” He contrasts these perspectives with constructivism where: “Truth and knowledge do not exist in some external world, but are created by the subject’s interactions with the world. Meaning is constructed not discovered, so subjects construct their own meanings in different ways, even in relation to the same phenomenon.” Gray links interpretivism with constructivism.

Why do we need to understand these things? Gray (2009, p18) suggests that understanding can help us to clarify issues of research design and, in particular, the overarching structure of the research including the kind of evidence that is being gathered, from where, and how it is going to be interpreted.

Definitions from Encyclopaedia Britannica

interpretivism: “A major anti-positivist stance is interpretivism, which looks for culturally derived and historically situated interpretations of the social life-world’ (Crotty, 1998: 67). There is no, direct, one-to-one relationship between ourselves (subjects) and the world (object). The world is interpreted through the classification schemas of the mind (Williams and May, 1996). In terms of epistemology, interpretivism is closely linked to constructivism. Interpretivism asserts that natural reality (and the laws of science) and social reality are different and therefore require different kinds of method. While the natural sciences are looking for consistencies in the data in order to deduce ‘laws’ (nomothetic), the social sciences often deal with the actions of the individual (ideographic). (Gray, 2009 p18)  “Our interest in the social world tends to focus on exactly those aspects that are unique. individual and qualitative. whereas our interest in the natural world focuses on more abstract phenomena. that is. those exhibiting quantifiable. empirical regularities.” (Crotty. 1998: 68)

objectivism: “philosophical system identified with the thought of the 20th-century Russian-born American writer Ayn Rand …. Its principal doctrines consist of versions of metaphysical realism (the existence and nature of things in the world are independent of their being perceived or thought about), epistemological (or direct) realism (things in the world are perceived immediately or directly rather than inferred on the basis of perceptual evidence), ethical egoism (an action is morally right if it promotes the self-interest of the agent), individualism (a political system is just if it properly respects the rights and interests of the individual), and laissez-faire capitalism. Objectivism also addresses issues in aesthetics and the philosophy of love and sex. Perhaps the best-known and most-controversial aspect of objectivism is its account of the moral virtues, in particular its unconventional claim that selfishness is a virtue and altruism a vice.”

positivism: “in philosophy, generally, any system that confines itself to the data of experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculations. …. The basic affirmations of positivism are (1) that all knowledge regarding matters of fact is based on the “positive” data of experience, and (2) that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics, which were already recognized by the 18th-century Scottish empiricist and skeptic David Hume as concerned with the “relations of ideas” and, in a later phase of positivism, were classified as purely formal sciences.”


epistemology 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. Retrieved 18 August 2012, from http://library.eb.co.uk/eb/article-9106052

GRAY, D. E. 2009. Doing research in the real world, Sage Publications Ltd.

objectivism 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. Retrieved 18 August 2012, from http://library.eb.co.uk/eb/article-9570958

positivism 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition. Retrieved 18 August 2012, from http://library.eb.co.uk/eb/article-9108682