Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge. It deals with questions as is there truth and or absolute truth, is there one way or many ways to see something. In research, epistemology manifest itself in several views. The two extremes are positivism and interpretivism.
Positivism asserts that all truth can be verified and proven scientifically and can be measured and or observed. This position discounts religious revelation as a source of knowledge as this cannot be verified scientifically. The position of positivist is also derived from realism in that there is an external world out there that needs to be studied.
For researchers, positivism is the foundation of quantitative research. Quantitative researchers try to be objective in their research, they try to avoid coming into contact with whatever they are studying as they do not want to disturb the environment. One of the primary goals is to make generalizations that are applicable in all instances.
For quantitative researchers, they normally have a desire to test a theory. In other words, the develop one example of what they believe is a truth about a phenomenon (a theory) and they test the accuracy of this theory with statistical data. The data determines the accuracy of the theory and the changes that need to be made.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people were looking for alternative ways to approach research. One new approach was interpretivism.
Interpretivism is the complete opposite of positivism in many ways. Interpretivism asserts that there is no absolute truth but relative truth based on context. There is no single reality but multiple realities that need to be explored and understood.
For interpretist, There is a fluidity in their methods of data collection and analysis. These two steps are often iterative in the same design. Furthermore, intrepretist see themselves not as outside the reality but a player within it. Thus, they often will share not only what the data says but their own view and stance about it.
Qualitative researchers are interpretists. They spend time in the field getting close to their participants through interviews and observations. They then interpret the meaning of these communications to explain a local context specific reality.
While quantitative researchers test theories, qualitative researchers build theories. For qualitative researchers, they gather data and interpret the data by developing a theory that explains the local reality of the context. Since the sampling is normally small in qualitative studies, the theories do not often apply to many.
There is little purpose in debating which view is superior. Both positivism and interpretivism have their place in research. What matters more is to understand your position and preference and to be able to articulate in a reasonable manner. It is often not what a person does and believes that is important as why they believe or do what they do.
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