Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

1. Basics

Activity 1.6.1

1.6 Ontology and epistemology
Researching the real world involves us making tacit or explicit assumptions about, first, the nature of the social world, known as ontological assumptions. Second, about what constitutes knowledge about the world, known as epistemological assumptions.

1.6.1 Ontology
In addition to specific theories about aspects of the social world, sociologists also ask theoretical questions about much wider issues. Sociology is the study of the relationship between society and the individuals that make up society. To make progress requires making some theoretical assumptions about the nature of society and the nature of the people within it. These are known as ontological assumptions.

Ontology is the theory of 'being', that is, what is it that makes up a social being and how do people relate to one another, the physical world and to society in general.

For example, some sociologists assume that society is external to individuals, while others think that society is nothing more than the people who constitute it. One ontological view is that people are inherently selfish, while another suggests that humans are fundamentally creative. All these are views about the nature of 'being': the way people are and how they relate to others.


1.6.2 Epistemology
Social scientists need to make decisions about the most appropriate way to produce knowledge about the topics that they are studying. They need to decide what does and what does not count as knowledge. This is known as epistemology, which means the theory of the nature of knowledge.

Social scientists make epistemological assumptions about how we know the social world. For some, this means being able to prove a causal connection (positivism), for others sociological knowledge is dependent on being able to interpret actions (phenomenology), and for others sociological knowledge involves critical reflection by locating a particular event or action in a wider social and historical context (critical social research).

As these three approaches are fundamental to an understanding of social research they will be explored in more detail in Part 2.

Study Point
Is the assumption that social science can use the same approach as natural science an epistemological or an ontological assumption?

Activity 1.6.1
Which of the following are epistemological statements and which are ontological?
Human being need something to believe in.
Human beings are capable of knowing reality.
People like to have order in their lives.
Knowledge is simply the correct recognition of facts.
Humans are creative beings.
We cannot know the world we can only see it from our point of view.
This activity involves thinking theoretically.
As a class activity this would take about 15 minutes in small groups with a short 10-minute feedback session.


Next 1.7 Subjectivity and objectivity