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The epistemology is defined as a “general set of assumptions about the best ways of inquiring into the nature of the world” (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, p.17). It is obvious that it is connected to the notion of ontology which describes the basic ideas of the nature of reality. This kind of assumptions, even though they may change over time, tend to be tacit, which means that the researchers who advocate them do not always do it consciously, even though realizing one’s philosophical ideas is usually required of a scientist (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, p.34). Given these facts, it becomes evident that the epistemological stance of a researcher has a significant impact on his or her research.
From the point of view of social research knowledge, two epistemological views are typically defined: positivism and social constructionism, both of which can be “strong” (radical); apart from that, the mentioned approaches can be mixed (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, pp. 22-25). According to positivism (which corresponds to the realist ontological stance), the existing world and its properties are affected by the external forces and, therefore, should be measured with the help of objective methods. Social constructionism is a more recent paradigm that has arisen as a reaction to positivism and, naturally, criticizes its ideas.
According to social constructionism, the reality is not exterior to society; instead, it is “socially constructed” which means that the detachment of the researcher from the “object” is not only unnecessary but is actually harmful to the research (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, pp. 23). The subjective opinions and views are accepted within this paradigm since the idea of a single truth is given up in favour of accepting numerous, socially conditioned truths. As a result, it appears that while the epistemological stance is significant for any researcher, for the strong constructionism, it is of particular importance, since, for this stance, the researcher is deeply engaged in the process of research and the reflexion on it (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, pp. 25-26)
Other types of epistemological stances also exist. For example, the critical theory explains the controversy of the two main approaches and appears to accept the right of both of them for existence. The theory draws a line between the research of inanimate objects (natural sciences) and those where the “objects” are capable of contributing to the understanding of the situation (the social sciences). Similar is the approach of structuration theory which claims that the laws of science are universal while the social sciences “depend upon the context” (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, pp. 30-33).
Epistemological Stance and Research Process
The epistemological stance of a researcher affects all the stages of research beginning with the problem statement and ending with the evaluation of the results; different epistemological approaches favour different methods and tools (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, pp. 25-27). While, for a positivist, it is natural to start the research with a hypothesis and to develop the design of the research prior to the action, for the strong constructionism it is more logical to develop the design in the process (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, p. 39). The choice of the epistemological paradigm defines the questions that a researcher finds important and worth of studying (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe & Jackson 2012, p. 23). To demonstrate this fact, the issue of transformational leadership effectiveness as compared to the transitional one will be used as an example.
From the strong positivist point of view, the issue of the effectiveness of transformational leadership would be connected to the employees’ and company’s performance, and that is the kind of information that epistemology stance would seek to confirm its hypothesis. In this case, the problem would most certainly be presented as the influence of transformational leadership on employee effectiveness. A regular positivist might spot other factors that can be influenced by the type of leadership, for instance, by including the factors of teamwork that could be assessed through the conflict situation in the team and the employees’ job satisfaction. This information would be used to prove the hypothesis that there are numerous aspects of an organization performance that are influenced by leadership style.
For constructionism, the mentioned data would also play the role; however, the primary focus, in this case, would be on the employees’ view and perception of the leadership style as the researcher strives to determine different views. The opinion of managers would also be taken into account since it forms another aspect of the issue. For the strong constructionism, this focus on various views will even mean that the design of the research will not be really planned out, but emerge naturally in the process. A transitional type of epistemology stance could bring in additional aspects. In feminism, for example, that would include the consistency of transformational leadership with the gender equality principle or gender mainstreaming as a major and, possibly, main factor of the effectiveness.
Therefore, the epistemological stance of a researcher affects the research already on the stage of problem formulation. As the research progresses, other aspects will also be modified by the researcher’s philosophical preferences.
Easterby-Smith, M, Thorpe, R & Jackson, P 2012, Management research, 4th edn, SAGE Publications, London, UK.