Philosophical Assumptions for Qualitative Research

March 24, 2013 — Leave a comment

In any kind of work or study, we always bring a certain set of beliefs as well as philosophical assumptions.  Qualitative researchers understand the importance of beliefs and theories that inform their work and also actively write about them in their research.  John Creswell in his book “Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design” describes these assumptions and frames them into interpretive frameworks so we can understand their significance to our own research.  For my doctoral thesis, I am exploring the feasibility of developing a formalized approach to curriculum mapping with the goal of developing a feature complete software solution.  Before I get there I must first define in greater depth the problem I am trying to solve and have chosen to explore some of the theoretical methods or approaches to qualitative research to better guide my efforts.

When researchers undertake a qualitative study, they are in effect agreeing to its underlying philosophical assumptions, while bringing to the study their own world views that end up shaping the direction of their research.  Creswell describes the following four philosophical assumptions:

  • Ontological (The nature of reality): Relates to the nature of reality and its characteristics.  Researchers embrace the idea of multiple realities and report on these multiple realities by exploring multiple forms of evidence from different individuals’ perspectives and experiences.
  • Epistemological (How researchers know what they know): Researchers try to get as close as possible to participants being studied.  Subjective evidence is assembled based on individual views from research conducted in the field.
  • Axiological (The role of values in research): Researchers make their values known in the study and actively reports their values and biases as well as the value-laden nature of information gathered from the field.
  • Methodology (The methods used in the process of research):  inductive, emerging, and shaped by the researcher’s experience in collecting and analyzing the data.

Interpretive Frameworks

Interpretive frameworks can be considered a basic set of beliefs that guide action.  The philosophical assumptions (ontology, epistemology, axiology, and methodology) are embedded within interpretive frameworks that researchers use.  Creswell suggests interpretive frameworks may be social science theories (leadership, attribution, political influence and control, and many others) to frame the researcher’s theoretical lens in studies.  On the other hand the theories may be social justice theories / advocacy / participatory, seeking to bring about change or address social issues in society.  Below are the main interpretive frameworks Creswell describes in his book.  I have summarized these in the table listing the approaches and practices for each.

[table id=1 /]

In order to carry out any kind of research that uses either part or all qualitative methods, it is important to consider the philosophical assumptions as well as the interpretive frameworks described here.  I will be referring back to these as I develop my own study, however for a better understanding of these concepts, please refer to Creswell’s book referenced below.


  1. Creswell, J. W. (2012). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dr. Carnaghan

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