Philosophical Assumptions for Qualitative Research


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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.

PostpositivismScientific, Reductionism oriented, Cause/effect, A priori theoriesInquiry in logically related steps; Multiple perspectives from participants not single reality; Rigorous data collection and analysis; Use of computer programs
Social ConstructivismThe understanding of the world in which we live and work, The development of multiple meanings, The researchers look for complexity of viewpointsResearchers ask broad general open-ended questions; Focus on the 'processes' of interaction; Focus on historical and cultural settings of participants; Acknowledge their background shapes interpretation, 'Interpret' the meanings others have about the world.
Postmodernism PerspectivesKnowledge claims in multiple perspectives such as race, gender, class and group affiliations; Negative conditions revealed in presence of hierarchies, power, control, by individuals in the hierarchy and multiple meanings of language; different discourses; marginalized people that are important; Meta-narratives or universals hold true of the social conditions; Need to 'deconstruct' text to learn about hierarchies, oppositions and contradictions.Interpretive biography; Narrative; Grounded Theory; Ethnography
PragmatismFocuses on outcomes; 'What works' to address research problem; Researchers freedom of choice of methods; Many approaches to collecting & analyzing dataResearchers use multiple methods to answer questions; Research is conducted that best addresses the research problem
Feminist TheoriesFocus on women's diverse situations; Subject matter focused on domination within patriarchal society; Lens focused on gender; Goals focused to establish collaborative relationships to place researcher within study - not objective, but transformative.The need to examine researchers background to determine validity and trustworthiness of accounts; The need to report womens' voices without exploiting them; The need to use methods in self-disclosing & respectful way.
Critical TheoryFocus concerned with empowering people to transcend constraints placed on them by race, class, and power; Interpret or illuminate social action; Themes include scientific study of institutions and their transformation through interpreting meanings of social life; historical problems; domination, alienation, and social struggles.Focus on changes in how people think - encourage interaction, networks for 'social theorizing'; Focus on use of intensive case study or historically comparative cases; Formation of formal models; Use of 'ethnographic accounts' (interpretive social psychology).
Critical Race TheoryTo present stories of discrimination; Eradicate racial subjugation while recognizing race is a social construct; Interact race with other inequalities such as gender and class.Research places race and racism in the foreground of the research process; Research looks for ways to explain experiences; Research offers transformative solutions.
Queer TheoryRelated to complexities of individual identity; Explores how identities reproduce and perform in social forums; Uses term 'Queer Theory' to allow incorporation of other social elements including race, class, age; Holds binary distinctions are inadequate to describe sexual identity.Uses postmodern or poststructural orientation to deconstruct dominant theories related to identity; Focuses on how identity is culturally linked to discourse and overlaps with human sexuality.
Disability TheoriesFocus on addressing inclusion in schools, encompassing administrators, teachers, parents of children with disabilities; Focus on disability as a dimension of human difference rather than defect.Research process views individuals with disabilities as different; Questions asked, labels applied to these individuals, communication methods, and consideration of how data collected will benefit community considered; Data reported in respectful way.

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.

About the author

Ian Carnaghan

I am a software developer and online educator who likes to keep up with all the latest in technology. I also manage cloud infrastructure, continuous monitoring, DevOps processes, security, and continuous integration and deployment.

About Author

Ian Carnaghan

I am a software developer and online educator who likes to keep up with all the latest in technology. I also manage cloud infrastructure, continuous monitoring, DevOps processes, security, and continuous integration and deployment.

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