Ontology and epistemology are two different ways of viewing the research philosophy.  Ontology can be defined as “the science or study of being”[1] and it deals with the nature of reality. Ontology is a system of belief that reflects an interpretation of an individual about what constitutes a fact. In simple terms, ontology is associated with a central question of whether social entities need to be perceived as objective or subjective. Accordingly, objectivism (or positivism) and subjectivism can be specified as two important aspects of ontology.

Objectivism “portrays the position that social entities exist in reality external to social actors concerned with their existence”[2]. Alternatively, objectivism “is an ontological position that asserts that social phenomena and their meanings have an existence that is independent of social actors”[3].

Subjectivism (also known as constructionism or interpretivism) on the contrary, perceives that social phenomena is created from perceptions and consequent actions of those social actors concerned with their existence. Formally, constructionism can be defined as “ontological position which asserts that social phenomena and their meanings are continually being accomplished by social actors”.[4]

The table below illustrates the ontology of four major research philosophies related to business studies:

Research philosophy Ontology: the researcher’s view of the nature of reality or being
Pragmatism External, multiple, view chosen to best enable answering of research question
Positivism External, objective and independent of social actors
Realism Is objective. Exists independently of human thoughts and beliefs or knowledge of their existence (realist), but is interpreted through social conditioning (critical realist)
Interpretivism Socially constructed, subjective, may change, multiple

Identification of ontology at the start of the research process is critically important as it determines the choice of the research design. The figure below illustrates the consequent impact of ontology on the choice of research methods via epistemology, research approach, research strategy and methods of data collection and data analysis.

Ontology in business studies

Ontology in business studies

Fortunately, you don’t have to discuss ontology in great depth when writing a dissertation in business studies. Several paragraphs to one page will suffice for a dissertation on Bachelor’s or Master’s level, whereas you can devote about two pages to ontology on a research at a PhD level.

You can address ontology part of methodology chapter of your dissertation in the following manner:

Firstly, you can provide a formal definition of ontology, followed by explanation of ontology in simple terms. See example at the beginning of this page.

Secondly, you have to specify whether you are adopting objectivism or constructivism view. This should be followed by explanation of rationale for your choice.

Thirdly, you have to discuss implications of your ontological choice on the choice of epistemology, research approach, and research strategy and data collection methods…

My e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step assistance contains discussions of theory and application of research philosophy. The e-book also explains all stages of the research process starting from the selection of the research area to writing personal reflection. Important elements of dissertations such as research philosophyresearch approachresearch designmethods of data collection and data analysis are explained in this e-book in simple words.

John Dudovskiy

Ontology in business studies

[1] Blaikie, N. (2010) “Designing Social Research” Polity Press

[2] Saunders, M., Lewis, P. & Thornhill, A. (2012) “Research Methods for Business Students” 6th edition, Pearson Education Limited

[3] Bryman, A. (2012) “Social Research Methods” 4th edition, Oxford University Press

[4] Bryman, A. (2012) “Social Research Methods” 4th edition, Oxford University Press