Epistemology in a business research as a branch of philosophy deals with the sources of knowledge. Specifically, epistemology is concerned with possibilities, nature, sources and limitations of knowledge in the field of study. Alternatively, epistemology can be explained as the study of the criteria by which the researcher classifies what does and does not constitute the knowledge. In simple words, epistemology focuses on what is known to be true. It is a way of thinking opposite to ontology.
As a branch of research philosophy epistemology deals with the following questions:
- What is knowledge?
- Do we have knowledge?
- How we can gain knowledge?
Epistemology is a vast field with multiple areas and issues. However, you are not expected to discuss it in great details in business studies. You need to discuss the sources of knowledge in general and the sources of knowledge used in your research in particular. In research philosophy there are many different sources of knowledge. Sources of knowledge related to business research in particular can be divided into the following four categories:
- Intuitive knowledgeis based on intuition, faith, beliefs etc. Human feelings play greater role in intuitive knowledge compared to reliance on facts.
- Authoritarian knowledge relies on information that has been obtained from books, research papers, experts, supreme powers etc.
- Logical knowledge is a creation of new knowledge through the application of logical reasoning.
- Empirical knowledge relies on objective facts that have been established and can be demonstrated.
Research process may integrate all of these sources of knowledge within a single study. For example, researchers can use intuitive knowledge i.e. researchers can use their intuition to choose a specific problem to explore within research area. Authoritarian knowledge, on other hand, can be obtained during the process of literature review. Moreover, researchers can generate logical knowledge as a result of analysing primary data findings, and conclusions of the research can be perceived as empirical knowledge.
Epistemology has many branches that include essentialism, historical perspective, perennialsm, progressivism, empiricism, idealism, rationalism, constructivism etc. Empiricism and rationalism are two major constructing debates within the field of epistemological study that relate to business studies. Empiricism accepts personal experiences associated with observation, feelings and senses as a valid source of knowledge, whereas rationalism relies on empirical findings gained through valid and reliable measures.
Once you accept a specific epistemology, you need to employ associated research methods. The table below describes important aspects of epistemologies of the main research philosophies related to business research:
|Epistemology: the researcher’s view regarding what constitutes acceptable knowledge||Research philosophy|
|Either or both observable phenomena and subjective meanings can provide acceptable knowledge dependent upon the research question.
Focus on practical applied research, integrating different perspectives to help interpret the data
|Only observable phenomena can provide credible data, facts.
Focus on causality and law-like generalisations, reducing phenomena to simplest elements
|Observable phenomena provide credible data, facts.
Insufficient data means inaccuracies in sensations (direct realism). Alternatively, phenomena create sensations which are open to misinterpretation (critical realism).
Focus on explaining within a context or contexts
|Subjective meanings and social phenomena.
Focus upon the details of situation, a reality behind these details, subjective meanings, motivating actions
Epistemology of popular research philosophies in business research
In your dissertation you are expected to address and clarify the epistemology of your study, but you don’t have to go much into the details. You can do the following:
1. If you are writing a dissertation for an undergraduate, bachelor-level level, you need to provide a definition of epistemology. If you are writing an MBA dissertation or a PhD thesis you need to provide several definitions by referring to relevant sources and specify the definition you adapt for your study.
2. You need to discuss what is accepted and what is not accepted as knowledge in your research. It is important to justify your arguments by referring to your research aim and objectives.
3. You have to specify research philosophy and research methods that correspond to your chosen epistemology. For example, if you only accept observable phenomena based on data and facts as knowledge, your research philosophy would be positivism. Alternatively, if you consider subjective meanings and non-quantifiable data as knowledge, you would have to follow interpretivism research philosophy.
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 philosophy, research approach, research design, methods of data collection and data analysis are explained in this e-book in simple words.
 Hallebone, E. & Priest, J. (2009) “Business and Management Research: Paradigms and Practices” Palgrave Macmillan
 Table adapted from Saunders, M., Lewis, P. & Thornhill, A. (2012) “Research Methods for Business Students” 6th edition, Pearson Education Limited