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Epistemological Foundations

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Epistemological Foundations

All research work is based on a certain vision of the world, employs a methodology, and proposes results aimed at predicting, prescribing, understanding or explaining. By recognizing these epistemological presuppositions, researchers can control their research approach, increase the validity of their results and ensure that the knowledge they produce is cumulative.

This chapter aims to help the researcher conduct this epistemological reflection, by providing the tools needed to answer the following three questions: How is knowledge generated? What is the nature of the produced knowledge? What is the value and status of this knowledge? In answering these questions, inspiration may be drawn from the three major epistemological paradigms usually identified with organizational science: the positivist, the interpretativist, and the constructivist paradigms. From this researchers can evaluate the scientific validity of their statements and reflect on the epistemological validity and legitimacy of their work. Consideration of such questions can help researchers to elaborate their own positions in relation to the epistemological pluralism present in organizational science.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and so of science: the study of its nature, its validity and value, its methods and its scope. Epistemological questioning is vital to serious research, as through it researchers can establish the validity and legitimacy of their work. All research is based on a certain vision of the world, uses a certain method and proposes results aimed at predicting, prescribing, understanding, constructing or explaining. Recognizing that they have these presuppositions allows researchers to control their research approach, to increase the validity of the knowledge produced and to make this knowledge cumulative. Epistemology is, therefore, consubstantial with all research.

In this chapter, we invite researchers wanting to establish the legitimacy of their work to examine their research approach by posing the following three questions:

  • What is the nature of the knowledge we can generate through our research? Before we can embark on a quest for new knowledge, we have to ascertain clearly what it is we are looking for. Will such knowledge be objective? Will it be an accurate representation of a reality that exists independently of our experience or understanding of it? Or will it be our particular interpretation of reality? Is such knowledge a construction of reality? We encourage researchers to question their vision of the social world – to consider the relationship between subject and object.
  • How can we generate scientific knowledge? Are we to generate new knowledge through a process of explanation, understanding or construction? In asking this we are questioning the path we take to gain knowledge.
  • What is the value and status of this knowledge? Is the knowledge we generate scientific or non-scientific? How can we assess this? How can we verify and corroborate our new knowledge? Is it credible and transferable? Is it intelligible and appropriate? Through questioning these criteria we can evaluate the knowledge we produce.

To answer these questions, researchers can draw inspiration from the three major paradigms that representing the main epistemological streams in organizational science: the positivist, interpretativist and constructivist paradigms. According to Kuhn (1970), paradigms are models, intellectual frameworks or frames of reference, with which researchers in organizational science can affiliate themselves. The positivist paradigm is dominant in organizational science. However, there has always been a conflict between positivism and interpretativism, which defends the particularity of human sciences in general, and organizational science in particular. Constructivism, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly influential among researchers working in organizational science.

Constructivism and interpretativism share several assumptions about the nature of reality. However, they differ in the particular ideas they express about the process of creating knowledge and the criteria with which to validate research. As we will see further on, the aim of positivism is to explain reality, whereas interpretativism seeks, above all, to understand it and constructivism essentially constructs it. The answers given to different epistemological questions by each of the paradigms are summarized in Table 1.1.

In the rest of this chapter we will concentrate on explaining the different positions taken by each of the paradigms vis-à-vis the nature of the knowledge produced, the path taken to obtain that knowledge and the criteria used to validate the knowledge. This discussion will lead on to an inquiry into the existence of epistemological pluralism, which we will look into further in the final part of the chapter.


Before we can give due thought to the question of what knowledge is, we must first consider the related question of the nature of reality. Does reality exist independently of the observer, or is our perception of reality subjective. What part of ‘reality’ can we know?

Table 1.1 Epistemological positions of the positivist, interpretativist and constructivist paradigms
A Positivist Understanding of Reality

For positivists, reality exists in itself. It has an objective essence, which researchers must seek to discover. The object (reality) and the subject that is observing or testing it are independent of each other. The social or material world is thus external to individual cognition – as Burrell and Morgan put it (1979: 4): ‘Whether or not we label and perceive these structures, the realists maintain, they still exist as empirical entities.’ This independence between object and subject has allowed positivists to propound the principle of objectivity, according to which a subject's observation of an external object does not alter the nature of that object. This principle is defined by Popper (1972: 109): ‘Knowledge in this objective sense is totally independent of anybody's claim to know; it is also independent of anybody's belief, or disposition to assent; or to assert, or to act. Knowledge in the objective sense is knowledge without a knowing subject.’ The principle of the objectivity of knowledge raises various problems when it is applied in the social sciences. Can a person be his or her own object? Can a subject really observe its object without altering the nature of that object? Faced with these different questions, positivist researchers will exteriorize the object they are observing. Durkheim (1982) thus exteriorizes social events, which he considers as ‘things’. He maintains that ‘things’ contrast with ideas in the same way as our knowledge of what is exterior to us contrasts with our knowledge of what is interior. For Durkheim, ‘things’ encompasses all that which the mind can only understand if we move outside our own subjectivity by means of observation and testing.

In organizational science, this principle can be interpreted as follows. Positivist researchers examining the development of organizational structures will take the view that structure depends on a technical and organizational reality that is independent of themselves or those overseeing it. The knowledge produced by the researcher observing this reality (or reconstructing the cause-and-effect chain of structural events) can lead to the development of an objective knowledge of organizational structure.

In postulating the essence of reality and, as a consequence, subject-object independence, positivists accept that reality has its own immutable and quasiinvariable laws. A universal order exists, which imposes itself on everything: individual order is subordinate to social order, social order is subordinate to ‘vital’ order and ‘vital’ order is subordinate to material order. Human beings are subject to this order. They are products of an environment that conditions them, and their world is made up of necessities. Freedom is restricted by invariable laws, as in a determinist vision of the social world. The Durkheimian notion of social constraint is a good illustration of the link between the principle of external reality and that of determinism. For Durkheim (1982), the notion of social constraint implies that collective ways of acting or thinking have a reality apart from the individuals who constantly comply with them. The individual finds them already shaped and, in Durkheim's (1982) view, he or she cannot then act as if they do not exist, or as if they are other than what they are.

Consequently, the knowledge produced by positivists is objective and a-contextual – in that it relates to revising existing laws and to an immutable reality that is external to the individual and independent of the context of interactions between actors.

A Subjective Reality?

In the rival interpretativist and constructivist paradigms, reality has a more precarious status. According to these paradigms, reality remains unknowable because it is impossible to reach it directly. Radical constructivism declares that ‘reality’ does not exist, but is invented, and great caution must be used when using the term (Glasersfeld, 1984). Moderate constructivists do not attempt to answer this question. They neither reject nor accept the hypothesis that reality exists in itself. The important thing for them is that this reality will never be independent of the mind, of the consciousness of the person observing or testing it. For interpretativists, ‘there are multiple constructed realities that can be studied only holistically; inquiry into these multiple realities will inevitably diverge (each inquiry raises more questions than it answers) so that prediction and control are unlikely outcomes although some level of understanding (verstehen) can be achieved’ (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 37). Consequently, for constructivists and interpretativists, ‘reality’ (the object) is dependent on the observer (the subject). It is apprehended by the action of the subject who experiences it. We can therefore talk about a phenomenological hypothesis, as opposed to the ontological hypothesis developed by the positivists. The phenomenological hypothesis is based on the idea that a phenomenon is the internal manifestation of that which enters our consciousness. Reality cannot be known objectively – to seek objective knowledge of reality is utopian. One can only represent it, that is, construct it.

Subject-object interdependence and the rebuttal of the postulate that reality is objective and has its own essence has led interpretativist and constructivist researchers to redefine the nature of the social world.

For interpretativists and constructivists, the social world is made up of interpretations. These interpretations are constructed through actors’ ‘interactions, in contexts that will always have their own peculiarities. Interactions among actors, which enable development of an intersubjectively shared meaning, are at the root of the social construction of reality’ (Berger and Luckman, 1966).

The Social Construction of Reality

Sociological interest in questions of ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge’ is thus initially justified by the fact of their social relativity. What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman. The ‘knowledge’ of the criminal differs from the ‘knowledge’ of the criminologist. It follows that specific agglomerations of ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge’ pertain to specific social contexts, and that these relationships will have to be included in an adequate sociological analysis of these contexts … A ‘sociology of knowledge’ will have to deal not only with the empirical variety of ‘knowledge’ in human societies, but also with the processes by which any body of ‘knowledge’ comes to be socially established as ‘reality’ … And insofar as all human ‘knowledge’ is developed, transmitted and maintained in social situations, the sociology of knowledge must seek to understand the processes by which this is done in such a way that a taken-for-granted ‘reality’ congeals for the man in the street. In other words, we contend that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with the analysis of the social construction of reality … Society is indeed built up by activity that expresses subjective meaning. It is precisely the dual character of society in terms of objective facticity and subjective meaning that makes its ‘reality sui generis’. The central question for sociological theory can then be put as follows: How is it possible that subjective meanings become objective facticities? How is it possible that human activity should produce a world of things? In other words, an adequate understanding of the ‘reality sui generis’ of society requires an inquiry into the manner in which this reality is constructed.

(Extracts from Berger and Luckmann, 1966: 3, 18)

The self-fulfilling prophecies of Watzlawick (1984) are a good illustration of the way actors can themselves construct the social world. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that verifies itself. According to Watzlawick (1984), it is a supposition that, simply by its existence, leads the stated predicted event to occur and confirms its own accuracy. The prediction proves to be accurate, not because the chain of cause and effect has been explained, nor by referring to laws of an external reality, but because of our understanding, at a particular moment, of the interactions among actors. From this, the succession of subsequent interactions is easy to foresee. Consequently, according to Watzlawick (1984), the degree to which we can predict behavior is linked not to a determinism external to the actors, but to the actors’ submission to imprisonment in an endless game that they themselves have created. In self-fulfilling prophecy, the emphasis is on interaction and the determining role of the actors in constructing reality. Such prophecies depend heavily on context. They can only be made once we understand the context of the interaction – an understanding through which we are able to learn the rules of the game.

Consequently, interpretativists and constructivists consider that individuals create their environments by their own thoughts and actions, guided by their goals. In this world where everything is possible and nothing is determined, and in which we are free to make our own choices, it has become necessary to reject determinism in favor of the intentionalist hypothesis. The knowledge produced in this way will be subjective and contextual, which has numerous research implications, as Lincoln and Guba emphasize in the case of the interpretativist paradigm.

The Interpretativist Paradigm and its Research Implications

One characteristic of operational inquiry, natural setting, can be justified by its logical dependence on the axioms that undergird the paradigm. The naturalist elects to carry out research in the natural setting or context of the entity for which study is proposed because naturalistic ontology suggests that realities are wholes that cannot be understood in isolation from their contexts, nor can they be fragmented for separate study of the parts; because of the belief that the very act of observation influences what is seen, and so the research interaction should take place with the entity-in-context for fullest understanding; because of the belief that context is crucial in deciding whether or not a finding may have meaning in some other context as well; because of the belief in complex mutual shaping rather than linear causation, which suggests that the phenomenon must be studied in its full-scale influence (force) field; and because contextual value structures are at least partly determinative of what will be found.

(Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 39)

To sum up, the nature of the knowledge that we can hope to produce will depend on our assumptions about the nature of reality, of the subject-object relationship and the social world we envisage (see Table 1.2).

These elements (nature of reality, nature of the subject-object link, vision of the social world) constitute reference points for researchers wishing to define the epistemological position of their research.

Table 1.3, constructed on the basis of work by Smircich (1983) and Schultz and Hatch (1996), shows clearly that the nature of the knowledge produced in the field of organizational culture depends on the researcher's assumptions about the nature of the social world.

Table 1.2 Assumptions underlying the nature of the knowledge produced

Their understanding of the nature of the knowable reality and the social world will indicate the path researchers must take to obtain knowledge. In a positivist framework, researchers seek to discover the laws imposed on actors. In an interpretativist framework, they seek to understand how actors construct the meaning they give to social reality. In a constructivist framework, researchers contribute to the actors’ construction of social reality.

Explaining Reality

By accepting the assumptions of objectivity, the ontology of reality and the determinism of the social world, positivists commit themselves to the search for external reality and the mechanisms that condition it. The positive ideal would be to find a universal law that explains reality and reveals objective truth.

Even the most traditional positivists recognize that this ideal remains utopian (Comte, 1844, 1988). However, they maintain that an understanding of the laws that govern reality is a prerequisite for generating new knowledge. Scientific progress is thus characterized by a reduction in the number of laws as links are established between them. The key idea behind this vision is that these laws exist even if they cannot all be discovered.

The positivist vision of reality leans towards explanatory research, to answer the question ‘for what reasons’. Such research seeks constant concomitance among phenomena, and tries to reconstruct chains of cause and effect. In the example of organizational structure, the positivist researcher tries to reconstruct the causes of structural events, so as to determine the laws that, independently of the actors involved, have governed organizational reality.

The causal approach accounts for a social fact by relating it to another social fact external to the individuals involved. It leads researchers to examine the economic, political and technical reasons for the fact's presence. As the positivist paradigm has evolved, it has detached itself from pure causal research. It now recognizes more than simply linear causality (one cause – one effect), and accepts the possibility of multiple or circular causality. It is therefore possible to take a positivist position without implying that all laws through which we can explain reality are laws of linear causality. Nevertheless, in generating new knowledge, the positivist paradigm still follows a path determined largely by the idea that knowable reality has its own meaning, and that this meaning does not necessarily depend on a researcher's personal beliefs.

Table 1.3 Two notions of culture
Table 1.3 Two notions of culture
Interpreting Reality

Interpretavism calls the possibility of uncovering causal links into question, because ‘all entities are in a state of mutual simultaneous shaping, so that it is impossible to distinguish causes from effects’ (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 38). The process of creating knowledge therefore involves understanding the meaning actors give to reality – rather than explaining reality, interpretativists try to understand it through actors’ interpretations. This process must take account of actors’ intentions, motivation, expectations, motives and beliefs – which all relate more to practice than to facts. Thus, unlike positivists, interpretativists draw a clear distinction between understanding and explaining.

Positivists make no such differentiation between understanding and explaining; the second, by necessity, encompasses the first. Explanation implies understanding. Nevertheless, this is not an understanding that emanates from the meaning actors give to their actions.

The privileged status that interpretativists accord to understanding is based on the concept of verstehen (understanding) developed by Max Weber. This concept unites the two levels of understanding on which the knowledge creation process is based. On one level, verstehen is the process by which individuals are led, in their daily lives, to interpret and understand their world. On another level, and in a more restrictive sense, verstehen is the process by which researchers interpret the subjective meanings behind the behavior of the individuals they are studying (Lee, 1991).

Understanding, or interpreting, behavior must by necessity involve inquiring into local meanings (localized in time and place) that actors give to their behavior. In the case of organizational structure, interpretativist researchers will be drawn towards contextualized research to analyze the daily functioning of an organization. This involves carrying out field studies, which favor direct observation and on-site interviews.

Constructing Reality

Constructivists share this research approach as far as understanding is concerned, but with two essential differences. Whereas for interpretativists the process of understanding consists above all of ‘revealing’ the reality of the actors studied, constructivism sees the process of understanding as contributing to constructing that reality. Reality is thus constructed by the act of knowing, rather than being given by an objective perception of the world (Le Moigne, 1995). According to this hypothesis, the path we take when we generate knowledge is constructed as we go along. This conception of knowledge construction is strongly present in the works of Piaget (1970), for whom knowledge is as much a process as a result. Moreover, for constructivists, the process of understanding is linked to the aim of the researcher's knowledge project. In this there is a teleological hypothesis, which advances the notion that all human activity involves a predetermined purpose or design. The process of building up knowledge therefore has to take account of subjective intentions or purpose. Le Moigne (1995) emphasizes that, in comparison with positivism, the different constructivist epistemologies enable researchers to recognize a knowledge project, rather than a knowledge object that is separate from its investigator. To understand in terms of purposes or plausible goals becomes the aim of scientific research.

The answers given by the positivist, interpretativist and constructivist paradigms to the first two epistemological questions (the nature of the knowledge our research produces and the path we take to produce it) will have strong implications on the value of this knowledge. The third section of this chapter deals with the status and validity of knowledge.


Researchers can evaluate the knowledge they produce by using different criteria of validity. Each of the epistemologies we are looking at – the positivist, the interpretativist and the constructivist – incorporate a number of validity criteria.

Positivist Validity Criteria

For positivism, specific criteria enable researchers to distinguish clearly between scientific and non-scientific knowledge. These criteria have evolved along with positivism, and have moved from ‘verification’ to ‘degree of confirmation’ and ‘degree of refutation’.


Early positivists applied the principle of ‘verification’: a proposition is either analytical or synthetic, and is either true by virtue of its own definition or, in certain situations, by virtue of practical experience. A synthetic proposition has meaning if, and only if, it can be verified empirically (Blaug, 1992). Verification obliges researchers to assure the truth of their statements through empirical verification.

Degree of confirmation

As positivism has evolved, other criteria have supplanted verification. The term ‘degree of confirmation’ refers to the probabilistic logic proposed by Carnap. The logic of confirmation calls the certainty of truth into question. It is based on the idea that we cannot say that a proposition is universally true, but only that it is probable. We can never be sure that it is true in every case and in all circumstances. Consequently, we can only confirm it against experience, or by drawing on the results of other theories – but we will not be able to establish its truth as certain (Hempel, 1964). Carnap's (1962) vision of science can be summed up as follows: All theories are impossible to prove, but they present different degrees of probability. Scientific honesty consists of only stating theories that are highly probable, or simply specifying for each scientific theory the factors that support it and the theory's probability in light of these factors. A theory can be probable – in fact Carnap replaces the notion of proof by degree of probability. Researchers who subscribe to Carnap's probabilistic logic are compelled to evaluate the degree of probability with which their statements are confirmed.


According to Popper's principle of ‘refutation’, we can never maintain that a theory is true, but we can say it is not true – that is, that it has been refuted. The following example is a good illustration. To the question ‘Are all swans white?’ the only answer that is scientifically acceptable is ‘No’. However many white swans we have observed, we do not have the right to infer that all swans are white. Observing a single black swan is sufficient to refute this conclusion.

A theory that has not been refuted is then a theory that is provisionally corroborated. The term ‘corroboration’ is important for Popper, who draws a clear distinction between it and ‘confirmation’:

By the degree of corroboration of a theory I mean a concise report evaluating the state (at a certain time t) of the critical discussion of a theory, with respect to the way it solves its problems; its degree of testability; the severity of the tests it has undergone; and the way it has stood up to these tests … The main purpose of the formulae that I proposed as definition of the degree of corroboration was to show that, in many cases, the more improbable (improbable in the sense of the calculus of probability) hypothesis is preferable.(Popper, 1972: 18)

According to this principle, a theory is scientific if it is refutable – that is, if it accepts that certain results may invalidate it. However, any theory that cannot be refuted is not scientific. This includes psychoanalysis (for example, the Freudian hypothesis of the subconscious) and Marxism, along with other theories that remain valid whatever observations are made about them. Popper insists on the asymmetry of verification and invalidation. For him, there is no logic of proof, but a logic of refutation, and argues that, consequently, we must construct our scientific propositions from hypotheses that can be refuted.

Logical consistency

Finally, in assessing the validity of research, positivism only recognizes as scientific those methods that respect formal logic (deductive logic). This idea is referred to as ‘logical consistency’. One test for logical consistency is to show that all of a theory's propositions are related to one another by the rules of formal logic, or are logically deducible from the same set of premises (Lee, 1991). Positivism refuses to consider inductive logic as scientific. It argues that the only logic that enables us to reproduce reality objectively is deductive logic.

Inductive logic enables us to move from particular observations to general statements. Deductive logic, on the other hand, uses true premises and the rules of formal inference to establish the truth-value of a proposition (or its non-refutation). These two types of logic will be examined in greater depth in Chapter 3.

2. Interpretativist Validity Criteria

Interpretativists and constructivists both question the primacy of deductive logic, and the specific and universal character of the validity criteria proposed by positivists. For interpretativists, validity criteria are criteria of trustworthiness. Lincoln and Guba (1985) identify these as credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability.


How can one establish confidence in the ‘truth’ of the findings of a particular inquiry for the subjects with which and the context in which the inquiry was carried out? When we consider the assumption of multiple constructed realities, there is no ultimate benchmark to which one can turn for justification – whether in principle or by a technical adjustment via the falsification principle. Reality is now a multiple set of mental constructions … To demonstrate ‘truth value’ we must show that the reconstructions that have been arrived at via the inquiry are credible to the constructors of the original multiple realities … The implementation of the credibility criterion becomes a twofold task: first, to carry out the inquiry in such a way that the probability that the findings will be found to be credible is enhanced, and, second, to demonstrate the credibility of the findings by having them approved by the constructors of the multiple realities being studied.(Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 295–6)


How can one determine the extent to which the findings of a particular inquiry have applicability in other contexts or with other subjects? Interpretativists make the assumption that at best only working hypotheses may be abstracted, the transferability of which is an empirical matter, depending on the degree of similarity between sending and receiving contexts. Transferability inferences cannot be made by an investigator who knows only the sending context.(Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 297)


How can one determine whether the findings of an inquiry would be repeated if the inquiry were replicated with the same (or similar) subjects in the same (or similar) context? In the conventional paradigm, for this criterion there must be something tangible and unchanging ‘out there’ that can serve as a benchmark if the idea of replication is to make sense. An interpretativist sees reliability as part of a larger set of factors that are associated with the observed changes. Dependability takes into account both factors of instability and factors of phenomenal or design induced change.(Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 299)


How can we establish the degree to which the findings of an inquiry are determined by the subjects and conditions of the inquiry and not by the biases, motivations, interests, or perspectives of the inquirer? An interpretativist prefers a qualitative definition of this criterion. This definition removes the emphasis from the investigator (it is no longer his or her objectivity that is at stake) and places it where, as it seems to the investigator, it ought more logically to be: on the data themselves. The issue is no longer the investigator's characteristics but the characteristics of the data: are they or are they not confirmable?(Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 300)
3. Constructivist Validity Criteria

Constructivists question the classic criteria proposed by positivists. They contest the verification-refutation alternative, saying verification is illusory and refutation inadequate. It is illusory, they say, to devise a scientific process using verification criteria when one's vision of the world is based on phenomenological and intentionalist hypotheses. It is inadequate to devise a scientific process using refutability criteria when one defends the constructed and transforming nature of research projects in disciplines such as organizational science.

In constructivism, criteria for validating knowledge are still very much a topic of debate. However, while constructivist epistemology refuses to acknowledge any single validity criterion, certain authors propose sources for validating knowledge. We will present two of them here; the adequation (or suitability) criterion proposed by Glasersfeld (1984), and the ‘teachability’ criterion defended by Le Moigne (1995).

Adequation Glasersfeld (1984), who is considered a radical constructivist, holds that knowledge is valid when it fits a given situation. He illustrates this principle using the metaphor of a key. A key fits if it opens the lock it is supposed to open. Here, suitability refers to a capacity: that of the key and not of the lock. Thanks to professional burglars, we are only too well aware that many keys cut very differently from our own may nonetheless open our door¡

Teachability The criteria relating to teachable knowledge can be expressed in terms of reproducibility, intelligibility, and constructibility. In Le Moigne's (1995) view, it is no longer enough for model-makers to demonstrate knowledge. They have to show that this knowledge is both constructible and reproducible, and therefore intelligible. It is important for modelers to be scrupulous about explaining their aims when constructing teachable knowledge.

The validity criteria applied by constructivists do not impose a single method of constructing knowledge, but are able to accept and defend a multiplicity of methods. Constructivists do not see deductive reasoning as the only valid reasoning method, accepting too other methods such as analogy and metaphor.


In this section we look at the researcher's position in relation to the paradigms presented earlier. We discuss whether researchers have to choose between paradigms, or whether, to the contrary, they have a degree of freedom to tailor their own position. To answer these questions, researchers need to think about the position they wish to adopt in relation to the problem of paradigm incommensurability. According to McKinley and Mone (1998: 170) incommensurability can be defined ‘as occurring when there are logically or normatively incompatible schools of thought, and no consensually acknowledged reference system exists for deciding between them’.

The coexistence of positivist, interpretativist and constructivist paradigms in works in organizational science may be seen as either a sign of the immaturity of this science, or as an opportunity for researchers working within this discipline. Kuhn (1970) holds that the presence of a single paradigm characterizes normal science, while the coexistence of different paradigms can be symptomatic of periods of scientific revolution. However, researchers in organizational theory tend to see plurality as an opportunity, and approach this plurality using a number of standpoints or strategies. On the basis of work done by Scherer (1998), we can point to three main positions possible. In the view of certain authors (Burrell and Morgan, 1979; Jackson and Carter, 1991), who advocate isolationism, a researcher must choose one of the paradigms and stick to it. Others (Lee, 1991; Pfeffer, 1993; Donaldson, 1997), who advocate integration, say we should direct our efforts towards seeking a common standard. For those who advocate a multi-paradigm approach (Weaver and Gioia, 1994; Schultz and Hatch, 1996), dialogue between paradigms is possible and even desirable.

Isolationists argue that the different paradigms that exist within organizational theory cannot be reconciled – that no dialogue is possible between them, and should not even be attempted. ‘There is no common measure among paradigms of inquiry, so that representatives of opposed paradigms live in different worlds, hold mutually exclusive beliefs, use different vocabularies, etc.’ (Weaver and Gioia, 1994: 565). Here, the fragmentation of organizational science can be explained in part by the fact that researchers voluntarily adopt a particular paradigm – in the view of Burrell and Morgan (1979), adopting a paradigm is a veritable act of faith.

Many authors insist that integration and the establishment of a reference paradigm is the only guarantee of true scientific progress (Pfeffer, 1993; Lee, 1991; Donaldson, 1997). They argue that consensus about a paradigm is a precondition for the development of organizational science, and that fragmentation is an obstacle to this. Lee (1991) proposes an integrated framework that reconciles the three levels of understanding: a subjective understanding, an interpretive understanding and a positivist understanding. Donaldson (1997), meanwhile, proposes a reintegration of frameworks under the hegemony of a positivist paradigm.

It is often said that much research in organizational science borrows elements from different paradigms, thus obtaining what could be called a mixed epistemological position. Miles and Huberman (1984a) give an example of a moderate positivist position.

An example of moderate positivism
It is good for researchers to make their preferences clear. All too often, the reader has to intuit whether the author is, for example, operating from the standpoint of a logical positivist, a symbolic interactionist, or a social phenomenologist. These people all look differently at the world of social affairs and social science. We think of ourselves as logical positivists who recognize and try to atone for the limitations of that approach. Soft-nosed logical positivism, maybe … We believe that social phenomena exist not only in the mind but also in the objective world – and that there are some lawful and reasonably stable relationships to be found among them. In part, of course, these phenomena exist objectively in the world because people construe them in common or agreed-upon ways, so those perceptions are crucial in understanding why social behavior takes the form it does. Still, even if people do not themselves apprehend the same analytical constructs as those derived by researchers, this does not make such constructs invalid or contrived. Given our belief in social regularities, there is a corollary: Our task is to express them as precisely as possible, attending to their range and generality and to the local and historical contingencies under which they occur.(Miles and Huberman, 1984a: 19)

Advocates of the multi-paradigm perspective maintain, meanwhile, that dialogue between paradigms is not only possible but necessary to advance our understanding of social phenomena. Weaver and Gioia state that:

A successful multi-paradigm perspective must explain how different theoretical approaches might be related, but must do so (a) while preserving genuine multiplicity (e.g. the relatedness does not involve the reduction of one approach to another) and, (b), without uncritically embracing the disunifying paradigms paradigm (i.e. the increasingly entrenched view of organizational inquiry that – by appealing to the incommensurability thesis – purports unalterably to divide the field into mutually exclusive and contradictory metatheoretical camps).(Weaver and Gioia, 1994: 566)

According to this perspective, works that propose different methodologies enable dialogue between paradigms. For instance, Hassard (1991) considered the case of Britain's Fire Brigade from the standpoint of the four paradigms identified by Burrell and Morgan (1979). Similarly, Schultz and Hatch (1996) presented a new multi-paradigm strategy based on an interplay between paradigms. By examining research into organizational culture, Schultz and Hatch revealed connections and contrasts between paradigms, and thus provided a foundation for new interpretations of culture.


We hope this chapter will help researchers to answer the epistemological questions their research raises. We hope too that it persuades them to examine the nature of the reality they hope to apprehend, the relationship they have with their research subject, the ways in which they might approach knowledge production, and the criteria through which they can evaluate the knowledge they produce. Epistemological questioning should lead researchers to:

  • understand the presuppositions on which their research rests
  • explain the implications of their choices so as to master their research.

It is vital researchers conduct this kind of epistemological reflection and critically examine the knowledge they produce. Such self-questioning also opens up the possibility of constructive epistemological debate between researchers, which is indispensable to the production of cumulative knowledge.

The issues we have discussed in this chapter also raise questions at a methodological level. Several other chapters in this work, and Chapters 2 and 3 in particular, will elaborate on the methodological consequences of the different epistemological choices researchers make. Chapter 2, for example, shows to what extent the way in which we construct our research question is dependent on the epistemological presuppositions underlying the research itself.


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