The role of philosophy in the field of social sciences is essential because it deals with the issues of reality, knowledge, and existence. Without understanding philosophy, its stances and branches, it is impossible to have a clear understanding of what decisions to take, why they should be taken, and how they will affect the research outcomes.
Epistemology is one of the fundamental branches of philosophy, which is also known as the study of knowledge. Unlike the philosophy of ontology, which is concerned with what constitutes reality, epistemology is interested in how this reality could be assessed and measured. This philosophy deals with the issues of knowledge acquisition, its validity and reliability, methods of knowledge generation and production, and its limitations. In its essence, the philosophy of epistemology is focused on the relationship between the object and the subject. Depending on how the researcher creates knowledge, this relationship can be explained using three epistemological positions, namely objectivism, subjectivism, and constructionism.
The first branch of epistemology is objectivism, which assumes that an object creates meaning. This meaning, in turn, translates into the existence of objective reality in this object, regardless of the subject. In other words, reality exists outside of the individual’s mind and objects exist regardless of whether anyone is aware of their existence or not. Instead, since objects already have inherent meaning, it is possible to discover this meaning, which is empirically verifiable, generalisable, valid, and independent of social conditions and thought.
Given that reality is objective, objectivist researchers seek methods to test this reality by obtaining and processing evidence rather than interpreting social phenomena in a way that makes sense to them. The philosophy of objectivism enables researchers to conduct studies in a values-free manner by detaching from their subjects. As a result, the role of researchers’ values, interpretations, and interests in the research process is reduced to a minimum or completely eliminated.
The philosophy of objectivism assumes that social facts are equal to physical facts in terms of their existence on their own, as well as their quality of being researchable. That is why objectivist researchers tend to rely on positivist and post-positivist theories when predicting meaning. However, objectivism might not translate very well to social sciences largely because it rejects the role the context plays in meaning creation and discovery. For example, when examining the impact of social media on consumers’ purchase intention, objectivist researchers would assume that this relationship could be empirically tested. On the downside, the impact of such context-specific variables as household income, age, gender, marital status, or the amount of time spent on social media on this relationship is likely to be overlooked by these researchers.
Subjectivist epistemology assumes that it is the subject that creates meaning and imposes it on the object. The underlying idea of this philosophy is that how we perceive and understand reality determines and creates knowledge. The pluralist and plastic nature of reality is reflected in subjectivism, according to which social actors impose meaning on the world and interpret it as they see fit. Unlike objectivist researchers whose motto is ‘seeing is believing’, subjectivists’ beliefs determine what is seen.
For example, leadership behaviour could be viewed differently by a company owner and an employee. Autocratic leadership could be interpreted by the owner as a good thing for their business because it helps in keeping things organised. On the other hand, the employee could interpret this type of leadership as ineffective or even offensive.
Subjectivism aims at communication with the inner world in an attempt to understand the knowledge, values, interests, and purposes of social actors. Researchers who hold a subjectivist position reject the idea that it is possible to separate the subject and the object, meaning the observer and the observed phenomenon cannot be separated as well. Instead, these researchers assume that each individual perceives and observes the world differently and this difference should be acknowledged. Referring to the previous example, the subjectivist researcher would attempt to interpret and seek to understand what autocratic leadership means to the business owner and the employee to determine how widely held and believable those meanings are, as well as how they correspond between these individuals.
The philosophy of constructionism incorporates certain elements from both objectivism and subjectivism and can be viewed as a more balanced version of epistemology. Specifically, this philosophy rejects the idea of objective reality, in which meaning exists and is waiting to be discovered. From this perspective, meaning is the result of our engagement with the realities that exist in our world. When it comes to the interplay between the subject and the object, constructionism assumes that it is the subject that constructs the reality of the object, meaning there is no single or pre-existing real world that exists independently from human activity. Therefore, social actors construct knowledge as they interact with and interpret the world around them. The idea behind the philosophy of constructionism is that knowledge is active because how individuals interact with the world determines the way they construct meaning. Hence, different individuals construct different meanings of the same social phenomenon or object, depending on their historical, cultural, and social perspectives. Still, constructivist philosophy can create certain paradoxes where the conception of truth can be both true and false simultaneously.
Unlike objectivism and subjectivism, constructionist epistemology enables researchers to generate contextual understandings of a defined conservation problem or issue. For instance, when examining entrepreneurs’ willingness to accept risk management practices from a constructionist perspective, the researcher could construct their reality of risk management based on theoretical knowledge, as well as the principles of methodological rigour. At the same time, entrepreneurs could construct their reality of risk management according to their context, including the match between risk management theory and their practical experience and views on risk management. The value of constructivist research is that it can enable researchers to design contextually relevant recommendations and solutions to conservation problems, which have a stronger likelihood of success.
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