Toward a Research Philosophy

January 29, 2008

Recently, I was asked what my research philosophy was. An intriguing question, I thought, and one that I didn’t have a ready answer for. I’d spent considerable time developing my teaching and learning philosophy, and I’d honed it over the twenty-plus years that I’ve been teaching college. But no one had ever asked me about my research philosophy, or at least that’s what I thought.

So, I did what most people would do these days. I googled “research philosophy,” and I came up with nearly 100,000 hits. Perusing a few dozen, I discovered that people addressed this concept in myriad ways. Whereas there seemed to be some consistency among teaching and learning philosophies that I’d read, there was more variety than consistency in research philosophies.

I also asked several trusted colleagues and former professors about their research philosophies. Surprisingly, only one had a statement prepared. Most of the others said that was a question they had not been asked about before, either.

Then I took some time to search back through my papers I wrote during my doctoral program in Training & Performance Improvement. Lo and behold, I had even written my own research philosophy at one time! A special thanks goes to Paul Hardt, Ed.D., (Capella University) for helping me focus my thinking on this topic. As he reminded me today, “The research question must drive the choice of research methods, and the researcher should not let their own personal biases influence their choice of methods.” Here is what I wrote as part of a paper on the application of a mixed methods approach to evaluating leadership development:

In order to “make informed choices and reflect critically on their own work,” a researcher must “understand the theories of knowledge (the epistemologies) underlying the methods” (Spratt, Walker, & Robinson, 2004, p. 13). Distinctions about the formation of knowledge exist between quantitative and qualitative researchers. Krauss made the following observation about qualitative research: “In general, qualitative research is based on a relativistic, constructivist ontology that posits that there is no objective reality. Rather, there are multiple realities constructed by human beings who experience a phenomenon of interest” (2005, p. 760). On the other hand, Healy & Perry (2000) note that “positivism predominates in science and assumes that science quantitatively measures independent facts about a single apprehensible reality” (as cited in Krauss, 2005, p. 760). “In other words, the data and its analysis are value-free, and data do not change because they are being observed” (Krauss, 2005, p. 760).

William Trochim, at his Research Methods Knowledgebase, notes “I’ve seen many a graduate student get lost in the maze of philosophical assumptions that contemporary philosophers of science argue about” (2002, Positivism & post-positivism section, para. 7). I can echo this sentiment fully. Based on my limited exposure to epistemology, I would say that my general bent is toward post-positivism; Trochim described my tendencies accurately when he said:

Post-positivists reject the idea that any individual can see the world perfectly as it really is. We are all biased and all of our observations are affected . . . . Our best hope for achieving objectivity is to triangulate across multiple fallible perspectives! (Positivism & post-positivism section, para. 6)

However, as I have learned more about the mixed methods approach, I have warmed to the pragmatist point of view, which stresses to use what works to determine my view of the world. This is a diverse blend of ways to understand what is going on around me, rather than relying on just one concrete view. As Creswell states it, “For mixed methods researchers, pragmatism opens the door to multiple methods, different worldviews and different assumptions as well as different forms of data collection and analysis” (2003, p. 12). More than a dozen other researchers concur that pragmatism and mixed methods complement each other (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998).


Creswell, J. W. (2003). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed approaches (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Spratt, C., Walker, R., & Robinson, B. (2004). Mixed research methods. Practitioner Research and Evaluation Skills Training in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved June 5, 2006, from http://www.col.org/resources/startupguides/PREST%20PDFs/A5.pdf.

Tashakkori, A., & Teddlie, C. (1998). Mixed methodology: Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Trochim, W. (2002, January 16, 2005). Research methods knowledge base. Retrieved October 1, 2005, from http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/.

Okay, I thought, now I have something to start with. Let’s get rid of the fancy words and boil it down . . .

Let the research question drive the methodology.

That’s it . . . that’s my research philosophy! I will first determine the specific research question, then (and only then) will I determine what the next steps are. Based on the question, I will determine which methodology will best answer the question for my audience. I am not locked into the “I am a qualitative researcher” or “I am a quantitative researcher” mode.



  1. dear sir,
    I am not philosophy teacher, but have a lifelong interest and study.I suggest you to difine philosophy, because philosohy has several form, like, philosophy that shape community..Plato. Philosophy that shape Individual…Aristotle. However spiritual side is ignored in western culture.By spiritual I mean,something about unity of spirit.Westeen philosophy is shaped by dualism, that cause very hostile community like Nazism etc..OK?

  2. I appreciate your comment. In my response to the search committee, I felt it was important to focus on the “research” aspect (and less on the “philosophy” part). Thanks.

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