Evaluation Of Ontological And Epistemological Assumptions Philosophy

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The view that the natural sciences provide the most appropriate model for the study of social life suffers from many defects. Wilhelm Dilthey (1901) held that the positivist methodology of the natural sciences is inadequate to the understanding of human phenomena (Hughes, 1990). As a result, over the years, interpretive inquiry has steadily affirmed its relevance to social sciences and management and organization studies by addressing questions that cannot adequately be answered by traditional experimental or survey methodologies (Prasad & Prasad, 2002). Therefore, in this essay I will be discussing 'the interpretive approach' - its ontology and epistemology and its relevance in researching organizations. The underlying assumption of all perspectives on researching organizations is that social scientists, implicitly or explicitly, approach organizations on the basis of their view of the realities of the social world.

Interpretive methods of research adopt the position that our knowledge of reality is

a social construction by human actors (Walsham, 1995). Interpretive research, as we know, arose partly in response to certain significant (some would say, fatal) limitations of conventional quantitative and positivistic organizational research. Some of these limitations followed from the desire of many organizational researchers to imitate the methods of the natural sciences. In this process, unfortunately, organizational researchers mostly lost sight of some important distinctions between the natural sciences and the human and social sciences (Prasad, & Prasad, 2002). The two have often been seen to differ in terms of certain key dimensions including their respective focus of inquiry (natural objects versus human, social, and cultural phenomena) and the methodological aim of inquiry (explanation and control versus understanding) (Habermas, 1988). Interpretive approach holds that unlike atoms, molecules, and electrons, people create and attach their own meanings to the world around them and to the behaviour that they manifest in that world (Schutz, 1973). Stated differently, the same physical artifact, the same institution, or the same human action, can have different meanings for different human subjects, as well as for the observing social scientist (Lee, 1991). In this regard, Schutz points out that the scientist's individual biography and view of society may make him perceive what is going on in a way which distorts its meaning to those involved. In this case, his best defence is to develop a 'scientific' frame of reference, for the distinction between the natural and social science does not affect the common rules or procedures which they share (rigour, scepticism, and so on) (Silverman, 1970).

According to the interpretive approach, social structures 'have no reality except a human one. They are not characterisable as being a thing able to stand on its own…[and] exist only insofar and as long as human beings realise them as part of their world' (Berger and Pullberg, 1966). Similarly, Rose (1962) notes that, Man lives in a 'symbolic environment' and acts in terms of the social meanings that he ascribes to the world around him. Hence, for example, roles are merely 'clusters of related meanings' perceived to be appropriate to certain social settings (Rose, 1962). Interpretive research is committed to the broad philosophy of social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), which sees social reality as a constructed world built in and through meaningful interpretations. This is one of the most important ontological assumptions of Interpretivism, where in the reality about the external world is the one created by man (constructivism). Realities are apprehendable in the form of multiple, intangible mental construction, socially and experientially based, local and specific in nature, and dependent for their form and content on the individual persons or groups holding the constructions/ interpretations (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). In the interpretive paradigm, the social world possesses a 'precarious ontological status'. From this perspective, social reality, although possessing order and regulation, does not possess an external concrete form. Instead it is the product of intersubjective experience (Hassard, 1991).

The ontology of Interpretivism is also reflected in the area of 'Phenomenology' as reality is viewed as phenomena of the mind. The aim of phenomenology was to overcome the perceived remoteness of established philosophy and go back to the things themselves and to discover their essences. Heidegger (1993) uses the etymology of the term phenomenon to define it as that "which shows itself in itself, the manifest" (Moran, 2000).

Therefore, the interpretive approach to organization studies views organizations as having no meaning outside of the meaning given to it. The behaviours of people within organizations, the architecture and symbolism associated with the organizations, etc. would make no sense unless they are interpreted by an observer. However then, central to this school of thought is Max Weber's well known "postulate of subjective interpretation" (Schutz, 1973). Subjective interpretation refers to the different meanings ascribed to a stimulus by different observers, or the same observer under different circumstances. Hence, for instance, an attempt of the management to increase the performance of its employees by tight control and supervision may be interpreted in a favourable way by one set of employees while it may be subject to suspicion and frustration from another set of employees.

An obvious successor to the understanding of the ontological position of interpretivism is the understanding of its epistemological position. If ontology is the basic essence of a phenomenon under study then epistemology is the grounds of knowledge for the study. Hence, since interpretive researchers take a relativist position at the ontological level, they must also take a relativist position at the epistemological level. They, hence, assert that the findings of any inquiry are literally created [!], relative to the particular inquirer and to the particular context in which the inquiry was carried out. If either inquirer or context is changed different findings are crated. The different findings are neither more or less true than the first, but only different (Guba, 1992). Epistemology is the aspect of social sciences that is more relevant to research.

The epistemological position of the interpretive paradigm proposes that the investigator and the object of investigation are assumed to be interactively linked so that the "findings" are literally created as the investigation proceeds (Guba, 1992). Therefore, the two basic elements of interpretive research are meaning and interpretation of action. The interpretive philosophy is premised on the epistemological belief that "Social process is not captured in hypothetical deductions, covariances, and degrees of freedom. Instead, understanding social process involves getting inside the world of those generating it" (Rosen 1991). Further, Schutz (1963) draws the difference between the epistemological assumptions of naturalism and interpretivism in order to give a more clear explanation of the latter. "It is upto the natural scientist and him alone to define, in accordance with the procedural rules of his science, his observational field, and to determine the facts, data, and events within it which are relevant for the problems or scientific purposes at hand…The world of nature, as explored by the natural scientist, does not mean 'anything' to the molecules, atoms and electrons therein. The observational field of the social scientist, however, namely the social reality, has a specific meaning and relevance structure for the human beings living, acting, and thinking therein. By a series of commonsense constructs they have preselected and pre-interpreted this world they experience as the reality of their daily lives (Schutz, 1963).

Weber (1959) explains that actions are oriented not in any mechanistic fashion of stimulus and response, but because actors interpret and give meaning both to their own and to other's behaviours (Silverman, 1970). The action of men stems from a network of meanings which they themselves construct and of which they are conscious. Weber put the relationship between social science and action clearly when he argued that sociology is concerned with: 'The interpretation of action in terms of its subjective meaning, where action is all human behaviour when insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it' (Weber, 1964).

Schutz (1964) had a different view in this regard and suggested that all actions are not preceded by meaning: "Actions are not meaningful because of a particular intention or motive but because other actors interpret our action as having symbolic significance" (Silverman, 1970).

However, the most recent and extensive view in this regard came with Silverman's (1970) book 'The Theory of Organizations'. Silverman explained that an analysis of an action must also include the meaning that preceded the action. It implies that explanations of human actions must take account of the meanings which those concerned with the actions assigned to their acts (Silverman, 1970). Therefore, the social construction of reality originates from a meaningful action.

However, the interpretation of the action may not always be in accordance with the purpose of the action, for instance, employees going on a mass sickie because they do not agree with the procedural changes made by the management may be misinterpreted as merely an act of disobedience having the purpose of catching the management's attention. To avoid such misinterprations, the epistemological functions of interpretivism use the field of 'hermeneutics'. Hermeneutics is primarily concerned with interpreting meaning, in an attempt to make clear an area or object of study, which would otherwise be subject to confusion. Hermeneutics gives methodological directions to the specifically interpretive science, with the end of avoiding arbitrariness as far as possible (Grondin, 1994).

With regard to the relevance of the interpretive approach to researching organisations, it has proved to be overly useful especially while dealing with metaphysical, or emotional aspects of work. For instance, when the research is aimed at estimating the levels of organisational stress, an interpretive perspective helps researchers to go beyond physiological changes into a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the emotion and the consequent actions of employees. The aim of all interpretive research , Gibbons explains, is to understand how members of a social group, through their participation in social processes, enact their particular realities and endow them with meaning, and to show how these meanings, beliefs and intentions of the members help to constitute their social action. The interpretive perspective attempts "to understand the intersubjective meanings embedded in social life . . .[and hence] to explain why people act the way they do" (Gibbons, 1987).

Since, ontologically, interpretive organisational research assumes that the social world (that is, social relations, organizations, division of labor) is not "given", rather, the social world is produced and reinforced by humans through their action and interaction, and organizations, groups, social systems do not exist apart from humans, hence this social world (or organisations) cannot be apprehended, characterized, and measured in some objective or universal way. Therefore, the methodology for research under this approach is often limited to (or in some cases enhanced by) qualitative methods (Orlikowski & Baroudi, 1991).

However, interpretive methods of research also face several criticisms. From the naturalist perspective it faces the obvious criticism of being 'overly subjective'. For instance, in a research regarding job satisfaction, the method employed by an interpretivist (interpretation of meaningful behaviours such as reduced commitment and increased absenteeism) could yet be criticised of lacking objectifiable, measurable evidence. Another critic of the interpretivist approach is the critical theory which characterises interpretivism as being disinterested in any kind of radical questioning or facilitation of social change. Many interpretive organizational researchers may deliberately refrain from raising troubling questions about the status quo or from engaging in critique (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). In defence, Denzin (1994) explains that as interpretive organizational research comes of age, such a separation becomes meaningless (except, possibly, for purposes of analytical convenience), and the lines between interpretation and critical theory turn increasingly blurry (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000).

In conclusion, the ontological and epistemological assumptions underpinning interpretivism that view reality as a product of social construction and that are hence studied on the basis of the interpretation of the investigator, are often found to be useful in organisational research as many aspects of the organisation demand a purely qualitative and extensive method of research.

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