Depending on their makeup, background, and experiences, people can view how the world works very differently. Essentially, they understand reality itself—we could call it “truth”—in a certain way. Yeah, this can sound pretty heady and philosophical, but think about it—you probably know someone who thinks things are true that you think are just opinions or vice versa. If we intend to discover what is true and real via research, we have to understand different worldviews and perspectives because not everyone agrees on where truth and reality “lives.”

Hang with me here. Let’s start with some key terms.


Ontology is the study of reality, itself. It explores the very nature of being and existence. I know it may sound strange, but think with me—how do we know what you and I are experiencing right now is real? Maybe you believe it’s real because you can touch, taste, and measure things. Or maybe you also believe that a god or $1,000,000 or love are all real, though they cannot be observed very easily with our eyes or maybe even at all.


Ever heard of a “paradigm shift”? It’s the idea that what we once knew or thought has completely changed and can no longer explain the nature of reality. I know that sounds like Star Trek talk, but stick with me. There once was a time when people believed the Earth was the center of the universe—that everything in the heavens was designed with Earth in mind. Living in such a time, you’d probably just assume that any happening in the universe or in your back yard was all about humans and any deities who created or governed them.

But what about when people learned that the Earth was not the center of the universe? Mind. Blown. The very nature of reality changed. Now our backyards were not the center of the universe, rather, they were floating in space just like backyards on 47 Ursae Majoris c. Everything shifted.

People have yet to agree on one paradigm that sufficiently describes reality because we are all perceivers who come from different backgrounds and places in life. We perceive and experience differently. When forming a research project, you must define in what paradigm your research hails.

Postpositivism / “Factist”ConstructivismTransformative / Critical TheoryPragmatism
Nature of SelfDefined by society and external factors.Defined by interactions with others and a result of experiences.Defined by power relationships and structure of domination.Defined as an actor impacted by a problem.
OntologyThere is a real world independent of peoples’ perception. Only that which is recordable is real, but absolute truth can never be found.Reality is held inside each person. It is a result of their experiences.Reality is fraught with systems that oppress people and groups.Whatever works at the time. Stop worrying about the nature of reality.
EpistemologyKnowledge is derived through experiencing the world and measuring it.Knowledge is created by the subject’s actions and perceptions.Knowledge is obtained by observing and interpreting meaning.All we want to know about is the problem and a solution for it.
Role of ResearcherSeparate from what’s being investigated. measure objectively.Embedded in what is being investigated.Advocate for change and justice.Facilitator and problem solver.
Role of ResearchedThe object being studied.Source of information and understanding.The object being studied.Participant in the problem space.
Approach(es)QuantitativeQualitativeMixed MethodsMixed Methods
Deals withNumbers and factsStories and personal accountsLaws, systems, personal accountsAnything that helps solve the problem
GoalTheory verification through experimentationMaking meaning and understandingEmancipation and reformSolutions to improve current conditions

This chart is by no means complete, but it’s a start. As you develop a research project, determine what you are trying to do and select a paradigm that matches your goals.

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Dennis Cheatham

Associate Professor, Communication Design

Miami University

Updated: January 6, 2024 11:48 pm
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