What on earth are Ontology and Epistemology?

What on earth are Ontology and Epistemology?

Dr Sally Vanson

I am an NLP Master Trainer, sit on the accreditation panel of ANLP, the Research Committee of ICF and am CEO of The Performance Solution where as well as training professional coaches to get accreditation through ICF, we have designed, developed and run the world’s first NLP based Masters’ degree. Our students are all practitioners and working with us is often their first foray into the unique jargon of the world of research. My purpose in writing is to explain in more depth the terms ontology and epistemology, and encourage you to reflect on your own philosophical position in research.

Ontology and Epistemology are words very commonly used within academia, and although they can seem daunting when first encountered, their meaning for NLP research is simple. Epistemology is concerned with the questions “What do you know?” and “How do you know it?”, whilst ontology is concerned with “What is there?”. Both act as the foundations of our approach to a research question and range from positivist stances (deductive and more scientific views – “counting and measuring” quantitative research methods) to interpretivist stances (inductive “deeper truth” reasoning views – observational qualitative research methods) (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2007).

The choice of view in the research field is linked with the preferences of the researcher and the varieties and validities of the knowledge currently applied within NLP research. The researcher needs to be aware of his/her own bias and constantly question assumptions and subjectivity throughout the research project.  Some initial enquiries to probe, include;

  • An understanding of research design
  • Personal factors affecting the design
  • Considering all possible approaches to the design
  • Choosing a design that is appropriate to the research question(s), the content and the working style and objectives of the researcher

So, the researcher has a choice about his/her philosophical approach but must be aware that the approach will affect the rest of the methodology and that sometimes the research question itself will suggest a certain approach. NLP is not an exclusive study so it helps to understand the possibilities for further exploration so as to have the best possible background for making decisions about the approach.  (It is important to remember that Research Design and Research Methods are different and will be discussed later in this series).

Ontological position

Our research design starts by considering the Ontological position which deals with the fundamental nature of existence, and for which there is no right or wrong answer as different people view topics differently depending on their role, values set or background – “the map is not the territory” (Dilts and DeLozier, 2000).  Each researcher will filter for preferences in his/her world according to his/her metaprogrammes (Dilts and DeLozier, 2000), which are derived from guiding principles and belief systems, motives and constraints, which in turn decide the events to be noticed and the events to be ignored, the evidence to be collected and the evidence to be set aside in building an argument. Something is going on which we refer to as the phenomenal flow (Jankowicz, 2005) and what some of us choose to explore depends on our own ontological position. Others may disagree and choose something else. (It is useful to note here that phenomenology can be confusingly used both to define a philosophical approach and also as a methodology) (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998).

It is important for the researcher to understand what s/he is filtering for, as it will make a difference to the research methods and data-gathering techniques chosen and early questions should be considered around research beliefs. S/he may need to consider whether the research design is based on beliefs about playing to strengths and personal interest, or an additional layer of personal development which is about exploring and learning new techniques?

(Bryman, 2001) says that Ontology is concerned with the nature of social entities, describing the two positions  positivism and social constructionism(or interpretivism), and likens their differences by referring to two of the most common norms in social science – organization and culture. Bryman talks about an organisation as a tangible object, with rules, regulations and procedures, with people appointed to different jobs under a division of labour with a hierarchy, mission statement etc. He suggests that the organisation has a reality which is external to those within in and it represents a social order that requires individuals to conform to the rules and regulations. It is a restraining force that both acts on and inhibits its members.  (Bryman 2001) also suggests that the same is true of culture, which can be seen as a collection of shared values and customs into which people are socialized to conform. In essence, positivism says that social phenomena have an existence that is independent or separate from the actors within it. Examples of this are Virgin or GEC where the CEO (Branson or Welch) have clearly defined the cultural norms albeit in very different ways and new employees conform very quickly because the culture is so strong and dictated by charismatic leaders who are aligned with their strong brand.

Alternatively (Bryman 2001) considers Social Constructionism (sometimes called constructivism or interpretivism)  as an alternative ontological position where social phenomena and their meanings are continually being changed and revised through social interaction e.g. the researchers’ own accounts of the social world where nothing is definitive as the versions evolve with experience. (Truth only happens in the moment). He goes on to give the example that human beings construct the organisation and the culture instead of the organisation and culture being pre-given categories which affect behaviours. This will often happen with start up companies where the culture evolves as the organisation grows and the product or service develops. Often this development is aligned to the intellectual and experiential growth of the founding team. e.g. Microsoft and Apple where the leaders have empowered their teams and the organic internal growth evolves the brand and therefore could cause it to be more enduring (and of course this is my experience and may not be true)!


Having thought about the Ontological positions, the researcher must then consider the Epistemology of his/her work. The Epistemology is about the information that counts as acceptable knowledge in NLP and how it should be acquired and interpreted. Once a researcher accepts a particular epistemology, s/he usually adopts methods that are characteristic of that position, again allowing experience to dictate filters and preferences, so a central question to the research is whether the NLP can be studied according to the same principles as the natural sciences or whether there are limitations that push the researcher to a particular research design?

The two Ontological positions point to two of the main distinctions in the Epistemology of research in NLP;

Positivism and Interpretivism

Positivism does not allow for the subjective opinions of the researcher as the approach deals with verifiable observations and measurable relations between those observations, not with speculation and conjecture. It is therefore the more scientific perspective with no room here for the subjective opinions of the researcher as the approach deals with verifiable observations and measurable relations between them, not with speculation and conjecture.


The Interpretivist approach however, rejects absolute facts and suggests that facts are based on perception rather than objective truth. With this approach, the conclusions are derived from the interpretations of the participants rather than the abstract theories of the researcher or scientist. This means there is a challenge to understand the meanings that individuals and teams attach to their activities. There are no Universal laws or experiences as the world is always being developed and re-developed by reflective, thinking, feeling beings who are able to make a difference to their environment and the focus is usually on meaning and perceived realities rather than facts. The researcher will often need to get some specialist knowledge in order to understand the meanings, values and contexts of their subjects e.g. for my own thesis I needed to understand the workings of large law firms.

(Easterby-Smith, Thorpe et al. 1991) has a useful summary of differences between the two concepts;

Table One; (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe et al. 1991)

  Positivist paradigm Interpretivist paradigm
Basic beliefs The world is external and objectiveThe observer is independentScience is value free The world is socially constructed and subjectiveObserver is part of what is observedScience is driven by human interest
Researcher should Focus on factsLook for causality and fundamental lawsReduce phenomena to simplest elementsFormulate hypotheses and then test them Focus on meaningsTry to understand what is happeningLook at totality of each situationDevelop ideas through induction from data
Preferred methods include Operationalising concepts so they can be measuredTaking large samples Using multiple methods to establish different viewsSmall samples investigated in depth or over time


Which research questions might be best answered using each epistemological approach?

There are implications for the researcher from both the Positivist and the Interpretivist approaches. (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe et al. 1991) suggests the Positivist approach where you are able to;

  • Stay independent of what is being observed
  • Decides how and what to study from objective criteria and not personal bias
  • Are able to hypothesise first then deduct observations to prove or disprove the hypothesis
  • Can operationalise concepts in order to measure facts quantatively
  • Reduce concepts and problems to the simplest possible elements in order to understand them – ‘chunking down’ in NLP terminology (Dilts, 2000)
  • Is able to gain a sufficient sample size in order to generalise – although there is a debate whether the highest level of academic study should be generalised?)
  • Are able to carry out cross sectional analysis in order to identify regularities.

Examples of research topics better suited to this approach include;

  • “The impact of fun at work,” where the key performance indicators against the provision of an enjoyable, motivational and environment where a sense of humour is encouraged, are measurables such as reduced absence rates, lower staff turnover, punctuality
  • Assignments around employee engagement and employee branding where questionnaires are used to ascertain a measurable level of knowledge against core criteria about organisational mission, vision etc

Alternatively (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe et al. 1991) suggest an interpetivist approach where the follow apply;

  • The researcher has a meta programme filter for difference and can appreciate the meanings that people place on different constructions
  • You can understand and explain why people have different experiences or maps of the world, rather than search for external causes and fundamental laws to explain their behaviour

Examples of research topics better suited to this approach include;

  • “The impact of fun at work”, where the researcher can carry out simpler yet structured observations, talk to individuals about how they feel, what they see and hear and make distinctions about the varying definitions of ‘fun’ and the varying impact for each person.
  • Assignments using focus groups and creative methodologies with structured observation e.g. sandplay, metaphor which are designed to build models for future application

It is worth mentioning that the majority of current NLP based research uses approaches towards the phenomenological end of the continuum which provides the sceptics with much evidence in their debate about the ‘scientific evidence (or lack of) for NLP’.  The wide range of epistemological options and ontology reality choices are summarised in Figure 1 and it is worth taking the time to discover your own preferences and bias in order to define your own applied philosophy in the field and consider “What do you know, how do you know it and what is there?”.

I encourage you to dip into to the world of research, develop something of your own and add value to the field of NLP in your own way and as Robert Dilts so aptly puts it “makes this a world to which people want to belong”.

Epistemology and Ontology.docx


Figure 1: Epistemology and Ontology (Corkill, 2006)

It is vital to decide on your approach before moving into your research design, and the impact of your choice upon design e.g. choosing quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods will be discussed in later article.

Dr Sally Vanson; DBA, MSc, ChCIPD, PCC (sally@theperformancesolution.com)


Bryman,A. (2001). Social Research Methods : New York: Oxford University Press

Corkill ,D. (2006).  Advanced Research Techniques: Portsmouth:  University of Portsmouth.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. (1998). The Landscape of Qualitative Research : Theories and Issues. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Dilts,R. and Delozier,J. (2000).  Encyclopedia of NLP:  Santa Cruz: NLP University Press.

Easterby-Smith, Thorpe et al. (1991). Management Research, an introduction: London:Sage

Jancowiz, A.D. (2005). Business Research projects: London: Thomson Learning

Saunders, M. Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2007).  Research Methods for Business Students (4thed.):  Harlow: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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  1. Psychology Masters | Pearltrees on 5th February 2017 at 9:05 pm

    […] in Psychology Structure | University of Roehampton Online. What on earth are Ontology and Epistemology? – The Performance Solution. What on earth are Ontology and Epistemology? Dr Sally Vanson I am an NLP Master Trainer, sit on […]

  2. Totwe Sekgetho on 22nd September 2020 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you very much. I have been overwhelmed by these two words up to now.

  3. Shamiya Nazir on 24th September 2020 at 2:48 pm

    So far what I have understood that before conducting research, it is important to understand the personal view and traits of a researcher himself/herself. It will guide him/her which research method will be more suitable based on his/her personality, of course in relation to the research area/research question.

  4. […] Alternatively (Bryman 2001) considers Social Constructionism (sometimes called constructivism or interpretivism) as an alternative ontological position where social phenomena and their meanings are continually being changed and revised through social interaction e.g. the researchers’ own accounts of the social world via […]

    • Preston Cole on 11th February 2023 at 4:52 am

      Epistemology raises the question, 1) what do I know about the quality of jazz? 2) How do I know the quality of jazz? It will identify what I know about jazz, measuring through interpretivist stances (inductive “deeper truth” reasoning views – observational qualitative research

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