A guide for interdisciplinary researchers: Adding axiology alongside ontology and epistemology

Community member post by Peter Deane

Peter Deane (biography)

Can philosophical insights be useful for interdisciplinary researchers in extending their thinking about the role of values and knowledge in research? More broadly, can a model or heuristic simplify some of the complexity in understanding how research works?

It’s common for interdisciplinary researchers to consider ontology and epistemology, two major arms of philosophical inquiry into human understanding, but axiology – a third major arm – is oft overlooked.

I start by describing axiology, then detail work by Michael Patterson and Daniel Williams (1998) who place axiology alongside ontology and epistemology. The outcome herein is to cautiously eject and then present a part of their work as a heuristic that may help interdisciplinary researchers to extend understanding on philosophical commitments that underlie research.

This post expands on the thinking in an earlier blog post by Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman, on A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers.

Axiology defined

Axiology is the study of value or, more adequately, theory on the nature of value. In plain-English; what’s good (or bad) in life and what do we find worthy.

Axiology incorporates ethics (theory of morality) and aesthetics (theory of taste and of beauty), as well as other forms of value. Asking what ‘ought to be’ is axiological.

Axiology is a part of value theory (video: 5 minutes), which has broader applicability, but here axiology is the core focus.

Axiological concerns infuse research. Two general examples are:

  • what makes a good researcher (eg., impartial, curious; caring; diligent, etc); and,
  • what is worthwhile science (eg., correlational, causal, problem-centred, hypothesis-centered, experimental, applied, private, public, etc).

A particular example concerns research question formation, as created and enacted from personal, scientific and other commitments; eg., what is valued as a research question and outcome.

Futhermore, these issues are multi-dimensional, eg.,

  • “In what context is the research situated (paradigmatic influences)?
  • What are the philosophical values chosen and why (guiding the inquiry)?
  • Why is a specific inquiry chosen (focus of research)? and,
  • Which claims are made (and suggestions to practitioners)?” (Biedenbach and Jacobsson 2016)

Axiology then, is a part of the overall usefulness of philosophy to thinking about interdisciplinary research.

Bringing ontology, epistemology and axiology together – normative philosophical commitments

Patterson and Williams (1998) use insights from philosophy of science to present a model of science which, at the time, advanced discussion about social science within natural resource management. Only a part of their model is discussed here.

They make the case that science has, in part, a normative structure. So, doing ‘X’ kind of scientific research is therefore underwritten by ‘Y’ set of normative philosophical commitments.

These philosophical commitments involve theories about:

  • the nature of reality and of what really exists (ontology)
  • the relationship between the knower and what is known (epistemology)
  • what we value (axiology)
  • the strategy and justifications in constructing a specific type of knowledge (methodology), as linked to individual techniques (method/s).

Taken as a whole, a set of philosophical commitments form a meta-theoretical (theory of theory) structure that can help with further understanding research as a phenomenon in its own right.

Another layer of complexity is that ‘X’ kind of scientific research may involve multiple normative philosophical commitments, especially when it is structured by a particular community of researchers who say that their collection of philosophical commitments and practices constitutes a science.

So, some researcher communities rigorously police their science by dogmatically controlling research with a very tightly defined and usually implicit, and therefore opaque, set of normative commitments. In contrast, certain communities of researchers tolerate diverse, messy or explicitly stated sets of normative philosophical commitments (hello interdisciplinarians!).

The normative commitments detailed below, it is suggested, provide a heuristic (that uses comparison across a handful of attributes) through which research may be thought about.

Note though, that the normative commitments are applied at a high degree of generality – essentially at the level of worldview (eg., rationalist; relativist), and paradigm or research tradition (eg., interpretivism, positivism/empiricism, critical inquiry).

Although the normative commitments are an integral part of research, at the lower level of individual research programs (eg., specific theories, methodologies and methods that researchers conduct individual ‘real-world’ research projects within), the diversity of phenomena involved make applying the normative commitments as described here problematic; there are just too great a number of additional attributes that could be compared.

The difficult part then to applying such a heuristic is to draw out and make explicit the normative commitments operating at higher degrees of generality. Notwithstanding what was said immediately above, this may include taking into account the way that disciplinary theories, methodologies and methods are put together to form the most obvious parts of research work and which can infer what normative commitments lie behind these various choices.

Lightly adapted from Patterson and Williams (1998) are the three tables at the end of this post:

  1. ontological commitments;
  2. epistemological commitments; and,
  3. axiological commitments.

Each table can be read by row; eg., the table ‘ontological commitments’ is made up of the sub-rows: ‘nature of reality’; ‘nature of human experience’; and, ‘human nature’. Within each of these three sub-rows there is a further bifurcated sub-row set. So, the ‘nature of reality’ row is further split between the somewhat contrasting ‘objectivist ontologies’ as against ‘constructivist ontologies’. A further layer of connectivity exists between each set of somewhat contrasting items (eg., objectivist; deterministic; and, information-based ontologies on one hand, as contrasting with constructivist; narrative; and, meaning based ontologies on the other). This overall patterning is replicated across the other two tables, always producing somewhat contrasting bifurcated statement sets. This further means that, in regards to the paradigm or research tradition within which the research lies, the axiology, ontology and epistemology utilised should be consistent together, as detailed in the figure below from Patterson and Williams (1998: 286).

Paradigmatic commitments in the macrostructure of science (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 286, as adapted from Laudan 1984)

Understanding the way that these contrasting commitments cohere across all the various options in the three tables below and in regards any worldview, paradigm or research tradition encountered, can help to make explicit what is often implicit regarding the principles underlying research.

Ontological commitments underlying research (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 288, references available in the original)

Epistemological commitments underlying research (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 288, references available in the orignal)

Axiological commitments underlying research (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 288, references available in the original)


It can be argued that struggling with philosophical insights into research strategy, design and practice is an interdisciplinarian’s burden.

As a practical philosophy for interdisciplinarity, and although their article is 20 years old, using an element of Patterson and Williams (1998) work as a heuristic that presents a small number of attributes containing simple, bifurcated sets of statements is potentially useful for thinking about the normative philosophical commitments underpinning the worldview and paradigmatic/research traditions involved in research.

What’s your experience been of axiological thinking or in dealing with values in interdisciplinary research? Are there other examples, models or heuristics that you’ve found useful in drawing out how research works? Or, to return to the central concern of this blog post, have you found other philosophical works or practices that have informed your interdisciplinary journey?

Biedenbach, T. and Jacobsson, M. (2016). The open secret of values: The roles of values and axiology in project research. Project Management Journal, 47, 3: 139-155.

Carneades of Cyrene (Carneades.org). (2017). What is value theory? (Axiology and Theory of Value). Online (video: 5 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLXTOyKz6eY

Laudan, L. (1984). Science and values: The aims of science and their role in scientific debate. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, United States of America.

Patterson, M. and Williams, D. (1998). Paradigms and problems: The practice of social science in natural resource management. Society and Natural Resources, 11, 3: 279-295. (DOI): 10.1080/08941929809381080

For an overview of the role of ontology, epistemology and axiology in research, see:
Organizational Communication Channel. (2017) Epistemology, Ontology, and Axiology in Research. Online (video: 8 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhdZOsBps5o

Biography: Peter Deane is a Research Officer on the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) team at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

3 thoughts on “A guide for interdisciplinary researchers: Adding axiology alongside ontology and epistemology

  1. Thanks for a very thought provoking post. Are you aware of any use of this type of heuristic in surveys of research teams (particularly those that might have a transdisciplinary element) or management issues? Your post brought to mind this 2007 Eigenbrode et al article “Employing Philosophical Dialogue in Collaborative Science” (http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1641/B570109) and I wondered about the possible use of your piece as a tool to explore thinking either within teams or across issue areas where significant conflicts exist over resource management decisions (and the science used to make those decisions). Thank you.

  2. Lots of things that could be said here, but I’ll confine myself to two:

    First, I notice that you talk in terms of axiological commitments at the highest level of research – what the different paradigms value. In some ways, I find the integration of axiology with epistemology the most interesting angle: that boundary judgements about what is relevant (to the researchers and/or participants) are always associated with value judgements about what matters in terms of our purposes. And the relationship is two-way: values inform the drawing of boundaries, and pre-existing boundary judgements constrain the values that appear possible. This is an axiological perspective that has major implications for research because the latter can never be value-neutral – claims to objectivity about phenomena are still contestable using the question “have you looked at the right thing in the first place?” Thus, objectivity doesn’t disappear altogether (unlike in some interpretive perspectives), but only becomes relevant once we have agreement between the relevant parties in the research on the right question to ask. Of course, only some questions need a claim to an objective answer; some might need a normative or subjective one.

    My second point is more of a question – do you believe that, when we undertake controlled observations or investigations of meaning, the accompanying philosophical assumptions automatically flow in? I don’t think it’s that simple. When we are observing, we might be making an assumption that we’re looking at something in the real world in order to make an objective proposition about it, but I don’t think that then has to imply that the investigation of (subjective or normative) meanings is invalid. Likewise, when we investigate meanings, we are acknowledging human constructions, but that does not extend to the judgement that only meaning-orientated inquiry is valid, and scientific observation is wrong. I reckon we can have multi-faceted onto-epistemological positions that allow all the methods to be seen as valid. We only suffer philosophical contradiction when we mix methods if we accept what systems thinkers call “isolationist” assumptions: that only one mode of research is valid, and the rest are simply wrong because they are based on faulty philosophies.

    • Thank-you for your thoughtful and interesting response Gerald.

      I’ll restrict my response to a single concern I had in writing the post, and which you perceptively draw out as a problem – notably ‘isolationist’ assumptions.

      I’ll apologise for the length (I’m not expecting a reply, if that is helpful), but your comment has let me have another go at this issue, successfully or not as the case may be! As it is long, I have split it into two – the first part is my suggestion of an additional paragraph to the above blog-post. The second part (which can be skipped), is my direct response to the isolationist issue you raised.

      PART 1 of 2

      The problem with ‘isolationist’ assumptions emerging in the post (outside of ruling out the idea of the heuristic in the post as having any use at all) is that the post above needs extra explanation.

      My stripping out the normative commitments alone, from Patterson and Williams (1998), disbalances part of their meaning. Therefore, it is a problem in using the heuristic in this post to understand normative commitments, as the way that the bifurcated sets of normative commitments are discussed may impel an either/or approach to, eg., objectivist claims on one hand or meaning-making claims on the other. This can promote contradiction and restrict what methods may be (seen to be) valid or not, and what normative commitments may be seen as related to them.

      I’ve written an additional paragraph that should perhaps have been added to the post (possibly placed after the first figure). It may work to help resolve the serious issue you raise, about isolationist tendencies that emerge from reading the tables. To deal with methods though, I’d have had to add even more text, so this material still dodges the methods issue per se. Here is the suggested paragraph:

      “A warning is required though when thinking through these patterns of normative commitments. You, the reader, bring your own normative commitments to this experience. Your worldview and paradigm (or research tradition) preferences mean that certain normative commitments may be prioritisied over others (eg., you may prefer objectivist commitments over meaning-making commitments). Further, you’ll have and have likely used expertise developed within at least one disciplinary space/ paradigm, and so when reading about normative commitments there is a kind of ‘natural’ clustering of the individual commitments that reflect the paradigmatic orientation most familiar to you. Worldviews and paradigms come with histories, and their histories can be strong and exclusionary. The figure and tables in this post are meant to offer a glimpse of the complexity in the way normative commitments underpin research, a way of opening-up thinking by providing straight-forward statements to help in orientation. Importantly then, the link between any one commitment and another is not privileged, even though the explanation above infers (what would be incorrectly) that there is a necessary connection. Although the axiology, ontology and epistemology utilised should be consistent together, the explanation for this consistency are made within a paradigm, or at the level of the research program in the methodology, and they stand and fall on their coherency in practice and as policed by some community of users (researchers usually). Interdisciplinarity in this sense, requires identifying and releasing particular boundary conditions in-self, and a fairly continuous expansion of philosophical and technical knowledge about research”.

      PART 2 of 2
      This is part two, my direct response to your comment re isolationist assumptions in the post.

      At the risk of reading your thoughts incorrectly Gerald, I’d like to frame a part of your comment that in turn led to the reframing of my post.

      So, in regards how we know and what we value, your comment above focuses on the purpose of research, and how methods are chosen and enacted – and as we are discussing interdisciplinarity, this covers mixing methods. In the post, I tried to do a (not so successful) dodge on issues raised by the heuristic at the level of research program, methodology and methods. As you infer, there is complexity here of significance, and in my drafts of the post the word-count ballooned when I tried to deal with it. So, in the end it was not dealt with in the post. This then meant that the tension with determining normative commitments (at the worldview and paradigmatic level) remains in place when coming down to the level of purpose, planning and action in research – this can mean that the heuristic and my description of it suggests that, as you note, only certain kinds of claim-making (eg., objectivist) are legitimate. If that is the case, normative commitments can be exclusive (isolationist). A researcher reading in or doing interdisciplinary work that is exclusive, will then in all likelihood confront philosophical contradiction and potentially a crisis – instead of informing and expanding capacity, the heuristic instead may make it harder to be interdisciplinary.

      So, you ask “…do you believe that, when we undertake controlled observations or investigations of meaning, the accompanying philosophical assumptions automatically flow in?” You then say “I don’t think it’s that simple”. I will answer these in reverse order.

      So, I agree, the inter-relationship between normative commitments and the practice of research is not simple. This is because normative commitments inform the choice of method, alongside wrapping and informing method in practice; but the why, when and how of this relationship is another question entirely. I’ll unpack it (much of which and more, you’ll know), opening my understanding (or lack thereof) to critique, then answer your question.

      So, a method is a technique; a way of doing something in some context. A research method is a procedure for collecting/selecting, organising, analysing/synthesising and presenting data.

      A paradigm (eg., interpretivism) has a set of normative commitments that come with it. A method does not necessarily have such, only becoming a part of some set of normative commitments once some piece of research has been stabilised as a whole (finished). This preceding sentence has significant complexities in it, but for the sake of space I will oversimply the explanation of why I think this is the case.

      This is a vast generalisation, but when a research purpose is developed, that purpose will direct the research plan (research design/strategy). Part of the plan, and a critical part, are the choice and use of research methods. In disciplinary research, the research methods will be drawn from within a disciplinary paradigm – in this sense, the methods will appear to come with a pre-existing set of normative commitments stemming from the paradigm. In interdisciplinary research, the methods may come from differing disciplines/paradigms. Questions of incommensurability then arise in the interpretation of method entry (to the research) and use as linked to the normative commitments the involved researchers hold and also allow to exist (advertently or inadvertently). The normative commitments of the researcher/s involved (and their attached research community) in such scenarios are of high importance, as there is a kind of fusion going on that means the normative commitments that envelop the methods used may not be the normative commitments that one might expect as based on wherever the method first came from. By the time the interdisciplinary research is concluded, the methods will have become a part of some set of normative commitments, just what being dependent on the particular research context as a whole.

      What generally does the work in these scenarios is the methodology. The methodology justifies the methods in the research, and depending how extensive the methodology is, also the connectivity between normative commitments (ontology, epistemology, axiology), the research purpose/problem (questions), paradigm, disciplinary theories explicitly used, strategy (logic of inquiry), and so forth. Complexities pile on from here.

      One complexity you have noted, is that some paradigms (research communities) will tolerate or legitimate only certain methodology/method mixes – this is I gather what you mean by ‘isolationist’ – where a “mode of research” isolates itself as the only legitimate way to know and value.

      To return to your question, “…do you believe that, when we undertake controlled observations or investigations of meaning, the accompanying philosophical assumptions automatically flow in?” My answer is no. I think we are closer together than further apart on this – that is to say, isolationist thinking damages (even dooms) interdisciplinarity.

      In the end, your comment raises the concern if this suggested heuristic in this post is worth the effort to deploy it?

      Instead of answering either way (apart from adding the new paragraph that opens this comment and tries to deal with my saying ‘no’ to your question), I’d rather say that I arrived at writing this post in response to a comment (by Adam Potthast) to Moon and Blackman’s post (https://i2insights.org/2017/05/02/philosophy-for-interdisciplinarity/). Adam asserted, quite reasonably, that you would not “…see many philosophers agreeing with the characterizations of philosophical views in [Moon and Blackman’s] post”. A problem for interdisciplinary researchers, from my perspective, is that few started off their working lives as philosophers, and to master the discipline of philosophy or to be able to understand the received wisdom of philosophers is a substantive task, beneficial as it is. I’d propose that a pragmatic ethic of ‘whatever it takes in making do with philosophy for interdisciplinary research’ is, I believe, worthy. So, this kind of approach is not about mastery, but sensitisation. It is not about confidently knowing, but instead an ability to make better sense of the muddlesome ways we might have to do interdisciplinary research, whilst avoiding falling for the false-simplicity supplied by this very same way of ‘whatever it takes’ philosophising on science. It’s hard, messy and open to substantive error. But I think it is worth the effort, and so that lead to this post, for better or worse, and has powered this long response to your excellent comment.

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