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.

Ten essentials for more impactful and integrated research on transformations

Community member post by Ioan Fazey

Ioan Fazey (biography)

What can we learn when we bring together different insights from the rich and diverse traditions of action-oriented research? Will this help us more effectively understand and navigate our way through a world of change to ensure knowledge production contributes more directly to societal needs?

In a recent publication (Fazey et al., 2018), we explored the critical question of how to develop innovative, transformative solutions and knowledge about how to implement them. Addressing these questions requires much more engagement with more practical forms of knowledge, as well as learning from action and change in much more direct ways than currently occurs in academia. It is like learning to ride a bicycle, which can’t be done just by watching a powerpoint presentation, and which requires learning by “getting hands dirty” and by falling off and starting again. Continue reading

Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments

machiel -keestra_jan-2018
Machiel Keestra (biography)

Community member post by Machiel Keestra

How can we adequately prepare and train students to navigate transdisciplinary environments? How can we develop hybrid spaces in our universities that are suitable for transdisciplinary education?

These questions were considered by a plenary panel, which I organised and chaired at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Germany. Three major educational requirements were identified:

  • long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations
  • teaching particular dispositions and competencies
  • preparing students for intercultural endeavours.

Continue reading

What makes research transdisciplinary?

Community member post by Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke (biography)

What do we mean by transdisciplinarity and when can we say we are doing transdisciplinary research? There is a broad literature with a range of different meanings and perspectives. There is the focus on real-world problems with multiple stakeholders in the “life-world”, and a sense of throwing open the doors of academia to transcend disciplinary boundaries to address and solve complex problems. But when it comes to the practicalities of work in the field, there is often uncertainty and even disagreement about what is and isn’t transdisciplinarity.

Let me give an example. Continue reading

Two audiences and five aims of action researchers

Community member post by Hilary Bradbury

Hilary Bradbury (biography)

Do action researchers have something to offer to the contemporary and urgent question of how to respond to complex real-world problems? I think so.

Action researchers, often working in inter-disciplinary settings, hold in mind that technical, practical and emancipatory goals of action research require us to develop facility in communicating with two audiences: the ‘local’ practitioners and the ‘cosmopolitan’ community of scholars.

Let’s start with the latter. The cosmopolitans are motivated by the question of what, if anything, can be contributed to what scholars already know. As a result these academic colleagues usually privilege the written medium exclusively. The local audience, however, is not served when action researchers write a manuscript intended for scholarly peers! Continue reading

Three schools of transformation thinking

Community member post by Uwe Schneidewind and Karoline Augenstein

Uwe Schneidewind (biography)

‘Transformation’ has become a buzzword in debates about sustainable development. But while the term has become very popular, it is often unclear what is meant exactly by ‘transformation’.

The fuzziness of the concept can be seen as a strength, giving it metaphoric power and facilitating inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation. However, this fuzziness means there is also a danger of the transformation debate being co-opted by powerful actors and used strategically to impede societal change towards more sustainable pathways.

Karoline Augenstein (biography)

Thus, issues of power are at stake here and we argue that a better understanding of the underlying assumptions and theories of change shaping the transformation debate is needed. We delineate three schools of transformation thinking and their assumptions about what drives societal change, and summarize them in the first table below. We then examine the relationship of these three schools of thinking to power, summarized in the second table. Continue reading