An Ultimate Guide to Theoretical Perspectives for Your PhD Thesis

The underlying question that philosophy attempts to answer is how thinking relates to being, meaning the way a PhD student answers this question determines their philosophical perspective or general theoretical worldview. The ontological and epistemological positions you have taken in your study will guide your action, which is the main idea behind theoretical perspectives or research paradigms. They play a crucial role in making your PhD study scientific because they show the assumptions that you bring to your research, which, in turn, leads to the selection of research methods, data collection instruments, and analysis procedures.

Depending on your set of beliefs, the way your research is conducted, knowledge is created, and meaning is derived from data will be different. In this guide, we have summarised the main philosophical perspectives you can take when examining your research problem. Just like ontological and epistemological stances, the theoretical perspective concept could be viewed as a spectrum. At one end of this spectrum, knowledge acquisition is deductive, generalisable and value-free. At the other end of the spectrum, knowledge acquisition is inductive, contextually bounded, unique, and value-laden. You should remember that each theoretical perspective is characterised by wide-ranging pluralism, meaning it is perfectly fine to use more than one philosophical perspective in your PhD thesis.


Positivism is the most scientific-like theoretical perspective, which is based on the idea that the only way to gain knowledge is through natural science methods, which allow for observing and deriving logical truths. Positivists believe that the social universe and its operative dynamics could be explained using universal laws by testing them against obtained data systematically. Within the scope of this theoretical perspective, knowledge is genuine only if it is based on sense experience. In turn, it is possible to advance this knowledge only through experiment and observation. Therefore, positivism is often used to establish cause-and-effect, statistical relationships between variables or predict how the object reacts to certain things or behaves to make law-like generalisations.

Since positivism is rooted in natural sciences, it shares a range of functions with science, including seeking problems, asking questions, and producing hypotheses. These functions are fulfilled through checking, testing, and certifying hypotheses, assumptions, and facts. Although the scientific enterprise has achieved success in the field of natural science, the ability of positivism to explain the human behaviour has widely been criticised due to its misleading picture of the human being. Unlike more inductive perspectives, positivism focuses on the predictable, repetitive, and invariant aspects of the individual, which not only leads to the restricted image of social actors but also overlooks the significance of the subjective world.


Post-positivism, a more ‘social’ version of the positivist perspective, is also objectivist, meaning it is predominantly based on a conviction that only observable and scientifically tested knowledge represents the world and reality. At the same time, the main difference between post-positivism and its predecessor is the premise that our knowledge of reality is limited and we can never know it perfectly. Instead of relying on the verifiability notion, according to which it is possible to verify whether a proposition is true or false, post-positivism applies the logic of falsification. According to this logic, as a researcher, you must seek to falsify, rather than prove, your theories. For example, when applied to social sciences, following a post-positivism perspective implies formulating and testing both a null hypothesis and an alternative hypothesis, which make opposite assumptions about the phenomenon being under study.

The use of multiple methods is another distinctive characteristic of post-positivism, which stems from an assumption that all research methods are imperfect in their ability to capture the complexity of the social world. This assumption comes from the pluralist nature of post-positivism, which incorporates certain aspects and characteristics of interpretivism. The adoption of multiple methods of research implies that no standalone method is capable of identifying a valid belief because of its inherent biases. Unlike positivism, post-positivists believe that there is no such thing as the absolute truth. In turn, the adoption of multiple methods enables them to get a better understanding of multiple perspectives and dimensions of the research phenomenon.


Per structuralism, the formal structure found in a group of social actors generates meaning. Unlike positivism and post-positivism, structuralism emphasises the importance of the context, in which the research phenomenon is taking place. For example, a researcher following this theoretical perspective could examine the purpose of the structural relationships that exist in a particular community. In addition, structuralism enables researchers to examine how these relationships affect practices, attitudes, perceptions, and activities within this community. Once the structuralist researcher understands the systematic structure of relationships within the selected social group, it is possible to generalise the obtained knowledge and apply it to different aspects of human culture in time and space.

Social constructivism

Unlike the aforementioned theoretical perspectives, which are traditionally applied to predict social phenomena and relationships between socially constructed variables, social constructivism relates to an alternative research paradigm, namely understanding. Constructivism can be defined as a philosophical view, according to which the meaning-making of reality and knowledge are the activities of the individual mind. Instead of assuming that reality is objective and self-evident, the philosophy of constructivism postulates that human experience is the sole source of knowledge and meaning.

It is important not to confuse constructivism with constructionism. Although these terms sometimes are used interchangeably, they are different nonetheless. On the one hand, constructivism is focused on the examination of multiple realities constructed by social actors and their implications for their lives. While constructivism is concerned with unique individual experiences, the philosophy of constructionism aims at the collective generation, as well as the transmission of meaning. Hence, constructionism emphasises the role of culture as a whole rather than the individual mind in knowledge generation. For instance, when following a constructivist research paradigm, researchers could be interested in what currently motivates the members of a particular social group to perform certain actions or why they view certain things as they do.


Interpretivism is another theoretical perspective focused on getting an understanding of the selected social phenomenon. In contrast to positivism, interpretivism is based on an assumption that the application of natural science methods to social science does not yield any meaningful results. Within the scope of this theoretical perspective, the subject matter of the social sciences is fundamentally different from that of the natural sciences. The social world is too complex and multifaceted to be examined, explained, and understood using mathematical equations or models. That is why the adoption of different logic and procedure is required to acknowledge and comprehend the distinctiveness of individuals as compared to the natural order.

Another distinctive feature of interpretivism is that it does try to establish laws or identify regularities, which explain why humans act as they do. Instead, researchers adopting this theoretical perspective try to understand human behaviour by looking at individual cases. More often than not, this is done by utilising qualitative methods. These methods enable interpretivists to draw a detailed picture of the social phenomenon they are studying. On the other hand, this theoretical perspective makes explicit the perspectives and biases of researchers that influence the process of data collection and analysis.

Critical theory

Critical theory could be attributed to the research paradigm of emancipation, the purpose of which is to challenge, reveal conflict, and provide practical recommendations as to how to change the status quo. This theoretical perspective is rooted in conservation biology, a branch of science that highlights our negative impact on the environment and biodiversity and acknowledges our responsibilities to deal with this problem by introducing positive change or reducing harm. Hence, critical theory is based on a belief that both theory and research must be employed to overcome challenges and change situations.

A special emphasis in critical theory is put on power relations within a social system to understand how these power relations create an opportunity to change. This emphasis is evident in all branches of critical theory, including emancipatory, advocacy, and feminist theories.

For example, a researcher who adopts a critical theory approach could attempt to raise public awareness about various social issues and challenges, such as discrimination in the workplace, homelessness, women’s rights, the effectiveness of child protection regulations, cultural diversity, etc. In turn, by increasing the level of public awareness of these issues, it would be possible to create an opportunity for change. Therefore, critical theory plays an important role when it comes to bringing about positive change for oppressed and minority groups.


Deconstruction is another research paradigm that reflects how the researcher views the social world, as well as their philosophical pattern of meaning acquisition. Within this paradigm, post-structuralism and post-modernism take the leading positions. Post-structuralism implies that meaning creation is context-specific. Under this theoretical perspective, the world is divided by different languages, which give it meaning.

As its name suggests, post-structuralism is an extension of structuralism, which represents a retrospective critique of its underlying commitments. Structuralism assumes there is a concrete reality created by human culture, which is understood through language structures. In turn, post-structuralism rejects this rigidity and attempts to categorise intimations of universal truth by emphasising the conditioning role of culture in the study of underlying structures. In other words, both culture and history become the sources of bias, leading to misinterpretations. Instead of interpreting the world within socially constructed, pre-established structures, post-structuralists attempt to understand human culture by means of discourses and structures modelled on languages and affected by culture and history.


Post-modernism is another research paradigm that is applied to deconstruct social phenomena. This theoretical approach questions the validity of modern science, as well as the notion of objective knowledge that exists independently from human values and context. In addition, post-modernism rejects humanism, discards the role of history and culture, and resists any claims that are positioned as true. At the same time, post-modernists still acknowledge the role of social actors and groups in meaning and knowledge creation. Specifically, researchers who follow a post-modernist approach believe that while truth claims are socially constructed, they serve the interests of particular groups. As a result, these claims cannot be trusted.

Post-modernists criticise sociological theory because they view it as a product of modernity. Within the scope of this school of thought, scientific theories operate as symbol systems, which, in turn, enable certain courses of social action and behaviour. Consequently, the knowing subject is the result of social circumstances. Another claim that post-modernism makes is that there is a structural similarity between social order and texts because they both can be conceptualised as network-like systems of symbols. When it comes to methods, post-modernists believe that all methods are equally distrusted. Nonetheless, they tend to use qualitative research methods in general and ethnography and discourse analysis, in particular.


One theoretical perspective that stands aside from the aforementioned paradigms is pragmatism, which is interested in finding a compromise between the notion that knowledge is obtained from sensory experience and is derived from deductive and logical reasoning. Instead of relying either on empiricism or rationalism, pragmatists believe that the end justifies the means and that all necessary approaches and methods should be used to understand the research problem being investigated. For pragmatists, cultural values, truth claims, and ideas are predominantly explored in terms of use value and application. Instead of committing to any one methodological position, pragmatism implies that researchers must use a diversity of methods and instruments to get an understanding of a given issue. Pragmatists are focused on the production of practical outcomes, which is highly beneficial when it comes to business, management, or marketing studies.

Recommended readings:

Ackermann, E. (2001). Piaget’s constructivism, Papert’s constructionism: What’s the difference?. Future of Learning Group Publication, 5(3), 438-442.

Bryman, A., & Bell, E. (2015). Business research methods. Oxford University Press.

Clough, P., & Nutbrown, C. (2012). A Student’s Guide to Methodology. SAGE.

Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R., & Jackson, P. (2012). Management Research. SAGE.

Goddard, W., & Melville, S. (2007). Research Methodology: An Introduction. Juta and Company.

Howell, K. (2012). An introduction to the philosophy of methodology. SAGE.

Novikov, A., & Novikov, D. (2013). Research methodology: From philosophy of science to research design. CRC Press.