A guide to understanding social science research for natural scientists

Conserv Biol. 2014 Oct;28(5):1167-77. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12326. Epub 2014 Jun 24.


Natural scientists are increasingly interested in social research because they recognize that conservation problems are commonly social problems. Interpreting social research, however, requires at least a basic understanding of the philosophical principles and theoretical assumptions of the discipline, which are embedded in the design of social research. Natural scientists who engage in social science but are unfamiliar with these principles and assumptions can misinterpret their results. We developed a guide to assist natural scientists in understanding the philosophical basis of social science to support the meaningful interpretation of social research outcomes. The 3 fundamental elements of research are ontology, what exists in the human world that researchers can acquire knowledge about; epistemology, how knowledge is created; and philosophical perspective, the philosophical orientation of the researcher that guides her or his action. Many elements of the guide also apply to the natural sciences. Natural scientists can use the guide to assist them in interpreting social science research to determine how the ontological position of the researcher can influence the nature of the research; how the epistemological position can be used to support the legitimacy of different types of knowledge; and how philosophical perspective can shape the researcher's choice of methods and affect interpretation, communication, and application of results. The use of this guide can also support and promote the effective integration of the natural and social sciences to generate more insightful and relevant conservation research outcomes.

Keywords: diseño de investigación; epistemology; epistemología; interdisciplinary research; investigación interdisciplinaria; ontology; ontología; perspectiva teórica; research design; theoretical perspective; visión mundial; worldview.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Philosophy*
  • Research Design
  • Social Sciences*