Saturday, October 10, 2009

Research paradigms: positivism, interpretivism, critical approach and poststructuralism

As discussed in a previous article (Research paradigms, methodologies and methods), paradigms determine the criteria for research (Dash 2005) and, in this article, some key paradigms are outlined. As an introduction, Lather (2006) maps the following four paradigms as follows:
  • Positivism: predicts
  • Interpretivism: understands
  • Critical orientation: emancipates
  • Poststructurialism: deconstructs.


Positivism began with Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century (Lather, 2006) and asserts a deterministic and empiricist philosophy, where causes determine effects, and aims to directly observe, quantitatively measure and objectively predict relationships between variables (Hammersley, n.d.; Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006). It assumes that social phenomena, like objects in natural science, can be treated in the same way.

One major criticism of positivism is the issue of separating the researcher from what is being researched. The expectation that a researcher can observe without allowing values or interests interfering is arguably impossible (Hustler in Somekh & Lewin, 2005). As a result, positivism today, also known as post-positivism, acknowledges that, even though absolute truth cannot be established, there are knowledge claims that are still valid in that they can be logically inferred; we should not resort to epistemological sceptisim or relativism (Hammersley, n.d.). Positivist research methods include experiments and tests, that is, particularly those methods that can be controlled, measured and used to support a hypothesis.


Wilhelm Dilthey in the mid-twentieth century was influential in the interpretivist paradigm or hermeneutic approach as he highlighted that the subject matter investigated by the natural sciences is different to the social sciences, where human beings as opposed to inanimate objects can interpret the environment and themselves (Hammersley, n.d; Onwuegbuzie, 2000). In contemporary research practice, this means that there is an acknowledgement that facts and values cannot be separated and that understanding is inevitably prejudiced because it is situated in terms of the individual and the event (Cousin, 2005; Elliott & Lukes, 2008). Researchers recognise that all participants involved, including the researcher, bring their own unique interpretations of the world or construction of the situation to the research and the researcher needs to be open to the attitudes and values of the participants or, more actively, suspend prior cultural assumptions (Hammersley, n.d.; Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006). These principles are particularly important in ethnographic methodology (Elliott & Lukes, 2008; Hustler in Somekh & Lewin, 2005). Some interpretivist researchers also take a social constructivist approach, initiated by Lev Vygotzky (also around the mid-twentieth century), and focus on the social, collaborative process of bringing about meaning and knowledge (Kell in Allen, 2004). The case study research methodology is suited to this approach (Elliott & Lukes, 2008; Torrance in Somekh & Lewin, 2005). Interpretivist research methods include focus groups, interviews, research diaries, that is, particularly methods that allow for as many variables to be recorded as possible.

One of the criticisms of interpretivism is that it does not allow for generalisations because it encourages the study of a small number of cases that do not apply to the whole population (Hammersley, n.d.). However, others have argued that the detail and effort involved in interpretive inquiry allows researchers to gain insight into particular events as well as a range of perspectives that may not have come to light without that scrutiny (Macdonald, Kirk, Metzler, Nigles, Schempp & Wright, 2000; McMurray, Pace & Scott, 2004). A more detailed defence of interpretivism is provided in a separate article (Research methodology: case study).

Critical research

Critical educational research has its origins in critical theory, attributed to Georg Hegel (eighteenth century) and Karl Marx (nineteenth century), and critical pedagogy, a key figure being Paulo Freire (twentieth century). These influential figures focused on eliminating injustice in society and critical researchers today also aim to transform society to address inequality, particularly in relation to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other parts of society that are marginalised (Hammersley, n.d.; Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006).

Similar to interpretivist researchers, critical researchers recognise that research is not value free, but they go further in that the goal of the research is to actively challenge interpretations and values in order to bring about change. This leads to a common criticism of critical research, that the aim is to support a political agenda (Hammersley, n.d.). However, others argue that this is a necessary consequence because politics and inquiry are intertwined or inseparable and, by having an agenda of reform, all participants’ lives can be transformed for the better (Creswell, 2003) – this is why the critical approach is sometimes known as the transformative paradigm.

An example of a research methodology that is in agreement with the critical paradigm is action research (Lather, 2006). Research methods used in critical research include interviews and group discussions, that is, methods that allow for collaboration and can be carefully deployed in a way that avoids discrimination (Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006).


Key figures in the inception of poststructuralism include Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida in the twentieth century (Lather, 2006). Poststructuralism is also interested in investigating individuals and social relations but focuses more on selves as constructs and how they are formed through language and gain meaning within specific relations of power (Macdonald et al., 2000). This relationship between meaning and power is embodied in the term discourse, which encapsulates not only what is said and thought but also who has the authority to speak (Ball, 1990 in Macdonald et al., 2000). This means that in contemporary poststructuralist research, there is a strong emphasis on examining language, which provides indicators of power-knowledge relationships.

An example of a research methodology that a poststructuralist researcher is most likely to use is discourse analysis. Typical research methods include observations and audio or visual recordings of interactions that focus on what is said or not said, how the participants position themselves and the social and cultural consequences of the observations.

A criticism of poststructuralism is that it undermines self agency, that, beyond their control, people are constructs of their society (Hammersley, n.d.). However, others argue that because individuals are enmeshed in the complex web of social relations, it is essential to interrogate discourses to reveal those power relationships in order to help those individuals (Macdonald et al., 2000).

Quantitative-qualitative continuum

I have consciously avoided discussion about quantitative and qualitative research approaches to minimise the scope of this article but will note here that I found the quantitative-qualitative continuum idea attractive because, rather than dividing paradigms into two separate groups (e.g. positivism is quantitative; interpretivism is qualitative), it asserts that there is no ‘right paradigm’ (Niglas, 1999; 2000; 2001; 2007; Onwuegbuzie, 2000).


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  • Elliott, J. and Lukes, D. (2008). Epistemology as ethics in research and policy: The use of case studies. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(S1), 87-119.
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