What is your paradigm?

Cartoon depicting the world carried in a person's head

Time to spend on this section: 2.5 hours

Across disciplines (and within) there are varying views of what research is and how this relates to the kind of knowledge being developed. Paradigms guide how we make decisions and carry out research. Lawyers, for example, will use an adversarial paradigm while selection committees will use a judgemental paradigm (Guba 1990). Your own discipline will also be guided by a paradigm and through the research papers you read in your subject, you will begin to identify, through the methodology the kind of paradigm that is used. As a researcher, it is important to know where your discipline belongs, that there are different ways of viewing the world and that your approach to knowledge is one of many. The following concepts, in boxes, illustrate some of the different approaches to research.

 

 

A paradigm is simply a belief system (or theory) that guides the way we do things, or more formally establishes a set of practices. This can range from thought patterns to action.

Disciplines tend to be governed by particular paradigms, such as:

  • positivism (e.g. experimental testing),
  • post positivism (i.e. a view that we need context and that context free experimental design is insufficient)
  • critical theory (e.g. ideas in relation to an ideology - knowledge is not value free and bias should be articulated) and
  • constructivism (i.e. each individual constructs his/her own reality so there are multiple interpretations. This is sometimes referred to as interpretivism).

According to Guba (1990), paradigms can be characterised through their: ontology (What is reality?), epistemology (How do you know something?) and methodology (How do go about finding out?). These characteristics create a holistic view of how we view knowledge: how we see ourselves in relation to this knowledge and the methodological strategies we use to un/discover it.

In order to get to grips with this, we need to clarify what these terms mean.

Ontology is what exists and is a view on the nature of reality.

Are you a realist ? You see reality as something 'out there', as a law of nature just waiting to be found ?

Are you a critical realist? You know things exist 'out there' but as human beings our own presence as researchers influences what we are trying to measure.

Or, are you a relativist ? You believe that knowledge is a social reality, value-laden and it only comes to light through individual interpretation?


Epistemology is our perceived relationship with the knowledge we are un/dis/covering. Are we part of that knowledge or are we external to it?

Your view will frame your interaction with what you are researching and will depend on your ontological view. Your approach, for example, will be objective if you see knowledge governed by the laws of nature or subjective if you see knowledge as something interpreted by individuals. This in turn affects your methodology.


Methodology refers to how you go about finding out knowledge and carrying out your research. It is your strategic approach, rather than your techniques and data analysis (Wainright, 1997). Some examples of such methods are:

  • the scientific method (quantitative method),
  • ethnographic approach, case study approach, (both using qualitative methods), ideological framework (e.g. an interpretation from Marxist, Feminist viewpoint), dialectic approach (e.g. compare and contrast different points of view or constructs, including your own).

Now you may find it useful to read the Wikipedia articles and their related links on the following key words: epistemology, methodology, ontology, paradigm, positivism, post-positivism, critical theory and constructivism before you try to answer the questions.

 

Activity ACTIVITY 5: How our view of what knowledge is affects the way we research.

Having read about the concepts paradigm, epistemology, ontology and methodology you will begin to see how our view of the knowledge and the world affects how we plan and carry out research. You may have noticed that different disciplines have a different view of how research should be conducted. It is important to know how your discipline carries out research, and you may even want to challenge this.

In this exercise, match the following concepts to the following paradigms: positivism, post-positivism, critical theory or constructivism by typing in the appropriate code to the appropriate box here and in your log book. Each paradigm can be used more than once. Below are a few examples:

  • PO: POsitivism -e.g. hypothesis testing;
  • PP: Post -Positivism - e.g. prefers use of natural settings;
  • CT: Critical Theory - e.g. research is a political act;;
  • CO: COnstructivism - e.g. relativist;
  • CC: Critical theory AND Constructivism - e.g. realist.

Then click on the 'Feedback button' to see how you score.


1. All research is value-ridden [ ]
2. Can be used as an exploratory procedure [ ]
3. Cause and effect [ ]
4. Experimental design [ ]
5. Uses an ideological framework [ ]
6. Prefers qualitative analysis [ ]
7. Reality is a mental construct [ ]
8. Research not seen as generalisable [ ]
9. Adopts a subjective approach [ ]
  

The next section considers why philosophy is important before asking you to consider your own research paradigms.