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Philosophies guiding research

Types of research

Research projects usually fit into one of four main categories of research: type 1 – positivist/postpositivist; type 2 - social constructivist; type 3 - pragmatic and type 4 - participatory (which will be discussed in more detail in the following sections). This is because researchers have different world views or belief systems which guide them in their research, influencing the decisions they make about how to conduct their studies, what counts as valid knowledge, what is the right way to obtain that knowledge, how it should be analysed (e.g. using quantitative or qualitative-based methods) and what their own role in the process is. The various approaches to research are sometimes called research paradigms. The whole issue of paradigms can be traced back to Kuhn’s 1970 influential book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

For quite some time, the two main paradigms were the positivist/postpositivist paradigm (linked to quantitative research) and the constructivist paradigm (usually associated with qualitative research). A few decades ago, there were huge methodological debates as to which of the two paradigms was right. Some researchers argued that only the positivist/postpositivist paradigm was “real science”. Others argued that it was not suited to the study of complex human and social issues. This debate came to be known as the paradigm wars and there was an “incompatibility theory” which stated that the two approaches were irreconcilable due to their very different underlying philosophies.

The postpositivist tradition emerged in the 19th century based on the work of writers such as Compte, Mill, Durkheim, Newton and Locke. They challenged the positivist attempts to seek “absolute truth” arguing that this was not appropriate when studying the behaviour and actions of people. This led to an acceptance that absolute truth can never be found and that research evidence is not infallible or perfect. Researchers attempt to look for and describe associations, as well as cause and effect relationships. This is an ongoing process, whereby positive findings form the basis for additional research. Data which does not support their theory may result in necessary revisions followed by additional testing.

According to the social constructivist paradigm, people try to make sense of the world they live in. Through interaction with other people, they develop subjective understandings and meanings of their experience and they do this within a specific social, political, cultural and historical context. Social constructivists believe that there is not one reality but rather varied and multiple realities. Based on this theory of reality, researchers are interested in trying to understand the way people experience and make sense of the world.

However, there were also arguments in favour of a compatibility theory which acknowledged the different philosophical assumptions but stated that each approach had its strengths and weaknesses, that neither was right or wrong and that methods typically used by each could even be mixed in the same study. This is known as the pragmatic paradigm and is generally accepted nowadays as being a valid approach to research. A possible fourth paradigm is the advocacy/participatory approach which is often associated with research involving marginalised or vulnerable groups.



Last Updated: Friday 21 August 2009