Paradigms in research; or, how your worldview shapes your methodology

April 21, 2009

In the introductory lectures for my master’s in organisational behaviour, we heard a great deal about paradigms. Indeed, we heard so much about paradigms that several of my classmates were quite keen to go back and get a refund on the course.

We – researchers, embryonic management consultants, careers counsellors and human resources managers – wished to get on with the simple business of learning all about human behaviour so that we could manipulate it for profit.  But first, we had to pass this module.

So.   Paradigms are, roughly speaking, coherent belief structures. Some people describe them as a lens through which to view the world.  A paradigm is a bundle of assumptions about the nature of reality, the status of human knowledge, and the kinds of methods that can be used to answer research questions.   The piece that follows is adapted from Guba and Lincoln’s seminal chapter in the massive tome, Handbook of Qualitative Research – a book which would be extremely useful in hand-to-hand combat.

Anyway. In social science, there are at least three competing paradigms: positivism, constructivism, and critical theory.

Do not panic.   You have been working with these all your life, without knowing it. Let’s take them one by one.

Positivism is where many of us live most of the time. The world is real, that chair is solid, my findings are statistically significant. Positivism is the world of science and testing hypotheses.

In the positivist world, researchers are objective and strive to minimise sources of bias wherever they can. Research is true, researchers exist apart from their data, and the best research (because you can use rigour) is quantitative.

Market research mostly exists in a rather positivist world.  Significance, return on investment, purchase decisions.  These are solid things.  When positivists do qualitative research, they worry about representativeness of findings, and how many people in Birmingham actually said they disliked the concept. (There is of course post-positivism, but I’ll skip over that lightly).

Constructivism. Constructivists wear corduroy trousers and like bright colours.   Constructivists argue that human beings construct their own social realities in relation to one another.  Reality is subjective and experiential : that thing over there that looks like a table is actually being used as a chair. My particular construction of reality might be shared with many other people, but other people could construct the same reality in quite different ways.

Political stances and religious beliefs are examples of large-scale competing explanations of similar realities. Knowledge is not absolute, and (the killer in terms of methodology) the researcher is no longer outside the system, but part of it.  Findings may be idiosyncratic, rather than generalisable; approaches are holistic.  The goal is of constructivist research is understanding and structuring, as opposed to prediction.

Qualitative research leans towards constructivism, as I think you would guess.  However, it also tends to be batted back towards positivism, because full-blown constructivism can be a little too relative for all concerned, especially as lots of market research is done in order to find out what large organisations can actually sell to lots of people.

I am a social constructivist in outlook, so I believe that qualitative researchers are inescapably subjective and research findings are co-created between the researcher and the respondents.   I also subscribe to social constructivism’s Achilles heel, the interpretation problem, AKA ‘Why should I believe your version of events over anyone else’s’, although fortunately social constructivism has a handy get-out-of-jail-free card for that one.*

Which brings us to critical theory.

An observant reader who hasn’t run away screaming might have noticed that positivism and constructivism have slightly different implicit values. Positivism doesn’t really mention values, but its value centre is really data and rigour. Constructivism, all fluffy and relative, is very concerned about the participant, and explaining the participant’s point of view.

In contract, critical theory is all about value, or more precisely, all about power and politics.  Critical theory is concerned with power relations and patterns of dominance.  You’ll also see it described as neo-Marxist theory and indeed a good way of getting into the spirit of critical theory is to analyse any given situation in the manner of Rick from the Young Ones.

Critical theory looks at the world through a political lens, in which certain groups – rich people, politicians, men, capitalism in general – exert power and influence over other groups. If you like, critical theory takes a historical perspective. The goal of critical theory is emancipation of the oppressed.

It was more or less at this point that my fellow Organisational Behaviour students got very, very angry indeed. This was rubbish, one person said. He wasn’t here to learn about stupid critical theory; he was here to learn all about how people worked so he could go back to his company and learn how to manage people better.

The lecturer smiled.

Someone else said: this is total gobbledygook and anyway, it’s all just useless theory – how on earth could anyone take it seriously; and more importantly, how could anyone make a living being a consultant who depended on critical theory??

The lecturer smiled a great shark-like smile.

I love Critical Theory.

Critical theory helps you look at assumptions, and at power relations. In organisational research, you can look at the ways in which management organises and represents certain kinds of meanings. You can look at career progression and the definition of high-flying careers. You can create new concepts, such as the role of emotional labour in customer service jobs. In science communication, you can look at the problematic issue of public engagement, and whether it is meaningful to assume it is value-free.

In market research, you can look at corporate attempts to structure the meaning of a brand, and consumer resistance to such meanings.  You can look at Twitter, or Facebook, or OpenID with your Critical Theorist hat on. Who profits from certain meanings? What actions does the system permit or forbidden? How do users react?

In terms of method, critical theorists use analysis (historical, situational, textual) and qualitative interviewing.   Qual interviews are quite interesting, although most critical theorists will come over all critical while writing it up, rather than when wielding a tape recorder.

Positivism wears a white coat, constructivism accepts a cup of tea, and critical theory is SUSPICIOUS.

I think there’s a kind of paradigmatic mash-up, too: large corporations act in their positivist way, expecting thanks from the masses, and instead of being complicit, the masses are suspicious. They distrust your motives. They rebel. At other times, they carry your message quite happily to the ends of the earth.

Personally, I move between these three paradigms. I spend most of my time being a constructivist with post-positivist leanings: understanding responses and creating persuasive accounts.  I will often flick into a critical perspective, at least in analysing a brief, because critical theory shakes everything up in ways that can be very helpful.  It is perhaps not cricket to use critical theory as a tool for maintaining power relationships, but, well, needs must.

Anyway, that’s it for now.

Questions? Thoughts? Reactions?

*No one has ever asked me, but I have the answer.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

John Griffiths April 21, 2009 at 4:54 pm

And what movement pray conceptualises reality and reduces it to a pithy summary? Because that’s what you have done Alison – beautifully and eminently well. I’ll be stealing (sorry) borrowing this regularly… :-)


Alison April 21, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Thank, John! It’s been brewing for a while. I think everyone should consider their ontological and epistemological assumptions, at least once. :)

Joking aside – I’ve always found this particular understanding to be weirdly practical…


kevin mclean April 21, 2009 at 7:48 pm

great post Alison!

seems to me that a lot of clients operate in the positivist paradigm – make things, sell things – while ad agencies operate within constructivist (or critical theory?) mode, disrupting, subverting etc


Alison April 22, 2009 at 10:58 am


It’s really about their attitude to research. I deliberately missed out post-positivism, which is essentially a more complicated and self-conscious take on positivism (let’s act to minimise our biases; we know that we are over-simplifying but let’s run with it) and I think the majority of modern qualitative research takes place in this space. I don’t know a huge amount about how ad agencies think, but I suspect they too will be in a post-positivist space – signed up to research as actually a rather complicated business, but in service to systems that place huge value on numbers.

It comes down to one’s attitude to researcher subjectivity – if you accept or indeed value subjectivity, that pings you into the constructivist camp; if you are suspicious of subjectivity and see it as a profound weakness, you are definitely on the postivist side.

The disruptiveness of ad agencies is fascinating, because I think it’s very controlled and managed disruptiveness. There are some brilliant accounts of work in law firms done from a critical perspective, which look at things like reputation control and identity management. There’s probably some analysis of agencies somewhere.

Of course the strategic use of alternative paradigms probably propels everyone into postmodernism, but that’s not yet a conversation i’m capable of having. :)


Bettina Wagner April 22, 2009 at 11:36 am

Can not help but repeat: Great post Alison!

It made me realise how suspiciously often we researchers ‘forget’ about our paradigms or even try to hide them.

Nothing is gained by this but a little convenience, but a lot is lost: Grounds for discussing, true understanding & self-knowledge.

So thanks for reminding me again – in such a delightfully readable piece – to think about my own paradigms.


Alison April 23, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Thanks, Bettina.

I think a lot of researchers come into the industry from other fields and so a lot of this theory is very unfamiliar. It would be familiar territory to social scientists and psychologists, but unknown to someone whose research knowledge is based on say, undergraduate stats courses. In other words, paradigms are unknown to many people who manage or buy research. Unfortunately, they can be unknown by researchers themselves, who then don’t have the knowledge to defend or explain their practices.

Hiding! Yes. Let’s not talk about how much you yourself bring to analysis.


John Griffiths April 23, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Perhaps this is the start of a conference paper at the next MRS beanfest – I’ll show you my paradigm if you’ll show me yours… it would be very helpful for clients as well as researchers – not that many end up at MRS conference these days..


Diane Hessan April 23, 2009 at 11:29 am

Allison, this is really compelling and I”m going to share it with our staff. I also wish you would go further and help us get rid of the constant need to ask “Is this qual or quant?”, which seems like an old and tired and less relevant paradigm than those you pose. Thanks for the wake-up call.


Alison April 23, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Thanks, I’m glad you found it helpful.

Yes, I think it’s more useful to say, what kind of research is this and how is it best analysed. Each paradigm has consequences: it influences the kinds of questions you can meaningfully ask, and the type of analysis that you can bring to bear.

Researchers are often completely unaware of these deep assumptions about their work, but I think it’s actually very helpful and very practical to understand how one unconsciously operates.


Katie Harris April 29, 2009 at 11:13 am

Excellent post Alison!

I love the idea of the critical theory shake up applied to analysis of a brief – brilliant! Such a profoundly useful paradigm to have on hand/in mind/on call.

Thank you for a wonderfully thought provoking read.

(And I *have* to ask about the social constructivism GOOJF card).


Alison April 30, 2009 at 11:28 am

The full answer to the GOOJF issue might have to wait for me to talk about qualitative analysis and paradigms…but, in essence, the constructivist researcher sees themselves as constructing the best explanations that they can come up with. Listening to groups, or interviews, or reading message board comments is seen to be similar to analysing any other kind of text….

…and that brings us to hermeneutics MWAHAHAHA. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation, originally applied to the business of interpreting the Bible, now applied to interpretation of other texts including group-discussion-as-a-text.

The philosophical downer with hermeneutics is that as a interpreter, you cannot actually adopt a separate stance outside the text – you are part of the circle. The researcher cannot escape his our her own subjectivity: in judging between alternative explanations of the same text, therefore, a third party may go on plausibility or persuasiveness of the argument, rather than its ‘accuracy.’

The GOOJFC is that hermeneutic interpretation is seen as, essentially, an everyday activity – we are constantly interpreting what people mean as we go about our daily lives, and so we do not need to exhaustively justify every meaning that we extract from the text. Hermeneutics is about the skill of the interpreter in constructing a solid, professional and persuasive story – it’s not simply a matter of putting the transcripts in a blender.

There are a whole lot more implications of this stance for analysis (and I think I’ll write them up for another post) but what I see as most helpful is that it positions the qualitative researcher as creating and synthesising meaning rather than passively recording and reporting it.

Ooh, that got long.


diana September 5, 2009 at 1:01 pm

‘Positivism wears a white coat, constructivism accepts a cup of tea, and critical theory is SUSPICIOUS.’

actually lol’d


tonderai nyamwanza May 26, 2010 at 9:39 am

I am still have to come to terms with positivism but I will get back with more focussed requests.


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