Social research: research paradigms

EDU 9 IMAGEResearch paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives or philosophical epochs, reflect certain assumptions with respect to the nature of the world and how we come to know about it. The philosophical stance informs the methodology and thus provides a context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria and links the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes. Paradigms are systems of interrelated ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions.

Epistemology is the study of knowing; essentially it is the study of what knowledge is and how it is possible. Ontology is more concerned about the natural world – how it came to be rather than an analysis of what is. Paradigms act as perspectives that provide a rationale for the research and commit the researcher to particular methods of data collection, observation and interpretation. Paradigms are thus central to research design because they impact both on the nature of the research question, i.e. what is to be studied, and on the manner in which the question is to be studied.

In designing an assignment, thesis or dissertation the principle of coherence can be preserved by ensuring that the research question and methods used fit logically within the paradigm. If a researcher planned to study the learning experience of older people (say older than 40) attending TVET College studies, the use of an objective scale to measure experiences would probably not be effective because this is not the kind of research where you can expect exact and quantifiable responses (the results will be incoherent because you will expect positivist commitments from people who probably have different motives for studying at a late stage in their lives and who will, therefore, not respond the same to questions). You can probably achieve better coherence by grouping target group members together based on certain criteria, for example gender, age brackets, geographical location, etc. By doing so, you will be adopting a positivist ontology by trying to ensure that different sections of your target group have the same origin in terms of age, gender or geography. You can also achieve more coherent results by making use of a more suitable data gathering method, for example interviews.

We can define a paradigm as an integrated cluster of substantive concepts, variables and problems attached with corresponding methodological approaches and tools. The following research paradigms are important:

  • Rationalism.
  • Empiricism.
  • Positivism.
  • Post-positivism.
  • Social constructivism.
  • Critical theory.
  • Interpretivism.
  • Functionalism.
  • Behaviourism.
  • Premodernism.
  • Modernism.
  • Postmodernism.
  • Structuralism.
  • Post-structuralism.
  • Postcolonialism.
  • Neoliberalism.

We will discuss each of the above research paradigms in articles following on this one.

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