Research Paradigms: Postmodernism

I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Postmodernism.

postmodernismPostmodernism gradually became popular from the 1950s onwards. It brought with it a questioning of the premodernism and modernism. Instead of relying on one approach to knowing, postmodernists support a pluralistic epistemology which utilises multiple ways of knowing. This can include elements of premodernism and modernism along with many other ways of knowing, for example intuition, relational and spiritual. Postmodern approaches seek to deconstruct previous authority sources of power, for example the church and government. Because power is distrusted, postmodernists try to set up a less hierarchical approach in which authority sources are more diffuse.

Postmodernism is applied mainly in the artistic and social sciences. It consists of a loose alliance of intellectual perspectives which collectively pose a challenging critique of the fundamental premises on which modernism, specifically the scientific research method, is based. It is a broad term that encompasses many different approaches, most of them valuing uncertainty, disorder, indeterminacy and regression rather than progress. Even proponents of postmodernism do not always agree on what it really means. There are progressive and conservative postmodernists. Some postmodernists seek reaction while others seek resistance. Then there are those who strive for reform and others who like to disrupt the status quo.

Postmodernism is more than just a philosophical movement. Postmodernism is open to notions of discontinuity and rupture. It rejects the notion that science can be viewed as objective. Science, according to postmodernists, is not universal and will, therefore, not help us overcome conflict. Science is also, according to them, not the paradigm of all true knowledge.

Postmodernists reject the idea of a fixed, universal and eternal foundation to reality. They argue that because reality is in part culturally dependent and culture changes over time and varies from community to community, we can logically assume that reality is not the same for everybody. Knowledge is fundamentally fragmented and unstable. Narratives of truth and knowledge are deconstructed. Convention is challenged, research styles are mixed, ambiguity is tolerated, diversity is emphasised, innovation and change are embraced, and multiple realities are focused on. Postmodernism rejects the possibility that we can have objective knowledge. Postmodernism values the subjective and multiple opinions of individuals and communities rather than predetermined rules for action. It assigns value to multiple meanings rather than the single, authoritative voice of the expert researcher. This is because what we call knowledge has to be made with the linguistic and other meaning-making resources of a particular culture, and different cultures can see the world in different ways. Language is fluid and arbitrary and rooted in power or knowledge relations. Meaning is, therefore, also fluid and “messy”. Following on from this reasoning, postmodernists caution that we should be careful with generalisations, even when it comes to words such as “many”, “most” or “often”.

Postmodernism rejects the emphasis on rational discovery through the scientific method. Postmodernism replaces rational discovery through scientific research with respect for difference and a celebration of the local and at the expense of the universal. It accepts that reality is socially constructed, but claims that it does not exist objectively in the external environment, simply to be copied in our thoughts. Reality is a human creation.

Generally, postmodernism accept the basic ontological assumption of relativism and claims that there can be no “objective” or final truth as all “truth” is a socially constructed entity. This does not mean that just anything can be accepted as truth. All knowledge of reality bears the mark of human culture, personality and biology, and these cannot be separated from what a specific group of people or culture would call knowledge. In addition, it is asserted that we construct reality in accordance with our needs, interests, prejudices and cultural traditions. Although some postmodernists would like us to believe that reality is entirely a human construct, such a statement stand in contrast to the propositions put forward by other postmodernists.

Postmodernism views “facts” and “values” as interactive. If we accept that reality is in part socially constructed then we can postulate an interactive view of reality consisting of “facts” and “values” with no sharp fact-value distinction. All factual statements reflect the values they serve, and all value beliefs are conditioned by factual assumptions. What we call facts are only somewhat less value-determined, but they are not independent of values. Stated differently, our endeavour is not to find absolute truths or facts, but the best approximation of truth as it applies to a specific group in a specific situation and a specific time. To some degree this corresponds with Foucoult’s notion that knowledge and power cannot be separated, since knowledge embodies the values of those who are powerful enough to create and disseminate it.

Reason and science are seen as simply myths created by man. Postmodernism argues that what we call knowledge is a special kind of story that puts together words and images in ways that portray the perspective of a particular culture or some relatively powerful members of that culture. For this reason we have to deconstruct text to uncover the hidden or intended meanings and discourse. Universal, objective truth does not exist. All judgements of truth exist within a cultural context. This sometimes also called “cultural relativism”.

The idea of a socially constructed reality leads directly to a radical shift in the idea of method. Some postmodernists hold that a method not only discovers a part of reality, it simultaneously constructs it. No longer do we see ourselves as seeking to uncover a pre-existing reality, but rather as involved in an interactive process of knowledge creation. As researchers we are part of developing a “working understanding” of reality and life, and what we arrive at is in part autobiographical: it reflects our “personal narrative”, our particular “site and voice” in the world. The knowledge thus constructed refers more to probability than to certainty. It is constantly changing as each individual or group gives a particular interpretation to it, reflecting distinctive needs and experiences.

In closing, not all researchers support the idea of postmodernism. According to the opponents of postmodernism the approach is too tentative, too inconclusive and too frivolous.

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