Article 2 of 29: The Research Paradigms

Written by Dr Hannes Nel, D. Com; D. Phil

Most, if not all, paradigms, are research methods while what we call research methods are often just tools that we use to collect data. Some paradigms developed into full-fledged research methods because of their rise in popularity. Transformative research is an example of this.

There are a multitude of paradigms. Some of them are modifications of classical paradigms that have been articulated by academics to enhance the research process. Then there are those paradigms that are not research paradigms. They may be educational, philosophical, or theoretical, but not of such a nature that they can logically serve as the foundation for academic research. The paradigms discussed in this series of articles are those that are generally accepted as being of relevance to academic research. However, the list can never be exhaustive or final because research is a dynamic process and new paradigms are developed all the time.

Research paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs, epistemological approaches, discipline matrices, or theoretical frameworks, represent certain assumptions and perceptions with respect to the nature of the world and how we come to know about it. There are many different definitions for a paradigm. Here are examples of such definitions:

“A research paradigm can be defined as an integrated cluster of substantive concepts, variables and problems attached with corresponding methodological approaches and tools.”[1]

“A loose collection of logically related assumptions, concepts, or propositions that orient thinking and research.”[2]

“An example or pattern: small, self-contained, simplified examples that we use to illustrate procedures, processes, and theoretical points.”[3]

“… the philosophical intent or motivation for undertaking a study.”[4]

“The set of common beliefs and agreements shared between scientists about how problems should be understood and addressed.”[5]

“A paradigm is essentially a way of thinking about or viewing the world. Paradigms are also frameworks that researchers use as a basis for everything else that they do.”[6]

A paradigm, therefore, implies a philosophy that includes certain patterns, structures and frameworks or systems of scientific and academic ideas, values and assumptions that a group of researchers have in common regarding the nature and conduct of research. This differs between different groups of researchers; hence we have a relatively large number of different paradigms to choose from. The philosophical point of view informs the research methodology and also the way in which the contents of the research will be interpreted. It, furthermore, links the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes. Paradigms are systems of interrelated ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions.[7]

The fact that we need to adopt one or the other research paradigm shows that qualitative research is rather subjective, because what we are actually doing is to adopt a point of view while ignoring, rejecting or neglecting a number of other possible points of view. Especially researchers making use of quantitative research methods might feel that just one paradigmatic approach, usually technicist in nature, should be the only philosophical approach.

We can discuss the argument that only quantitative research produces accurate and objective results, at length. In reality numbers can also be manipulated to support a particular point of view. However, what is needed is that we accept that we are dealing with people and that the truth can have many different flavours. In qualitative research the truth is time-bound, meaning that what is true today might not be true tomorrow (which is not what technicist paradigms suggest).

Research paradigms should be chosen essentially with the research problem and research question or questions in mind (quantitative research often uses a hypothesis rather than a research question or problem). Research paradigms allow for a variety of research methods to be used in order to answer research questions. The choice is not so much about research methods, but rather about ontological and epistemological assumptions. The challenge is to select a paradigm or combination of paradigms that are most suited to solving a problem and answering one or more research questions. The choice of a research paradigm or paradigms should be made in the context of many and often competing influences on how research problems are defined and investigated, and against the background of personal preferences and many external variables.[8]

Paradigms determine the spirit in which research is conducted and, as such, impact 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. They add a philosophical perception to the clinical academic meaning of arguments and content and are a reflection of the value system of the particular researcher. Even so, the chosen paradigm or paradigms have an influence on the data collection methods and research methods that you will use. 

As a researcher you will inevitably follow at least one of the paradigmatic approaches even if not intentionally. More likely, though, you will position your research at a point where elements of different paradigms are found in your approach with an emphasis towards one, two or even more of them. This is especially true when complex research problems are investigated.

Utilising more than one research paradigm facilitates the possibility of increasing the comprehensiveness of the knowledge developed through your research. Your research findings should often be as generic as possible, meaning that they should apply to a variety of contexts. Some paradigms apply to only one or a limited number of contexts. For this reason the adoption of a number of supporting paradigms might be called for.

You need to choose the paradigm or paradigms early, i.e. when you structure your research approach and methods. You may even specify it in your research proposal already, because it shows your intent, motivation and expectations of the research. You will have no basis for choosing the methods or research design that you will follow if you don’t choose your research paradigm or paradigms as an early step, perhaps even the first step after your research problem or hypothesis.[9] Research is a circular and recursive process; therefore you may change your paradigmatic approach at a later stage if it becomes necessary, even though this might cost you time and effort.

You will need to make a number of philosophical assumptions in order to choose a paradigmatic approach to follow in your research. Once you have chosen a research paradigm, you need to make all elements of the research design clear, and articulate all elements of your research with the paradigm that you have chosen. If you choose more than one paradigm, one of them will probably represent your primary focus with two or three others playing a lesser role.

You should, however, guard against combining paradigms that are in opposition to one another. The reason for this is that the concepts, theories and practices of supporters of opposing paradigms are based on different ontological and epistemological assumptions. They, furthermore, do not share a common vocabulary with shared meanings, and there is no neutral ground from which to adjudicate the merit of the paradigms or their products.[10] Technicist paradigms, for example, are often in opposition to interpretive paradigms while critical paradigms fit in somewhere between the two groups. Being in “opposition”, “challenged by”, “rejecting”, “associated with”, “disagree with”, etc. do not mean that different paradigms completely differ or agree, but rather that they agree or disagree in terms of certain characteristics.

You need to be fully aware of the paradigmatic assumptions that you make and you need to consistently move from description to explanation in terms of your findings and conclusions without deviating from your paradigmatic assumptions. Progressing from description to explanation requires substantial creativity if your research is to make a positive contribution to the available scientific knowledge.

Coherence in the design of your research process can be ensured by articulating the research question and methods to the paradigm or paradigms of your choice. You can probably achieve better coherence by grouping target group members together based on certain criteria, for example gender, age brackets, geographical location, etc. You can also achieve more coherent results by making use of a more suitable data collection method, for example interviews. In closing, it would be almost impossible, and irrelevant, to list and discuss all paradigms that you can find. The reasons for this are, firstly, that researchers do not agree on which paradigms are, in fact, paradigms, at least not as philosophical points of view that can be used for research purposes. Secondly, many paradigms overlap and echo the nature and elements of other paradigms, which leads to a substantial measure of duplication. Thirdly, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find all paradigms that exist and that are still being developed. We will discuss 28 different paradigms that can be utilised in academic research in the articles following on this one.

[1]… Accessed on 16/02/2017.

[2] N. Mackenzie and S. Knipe, 2006: pages not numbered.

[3] Webster Dictionary.

[4] N. Mackenzie and S. Knipe, 2006: pages not numbered.

[5] T. Anderson, date unknown: slide show.

[6] L. Killam, 2013: 65.

[7] M. Terre Blanche & K. Durrheim, 1999: 36.

[8] N. Blaikie and J. Priest, 2017: 22.

[9] N. Mackenzie and S. Knipe, 2006: pages not numbered.

[10] N. Blaikie and J. Priest, 2017: 8.

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Article 1 of 29: The purpose of research in education

Written by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com; D. Phil, CEO of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd

Sponsors of research be they taxpayers, government, businesses or the community, will expect some value for their money. Somebody will need to decide if research should take place and it is often the sponsor who asks a researcher to do research on a problems that they need solved. You, as the prospective researcher, can also decide on the topic for research based on a problem or need that you identified. Lecturers also sometimes suggest research topics.

Time and energy spent on research is never wasted. The purposes of research can be added economic value, improved quality of life or improved professionalism. These three possible purposes overlap. Added economic value can be improved production processes, higher productivity, etc. Improved quality of life can be higher income, well-being, health, safety, social justice, the arts, leisure time utilization, freedom to interact in an enlightened, informed, responsible and constructive manner, etc. Improved professionalism can be the availability of good quality learning institutions, improved skills, more research, etc.

Generally speaking research should improve the learning offered by learning institutions. Knowledge and human well-being should be improved. It is debatable if, as some academics claim, the ‘pure sciences’ really add more value than social sciences. Do not underestimate the importance and value of improving intellectual skills. It is the improvement of analytical clarity, cognitive reasoning, conceptual imagination, perseverance and meticulousness of thought that provide students with the motivation and confidence to embark on further studies at a higher level.

It makes sense to argue that a county with a high unemployment rate should focus more on occupational learning, i.e. learning that will add value to the industry than on academic, philosophical research that only adds indirect and delayed value to the industry. However, strategically speaking a society should position itself to be ready to capitalize on growth opportunities by also conducting some research of an advanced scientific and philosophical nature.

It is difficult to ‘predict’ what the long-term value of such research will be. However, the likelihood of research providing some kind of benefit, even if only indirect, is almost certain, the only two preconditions being that the research should be shared with others who can do something with it and that the research should not have been done with ulterior, damaging motives in mind. 

Intellectual research for its own sake probably does not exist. For example, people can learn from historical research even if only by learning from mistakes made by our predecessors. The principles of science and the tenets of mathematics can be improved through research, with ‘old’ knowledge serving as a healthy foundation to build on. Besides, how will we know that concepts, principles, laws and tenets are wrong or outdated if we did not have them to begin with?

What may be regarded as worthless knowledge now might well turn out to be valuable in the future. I was once interviewed by an American post-graduate student who studied the patterns that sand form on the bends in river banks. His research was claimed to be worthless. Later researchers in astronomy discovered that the sand patterns that he did research on provided valuable evidence to determine if there was or is water, perhaps even life, on other planets.

In closing, the following are prerequisites for research in education to be of value:

  1. Universities and the industry should co-operate.
  2. We need to be patient. It is only when university students are employed that they learn to apply the theory taught at university in practice and to understand the (often simulated) practical work that they did at university.
  3. Research reports need to be made available for others to read.
  4. Knowledge and skills need to be transferred to the workplace and/or learning institutions.
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