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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