ARTICLE 42: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Paradigmatic Approaches

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Do you believe that something can be only true or false, right or wrong?

Do you turn your back on people with whom you disagree?

Do you agree with the notion that the truth is often the perception of an individual?

And do you accept that not all people see the truth the same as you do?

I hope my posts on paradigms will convince you that an argument or premise can be true for some but not for others, sometimes true but not always, only partially true, and true in one context but not in a different one.

An introduction to research paradigms

Most paradigms can also be regarded as research methods.

And what we call research methods are often data collection methods.

There are many paradigms, but not all of them can be used as the foundation for research.

Because some paradigms are only concepts that are too dependent on a specific context for the discovery of generalizations.

But even this is not a general rule.

Because your research, not just the paradigm, will sometimes be dependent on a specific context.

Relativism is an example of a paradigm that always applies to a certain context.

Some paradigms are modifications of classical paradigms.

Research paradigms are sometimes also called:

  • Philosophical perspectives.
  • Philosophical epochs.
  • Epistemological approaches.
  • Discipline matrixes.
  • Theoretical frameworks.

They represent certain assumptions and perceptions with respect to the nature of the world and how we know it.

A paradigm is a philosophy that includes certain patterns, structures and frameworks or systems.

It is a system of interrelated ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions.

It includes scientific ideas and values that a group of researchers have in common regarding the nature of research and how it should be conducted.

The paradigm or paradigms that you use will add a philosophical perception to the clinical academic meaning of your research.

It also determines the spirit in which you will do your research.

Different groups of researchers see research differently.

That is why there are many different paradigms to choose from.

You should decide which paradigmatic approach you will follow in your research.

It is possible to adopt more than one paradigm.

You can even follow one paradigmatic approach in one section of your thesis or dissertation and a different one in a different section.

You can even use a paradigm as the foundation of just one argument in your thesis or dissertation.

Just as long as they don’t contradict each other.

And you need to be careful of not damaging the consistency of your arguments by making use of too many paradigms.

This can easily happen if you forget your arguments and stance in an earlier section of your report.

Your philosophical stance informs the research method that you will use and the way in which you will interpret the data that you collect.

By choosing a paradigmatic approach, you commit yourself to a particular stance while rejecting a good number of other possibilities.

This need not be a problem – you can always change your stance later while doing your research.

It can easily happen that you need to change your paradigmatic approach, because your knowledge and understanding will grow as you collect and analyze data.

That is great, because you need to be objective and flexible when you embark on doctoral or master’s degree studies.  

Always keep an open mind and be prepared to admit it when you are wrong.

Fortunately, you have a computer that allows you to return to and review previous work as many times as might be necessary.

And you can change your mind without other people knowing it.

This applies to natural science as well as social science.

And obviously then also to quantitative and quantitative research.

You should choose your research paradigm with the research problem, question or hypothesis in mind.

Research paradigms allow for a variety of research methods that can be used.

The choice is not so much about the research method that you will use, but rather about your ontological and epistemological assumptions.

The challenge is to select a paradigm or combination of paradigms that are most suited for solving a research problem, question or hypothesis.

The choice of a research paradigm or paradigms should be made in the context of many and often competing influences.

Your personal preferences and many external variables will also play a role.

Even so, don’t get bogged down in too much soul searching and uncertainty about which paradigm to choose.

Study the paradigms carefully and select one to four that look like they fit in well with what you have in mind.

If you do not decide on a paradigm to follow, you will inevitably follow one that fits in with your personal preferences.

And you will not even know that you are following a paradigm if you don’t know them.

The danger of this is that you might switch around between different paradigms too often, with the result that your arguments might be confusing and perhaps even contradict one another.

This is especially true when you investigate a complex research question or hypothesis.

Consistency, structure and logic are critically important in writing a thesis or dissertation.

You run the risk of destroying those requirements if you don’t follow one or a few paradigms that articulates with your research question or hypothesis.

Using more than one paradigm improves the possibility that the knowledge that you develop will be comprehensive and generalizable.

You should choose your paradigm or paradigms early.

That is, when you structure your research approach and methods.

You can even specify your choice in your research proposal if it is doctoral studies that you are embarking on.

It will show your intent, motivation and expectations for your research.

You will need to make some philosophical assumptions when you decide upon a paradigm or paradigms because it will also impact om the focus of your research.

I need to emphasise, be careful of combining paradigms that are in opposition with one another.

This is necessary because opposing paradigms are often 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 consequences.

I will point out such possible clashes when we discuss the paradigms individually.

In brief – technicist paradigms are often in opposition with interpretive paradigms while critical paradigms fit in somewhere between the two groups.

Being “in opposition with”; “challenged by”; rejected by”; “associated with”; or “disagree with” does not mean that different paradigms completely differ or disagree.

But rather that they agree or disagree in terms of certain characteristics and elements.

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.


A paradigm is made up of:

  • A philosophy.
  • A system of interrelated ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions and perceptions.
  • Scientific ideas and values.

The paradigm or paradigms that you choose for your research:

  • Determines the spirit in which you will do your research.
  • Informs the research and data collection methods that you will use.
  • Adds a philosophical perception to the academic meaning of your research, and
  • Lends consistency, structure and logic to your thesis or dissertation.

The paradigm that you choose will probably apply to qualitative and social research or quantitative and natural research.

A mixed research approach is also possible.

You can change your paradigmatic approach at any stage during your research.

When choosing a paradigm or paradigms for your research, you should consider:

  • Your research problem or hypothesis.
  • The ontological and epistemological assumptions of your research.
  • The context in which you will conduct your research.
  • Your personal influences and preferences.
  • Many external variables that will be relevant to your research topic.

You can achieve coherence in your research process by articulating your research question or hypothesis and your research method to the paradigm or paradigms of your choice.

Don’t spend too much time and effort on trying to find the perfect paradigm for your research.


In closing, it would be almost impossible to discuss all paradigms that you can find in the literature.

  • Academics do not agree which paradigms should be accepted as such.
  • Many paradigms overlap and echo the nature and elements of other paradigms.
  • Not all paradigms can be used as the foundation for research.

If everything goes according to plan, I will discuss the following paradigms separately in the twenty-nine posts following on this one:

Behaviourism.11. Interpretivism.21. Pragmatism.
Constructivism.12. Liberalism.22. Pre-modernism.
Critical race theory.13. Modernism.23. Radicalism.
Critical theory.14. Neoliberalism.24. Rationalism.
Empiricism.15. Phenomenology.25. Relativism.
Ethnomethodology.16. Positivism.26. Romanticism.
Feminism.17. Post-colonialism.27. Scientism.
Functionalism.18. Post-modernism.28. Structuralism.
Hermeneutics.19. Post-positivism.29. Symbolic interactionism.
Humanism.20. Post-structuralism.

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