ARTICLE 61 Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies: Post-positivism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Here we have a soft teddy bear with teeth.

How do you reconcile values and passion with politics?

And the teddy bear can also be quite cynical.

It believes that all knowledge is flawed.

And that reality can never be fully understood.

What I do not understand, is how a paradigm that values passion and involvement with the target group for the research can favour an etic approach.

I discuss the multi-faceted nature of post-positivism in this article.

Post-positivist approaches assume that reality is multiple, subjective and mentally constructed by individuals. As opposed to truth and evidence being critical factors of the positivist research, values, passion and politics are more important for post-positive research. Post-positivist thinkers focus on establishing and searching for evidence that is valid and reliable in terms of the existence of phenomena rather than generalisation. This contrasts with the positivist approach of making claims about absolute truth through the establishment of generalisation and laws.

Researchers working within the post-positivist paradigm follow a critical-realist ontology, implying that all knowledge is flawed in some way or another.  This means that, in the eyes of post-positivist researchers, reality does exist but can never be fully understood.

Objectivity is recognised as an ideal that can never be achieved, and research is conducted with a greater awareness of subjectivity. Reality is not a fixed entity and it is to a certain degree accepted that reality is structured in the minds of individuals involved in the research. Post-positivists caution, however, that the constructed reality does not exist in a vacuum, but is influenced by context (culture, gender, etc.). For this reason, post-positivists claim that objective reality as proposed by positivist philosophy can only be seen as one aspect or dimension of reality, the focus being on the context and purpose of the research.

Post-positivism is a useful paradigm for researchers who maintain an interest in some aspects of positivism such as quantification, yet wish to incorporate interpretivist concerns around subjectivity and meaning, and who are interested in the pragmatic combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Research, therefore, is broad and general while theory and practice are studied as an integrated unit.

The positivist claims about truth and scientific knowledge are questioned by those supporting a post-positivist paradigm. You will, therefore, rely on your own epistemology, that is how you understand the scope and nature of your research as well as the factors that have an impact on it. You will also need to investigate more widely than you own understanding by taking into consideration how others construct and maintain their perceptions of the environment of relevance.  It is necessary to “see” the research topic and scope from the outside, in order to obtain a holistic picture of the research problem. This implies that you might need to follow an etic approach, even though an emic approach can also be followed, especially if an interpretivist paradigmatic focus is adopted.

From the above argument you can see that in research making use of a post-positivist approach, considering your research and the target group for your research from the outside does not always mean a purely etic approach. It is necessary to consider your research topic more objectively than would have been the case if you became part of the target group for the research. However, an emic approach will enable you to employ sound judgement and to critically consider your data, analysis, conclusions and findings. This would be preferable if a degree of passion and involvement with the target group for your research is called for. You can also combine elements of an etic and emic approach. This will require paying special attention to ethics in the sense that you need to respect and uphold the human rights of the members of your target group.

Like critical theory, post-positivism occupies the space between positivism and constructivism. It also shows elements of relativism in the sense that it is more flexible than the scientific paradigms from which it seems to have evolved. It is also associated with interpretivism; that is the search for meaning, although this is mostly linked to positivism, because quantification can also be used for analysis of data. It, furthermore, shares with post-modernism the characteristic that it can be disruptive in the way data is analysed.

 The limitations of post-positivist approaches generally relate to the interactive and participatory nature of quantitative and qualitative methods. In using interactive and participatory approaches, post-positivists are heavily criticised by positivists who claim that post-positivisms are qualitative methods that are merely an assembly of anecdotes and personal impressions, which are highly suspect in terms of research objectivity and researcher impartiality. Contrary to this, those in favour of approaching research from a more functionalist point of view argue that the two research paradigms could be used complementary, to strengthen the data collection and analysis process.


Post-positivism focuses on values, passion and politics.

Realty is regarded as multiple, subjective and mentally constructed.

The paradigm seeks truth and evidence that are valid and reliable in terms of phenomena, not in terms of generalisation.

Post-positivism is based on a critical-realist ontology.

All knowledge is flawed.

Reality is not a fixed entity and is influences by context and purpose.

Objectivity is a volatile entity.

Post-positivism can be associated with relativism, interpretivism, constructivism and positivism.

Post-positivism is also opposed to positivism.

Criticism against post-positivism includes:

  1. That the objectivity of research making use of the paradigm is questioned.
  2. That the impartiality of the researcher is questioned.
  3. And that some academics regard the paradigm as an assembly of anecdotes and personal impressions.
Continue Reading