Research Paradigms

I had a rather confused exchange with Steve Brown and Carol Goodey on Twitter on Saturday about paradigms. I thought they were using the term “paradigm” in the way that Kuhn uses it to refer to a dominant theory which defines the domain of research in a particular area, the procedures researchers should follow in their experiments, and the criteria by which they test and evaluate the theory. But they weren’t; they were using it to refer to “a belief system, world view, or framework that guides research and practice in a field”.  A “research paradigm”, it seems, comprises

a view of the nature of reality (i.e., ontology) – whether it is external or internal to the knower; a related view of the type of knowledge that can be generated and standards for justifying it (i.e., epistemology); and a disciplined approach to generating that knowledge (i.e., methodology). 

This quote is from an article that Carol Goodey cited by Taylor and Medina. It uses the same terminology as the article Steve Brown cited by Guba and Lincoln: “Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research”.

It turns out, then, that while Khun in the late 1950s sparked off a discussion of paradigm theories in science, a discussion that Popper, Lakatos, Fereyabend, Laudan and others joined in, Guba and Lincoln later articulated a discussion of philosophical aspects of “Research Paradigms”  which is now considered by many to be part of a necessary background for any discussion of (educational) research. It’s hardly surprising that Khun, Popper and company don’t discuss “Research Paradigms”, because they all take a realist ontology and epistemology for granted, and they all agree that scientific method requires hypotheses to be tested by means of empirical observation, logic and rational argument.  So what are all these  “Research Paradigms” about? We need to take a closer look.

According to Taylor and Medina, the most “traditional” paradigm is positivism:

Positivism is a research paradigm that is very well known and well established in universities worldwide. This ‘scientific’ research paradigm strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour, and is commonly used in graduate research to test theories or hypotheses.

Well actually, positivism is no such thing, or at least it wasn’t until the relativists made it so. As anyone who has studied philosophy will know, positivism refers to a particular form of empiricism, and is a philosophical view primarily concerned with the issue of reliable knowledge.

Comte invented the term and argued that each branch of knowledge passes through “three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; and, lastly, the scientific or positive state.” (Comte, 1830, cited in Ryan, 1970:36)  At the theological stage, the will of God explains phenomena, at the metaphysical stage phenomena are explained by appealing to abstract philosophical categories, and at the scientific stage, any attempt at absolute explanations of causes is abandoned.  Science focuses on how observational phenomena are related, and any generalisations are subjected to empirical verification.

Mach, the Austrian philosopher and physicist, headed the second wave of positivism, which rooted out the “contradictory” religious elements in Comte’s work, and took advantage of the further progress made in the hard sciences to insist on purging all metaphysics from the scientific method. Then came the Vienna Circle in the 1920s. There is, interestingly, a fifty-year gap between each of these three phases of positivism: like a bad penny, it kept coming back. Although it was thoroughly discredited in philosophical circles and among those working in the hard sciences by 1940, in the social sciences, biology, psychology and linguistics, it continued to have a powerful influence on research methodology right up until the nineteen fifties. The development of behaviourism was inspired by positivist ideology, by the desire to rid psychology of speculative thought and to put it on a sound “scientific” footing, and the predominant tendency for linguistics at this time to eschew “mentalist” models also has its roots in positivism.

The objective of the members of the Vienna Circle was to continue the work of their predecessors by giving empiricism a more rigorous formulation through the use of recent developments in mathematics and logic. The Vienna circle, which comprised Schlick, Carnap, Godel, and others, and had Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein as interested parties, developed a programme labelled Logical Positivism, which consisted first of cleaning up language so as to get rid of paradoxes , and then limiting science to strictly empirical statements: in the grand tradition of positivism they pledged to get rid of all speculations on “pseudo problems” and concentrate exclusively on empirical data. Ideas were to be seen as “designations”, terms or concepts, that were formulated in words that needed to be carefully defined in order that they be meaningful, rather than meaningless.

Their efforts lasted less than a decade, and by the time the 2nd world war started, the movement had broken up in complete disarray. In my opinion, the logical positivists represent the high point of obscurantism and blinkeredness: never has such a celebrated band of clever academics marched down such an absurd blind alley. In any case, the point is that when Taylor and Medina (like Guba and Lincoln, and Lantolf and so many other relativists) refer to “positivists” , they’re referring to their own invented set of researchers who have no historical reality, and when they refer to the “positivst paradigm” they’re referring to a general set of beliefs, etc., that misrepresents the views of scientists in general. Now let’s look at Taylor and Medina’s account of different research paradigms.

The “Positive Paradigm”

The positive paradigm “strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour”. It is adopted by those working “in natural science, physical science and, to some extent, in the social sciences, especially where very large sample sizes are involved”.  Its focus is “on the objectivity of the research process”. It “mostly involves quantitative methodology, utilizing experimental methods”. The ontology of this research paradigm is realism, the epistemology is objectivism, and a quantitative methodology usually governs the research process.

The “Post-Positivist Paradigm”

Post-positivism is a “milder form of positivism “that follows the same principles but allows more interaction between the researcher and his/her research participants. ….. This paradigm is the modified scientific method for the social sciences. …. It is very similar to the positivist approach of comparing mean scores but depends on non-equivalent groups that differ from each other in many ways”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume it’s the same as that of the positivist research paradigm.

The “Interpretive Paradigm”

“The epistemology of this paradigm is inter-subjective knowledge construction. Interpretive knowledge of the other is produced through a prolonged process of interaction undertaken by ethnographers who immerse themselves within the culture they are studying. Using ethnographic methods of informal interviewing, participant observation and establishing ethically sound relationships, interpretive researchers construct trustworthy and authentic accounts of the cultural other”.

“The most coherent quality standards that regulate interpretive knowledge construction are those of Guba and Lincoln (1989) who developed standards of trustworthiness and authenticity that are distinctly different but ‘parallel to’ the validity, reliability and objectivity standards of positivism. ……. Recent developments in the interpretive paradigm have highlighted the importance of the researcher’s own subjectivity in the (hermeneutic) process of interpretation”. Nothing is said about ontology, and the epistemology isn’t clear, but if it comes from Guba and Lincoln then it’s relativist.

The “Critical Paradigm”

The critical research paradigm addresses the question: ‘Whose interests are not being (and should be) served by particular social policies and practices?’ by enabling the researcher “to identify and transform socially unjust social structures, policies, beliefs and practices. Its primary purpose is to identify, contest and help resolve ‘gross power imbalances’ in society which fuel ethically questionable profit-making activities that contribute to systemic inequalities and injustices. ….. Critical inquiry focuses first on raising the conscious awareness of teachers about established values and beliefs that underpin their seemingly natural teacher-centred classroom roles (Taylor, 2008). Once this process is underway, critical theory is introduced (e.g., critical pedagogy, cultural inclusiveness, social justice) that stimulates teachers’ creative thinking about designing curricula and assessment that are more student-centred, inquiry oriented, culturally sensitive, community-oriented, socially responsible, etc.”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm.

The “Postmodern Paradigm”

“This paradigm uses the concept of ‘representation’ (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) which holds that what goes on in our minds and hearts is not directly accessible to the world outside us. There is no window in our heads that allows another person to look directly into our minds and see ‘exactly what we mean’; the best we can do is ‘represent’ our thoughts and feelings through various means of communication (e.g., language, art, dance, gesture)………. All scientific observations are ‘theory laden’ and scientific knowledge remains forever contingent and open to challenge”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume that they’re relativist.

Multi-Paradigmatic Research

“Rather than standing alone as individual paradigms for framing the design of a researcher’s inquiry, as does the positivist paradigm, the newer paradigms can serve as ‘referents’. In other words, we can design our research by combining methods and quality standards drawn from two or more of the newer paradigms. It is not uncommon for a research study to combine methods and standards from the interpretive and critical paradigms to create a ‘critical auto/ethnography’. And when new literary genres, modes of thinking and quality standards are added from Arts-based research such multi-paradigmatic studies become very powerful means of transformative professional development (Taylor, Taylor, & Luitel, 2011)”.


I think Taylor and Medina have a clear agenda, and it’s not one I have much time for. But whether or not one agrees with the agenda, as a way of understanding scientific research, their article misrepresents both the philosophy of science and scientific method; and, furthermore, it complicates what is a simple choice between realist and relativist epistemologies.

Postmodernists and constructivists feel that the modern project has failed, and I have some sympathy for that view. There is a great deal of injustice in the world, and there are good grounds for thinking that a ruling minority who benefit from the way economic activity is organised are responsible for manipulating information in general, and research programmes in particular, in extremely sophisticated ways, so as to bolster and increase their power and control. To the extent that postmodernists and constructivists feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and to the extent that they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology, they are making a political statement, as they are when they say that “Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Culler, 1982: 67).  They have every right to express such views, and it is surely a good idea to encourage people to scrutinise texts, to try to uncover their “hidden agendas”.  Likewise the constructivist educational programme can be welcomed as an attempt to follow the tradition of humanistic liberal education.

Where the postmodernists are mistaken is in their assumption that their political analysis has necessary implications for the veracity or otherwise of any particular theory.  And where they seem to fail miserably is in the alternative they offer to a rationalist research programme.  When one adopts a “postmodernist research paradigm” what are the results for theory construction?  What are the results of all this analysis?  No causal explanations, or theories, are allowed, it seems.  All attempts to explain, refute, establish, confirm, etc., must be deconstructed and exposed as the logocentric-serving myths that they are; the task is to undermine, and overcome not just science but language and common sense.  To what end?

The constructivists obviously have a point when they say (not that they said it first) that science is a social construct. Science is certainly a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But, and here is the crux, this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper, in reply to criticisms of his naïve falsification position, defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual short-comings of its members are largely cancelled out.

As Bunge (1996) points out “The only genuine social constructions are the exceedingly uncommon scientific forgeries committed by a team.” (Bunge, 1996: 104) Bunge gives the example of the Piltdown man that was “discovered” by two pranksters in 1912, authenticated by many experts, and unmasked as a fake in 1950.  “According to the existence criterion of constructivism-relativism we should admit that the Piltdown man did exist – at least between 1912 and 1950 – just because the scientific community believed in it” (Bunge, 1996: 105).

The heart of the confusion for all those who take a radically relativist position, whether they be proponents of the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge, social constructivists, or postmodernists, is the deliberate confusion of two separate issues: claims about the existence or non-existence of particular things, facts and events, and claims about how one arrives at beliefs and opinions. Whether or not the Piltdown man is a million years old is a question of fact.  What the scientific community thought about the skull it examined in 1912 is also a question of fact.  When we ask what led that community to believe in the hoax, we are looking for an explanation of a social phenomenon, and that is a separate issue.  Just because for forty years the Piltdown man was supposed to be a million years old does not make him so, however interesting the fact that so many people believed it might be.

The postmodernist research paradigm claims that our beliefs are all we have, and that there is nothing “out there” that exists independently of them. Latour and Woolgar’s famous study (1979) is a good example.  While it might very well be the case that we believe that dinosaurs existed, and that DNA exists today, because the scientists tell us so, it remains, for those of us who want to take a realist, rationalist view of the world at least, an independent question of fact as to whether or not such things exist, i.e. whether or not our beliefs are true or false.

When Guba and Lincoln say “There are multiple, often conflicting, constructions and all (at least potentially) are meaningful. The question of which or whether constructions are true is socio-historically relative.”, this is a perfectly acceptable comment, as far as it goes.  If Guba and Lincoln argue that the observer cannot be neatly disentangled from the observed in the activity of inquiry, then again the point can be well taken.  But when they insist that constructions are exclusively in the minds of individuals, that “they do not exist outside of the persons who created and hold them; they are not part of some “objective” world that exists apart from their constructors”, and that “what can be known and the individual who comes to know it are fused into a coherent whole”, then they have disappeared into a Humpty Dumpty world where anything can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean.

A radically relativist epistemology rules out the possibility of data collection, of empirical tests, of any rational criterion for judging between rival explanations and I believe those doing research and building theories should have no truck with them. Solipsism and science, like solipsism and anything else of course, do not go well together. If the postmodernist paradigm  rejects any understanding of time because “the modern understanding of time controls and measures individuals”, if they argue that no theory is more correct than any other, if they believe that “everything has already happened”, that “there is no real world”, that “we can never really know anything”, then I think they should continue their “game”, as they call it, in their own way, and let those of us who prefer to work with more rationalist assumptions get on with scientific research.


I would stress the broadness of the rationalist definition of research and theory construction; the relativists often seem unaware of what science, and rational enquiry in general, involves. It seems necessary to point out to them that science is not the same as positivism, or empiricism and it doesn’t prescribe any fixed methodology. So all the “research paradigms” described by Taylor and Medina are acceptable in my opinion except the postmodernist one. On a cautionary note, I think it’s important to be clear about “where they’re coming from”; I don’t like their language and I suspect there’s a strong bias towards postmodernist approaches in that “school”.

In general, I’m afraid I don’t really see the point of these research paradigms if they’re not a way of arguing for a relativist position, but never mind: at least I know what they’re on about now. Just to make my own position clear, I don’t see myself as having a”Post-Positivist” research paradigm as Steve suggested. The rationalist position I hold is that knowledge of the world is gained in all sorts of ways, but that the most reliable knowledge comes from engaging in research which leads to the development of theories, i.e. attempts to explain phenomena. These theories are developed with various rules of logic and language to guide the process and are scrutinised so as to discover flaws in terminology or reasoning, and to build the clearest, simplest version of the theory.  Such theories should then lay themselves open to empirical tests: there must be the possibility of observing events in the world that contradict them.


(Citations from Taylor & Medina, and Guba & Lincoln can be found in their articles which you can download from the links above.)

Bunge, M. 1996: In Praise of Intolerance to Charlatanism in Academia. In Gross, R, Levitt, N., and Lewis, M. The Flight From Science and Reason. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 777, 96-116.

Culler, J. 1982: On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. 1979: Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts.  London: Sage.

14 thoughts on “Research Paradigms

  1. Yo, Geoff;
    One comment on your welcome discussion of ‘research paradigms’: Why are you being so gentle? Clearly Taylor and Medina and the rest of them don’t know science from Shinola. I think (I think I may have even said) that the odds are about 9 in 10 that anyone using the term ‘positivism’ or its cognates these days is similarly ignorant (you, obviously, being one of the 10%). At my age (never mind)I suppose I should be used to this sort of thing, but I confess to being appalled at the ignorance that gets published, and then gets taken seriously by other ignoramuses who get published.
    I will say, though, that I have no problem with the term ‘research paradigm’; as Masterson was it? noted, Kuhn used the term in 346 or so different senses (all right, maybe 34), and insofar as one isn’t going to take the sensible course and just avoid the term, why not this one?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Kevin,

    The only problem with using the term “research paradigm” is that, as I’ve lately discovered, it’s used by some to discuss paradigm shifts and the incommensurability of scientific theories, and by others to refer to a “belief system” comprising a view of ontology, epistemology and methodology. I suppose that if the word “positivism” is mentioned, we’ll know that it’s time to look in panic at the nearest clock and remember an urgent appointment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I find it hard to rid myself of the supsicion that the relativistically minded are attracted by the term ‘paradigm’ because of Kuhn’s remarks about the incommensurability of paradigms. I’m not, myself, quite clear what Kuhn meant by this since if he really does mean that someone thinking in one paradigm literally cannot think outside it to understand what someone in another paradigm even means then he is indeed, isn’t he, committed to a relativist position. As Davidson and others have pointed out Kuhn’s own ability to describe and compare different paradigms would appear to refute the claim that they are actually untranslatable into each other’s idioms. It is of course possible that people in cultures unaffected by Newtonian physics, say, think in ways that we literally cannot understand, but, supposing that that were the case, how could we ever know that it was so?


    1. Hi, Patrick,

      I’d argue linguistic grasp of a paradigm, such that one can present paradigm, that is describe, compare it, explain it, is distinct from being able to translate or understand it conceptually. In the same sense that you might be able to empathise with another person and explain how that person must be feeling, but you’ll never really understand unless you become that person.


      1. Hi Robert,

        You make it clear how essentially obtuse the term “paradigm” is. I think Kevin’s right: the sensible course is to ignore it.


      2. I’m unclear as to how someone could adequately explain a paradigm without being able to understand it. I’m not sure your analogy is appropriate. It is true that a person cannot directly experience another person’s sensations. I don’t think, though, that anyone suggests that paradigms have sensations.


      3. That isn’t what I meant.

        We cannot directly experience another person’s thoughts or beliefs at all.

        Everything, therefore, is a matter of perspective and interpretation.

        I should also note that I am playing Devil’s Ad


      4. Kuhn’s suggestion of paradigm shifts was a challenge to Popper’s idea of scientific progress. Kuhn said that normal science = everybody in the scientific community in that area (of the hard sciences) agreed on terms and procedures. On occasions there’s a revolution, and a new “paradigm theory” emerges. The new theory is incommensurate with the old one. There was a great deal of heated argument about this involving the big guns in the philosophy of science community, leading everybody to re-define their positions quite a few times. So what exactly a paradigm shift involved (and what exactly falsification involved) got blurred.

        Relativists of various hues jumped on Kuhn’s thesis as “proof” that there’s no such thing as objective science or investigation. In developing this argument, they re-wrote the history of science and it seems that this has now trickled down to some university departments offering “social science” programmes, in the form of the view that research in the social sciences requires those doing it to articulate their “research paradigms”, and to position themselves in reference to a “positivist paradigm”.

        In studying issues in applied linguistics, like SLA and assessment, for example, I don’t see much need to talk about research paradigms, unless we’re interested in matters of theory construction, as I happen to be. If we adopt a minimally realist epistemology, we can happily discuss the pros and cons of quantitative and qualitative research methods without ever mentioning Kuhn – or Derrida.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi Patrick,

      You’re quite right: relativists seized on Kuhn’s work, and there’s no doubt that “paradigm” became a key term in many postmodernist and constructivist texts after 1962. Kevin Gregg says that the relativists took over the term “positivist” and I think it was almost as true of “paradigm” in the 80s and 90s, although now even sports commentators seem happy using it. Khun himself was mortified to see how his ideas became distorted, and, as you know, worked long and hard to develop and refine his initial idea of incommensurability over 40 years. He never stopped saying that incommensurability neither means nor implies incomparability; nor does it make science irrational. And yes, Davidson was an influential commentator trying to rescue Kuhn from persistent, silly relativist misinterpretation.


      1. Hi Geoff,
        I’m actually replying to your previous comment, but it doesn’t have a ‘reply’ to click on, so,… You mention
        the view that research in the social sciences requires those doing it to articulate their “research paradigms”, and to position themselves in reference to a “positivist paradigm”.

        And it reminded me of something Orwell was supposed to have said, about I don’t know whose idea about I don’t know what, viz. that it was so stupid only an intellectual could have come up with it.


  4. “You make it clear how essentially obtuse the term “paradigm” is”

    Not entirely sure how to interpret that, but OK


  5. Hi Kevin,

    Or as E.J.Thribb would say “You couldn’t make it up!” I wonder how widespread the view that research in the social sciences requires those doing it to articulate their “research paradigms”,etc., etc., is these days.


    1. I’m reminded now of an exchange in C.S.Lewis’s ‘That Hideous Strength’, where our hero, young Mark Studdock, a sociologist in a small English uni, is talking with the eminent chemist (one of the very few well-known scholars at that uni) whose name I forget: Mark: “Well, I can see how you might see it that way, but from the point of view of a science like sociology…” “There ARE no sciences like sociology!”


  6. Hi Geoff,

    I just saw this and wanted to say that this is a smashing post. I used your old blog as a resource during my MA TESOL days and it was very useful for the SLA module. I have recently started a PGCE course in mainstream education and was confronted with this during our Research Informed Practice module.

    I articulated less sophisticated but similar views to you and Kevin in the comments here and was labeled a ‘positivist’. I followed up with a little bit of reading and tried to articulate how this paradigms view didn’t make much sense to me. I felt a little bit vindicated after this. It was suggested that findings from social research methods could not be considered generalizable at all, and I had some difficulty accepting this claim and left unsatisfied with the resulting dialogue.

    Thank you!


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