A few weeks ago, someone in the ELT world tweeted that Salma Patel’s blog, which deals with management of the UK National Health Service, had a post that gave a good, brief summary of research paradigms. I went to the blog and found the post:
Published in 2015, it’s had 168,622 views so far, and there are dozens of comments at the end thanking Patel for his “clear”, “brilliant”, “superb”, “excellent”, “amazing”, “extremely useful” explanations.
The explanation starts with a summary of the main components of a research paradigm and there is then a video which explains the text. Patel begins by saying that there are two main approaches to research:
- Filling knowledge gap: positivist
- Problem-solving: interpretive.
In the first you read a lot of books …..and you find a gap in the research. ……It is objective. What is the meaning of objective? Reality is external to us – I don’t know the reality. So, I propose a hypothesis. What is the meaning of a hypothesis? There is a relationship between X and Y, or not. That’s it.
In the second, you identify a problem, you ask “Why?”. There is no single reality so we have to look at reality from different perspectives, understand different characters, different people, .. So there’s no reality here. That’s why we have to go ourselves into the organisation and talk to people.
So there you have it: scientific, quantitative research is most suitable for research projects which seek to fill a knowledge gap, while qualitative research (which assumes that there’s no such thing as objective reality) is the best way to go about problem solving.
Scientific research is, of course, nothing like Patel’s description of it. Nor is positivism what Patel says it is, and nor does his chart present a reliable or useful guide to research projects.
The aim of scientific research is, precisely, to solve problems, or, to put it another way, to explain phenomena. The collection of empirical data, the organisation of taxonomies, etc. are carried out not for their own sakes but in the service of an explanatory theory. Hypotheses are the beginning of attempts to solve problems and should lead to theories that explain a certain group of phenomena. The aim is to unify descriptions and low-level theories into a general causal theory.
SLA research carried out under the umbrella of cognitive science adopts these aims and methods, and although far from achieving any general theory, it still has some claim to be part of what Kuhn calls a mature science tradition. In contrast, the sort of work Patel encourages falls, at best, into Kuhn’s “immature science” bag, in the ‘pre-paradigm’ period. It’s clear from the literature that some sociologists and sociolinguists want no part of the scientific enterprise, but Patel’s biased and distorted description of different approaches to research fails to properly explain either the realist or the relativist case. In order to provide newcomers with a clear, balanced, well informed introduction to research methodology, I think Patel needs a better grasp than he shows of the philosophy of science, the history of western philosophy, and how evidence-based research is conceived and conducted.
In response to information given to me by Steve Brown, Carol Goodey and others earlier this year, I wrote a post on Research Paradigms where I commented on the way that various influential sociology departments have developed their own particular post-Khunian narrative concerning how research is carried out. I said at the time that I was really surprised to learn how widely these daft notions of ‘positivism’ and ‘research paradigms’ had spread, but I find the fact that Patel’s post has reached over 160,000 grateful post graduate students quite shocking. Did nobody catch so much as a whiff of baloney? Nobody took the trouble to, ahem, deconstruct the text?
A more respectable version of Patel’s presentation can be found in Scotland (2012), which is cited, but it’s hardly any better. In the end, we can trace most of this “revised”, post-Kuhnian treatment of paradigms back to Lincoln and Guba (1985) who proposed a “Constructivist paradigm” as a replacement for “the conventional, scientific, or positivist paradigm of enquiry”. This view is idealist (“what is real is a construction in the minds of individuals”), pluralist and relativist:
There are multiple, often conflicting, constructions and all (at least potentially) are meaningful. The question of which or whether constructions are true is sociohistorically relative. (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 85).
Lincoln and Guba assume that the observer can’t and shouldn’t be neatly disentangled from the observed in the activity of inquiring into constructions. Constructions in turn are resident in the minds of individuals:
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 (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 143).
Thus constructivism is based on the principle of interaction.
The results of an enquiry are always shaped by the interaction of inquirer and inquired into which renders the distinction between ontology and epistemology obsolete: what can be known and the individual who comes to know it are fused into a coherent whole (Guba: 1990: 19).
Note that Patel has either overlooked or ignored the fact that, according to the leading lights in his “constructivist paradigm”, the distinction between ontology and epistemology is obsolete. In any case, if you want to find the roots of the full-blown idealist, relativist, pluralist, your-experience-of-me-experiencing-you-experiencing-the-teapot, topsy-turvy, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t world of post-modern sociology, you need look no further than Lincoln and Guba, 1985. And if you want a demonstation of why it’s so much baloney, see Gross & Levitt, 1994; and Sokal & Bricmont, 1998.
Not far behind in terms of culpability for all this mess comes Crotty (1998), whose “seminal work” on research in the social sciences is required reading in thousands of undergraduate and post graduate courses all over the world. Crotty’s work quite wrongly states that positivism started with the work of Francis Bacon, completely misrepresents the work of the positivists themselves, and misrepresents the work of Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend too. At one point, Crotty says that the real target of Feyerabend’s criticism were “the positivists”, despite the fact that before Feyerabend’s Against Method was published, positivists – scientists and philosophers alike – had thankfully disappeared. I challenge Crotty to find a scientific department in any university anywhere on the planet run by self-proclaimed positivists.
C.P. Snow, in his 1959 lecture, first described the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities (see Snow, 1993), since when the gap has widened considerably. Eleven years ago, Gregg (2006) noted that in the field of SLA, a look at the ‘applied linguistics’ literature
turns up doubts about the value of controlling for variables (Block, 1996), reduction of empirical claims to metaphors (Schumann, 1983; Lantolf, 1996), mockery of empirical claims in SLA as ‘physics envy’ and denials of the possibility of achieving objective knowledge (Lantolf, 1996), even wholesale rejection of the values and methods of empirical research (Johnson, 2004). Although the standpoints are various, one common thread unites these critiques: a fundamental misunderstanding of what science, and in particular cognitive science, is about (see, e.g. Gregg et al., 1997; Gregg, 2000; 2002).
Today, blogs and twitter exchanges abound with references to white coats, laboratory conditions and the other trappings of so-called positivists (including Chomsky of course) who, it’s claimed, fail to make any connections with the real world, even though, ironically enough, they’re the only ones who believe in such a thing. In my own case, in exchanges with Marek Kiczkowiak of TEFL Advocates about the existence (or not) of native speakers, I refer to the “sociolinguistic twaddle that obfuscates a simple psychological reality”, while he refers to “the fantastic beast the NS has become in theoretical linguistics and SLA labs”. I’d say that in this case it’s Kiczkowiak who shows a typically depreciating and ignorant attitude towards SLA cognitive research, while I limit myself to the claim that regardless of how difficult it might be for sociolinguists to decide who belongs to what social group, there are such things as native speakers, and it is the case (a case worth researching) that most people who learn a L2 fall short of native competence. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I.
Patel’s post is more evidence of the need to remain critical in our reading and thinking about our profession. There are so many examples of low standards of scholarship, rational criticism and intellectual honesty in the work of those who do research and teacher training that we need to be constantly on our guard. Down with baloney!
Crotty, M. (1998) The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. London, Routledge.
Gregg, K. R. (2006) Taking a social turn for the worse: the language socialization paradigm for second language acquisition. Second Language Research 22, 4; pp. 413–442.
Gross, P.R. and Levitt, N. (1994) Higher superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lincoln,Y. & Guba, R. (1985) Naturalistic Enquiry. Newbury Park; Sage.
Scotland, J. (2012) Exploring the philosophical underpinnings of research: Relating ontology and epistemology to the methodology and methods of the scientific, interpretive, and critical research paradigms. English Language Teaching, 5(9), pp.9–16.
Snow, C.P. (1993) The two cultures. Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
Sokal, A.D. and Bricmont, J. (1998) Intellectual impostures. London, Verso.