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Exploring Research Methodologies: Positivism And Interpretivism

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Exploring Research Methodologies: Positivism and Interpretivism

Before a researcher can initiate a research project, they face the confusion and the range of theoretical perspectives, methodologies, methods, and the philosophical basis that encompasses them all. This seemingly meticulous structure for the research process is in fact aimed toward providing the researcher with a ‘scaffolding’, or a direction which they can go on to develop themselves to coincide with their particular research purposes. (Crotty, 1998)

Once a researcher has developed a research question they are seeking to answer, they must consider what methodologies and methods they will employ in the research; what theoretical perspective lies behind the methodology; and what epistemology informs this theoretical perspective. (Crotty, 1998)

Before continuing it is important to explain these key terms:
Epistemology is ‘the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge, which seeks to inform us how we can know the world.’ (Jary and Jary: Dictionary of Sociology, 1991) In the context of social research, epistemology is the form of proof one requires to justify a claim to knowledge about the social world. This will have a salient impact on the kind of data one can collect in order to validate their arguments concerning the social world (methodology), as well as the methods one considers in collecting valid data (methods). A researcher’s choice of methods will be conditioned by theoretical perspectives, the way one sees the social world. (Livesey)

Researchers of social science use a wide variety of research methods to gain and enhance knowledge and theory. The different types of research methodologies, quantitative and qualitative, are associated with the epistemological and theoretical perspectives the researcher wishes to adopt. This choice the researcher makes determines the way in which research should be conducted.
This paper will discuss, critically analyse and compare the epistemological and theoretical perspectives of two research methodologies used for social research: positivism and interpretivism. The various research methods used within the frameworks of each of these will then be discussed.

Positivism

There are two main types of epistemologies: positivist and anti-positivist. “Positivist research is an approach which combines a deductive approach with precise measurement of quantitative data to enable the discovery and confirmation of casual laws to predict human behaviour.” (Neuman, 2000) In the social sciences, the criteria positivism as a theoretical perspective shapes reality to be objective: free of bias, opinion or prejudice; and that there is one reality in nature, one truth. The principle purposes of social research, in a positivist approach, are to explain social life and predict the course of events. Positivism has received a great deal of criticism for use as a social research methodology as quantitative methods can be argued as unsuitable for research of human beings.

“The individual is relegated to being nothing more than a system outcome, not a thinking and acting human.” (Kelly & Charlton, 1995)

Quantitative methods use numerical data, facts and universal laws to perform research. These methods of science used to study the natural world, are arguably impossible for the study of human affairs. Epistemological dimension of positivism understands human behaviour as patterned, orderly and relatively stable. Therefore, methodologically, a positivist will use objective methods to collect data about human behaviour.

“While the positivist tradition is perhaps one of the least appropriate approaches to the social world it is, paradoxically, one of the most commonly employed.”(Lawson, 1997)

There are divisions of opinion amongst sociologists about the extent to which sociology is capable of producing objective understanding of life. The positivist concept is that the principles of science can be applied to the study of people. Therein lies the main question a researcher must consider: Can sociology, or any form of social science, be considered to be scientific?

“…the principle legacy of positivism today is an enduring belief in the dichotomy between objective knowledge and subjective opinion.” (Buchanan, 1998)

Positivist, or quantitative methods used for social research, trying to be systematic, objective and precise, are criticized as being flawed for excluding too much that needs to be included; such as failing to take account of essential characteristics of human behaviour and social life, which cannot be measured, or predicted using numbers or universal laws. Furthermore, natural sciences attempt to quantify the
phenomena or experience and reproduce the results through repetition of the research method; this should not and cannot be applied to social sciences. Human beings are not just natural elements; they are acting individuals with their own perceptions and wishes, and part of a social community. The ‘nomological regularity’ behind the natural process, simply does not exist in the social sciences. (Sarantakos, 1998)

Positivism offers a logical and efficient way of modelling reality, except the model created is a ‘restricted representation of a subset of existence.’ The positivist assumption that science is the most appropriate theoretical perspective for social research will result in epistemologically under-justified use of quantitative methods for qualitative questions. The application of scientific methods can only be justified for use in the physical domain, not the social domain. (Love, 1998) However, despite all the criticism positivism receives as a social methodology, its popularity has continued.

“Positivism having lost every single epistemological battle over the years seems to have won the war, certainly in terms of research effort and funding.”(Pawson, 1989)

The influence of positivism has inspired much of social research’s most prevalent research methods. Some of these include surveys, questionnaires and statistical models. A researcher applying a positivist methodology for their study would consider large-scale sample surveys and controlled laboratory experiments as suitable research methods. These methods can be justified as they allow positivist researchers to employ empirical and logical quantitative data…

Interpretivism

The theoretical perspective of interpretivism understands that human beings cannot have knowledge of the world independently of what is in their minds.
Therefore the interpretivist research methodology was a reaction against the very strident claims of positivism.

“The purpose of developing practical reason is not to predict, control or change anyone, but to deepen our understanding of what it is to live a human life, to contribute to human self-understanding and decency.” (Buchanan, 1998)

Within the domain of social research, interpretivism as a theoretical perspective shapes reality to be subjective: relating to a person’s, or research’s emotions, prejudices and bias. Interpretivism’s epistemological assumptions is that reality is created through social interaction: the concept that meaning and knowledge are socially constructed within a certain context and time. Also that there is no one universal truth of reality, but multiple truths created by individuals. Human beings are seen as the creators of their own world or reality, not being restricted by any external laws.

Sociology and human practices are a categorically different kind of phenomena than natural sciences, and require a different approach to understand their meaning. Critics suggest that these differences, from an epistemological position, may account for the inadequate success of positivist methodologies in explaining human behaviour. (Buchanan, 1998)

“The main intentions of social research, in an interpretivist approach, are to interpret and understand social life; to uncover and unravel the multiple layers of meaning represented by human action.” (Vrasidas, 2001)

Interpretivism is a research methodology that employs qualitative methods. Qualitative methodology aims to understand people, not to measure them. It attempts to capture reality in interaction. Whereas qualitative methodology uses no quantitative measures or variables, interpretivism does not necessarily exclude quantitative methods.

“Interpretive research is a broader term than qualitative research as it encompasses all other approaches based on participant research…Interpretivism does not carry with it the false connotation of excluding the use of quantitative measures…it emphasises interpretation and suggests a focus on the meanings in action of participants and how the researcher uncovers and interprets those meanings.” (Erickson, 1986)

It is important to emphasise that with interpretivist research methods, a researcher can never arrive at the one absolute truth, or to achieve a complete understanding of the setting they are researching. The concept of completeness of knowledge relates to the concept of the hermeneutical circle: that “there is a circular movement and shift of focus on interest from the whole to the parts and vice versa. Every time the circle is completed, the researcher and the interpretation are changing. You always get closer to a more complete understanding, but you never reach completeness.” (Vrasidas, 2001)

Interpretivism or qualitative theoretical perspectives are clearly the required methodology for social research; however, there are several weaknesses. Studying humans as individuals and being interested in their everyday experiences and interpretations produce the risk of collecting useless information, making it very time consuming. There are problems of reliability caused by the subjectivity of the researcher, as well as ethical issues, such as privacy.

Differences of the methodologies

A fundamental contrast between the two methodologies is that a positivist researcher is thought to assume a passive, or objective, role during data collection; whereas in interpretive research, the research is taken to be actively involved in the process of data collection and analysis. As a researcher, it is important to discuss some of the factors that may have influenced their interpretation, which will allow observers of the research to be co-analysts and arrive at their own conclusions on the validity of the research.

Positivist research primarily serves to test theory and increase predictive understanding of phenomena. Interpretive research, on the other hand, is intended to understand the deeper structure of a phenomenon.

The difference between the two research methodologies is their focus and what kinds of questions it addresses. “A research technique does not constitute a research method.” (Erickson, 1986) Although positivist methods use natural science techniques to analyse data, interpretive approaches do not exclude the use of quantitative methods. The fundamental issue is “deciding what makes sense to count.” (Erickson, 1977) The two methodologies should not be seen as competing perspectives, as both have valuable features to offer towards the understanding of the research question. A researcher needs to find a mutual shaping perspective combining the best parts of both methodologies.

Researchers using either of the two methodologies clearly want to have their research warranted as useful and beneficial to the understanding of their research question. This greatly depends on the validity of their work, so a number of measures, which vary from case to case, are used to achieve this. The main focus of a researcher to check the validity of their quantitative research is to ensure that the results reflect the true situation and conditions of the environment studied. The main focus that must be considered in interpretivist research is that all the directions and biases were considered in the results.

“There is no bias-free point of view in any approach to research. We all filter our view of phenomena through our theoretical lens.” (Vrasidas, 2001)

Bibliography

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2. Campbell, D. (1988). Methodology and Epistemology for Social Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3. Crotty, M. (1998). The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

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9. Lawson, T. (1997). Economics and Reality. London: Routledge.

10. Livesey, C. Theory and Methods, Practical and Theoretical Research Considerations. www.sociology.org.uk.

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19. Vrasidas, C. (2001). Interpretivism and Symbolic Interactionism: “Making the Familiar Strange and Interesting Again” in Educational Technology Research. In Heinecke, W. & Willis, J. (Ed.), Research Methods in Educational Technology. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

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