Notes: Qualitative Research 3: What do I want to do? From aim to realisation

These class notes build on the reading about paradigms in social science research and briefly detail some of the paradigms commonly used in social science and education research. Paradigms covered here include positivism and post-positivism, constructivism and interpretivist approaches, critical theories for emancipation, deconstruction and re-creation by using theory as method.

We explored which approaches fit best with our own world-views and where there might be overlap with complementary paradigms, why we need to be careful using more than one paradigm in our research despite feeling they fit together, ontological and epistemological assumptions about truth/knowledge that are the basis of these paradigms, and questioning whether paradigms are useful or unhelpful concepts at all!

To predict: Positivism and post-positivism “test and confirm”

  • Do you want to provide an empirically ‘proven’ basis for improvement?
  • Do you see social world as a natural phenomenon?
  • Do you want to come up with laws that are universal and with which we can govern behaviour?
    • Aims, methods and concepts of natural sciences applied to social science – come up with generalisable laws to predict and control
    • Reality is knowable and observable
    • There are facts that are value-free and objective.
  • Have a sense that what we are doing will bring some effects
  • Methodology:
    • Surveys
    • Experiments
    • Models
  • E.g: What are the factors influencing advanced reading skills?


To understand: Constructivism and Interpretivist “describe, explain and/or understand

  • Do you want to understand holistically participants’ experiences or a phenomenon in question?
  • Aim is to describe for example:
    • Cultural characteristics, individuals’ meaning making / experiences
    • Values and beliefs
    • Socially construct views of a phenomenon
    • Essence of a phenomenon
    • Participants’ life worlds.
  • Methodologies for understanding:
    • Ethnography
    • Phenomenology
    • Phenomenography
    • Hermeneutics
  • E.g: How does first grade situate within a school’s culture? How do children experience being first graders?


To emancipate: Critical theories “address inequities”

  • Do you want to illuminate inequities but also make a difference?
  • Do you want to “empower” some people
  • Or improve emancipatory practice?
  • Aim to address inequities in order to promote change through dialogue:
    • Researcher’s relation to practice: change, transfrom, create praxis
    • Researcher is active and political
    • Central features: all theories seen as dependant on the viewer’s perspective, interest towards operations of power, political and ideological interest.  
  • Methodologies
    • Feminism
    • Critical theories
    • Action research
    • Community research
  • EG: How are gender roles generated in primary school? Who exercises power, and how, when planning curriculum?


To deconstruct: Post -… “deconstruct and re-create”

  • Are you interested in the complexity, uncertainty, origins of phenomena?
  • Questioning: Not just understand, but also think differently about it
  • Related to post-structuralism and post-modernism
  • Aim is to DECONSTRUCT (and reconstruct?) grand narratives, binaries and stable structures, colonial practices, socio-political discourses, power relations
    • Key characteristics include deconstruction of traditional commitments to truth, objectivity and neutrality
    • Research’s relation to pracice → deconstruct, transform and rebuild practice (?)
    • Researcher is active, involved, constructive and political.  
    • Michel Foucault – French theorist: “freeing the mind”
  • Using theory as method:
    • Post-structural
    • Post-colonialism
    • Post-humanism
    • Post-modernism
  • E.g. What are the modes of colonialism taking place in primary school?


  • Interrelated and can intertwine with each other sometimes.
  • BUT If you mix you have to be careful as the building blocks of each paradigm (e.g. ontological beliefs) are very different and can be in conflict with each other!
  • My research – look into possibility of using deconstructivism to break down xx and then emancipation to create something new


Ontological (nature of social reality) and epistemological assumptions (knowledge and truth).

How you see reality will impact what kind of questions you ask in the first place. When you choose a methodology, you choose a world! Do not need to know all qualitative methods – need o know the one you use and central concepts and principles.

Epistemology has implications for methodology, Ontology has implications for the research question. Research question will impact methodology chosen. → all interconnected and interdependent.


Questioning the use of paradigms – helpful or unhelpful concept?

Biesta, Lincoln & Guba – both 2010.

“(…) it tends to bring under one heading a range of different ideas and assumptions that do not necessarily have to go together. This tends to make a notion of paradigm into a container concept and lead to situation in which paradigms have to be embraced or rejected in a wholesale manner rather than letting the discussion focus on smaller elements, such as ontological, epistemological, or methodological views and assumptions” (Biesta, 2010: 98)

“Paradigm thinking also tends to give (…) students (…) the impression that they need to adopt a particular paradigmatic stance (…) before they can start doing the research. Although it is true that research questions are not neutral (…) it would be a mistake to think that such assumptions are just a matter of belief – of conversion to a particular paradigm. The idea of paradigm, then, becomes an excuse for not having to engage in discussions about the assumptions that underpin the research (Biesta, 2010: 99)

“ (…) the various paradigms are beginning to “interbreed” such that two theorists previously thought to be irreconcilable conflict may now appear, under a different theoretical rubric, to be informing one another’s arguments. (…) Consequently, to argue that it is paradigms that are in contention is probably less useful than to probe where and how paradigms exhibit confluence and where and how they exhibit differences, controversies, and contradictions.” (Lincoln and Guba, 2010: 163)


Epistemological questions:

Can we know something? → Justified true belief – tripartite theory (current) but see criticism e.g. Gettier cases. Scientific knowledge. Evaluation of quality of research, credibility, trustworthiness etc.

What can we know?

How can we know? (empiricism – rationalism)

Are there different ways of knowing?

What is the relationship between knower (researcher) and what can be known?

What forms knowledge can take? (deterministic natural laws or probablistic laws / are generalisations possible or not?)

BUT what is truth?

^^ Answers to these questions are intertwined with the ontological assumptions



One thought on “Notes: Qualitative Research 3: What do I want to do? From aim to realisation

  1. Pingback: Notes: Qualitative Research 4: What is the role of theory in research? – MinLand

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