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Introduction to research paradigms

Handout for the Qualitative Research Module – Anna Voce, November 2004

What is a research paradigm?

 Paradigm comes from the Greek paradeiknyai - to show side by side –
and is a pattern or example of something. The word connotes the ideas
of a mental picture or pattern of thought (Shtarkshall, 2004)

 “A paradigm may be viewed as a set of basic beliefs … that deals with

ultimates or first principles. It represents a worldview that defines for its
holder, the nature of the “world”, the individual’s place in it, and the
range of possible relationships to that world and its parts … The beliefs
are basic in the sense that they must be accepted simply on faith
(however well argued); there is no way to establish their ultimate
truthfulness. If there were, the philosophical debates … would have been
resolved millennia ago.” (Guba and Lincoln, 1994 p. 107-108)

 While Henning et al. define a paradigm as “a theory or hypothesis”, a

paradigm is rather a framework within which theories are built, that
fundamentally influences how you see the world, determines your
perspective, and shapes your understanding of how things are connected.
Holding a particular world view influences you personal behaviour, your
professional practice, and ultimately the position you take with regard to
the subject of your research.

 [Research] paradigms define for the [researcher] what it is they are

about, and what falls within and outside the limits of legitimate
[research].” (Guba and Lincoln, 1994 p. 108)

Classifying research paradigms

Guba and Lincoln (1994) state that the basic beliefs that define a particular
research paradigm may be summarised by the responses given to three
fundamental questions:

1. The ontological question i.e. what is the form and nature of reality
2. The epistemological question i.e. what is the basic belief about knowledge
(i.e. what can be known)
3. The methodological question i.e. how can the researcher go about finding
out whatever s/he believes can be known.

Comparison between research paradigms

Below is an analysis of three major research paradigms:

Questions for analysing Research paradigms

paradigms Positivism Interpretivism Critical Theory
Ontological Nature of reality  An objective, true reality  The world complex and  Governed by conflicting,
questions exists which is governed by dynamic and is constructed, underlying structures – social,
unchangeable natural interpreted and experienced political, cultural, economic,
cause-effect laws by people in their ethnic, gender
 Consists of stable pre- interactions with each other
existing patterns or order and with wider social
that can be discovered systems i.e. fluid definitions
 Reality is not time- nor of a situation created by
context-bound human interaction/social
 Reality can be generalised construction of reality
 Reality is subjective. People
experience reality in
different ways. Subjective
reality is important i.e. what
people think, feel, see)
 Reality can only be
imperfectly grasped
 The use of language defines
a particular reality

Nature of human  Rational  Social beings who create  People can design /
beings  Shaped by external factors meaning and who constantly reconstruct their own world
(same cause has the same make sense of their worlds through action and critical
effect on everyone) i.e.  People possess an internally reflection
mechanical model / experienced sense of reality
behaviourist approach.
Under certain conditions
people will probably engage
in a specified behaviour

Questions for analysing Research paradigms

paradigms Positivism Interpretivism Critical Theory
Epistemologica Nature of  Knowledge can be described  Knowledge is based not only  Knowledge is dispersed and
l questions knowledge in a systematic way on observable phenomena, distributed
 Knowledge consists of but also on subjective  Knowledge is a source of
verified hypotheses that can beliefs, values, reasons, and power
be regarded as facts or laws. understandings  Knowledge is constituted by
 Probabilistic – i.e. holds true  Knowledge is constructed the lived experience and the
for large groups of people or  Knowledge is about the way social relations that structure
occurs in many situations in which people make these experiences
 Knowledge is accurate and meaning in their lives, not  Events are understood with
certain just that they make social and economic contexts
meaning, and what meaning
they make.

Role of theory Theories are: Theories: Theories:

 Normative  Are revisable  Are constructed in the act of
 Present ‘models’  Approximate truth critique in a dialectical
 General propositions  Are sensitive to context process of deconstructing
explaining causal and reconstructing the world.
relationships between
Theory  Postulate a theories that can  Theories are built /  Theories are built from
building/testing be tested in order to confirm constructed from multiple deconstructing the world,
or reject realities – the researcher has from analysing power
 Prove a theory from to look at different things in relationships
observable phenomena / order to understand a
behaviour phenomenon
 Test theories in a controlled  Theory is shaped by social
setting, empirically and cultural context
supporting or falsifying
hypotheses through process
of experimentation

Role of research  Uncover reality i.e. natural  Study mental, social,  Promoting critical
laws cultural phenomena – in an consciousness
 Scientifically explain / endeavour to understand  Breaking down institutional
describe, predict and control why people behave in a structures and arrangements
phenomena certain way. that produce oppressive
 Grasp the ‘meaning’ of ideologies and social
phenomena inequalities
 Describe multiple realities  Shift the balance of power so
that it may be more equitably
 Address social issues
 Political emancipation and
increasing critical

Questions for analysing Research paradigms

paradigms Positivism Interpretivism Critical Theory
Epistemologica Research findings  Can be observed an  Research has been a  Can solve problems within a
l questions are true if: measured communal process, informed specific context.
(cont)  Can be replicated and are by participants, and  Solutions may be applied in
generalisable scrutinised and endorsed by other contexts, but as
others. hypotheses to be tested.
 Unveil illusions

Role of common  None – only deductive  Common sense reflects  False beliefs that hide power
sense reasoning powerful everyday theories and objective conditions
held by ordinary people
 Iterative and inductive
reasoning used

NB: Difference between deductive and inductive thought (Shtarkshall, 2004):

Deductive thought includes within it the creation or designing of a theory, determining assumptions in relation to
that theory and analysing those assumptions in the face of reality. This is the basis of the positivist/quantitative
approach to research. The assumptions are inferred from a theory and examined in order to prove or disprove a

Inductive thought begins with observation or examination of events or specific processes in order to reach wider
and more general statements based on these events or processes. The assumptions are inferred from the research
results (the findings) and create a theory. This is the basis of the qualitative approach to research.

Questions for analysing Research paradigms

paradigms Positivism Interpretivism Critical Theory
Methodologic Role of  Objective, independent  Co-creator of meaning  Adopts role of facilitator –
al questions researcher from the subject  Brings own subjective encouraging the
 Investigator often experience to the participation and
controls the investigated research involvement of the
 Tries to develop an ‘subjects’ who become
understanding of the partners in the research
whole and a deep process
understanding of how
each part relates and is
connected to the whole

Questions for analysing Research paradigms

paradigms Positivism Interpretivism Critical Theory
Methodologic Role of values  Science is value-free  Values are an integral  Facts can never be
al questions  Values have no place in part of social life – no isolated from values
(cont.) research – must eliminate values are wrong, only  Values of the researcher
all bias different influence the research

Methods  Empirical  Unstructured observation  Participatory action

 Structured and replicable  Open interviewing research
observation  Discourse analysis  Dialogical methods –
 Quantification / which encourage dialogue
measurement  Try to capture “insider” between researcher and
 Experimental – directly knowledge researched
manipulate variables and

Type of studies  Survey studies  Field research, conducted

 Verification of hypotheses in natural settings in
 Statistical analysis order to collect
 Quantitative descriptive substantial situational
studies information


1. Henning E, Van Rensburg W and Smit B (2004) Theoretical

frameworks. Ch 2 In: Henning E, Van Rensburg W and Smit B (2004)
Finding your way in qualitative research. Van Schaik Publishers.

2. Guba EG and Lincoln YS (1994) Competing paradigms in qualitative

research. Ch 6 In: Denzin and Lincoln (1994) Handbook of Qualitative
Research. Sage Publishers. USA.

3. Neuman LW (1997) The meanings of methodology Ch 4 In: Neuman LW

Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative
approaches. 3 Edition. Allyn and Bacon. USA.

4. Polgar S and Thomas SA (1995) Qualitative field research. Ch 8 In:

Polgar S and Thomas SA Introduction to research in the health
sciences. 3rd Edition. Churchill and Livingstone. Australia.

5. Shtarkshall R (2004) Class 1 Notes.

6. Schwandt TA (1994) Constructivisit, interpretive approaches to human

inquiry. Ch 7 In: Denzin and Lincoln (1994) Handbook of Qualitative
Research. Sage Publishers. USA.