If you’re a researcher, you’ve probably heard the term “research paradigm.” And, if you are a researcher, especially if you haven’t been trained under the social sciences, you are probably confused by the concept of a research paradigm. What is a research paradigm? How does it apply to my research? Why is it important?
Research paradigms refer to the beliefs and assumptions that provide the structure for your research. These can be characteristics of your discipline or even your personal beliefs. For example, if you are a physical scientist and you are conducting research on the performance of a newly developed catalyst for removing chemical impurities from drinking water, your study is probably based on the premise that there is one reality, and your results will show that the new product either works better or it doesn’t. However, if your research discipline is education and you’re looking at the effects of parental literacy rates on the literacy or academic success of their children, you will not expect a such a definite result, and you may be examining your topic from different viewpoints, such as cultural or socio-economic. Your findings will then depend on those assumptions, beliefs, and biases.
The rest of this article will try to clarify the concept of research paradigms, provide a research paradigm definition, and offer some examples of different types of research paradigms. While years of study may not completely clear up your confusion about research paradigms, perhaps you will think a little better of them and how they can help you in your work and maybe even in your personal life.
What is a research paradigm?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a paradigm is “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated.”1 As applied in the context of research, a research paradigm is a worldview or philosophical framework, including ideas, beliefs, and biases, that guides the research process. The research paradigm in which a study is situated helps determine the manner in which the research will be conducted.
The research paradigm is the framework into which the theories and practices of your discipline fit to create the research plan. This foundation guides all areas of your research plan, including the aim of the study, research question, instruments or measurements used, and analysis methods.
Most research paradigms are based on one of two model types: positivism or interpretivism. These guide the theories and methodologies used in the research project. In general, positivist research paradigms lead to quantitative studies and interpretivist research paradigms lead to qualitative studies. Of course, there are many variations of both of these research paradigm types, some of which lead to mixed-method studies.
What are the three pillars of research paradigms?
So, now you may be asking, what makes up a research paradigm? How are they formed and categorized? The research paradigm framework is supported by three pillars: ontology, epistemology, and methodology. Some scholars have recently begun adding another pillar to research paradigms: ethics or axiology. However, this article will only discuss the three traditional aspects, which together define the research paradigm and provide the base on which to build your research project.
Ontology is the study of the nature of reality. Is there a single reality, multiple realities, or no reality at all? These are the questions that the philosophy of ontology attempts to answer. The oft-used example of an ontological question is “Does God exist?” Two possible single realities exist: yes or no.
Think about your research project with this in mind; that is, does a single reality exist within your research? If you’re a medical researcher, the answer is probably yes. You’re looking for specific results that ideally have clear yes or no answers. If you’re an anthropologist, there probably isn’t one clear, specific answer to your research question but multiple possible realities, and the study results are interpreted through the researcher’s viewpoint or paradigm.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we can know reality. It incorporates the extent and ways to gain knowledge and how to validate that knowledge. A frequently used example question in epistemology is “How is it possible to know whether or not God exists?”
The epistemology of your research project will help determine your approach to your study. For example, if the medical researcher believes there is one singular truth, an objective approach will be taken. On the other hand, if the anthropologist believes in multiple realities viewed through a cultural lens, the research results will be more subjective and understood only in the proper context. This difference divides research studies into those using quantitative and qualitative techniques.
Methodology is the study of how one investigates the environment and validates the knowledge gained. It attempts to answer the question “how to go about discovering the answer/reality.” Addressing this pillar leads to specific data collection and analysis plans.
The medical researcher may create a research plan that includes a clinical trial, during which blood tests that measure a specific protein are conducted. These results are then analyzed, with a focus on differences within groups. The anthropologist, on the other hand, may conduct observations, examine artifacts, or set up interviews to determine certain aspects of reality within the context of a group’s culture. In this situation, yes or no answers are not sought but a truth is discovered.
What is the purpose of research paradigms?
Put all the information about the three pillars of a research paradigm together, and you can see the purpose of research paradigms. Research paradigms establish the structure and foundation for a research project.
Once the research paradigm has been determined, an appropriate research plan can be created. The philosophical basis of the study guides what knowledge is sought, how that knowledge can be discovered, and how to form the collected information or data into the knowledge being sought. The research paradigm clearly outlines the path to investigate your topic. This brings clarity to your study and improves the quality of your methods and analysis.
In addition, it is important for researchers to understand how their own beliefs, assumptions, and biases can affect the research process. The study’s data collection, analysis, and interpretation will be impacted by the worldview of the researcher. Knowing the underlying research paradigm and how it frames the study allows researchers to better understand the effect of their perspective on the study results.
Types of research paradigms
As mentioned previously, there are two basic types of research paradigms, from which other frequently used paradigms are derived. This section will briefly describe these two major research paradigms.
Positivist paradigm – Proponents of a positivist paradigm believe that there is a single reality that can be measured and understood. Therefore, these researchers are likely to utilize quantitative methods in their studies. The research process for positivist paradigm studies tend to propose an empirical hypothesis, which is then supported or refuted through the data collection and analysis. Positivists approach research in an objective manner and statistically investigate the existence of quantitative relationships between variables instead of looking for the qualitative reason behind those relationships. Researchers who subscribe to this paradigm also believe that the results of one study can be generalized to similar situations. Positivist paradigms are most frequently used by physical scientists.
Interpretivism paradigm – Interpretivists believe in the existence of multiple realities rather than a single reality. This is the research paradigm used by the majority of qualitative studies conducted in the social sciences. Interpretivism holds that because human behavior is so complex, it cannot be studied by probabilistic models, such as those used under positivist paradigms. Knowledge can only be created by interpreting the meanings that people put on behaviors and events. Therefore, studies employing this framework are necessarily subjective and are greatly affected by the researcher’s personal viewpoint. Interpretivist paradigm research is conducted within the reality of those being studied, not in a contrived environment such as a laboratory. Because of the nature of interpretivist studies, their results are only valid under the particular circumstances of the study and are usually not generalizable.
Research paradigm examples
Positivist and interpretivist research paradigms, sometimes referred to as quantitative and qualitative paradigms, are the two major approaches to research. However, many other variations of these have been used. Following are brief descriptions of some of the more popular of these research paradigm variations.
Pragmatism paradigm – Pragmatists believe that reality is continually changing amid the flow of constantly changing situations. Therefore, rather than use a single research paradigm, they employ the framework that is most applicable to the research question they are examining. Both qualitative and quantitative techniques are often used as positivist and interpretivist approaches are combined. Pragmatists believe that the best research method is the one that will most effectively address the research question.
Constructivist paradigm – Like interpretivists, constructivists believe that there are numerous realities, not a single reality. The constructivist paradigm holds that people construct their own understanding of the world through experiencing and reflecting on those experiences. Constructivist research seeks to understand the meanings that people attach to those experiences. Therefore, qualitative techniques, such as interviews and case studies, are frequently used. Constructivists are seeking the “why” of events. Constructivism is also a popular theory of learning that focuses on how children and other learners create knowledge from their experiences and learn better through experimentation than through direct instruction.
Post-positivism paradigm – Post-positivists veer away from the concept of reality as being an absolute certainty and view it instead in a more probabilistic manner, thus taking a more subjective viewpoint. They believe that research outcomes can never be totally objective and a researcher’s worldview and biases can never be completely removed from the research results.
Transformative paradigm – Proponents of transformative research reject both positivism and interpretivism, believing that these frameworks do not accurately represent the experiences of marginalized communities. Transformative researchers generally use both qualitative and quantitative techniques to better understand the disparities in community relationships, support social justice, and ultimately ensure transformative change.
Combining research paradigms
While most research is based on either a positivist (quantitative) or interpretivist (qualitative) foundations, some studies combine both. For example, quantitative and qualitative techniques are frequently used together in psychology studies. These types of studies are referred to as mixed-method research. Some research paradigms are themselves combinations of other paradigms and frequently employ all the associated research methods. Post-positivism combines the paradigms of positivism and interpretivism.
5 steps to a paradigm shift
Research studies aren’t the only things that can be considered to have paradigms. Researchers themselves bring a specific worldview to their work and produce higher quality work when they are aware of the effect their perspective has on their results. Understanding all the aspects of a personal paradigm, including beliefs, habits, and behaviors, can make it possible for that paradigm to be changed. Here are suggested steps to successfully shift your personal paradigm and increase the quality of your research2.
- Identify the paradigm element you want to change – what part of your worldview do you want to change? What habitual or hidden behavior may be adversely affecting your research or your life?
- Write down your goals – setting specific desired outcomes and putting them down on paper sets them in your subconscious.
- Adjust your mindset – intentionally influencing your thoughts to support your goals can motivate you to create the change you want. Some suggested activities to help with this include journaling, reading motivational books, and spending time with like-minded people.
- Do uncomfortable things – you need to get out of your comfort zone to effect real change. This will get your subconscious out of its usual habits and move you toward your goal.
- Practice being who you want to be – the change you want will become solidified and part of your new paradigm once you break out of your old habit and keep repeating the new behavior so as to cement it in your subconscious.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/paradigm [Accessed March 10, 2023]
- What is research paradigm – explanation and examples. Peachy Essay. https://peachyessay.com/blogs/what-is-research-paradigm/ [Accessed March 10, 2023]
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