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A Review of key paradigms: positivism, interpretivism and critical inquiry.

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Abstract

Nowadays, one of the most popular dialogues in many educational events and conferences around the world is how to effectively deal with new trends influenced on approaches of educators and teachers to define the who, what and how in learning and teaching activity. Profoundly, these fast-changing trends as globalisation, digitalisation and diversifications of learning and teaching demands have vividly challenged our current understanding about the learners and required us to continuously innovate our curriculum and pedagogy, assessment and evaluation as well as improve overall leadership to ensure the most effectiveness of education system (Tan, Parsons, Hinson & Brown, 2011, p74). From this view, research has played a critical role in providing key insights about demands and unmet needs of students and teachers; then shaping the strategies, policies and innovations in educational sector. Within the scope of this paper, it is focused to discuss key theoretical perspectives that considered as the foundation of research: positivism, interpretivism and critical inquiry, especially draw a deeper view on advantages and disadvantages of each of these paradigms.
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Correspondent to
Lan Thi Mai Pham
lanpham.research@gmail.com
School of Education
MEd Program 2017-2018
QUALITATIVE APPROACH TO RESEARCH
A review of advantages and disadvantages
of three paradigms:
positivism, interpretivism and critical inquiry
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Nowadays, one of the most popular dialogues in many educational events and conferences around the world
is how to effectively deal with new trends influenced on approaches of educators and teachers to define the
who, what and how in learning and teaching activity. Profoundly, these fast-changing trends as
globalisation, digitalisation and diversifications of learning and teaching demands have vividly challenged
our current understanding about the learners and required us to continuously innovate our curriculum and
pedagogy, assessment and evaluation as well as improve overall leadership to ensure the most effectiveness
of education system (Tan, Parsons, Hinson & Brown, 2011, p74). From this view, research has played a
critical role in providing key insights about demands and unmet needs of students and teachers; then shaping
the strategies, policies and innovations in educational sector. Within the scope of this paper, it is focused to
discuss key theoretical perspectives that considered as the foundation of research: positivism, interpretivism
and critical inquiry, especially draw a deeper view on advantages and disadvantages of each of these
paradigms.
First, positivism paradigm which under objectivism epistemology is a methodological philosophy in
quantitative research where we will apply the methods of natural sciences to discover the study of social
science (Crotty, 1998, p8-9). In this respect, understanding of phenomena in reality must be measured and
supported by evidence (Hammersley, 2013, p22-23). To illustrate, within the process of studying the
phenomena, the relationship between an independent variable and one or more dependent variables will be
discovered by causal inferences as the results of experimental designs and be fully determined through the
way of how researchers maximize the influence of the independent variable on the dependent variable and
events through this process (Cohen, Manion & Marison, 2011). Alternatively, this paradigm helps positivist
researchers clearly understand the objects by empirical tests and methods as sampling, measurement,
questionnaire, focus group discussion. This suggests that insights provided by positivist researchers may
have high quality standard of validity and reliability (Cohen, 2007) and be generalised to the large scale of
population (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). For better decision of using this theoretical approach in
research, let discuss its advantages and disadvantages on its application in social research. First, with the
methodologies and methods of collecting and analysing data based on evidence and statistic, the result of
the same phenomena or event may be allowed to “replicate for different groups or subgroups of population
in social contexts. As the result, the researchers can save time and investments for using the findings of
specific study for future quantitative predictions (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). Second, as being
collected under the view of objectivism epistemology, the findings of research can be reliable and support
researchers to make scientific assumptions (Johnson, 2014). Indeed, Dörnyei (2007) finds that reliability
can be estimated by statistical analysis via identifying the internal consistency or correlation among the
variables, using Cronbachs alpha reliability coefficient. Additionally, it is worth to conclude the validity
of research results is one of key strength of this approach. Virtually, by employing key methodologies as
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Experimental Research or Survey Research and then applying appropriate methods of sampling,
instrumentations and statistical treatments of data, the quantitative findings will help to provide an intensive
answer for any research questions (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2011, p. 179). Given its advantages in
helping researchers to continuously developing their understanding about humans and events in the areas
of social research based on the clear evidence; this paradigm still maintains some limitations. The first
concerns of using this paradigm in social research projects is that it could be impossible to measure
phenomena related to intention, attitudes, thoughts of a human because these concepts profoundly may not
explicitly be observed or measured with sense experience or without evidence (Hammersley, 2013, pp. 23-
24). For this reason, it clearly causes some constraints in further exploring abstract conceptualisation
commonly developed around human relationship in educational contexts. The second disadvantage is
driven by its own fundamental theoretical perspective in conducting research. Literally, since the objective
of positivism aims to generalise the result of the research at the large degree, there should be a risk that
individuals whose understanding and interpretation related to any events, phenomena or issues can reveal
a lot of truth about reality may be neglected. Similarly, with the general finding of research outcome, it will
be a challenge for researchers to directly apply for understanding the phenomena in particularly local
context (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). Last but not least, the inaccuracy of scientific data collected
within this paradigm should be carefully reviewed as in some situations where the respondents may choose
random answers rather than authentic responses or they could not be allowed to have the flexibility to give
their answers which more relevant to their personal cases.
Moving to the next interpretivist paradigm, it is originally rooted in the fact that methods used to
understanding knowledge related to human and social sciences cannot be the same as its usage in physical
sciences because human interprets their world and then acts based on such interpretation while the world
does not (Hammersley, 2013, p. 26). Consequently, interpretivists adapt a relativist ontology in which a
single phenomenon may have multiple interpretations rather than a truth that can be determined by a process
of measurement. Virtually, with interpretivism perspective, researchers tend to gain a deeper understanding
of the phenomenon and its complexity in its unique context instead of trying to generalise the base of
understanding for the whole population (Creswell, 2007). In the same way, Hammersley (2013) emphasises
that since multiple interpretation is developed among humans’ relationship, interpretivist researchers should
try to understand the diverse ways of seeing and experiencing the world through different contexts and
cultures and try to avoid the bias in studying the events and people with their own interpretations. From
this aspect, it is highlighted some advantages of this paradigm in coming discussion. The first advantage is
that with the diversifying views to look into phenomena, interpretivist researchers can not only describe
objects, human or events, but also deeply understand them in social context. In addition, researchers also
can conduct these types of research in natural setting via utilising key methodologies as grounded theory,
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ethnography, case study or life history to gain the insider’s insights of research’s objects (Tuli, 2010) to
provide with more authentic information related to the object of research. Second, as leveraging key method
of interactive interview which “allows researcher to investigate and prompt things that we cannot observe,
researchers can probe an interviewee’s thoughts, values, prejudices, perceptions, views, feelings and
perspectives” (Wellington & Szczerbinski, 2007). Thus, valuable data collected will provide researchers
with better insights for further action later. Despite of above key strengths, this paradigm also remains some
disadvantages. One of these limitations is that the intepretivists aim to gain the deeper understanding and
knowledge of phenomena within its complexity of the context rather than generalise these results to other
people and other contexts (Cohen, Manion & Marison, 2011), hence it tends to leave out a gap in verifying
validity and usefulness of research outcomes with using scientific procedures. The second criticism of
interpretivism is that its ontological view tends to be subjective rather than objective (Mack, 2010). For this
reason, research outcomes are unquestionally affected by the researcher’s own interpretation, own belief
system, ways of thinking or cultural preference which causes to many bias. The last limitation of
interpretivism is about the lack of addressing the political and ideological impact on knowledge and social
reality. This paradigm targets to understanding of current phenomena rather than focusing the problems
related to empowerment of individuals and societies. Mack (2010) refers that this theoretical perspective
implicitly neglects the issues of power and agency, which are features of our society. Interestingly, this
specific limitation has potentially led to the role of critical inquiry in further enhancing the practicability of
research.
Finally, the approach of critical inquiry is also known as the “transformative paradigm” (Riyami, 2015)
which its ontology is based on relativism. From this aspect, it is referred that reality is socially constructed
through the media, institutions and society. Accordingly, critical researchers intentionally adopt the ethical,
moral, political standard to judge the situation and practice their research with consideration of social,
economic, political and cultural context for specific research’s objects or events (Hammersely, 2013, p30).
In other words, Creswell (2007) believes that “research should contain an action agenda for reform that
may change the lives of participants”. From this aspect, this paradigm has been used by many researchers
as two following advantages. First, with great attempts to develop connections among interdiscipline of
the economic, political, social, and cultural standard of contemporary societies, the critical theorists have
created “global visions of contemporary societies” and cutting-edge themes for social theories during the
last six decades (Kellner, 1993) considered as the crucial foundation for researchers to continuously explore
and solve contemporary issues of today’s social contexts. Profoundly, educational researchers can benefit
from this ground to achieve their understanding about how learning and teaching issues have been changing
interactively with other social factors as economy, politics and culture. The second advantage of this
approach has been drawn upon its objective is to identify, contest and help solving “gross power imbalance”
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in society in order to contribute to the system in equalities and justices as social, economic exclusion (Taylor
& Medina, 2013). Therefore, this paradigm helps researchers to focus on rising the conscious awareness of
teachers about core values and beliefs developed and influenced their natural roles as teacher centered
classroom rules (Taylor, 2008). When this process is underway, teachers’ creative thinking about designing
all teaching activities as curriculum or assessment will be articulated toward student centric approach,
inquiry oriented, culturally sensitive and community oriented via key methodologies as critical action
research, critical discourse analysis and ideology critique (Riyami, 2015). Although the findings of critical
research can potentially resolve society’s issue, especially of educational sectors in this contemporary
context, it is worth to highlight some limitations. The first limitation is the claim that suggesting the role of
teachers can affect the whole society based on the outcome of action research (Riyami, 2015). Conversely,
the fact is that we still are living in a world that teachers’ roles are restricted to their schools or their classes.
Indeed, as a key stakeholder who conducts many action researches, they mainly cannot participate in
decision-making processes (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2011). This practice has been implicitly
challenging the actionable role of this paradigm in application of educational research. Second, despite this
theoretical perspective intentionally aims to empower people and achieve equality in society based on
research findings, it is not easy to observe these changes as results of action may take time for reflection in
reality. Consequently, it is strongly recommended that critical researchers should ensure strong self-
awareness and understanding of complexity of social issues and nourish a vision that can benefit for a better
way of teaching and learning.
To summarise, while each of paradigm has both advantages and disadvantages, it is admitted that each of
them has its own unique role contributing to provide researchers with a holistic framework and multiple
view to address key social issues, specifically in educational context. Thus, it is strongly believed that an
interrelated application of these paradigms in research studies in today context is a must to ensure the best
quality of these studies in delivering its notion of validity, reliability, relevancy and oriented action.
REFERENCE
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Dönyei, Z. (2007). Research methods in applied linguistics. New York: Oxford University.
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