The starting place for most texts on Research Methodologies is a chapter that addresses the philosophical underpinnings of research. This topic is alternatively described or labeled as “orientations to research” (Merriam, 1998, p.3), “mode of enquiry perspective” (Kumar, 2014, p.14), or “philosophical worldview” (Cresswell, 2014) among others.
For Merriam (1998) philosophical traditions are linked to orientations to research, and she defines three orientations to be distinguished: positivist, interpretive, and critical research. In a positivist orientation, ‘reality’ is something that can be measured in an objective and quantifiable way. For Merriam (1998, p. 4) positivism is a perspective where reality is “stable, observable and measurable.” Therefore, in positivist approaches, and object, phenomenon or system is studied with an underlying assumption that objectivity and quantification is possible.
For Merriam, interpretive research stems from a position that there are multiple realities, and these realities are “constructed socially by individuals” (p.4). Therefore, interpretive research is concerned with understanding the meaning of processes or experience, and this involves “inductive, hypothesis- or theory generating (rather than a deductive or testing) mode of inquiry” (Merriam, 1998, p.4).
The critical research orientation is concerned with critiquing power, privilege, and oppression and may have a “strong participatory or action component (Merriam, 1998, p.4). Merriam also states that critical research stems from and may employ Marxist philosophy, feminist theory, or critical theory.
Kumar (2014) embeds philosophical underpinnings within three approaches that are used to find answers to research questions. He labels these three approaches as: Quantitative or structured approach; Qualitative or unstructured approach; Mixed methods approach (p. 14). For Kumar, the while the quantitative approach is rooted in a philosophy of rationalism, the qualitative approach is rooted in a philosophy of empiricism (p. 14). Unlike Merriam (1998), Kumar doesn’t attempt to describe or explain these philosophies in relation to the approaches, and focuses instead on the characteristics of these three approaches. Therefore, a quantitative approach employs structured procedures where objectivity of process, validity and reliability of findings, and generalizability of findings are emphasized (p. 14). In contrast, a qualitative approach “follows an open, flexible and unstructured approach to enquiry” (Kumar, 2014, p. 14), emphasizes description over measurement, and places little or no emphasis on generalization. Finally, mixed approaches aim to use the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative research.
While Merriam establishes that research design stems from a position of what constitutes reality and knowledge, Kumar’s focus is more on how certain approaches – quantitative, qualitative, mixed – have distinguishable procedures and research goals. In other words, Kumar doesn’t really get at the why of how quantitative, qualitative and mixed approaches have evolved a different set of procedures.
Cresswell (2014) is comprehensive in his treatment of the topic, and acknowledges that the philosophical foundation of research is often hidden and researchers should be more explicit in stating their position. He uses the term “worldviews” to describe what others have called paradigms (Lincoln, Lynham, & Guba, 2011; Mertens, 2010) and epistemologies and ontologies (Crotty, 1998). Cresswell identifies four worldviews summarized as follows:
Cresswell, 2014, p. 36
Postpositivism: According to Cresswell (2014), post-positivist research is based on an assumption that careful observation and measurement of an objective reality “out there” is possible (p.36).
Constructivism/Social Constructivism: Cresswell notes that this view is often combined with interpretivism, and is built on the assumption that individuals have their own subjective views of reality, based on their own construction of meaning as they engage with the world within a historical and social perspective.
Transformative: According to Cresswell “This philosophical worldview focuses on the needs of groups and individuals in our society that may be marginalized or disenfranchised” (p. 39). The goal of transformative research is to lead to political or social change to the benefit of marginalized groups.
Pragmatic: The pragmatic worldview is often associated with mixed research, because it “is not committed to any one system of philosophy and reality” (Cresswell, 2014, p.39). Its concern is with the research problem itself, and then employing whatever is needed to understand the problem.
Cresswell spends the second part of the chapter explaining research designs or strategies of inquiry. He defines research designs as “types of inquiry within qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches that provide specific direction for procedures in a research design” (p.41). Within research designs are methods and Cresswell, in both tables 1.3 and 1.4 (not included here, p.45) suggest methods that these approaches tend to use.
Cresswell, 2014, p.45.
Merriam (1998), Kumar (2014) and Cresswell (2014) share the view that there are qualitative, quantitative and mixed approaches to research, and these approaches tend towards certain designs and methods. Kumar (2014) unfortunately employs the value laden adjectives of “structured” and “unstructured” to his distinction, while Merriam and Cresswell attempt to explain how worldviews lead to approaches, designs and methods. It is also interesting to note the differences in how worldviews are explained and labeled. For example, Merriam distinguishes between positivist, interpretive, and critical research, which may be deductive, inductive or participatory. Kumar uses rationalism vs empiricism as a distinction. Finally, Cresswell defines the worldviews in terms of positivism/postpositivism; constructivism/social constructivism; transformative and pragmatic.
Why does any of this matter?
Do worldviews influence the kinds of research questions that we ask around topics we are interested in? Cresswell (2014) states “worldviews arise based on discipline orientations, students’ advisors/mentors inclinations and past research experiences” (p. 35). However, as Catherine D’Ingazio argues in a recent blogpost about the field of data visualization, alternative worldviews and orientations are important to advance the discipline and she outlines how a feminist/critical orientation would provide a different lens to the kind of data visualization artefacts that currently emerge from more positivist orientation. Therefore, in thinking about research topics, questions, and literature reviews, I think it is important to critically examine our own disciplines for gaps in orientations that should be considered.
Creswell, J. W. (2014). Research Design Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (4th ed., p. 304). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Kumar, R. (2014). Research methodology: A step-by-step guide for beginners. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Merriam, S. B., & Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.