Theoretical perspectives underpinning research

Any methodology is based on a philosophical position or theoretical perspective/paradigm which provides a context for the process, its logic and criteria, a lens through which research is carried out. A research paradigm refers to distinct concepts or thought patterns in a discipline. It is ‘a cluster of beliefs and dictates which for scientists in a particular discipline influence what should be studied, how research should be done, how results should be interpreted’ (Bryman, 2004, p 453). The notion of ‘paradigm’ is often linked to Kuhn (1962) who developed it for natural sciences. He defined it as ‘universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of researchers’.

Guba and Lincoln (1994) distinguish three main paradigms

  • Positivism
  • Post-positivism/critical or subtle realism
  • Constructivism (also referred to as interpretative)

By 2005, two others had been added

  • Critical theory
  • Participatory paradigm.

Goodrick (2011) distinguishes three main traditions

  • Positivist: reality is stable and measurable by research
  • Interpretative: research as an experience, can generate many meanings
  • Critical: research as critique of power and privilege

Other paradigms are

  • Pragmatism
  • Post structuralism.

Specific disciplines also develop their own  different paradigms.

Paradigms are broadly categorised according to

  • differences in assumptions about truth and knowledge
  • the nature of voice given to researcher and/or participants
  • intended outcome for the research

Don’t be surprised by different categorisations you encounter, but try to understand how theywork, whet their logic is. Understanding how research is categorised will help you develop a good understanding of how your research fits in. Note also that there may be some overlap between categories.

The more recently developed pragmatic approach argues that research should focus on outcomes and methodologies should be chosen for their capacity to solve a question, a problem, blending quantitative and qualitative methods.

Overview: some of the paradigms you may encounter

Positivist/empiricist paradigm

Positivism and empiricism are different concepts, but both as research paradigm they both tend to assume there is an objective reality (ontology) that can be known, explained, described  (epistemology). The paradigm holds that claims can be compared against the objective reality and reveal the truth about something.

Empiricism sees knowledge as being developed through experience and evidence. For positivism knowledge is derived from a logical approach to experience, information.

Methodologies used tend to be quantitative, and research hypothesis testing.

Post-positivism or critical realism

Assumes there is an objective reality and that this reality is an ideal that researchers have to try to reach (ontology). Our ability to know reality is imperfect; we can only know it from our own subjective perspective. Objective reality is thus perceived as separated from our knowledge of it, and cannot be apprehended in a perfect way (epistemology).

Methodology favours rigour in sampling and analysis to get as close as possible to ‘objectivity’. Often uses mixed methods and research is carried out in natural settings, using open ended methods to allow participants to provide their view. Knowledge emerges from research; there are no hypotheses that can be tested.

Constructivist/interpretative paradigm

Constructivism and interpretivism are sometimes used interchangeably – at a broad level that is fine. The difference between the two is in the details

Constructivism assumes the reality as we know it is socially constructed (Mertens, 2005, p.12) through meanings and understandings which are developed socially and experientially. Such a worldview holds that reality and truth are not objective but negotiated through dialogue (about ontology – how we can know reality). The assumption is that reality cannot be separated from our knowledge of it – reality can therefore only be subjective. There is no separation between a researcher and the object of research. Who we are and how we understand the world is a central part of how we understand ourselves, others and the world. There is no objective truth.

Interpretivism refers to how reality is understood – which requires interpretation. Constructivism is ‘the view that all knowledge claims and their evaluation take place within a conceptual framework though which the world is described and explained’ (Schwandt, 2000  p 197). As such it refers to an ontological position which considers social objects and categories as socially constructed.

Methodologies used are qualitative or mixed – what is important is the dialogue between researchers and participants who construct reality together (e.g. through interview, observation, text analysis). Researchers tend to rely upon the ‘participants’ views of the situation study (Creswell, 2003, p.8) and the impact of the researcher’s own background and experiences is accepted, recognised and acknowledged.

Research carried out within this paradigm does not start with theory or a hypothesis. Patterns of meanings or theories are inductively generated throughout the research process (Creswell, 2003, p.9).

Critical theory

Assumes reality has been shaped over time by society, politics, culture, economy, gender, ethnicity to create structures that are seen as normal/ real (ontology). We cannot separate ourselves from our environment/what we research and this influences what we know (subjectivist) (epistemology).

For critical theorists the subjective-objective dualism is just a social construction as ‘objective’ practices have often been shown to be ‘subjective’. Critical theorist will argue that the distinction is used as it benefits powerful groups in power, helps marinating the status quo.

Methods used tend to be dialogic (conversation and reflection) and are aimed at challenging assumptions by for instance starting with an assumption and then asking people/data to question this assumption. The aim of research carried out within the critical paradigm is to change a situation. This includes much of the feminist research which, by showing bias and inequity, aims to emancipate women and improve their lives. But some researchers have also identified a separate feminist research paradigm covering research on and for women, generally by women, aiming to improve women’s lives.

watch video iconPatti Lather on multiple qualitative paradigms

Transformative- emancipatory paradigm

The transformative or emancipatory paradigm is a more pragmatic form of critical theory, developed during the 80s and 90s to address issues of social justice and marginalised peoples (Creswell, 2003, p.9). Research conducted within this paradigm has a political agenda as well as an agenda to reform, change the lives of participants, institutions, and the researcher (Creswell, 2003).

Methodologies used are qualitative and quantitative. The transformative paradigm favours a mixed approach to offer a broader understanding.


Pragmatism has no loyalty to a system of philosophy or reality. Truth is what works at the time – no duality here between reality and the experience/knowledge of reality. Pragmatists argue that we need to stop questioning the link between the two and focus on the outcome of the research. What counts is the ‘research problem’ and consequences of the research. The concern is with what works .Any approach that works can be applied to the problem (Creswell, 2003, p.11).

Methods used are those that are most likely to answer the research questions, and meet the needs of researchers and of the purposes of the research. The pragmatic paradigm strongly supports mixed methods.

Mixed methods

Mixed methods refers to research mixing quantitative and qualitative research methods. The discussion on this page seems to equate the choice of a particular method with a particular epistemological position, thus making them impossible to co-exist. In practice ‘aligning a particular epistemology and paradigm with a particular methodology is not necessarily straightforward or helpful’ (Goodrick, 2011, p 11). Treating the two main approaches as totally separate, denying the possibilities for working back and forth between these two extremes is problematic (Morgan, 2007). A more pragmatic approach, examining ‘what people can do with the knowledge they produce and not on abstract arguments about the possibility or impossibility of generalisability’ should be favoured (Morgan, 2007, p 72).

A methodology should be chosen for its capacity to address research objectives. The question that need to be asked is ‘how much of our existing knowledge might be usable in a new set of circumstances, as well as what our warrant is for making any such claims’ (Morgan, 2007, p 72). As a more pragmatic approach, mixed methods can be seen as another research paradigm (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004), a middle position which is essentially outcome driven. Mixed methods can also be used within any other paradigm, but is favoured by emancipatory paradigms and pragmatism.

Question – exercises

How is your research grounded within a paradigm? How important is it for you to have your research grounded in a well-defined paradigm? When is it necessary for you to declare where you stand in terms of research paradigms? When not?

References and resources

Bazeley, Pat (2013). Qualitative data analysis: practical strategies. Sage

Bryman (2004). Quantity and Quality in Social Research. London: Routledge

Burrell, G. and Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: Elements of the sociology of corporate life. Heinemann: London. (Available from UC Library HM131.B82 1979).

Cook, Thomas D and Reichardt, Charles S (eds. 1979). Qualitative and quantitative methods in evaluation research, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications

Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: choosing among five traditions, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (UC Library call nr H61.C73 1998)

Crotty, Michael (1998). The foundations of social research: meaning and perspective in the research process, St Leonards, NSW : Allen & Unwin  (UC Library call nr HM48.C76 1998).

Denzin, N & Lincoln, Y. (eds.) (1994). Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage (UC call nr H62.H2455 1994 ).

Denzin, N & Lincoln, Y. (eds.) (2005) (3rd ed). Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Fuss, D. (1989). Essentially speaking: feminism, nature and difference, New York: Routledge. (UC Library call nr BD450.F87 1989).

Goodrick, Delwyn (2011). Qualitative Research, Design, Analysis and Representation, unpublished notes from workshop presented in the context of ACSPRI 2011 (Canberra).

Guba, E.G. and Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). ‘Competing paradigms in qualitative research’ pp. 105-117 in Denzin and Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research.

Guba, E. G. & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). ‘Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging influences’ pp. 191-215 in Denzin & Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Johnson, R. Burke & Onwuegbuzie Anthony J. (2004). ‘Mixed Methods Research: A Research Paradigm Whose Time Has Come’, Educational Researcher 33/14, 14- 26.

Kuhn. Thomas (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, University of Chicago Press: Chicago. (UC Librarycall nr Q175.K95 1970).

Mertens, Donna (2009). Transformative research and evaluation, Guilford Press New York. (UC Library  H62.M47 2009 ).

Minichiello, Victor & Kottler, Jeffrey A. (2010) Qualitative Journeys. Student and mentor experiences with research. Thousands oaks: Sage (UC Library H62Q34.2010)

Morgan, David L.(2007) ‘Paradigms Lost and Pragmatism Regained : Methodological Implications of Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Methods’. Journal of Mixed Methods Research 1/1, 48 – 76.

Seale, C. (1999). The quality of qualitative research, London: Sage.

Schwandt, T. (2000). ‘Three Epistemological Stances for Qualitative Inquiry: Interpretitivism, Hermeneutics and Social Constructivism’, pp  189 – 213 in Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks: Sage. Available from

Silverman, D. (2001). Interpreting Qualitative Data: Methods for Analyzing Talk, Text, and Interaction (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Tashakkori, A. and Teddlie, C. (1998). Mixed Methodology: Combing Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. London: Sage.

Tashakkori, A. and Teddlie, C. (2002). Handbook of Mixed Methods. London: Sage.

Winter, Glyn (2000). ‘A Comparative Discussion of the Notion of ‘Validity’, Qualitative and Quantitative Research, The Qualitative Report, 4/ 3 & 4, March, 2000, available at

Using Qualitative Methods in Healthcare Research A Comprehensive Guide for Designing, Writing, Reviewing and Reporting Qualitative Research. A John Wood Foundation project for a website that will be useful for people developing, evaluating and engaging in qualitative research projects in healthcare settings.