Understanding research philosophy – A primer

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In the previous articles of the research series, I delved into the issues of choosing a research topic, formulating research questions, undertaking literature reviews as well as choosing research design. As you will note, the focus was on ‘How’ to do research and ‘what’ to research. Much like general medical and surgical research, physiotherapy research in the 20th century was also driven by focus on objective designs such as RCTs and therefore rarely discussed the underlying philosophical assumptions related to research. This article is aimed at highlighting the need for researchers to understand the basic philosophical issues which impact on the research design and conduct and to discuss the four prevalent paradigms

Paradigm or Worldview

 

An overarching research methodological framework comprised of assumptions about knowledge, research questions, research design, data structures, and analytical decisions is the core foundation of any research project. It provides a philosophical framework for approaching research to complement the nature of enquiry.  Such framework utilizes a sequence of rational thinking and critical reasoning which combines the elements of research together into a cohesive, comprehensive whole. (Tashakkori, 2010; Creswell, 1997). This interpretative framework which is a ‘set of beliefs about the world and how it should be understood and studied’ is also called as a worldview (Creswell, 2013) or a paradigm (Denzin 2005).

A paradigmatic framework serves to answer the following questions about knowledge - What constitutes knowledge? Where is knowledge located? How do we attain knowledge? How do we describe or write about it? and finally, how do we study it? (Schraw, 2013). In the following paragraphs, I discuss the four paradigms in relation to these central questions about ‘why’ research is conducted and how knowledge is generated.

The four major paradigms

Over the last 125 years, research methodology in social sciences can be divided into four periods. The first period, the late 19th century, was the characterised by the rise and establishment of the ‘positivist’ philosophy which had a firm belief that knowledge is based on observable facts. In this phase, mathematical and statistical procedures were employed to investigate, envisage and manage social phenomena (Johnson 2004). The ‘positivist’ purists believe in conduct of objective evaluation where the observer is removed from the observation and thus time- and context free generalisations can be reliably proposed (Cohen, Louis 2011). The focus is on neutral rhetoric, using passive voice, formal style of writing and use of technical vocabulary (Tashakkori, 2010).

However, at the outset of 20th century, this notion of objective social reality was challenged and led to the onset of the second period of research methodology. It was suggested that meaning is context specific and therefore reality would be subject to the interpretation of the interpreter (Onweugbuzie, 2002). This led to the development of qualitative approaches in which researcher is immersed in the context of research, studies individuals in their natural settings and gains knowledge inductively from the experience of research participants (Creswell 1997). Use of interpretative and hermeneutic approaches was encouraged. Qualitative researchers prefer to use a rich, empathic, detailed style of writing which also accounts for a researcher’s personal views and interpretations (reflexivity) (Johnson 2004). The rise of qualitative research led to gradual discreditation of ‘logical positivism’ in social and behavioural sciences in the first half of 20th century (Onwuegbuzie, 2005).

However in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, post-positivism emerged as an extension of positivism. While still utilising quantitative methods, it represented a compromise between qualitative and quantitative paradigms. Proponents of post-positivism believed that while reality is constructed and research is value-driven, relatively stable relationships do exist which can be explored and evaluated using scientific experiments. Knowledge is developed based on careful observation and objective reality is measured using reliable outcome measures (Creswell 2013).  The third phase also saw the development of ideological methodology associated with approaches such as post-structuralism, post-modernism, critical approaches and feminist perspectives.( Onwuegbuzie, 2005). The ideological methodology is used to explore and discuss the issues of marginalised and endangered people in the society. The motive of this approach is to facilitate change in the society and has a strong collaborative element between the researcher and those researched (Creswell 1997).

Development of purists in the each philosophy gradually led to the ‘incompatibility thesis’ which posits that both quantitative and qualitative traditions and their associated methods emanate from different ontological, epistemological and axiological assumptions and therefore cannot and should not be combined (Howe, 1988; Tashakkori, 2010). This period saw raging debates about the superiority of one form of research over the other labelled as ‘paradigm wars’(Datta 1994).

The fourth research methodology phase of ‘contemporary pragmatism’ began in the 1960s which challenged the ‘incompatibility thesis’ and supported the ‘compatibility thesis’ which suggested that both quantitative and qualitative paradigms are comprised of events on a continuum of research which is focussed on an attempt to understand human behaviour. In pragmatism, a researcher accepts that both objective and subjective knowledge are valuable to a researcher, it allows collection of both qualitative and quantitative data as well as presentation in both formal and informal rhetoric (Creswell 2013; Onwuegbuzie, 2005; Tashakkori, Abbas 2010). Pragmatism is seen as “debunking concepts such as ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ and focuses instead on ‘what works’ as the truth regarding the research questions under investigation” (Tashakkori, 2010). It has been suggested that pragmatism and rise of mixed methods has sent paradigm wars into abeyance, but there are others who feel that it is ‘positivism dressed in drag’ (Giddings, Lynne S 2006) and call for more interpretavist approaches to mixed methods (Howe, Kenneth R 2004).

Pragmatists such as (Maxcy, 2003; Rorty, 1991) have emphasised the need to move away from the philosophical discussions about the epistemological and ontological nature of knowledge and research to focus on methods and theories which focus on answering the research questions in the best possible manner. (Tashakkori, 2010) concur that pragmatists are ‘committed to the thorough study of the research problem, method is secondary to the question itself and the underlying worldview hardly enters the picture, except in the most abstract sense’. (Maxcy 2003) proposed that the research problem and its outcome should be the focus rather than fixation on methods. He suggested that meaning of any idea is dependent on its practical outcome and not the prior knowledge claims or metaphysical truth (Maxcy, 2003). Pragmatists view the utilisation of mixed methods from various paradigms as a means of enhancing the credibility of findings as both subjective and objective perspectives can be obtained (Malachowski, 2010).

Others pragmatic proponents such as Giacobbi et al (2005) have taken a position that it is essential to highlight the philosophical underpinnings of  pragmatic thought to be able to initiate and maintain discussion with proponents of other paradigms. From an epistemological viewpoint, which explores the nature of knowledge and how it is being acquired, pragmatic stance signifies practicality. The aim is to collect data to address a research question using whatever methods are deemed useful. Pragmatists argue that the viewpoint is defined by the research question being asked as well as the stage of the research process (Creswell 2013; Tashakkori, 2010; Onwuegbuzie, 2005). Another epistemological issue relates to time and context free generalisability of knowledge. Pragmatic stance supports the iterative nature of knowledge based on the social, political and historial context. Therefore, pragmatists stress the importance of re-evaluation of objective findings in local context to ensure validity, practical utility and social value of those findings (Creswell 2013)

As ontology refers to the nature of reality and truth and whether it exists independent of the researcher, pragmatism recognises the presence of a physical world (consistent with positivist philosophy) but takes cognizance of the contextual social, political as well as historical aspects and subjective thoughts (Johnson 2004). Thus pragmatists encourage objectivity and testing of facts through dialogue, discourse and discussions within the scientific community. However, the focus is not to seek total agreement, complete objectivity, and the search for ultimate truth. It is anticipated that through discussion a practical truth can be obtained which answers the practical concerns of the research questions being asked rather than debate about which version of truth is better than other (Johnson 2004).

Pragmatism encourages ‘fallibilism’ which means that it is open to revision or withdrawal of current claims of knowledge in light of new research, evidence or social context (Johnson 2004). Therefore knowledge is rarely deemed as absolute. It also supports pluralism meaning that different viewpoints, theories, positions, and perspectives can be useful and co-exist. (Creswell 2013)

As assumed by pragmatism, our values are a part of our research (axiological perspective). A study based on pragmatism utilises multiple stances, where researchers can stay unbiased and separate themselves from the research by utilizing methods to remove bias or may immerse themselves in the research, explain their own role and contribution in the interpretations derived from the subjective experiences of the participants (Creswell 2013). Finally, pragmatism allows both formal and informal rhetoric by the researcher, allowing the literary and scientific story to be presented. (Tashakkori, 2010).

Conclusion

 

From the above discussion it is clear that each paradigm or worldview has its own unique approach to understanding the world and consequently utilises different approach to research design, data collection and analysis methods. The four major paradigms introduced briefly here are based on a continuum between the subjective and objective reality. A researcher must therefore understand their own worldview which will shape the nature of their research, the kind of research questions they ask, the methods of data collection they utilise and subsequently how they analyse the data.



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