Relationships Among Research Methods and Paradigms
by Dr. Sharon Short
During the past several decades, considerable debate has raged between those who favor empirical (generally termed “quantitative”) research and those who prefer interpretive (generally referred to as “qualitative”) inquiry. Those who draw the lines most dogmatically argue that, since these research methods and paradigms are based on fundamentally conflicting views about the nature of reality, the researcher must commit to the one approach that corresponds to his or her philosophical position. One cannot endorse both paradigms because they represent reality in essentially contradictory ways and are therefore incompatible and mutually exclusive.
Several thoughtful scholars, however, have argued for complementarity among research paradigms rather than exclusivity (Eisner, 1981; Salomon, 1991; Soltis, 1984). As I struggled with these issues in the preparation of my dissertation proposal, I eventually concluded that those who claim that reality is either objective and external or socially constructed are claiming to much, and that it makes more sense to recognize some aspects of reality as objectively real and stable and other aspects of the same comprehensive reality as socially constructed. Salomon explains it in these words:
The very logic that underlies the acceptance of reality as social and research paradigms as human-made, admitting therefore a variety of these, ought also to accept the notion that no single paradigm or set of assumptions is necessarily superior to others….Rather, paradigms are ways to study selected aspects of the world, and thus their selection must be a function of that aspect chosen for study. (p. 15)
I think it is fair to say that reality is both stable and consistent (in general) and idiosyncratic and individualistic (in particular). This claim is much more true for the social sciences than for the physical sciences, and that may be the source of the trouble. Social scientists began by imitating the scientific methods of physical science, and these methods worked for them up to a point. But then there was so much more unexplained information than one would find in physical science, so much more variation and inconsistency, that some theorists rejected the paradigm entirely in favor of a different one, when in fact both of them could helpfully tell a part of the whole story.
Different aspects of education may appropriately be researched from each perspective. There is enough consistency, for example, in the way children develop cognitively, linguistically, and so on for general “laws” to be discovered, but there is also enough variation and individuality for research into specific cases to be important. More so than in the physical sciences, educational research needs to be approached from both ends of the spectrum if the reality under investigation is to be represented comprehensively. The correct paradigm, then, is the one that corresponds to the particular aspect of reality that is being examined.
Eisner, E. W. (1981). On the differences between scientific and artistic approaches to qualitative research. Educational Researcher, 10(4), 5-9.
Salomon. G. (1991). Transcending the qualitative-quantitative debate: The analytic and systemic approaches to educational research. Educational Researcher, 20(6), 10-18.
Soltis, J. F. (1984). On the nature of educational research. Educational Researcher, 13(10), 5-10.