Chapter 1: Introduction to Research Methods

1.5 Research Paradigms in Social Science

A paradigm is a way of viewing the world, a set of ideas that is used to understand or explain something, often related to a specific subject (“Paradigm,” 2018). It is a way of framing what we know, what we can know, and how we can know it. To help you understand what a paradigm is, let us think about the various views on abortion. To some, abortion is a medical procedure that should be undertaken at the discretion of each individual woman who might experience an unwanted pregnancy. To others, abortion is murder, and members of society should collectively have the right to decide when, if at all, abortion should be undertaken. Chances are, if you have an opinion about this topic, you are pretty certain about the veracity of your perspective. Then again, the person who sits next to you on the bus may have a very different opinion and yet be equally confident about the truth of his or her perspective. Which of you is correct? You are each operating under a set of assumptions about the way the world does—or at least should—work. Perhaps your assumptions come from your particular political perspective, which helps shape your view on a variety of social issues, or perhaps your assumptions are based on what you learned from your parents or from a religion. Paradigms shape our stances on issues such as this one.

In social science, there are several predominant paradigms, each with its own unique ontological and epistemological perspective. We will look at some of the most common social scientific paradigms that might guide you in starting to think about conducting your research.

The first paradigm we will consider, positivism, is probably the framework that comes to mind for many of you when you think of science.  Positivism is guided by the principles of objectivity, knowability, and deductive logic. Deductive logic is discussed in more detail in the section that follows. The positivist framework operates from the assumption that society can and should be studied empirically and scientifically. Positivism also calls for a value-free sociology, one in which researchers aim to abandon their biases and values in a quest for objective, empirical, and knowable truth.

An Interpretivist paradigm suggests that it is necessary for researchers to understand the differences amongst humans as social actors (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2009). The emphasis is on conducting research among people, as opposed to objects. As Saunders et al. (2009, p. 116) observe, the reference to social actors bears noting. They use the analogy of the theatre, where actors interpret, in a specific way, the parts they play. They relate this to the same way in which people interpret their social roles in relationship and how they then give meaning to those roles. Similarly, people interpret the social roles of others in accordance with their own meanings of those roles. Figure 1.3 provides an example of two students, each from a difference academic field of study, and how they might approach their research in their respective fields.

A positivist and an interpretivist approach to research: Focus on student research (adapted from Saunders et al., 2009)

Leah is a PhD student in the natural sciences department (psychology) at her university. She prefers to take a positivist approach to research. Leah is interested in collecting and analyzing the “facts” related to the success of women in private sector businesses. For her, reality is represented by tangible things such as job position, promotions, compensation, etc. These objects have a separate existence from her and for that reason some researchers argue that the collection of such data is less open to bias and is therefore more objective.

Krista is a student in the social sciences department (public health). She prefers to take an interpretivist approach to research. Krista also studies business organizations; however, she is more interested in collecting and analyzing data about “feelings” and “attitudes” of the male public health workers toward their female managers. While some researchers might argue that feelings and attitudes are subjective and not measurable, human feelings can and are frequently measured. In fact, we might question how the data that Leah collects in statistical form are more deserving of authority than the data collected by Krista.

Another predominant paradigm in sociology is social constructionism. While positivists seek “the truth,” the social constructionist framework posits that “truth” is a varying, socially constructed, and ever-changing notion. This is because we, according to this paradigm, create reality ourselves (as opposed to working to discover reality that simply exists) through our interactions and our interpretations of those interactions. Key to the social constructionist perspective is the idea that social context and interaction frame our realities. Researchers operating within this framework take keen interest in how people come to socially agree, or disagree, about what is real and true. We can look at the different meanings that can be associated with different hand gestures as an example. Hand gestures vary across different regions of the world, demonstrating that meaning is constructed socially and collectively.

It would be a mistake to think of the social constructionist perspective as only individualistic. While individuals may construct their own realities, groups—from a small one, such as a married couple, to large ones, such as nations—often agree on notions of what is true and what “is.” The meanings that we construct have power beyond the individual people who create them; therefore, the ways that people work to change such meanings is of as much interest to social constructionists as how they were created in the first place.

A fourth paradigm is known as the critical paradigm. At its core, the critical paradigm is focused on power, inequality, and social change. Unlike the positivist paradigm, the critical paradigm posits that social science can never be truly objective or value-free. This paradigm operates from the perspective that scientific investigation should be conducted with the express goal of seeking social change.

The fifth and final paradigm we will look at is known as postmodernism. Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to do so would actually violate the postmodernist´s perspective that there are no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truth (Aylesworth, 2015). In other words, a postmodernist would claim there is no objective, knowable truth. A postmodernist would also claim that we can never really know such truth because, in the studying and reporting of others’ truths, researchers put their own truth on the investigation. A postmodernist asks whose power, whose inequality, whose change, whose reality, and whose truth? As you might imagine, the postmodernist paradigm poses quite a challenge for social scientific researchers. How does one study something that may or may not be real or that is only real in your current and unique experience of it? This fascinating question is worth pondering as you begin to think about conducting your own sociological research.

Table 1.1 “Social Scientific Paradigms” summarizes each of the paradigms discussed here.

Paradigm Emphasis Assumption
Positivism Objectivity, knowability,
Deductive logic
Society can and should be studied empirically and scientifically.
Interpretivism Research on humans People interpret their social roles in relationship, which influences how they then give meaning to those roles and the roles of others.
Social constructionism Truth as varying, socially constructed, and ever-changing Reality is created collectively; social context and interaction frame our realities
Critical paradigm Power, inequality, and social change Social science can never be truly value-free and should be conducted with the express goal of social change in mind.
Postmodernism Truth in any form may or may not be knowable