research paradigms

Among researchers, particularly in the social science, education, and health science fields, there are strong opinions about the value of qualitative research. Some researchers believe that qualitative research has little value. Others believe that it is more credible than quantitative research for certain types of studies. Some even contend that the primary value of qualitative research is its ability to lend support to quantitative research efforts.

According to Burns and Grove, qualitative research is defined as a “systematic, interactive, subjective approach to describe life experiences and give them meaning.” Students of epistemology might prefer Brockopp and Hastings-Tolsma’s definition of qualitative research, i.e., “an inductive approach to discovering or expanding knowledge. It requires the involvement of the researcher in the identification of the meaning or relevance of a particular phenomenon. Analysis and interpretation of findings using this method are not generally dependent upon the quantification of observations.”

Research is considered to be qualitative if the following statements can be made:

  • It is inductive research (design flexibility).
  • The researcher is trying to understand why something is the way it is (context sensitivity).
  • Reality can change, based on the perceptions of individuals involved in the study.
  • Values are important and need to be understood during the research.
  • A total (holistic) or complete picture of the situation is sought.
  • Theories and hypotheses evolve as data are collected (not prior to collection).
  • The data collected consist of the perceptions of the participants.
  • The researcher is the primary data collection instrument (e.g., observing, interviewing, personal contact with participants).
  • The study is conducted under “natural” conditions (naturalistic enquiry).
  • Focus of the study is on design and procedures that gather rich, real, and deep data.

Underlying Epistemology of Qualitative Research

The appropriate method for chosen research will depend on the research problem and the study question formulated.

It is also common for a research study to include both qualitative and quantitative methodologies (this is a “mixed methods” study). Often, the qualitative component of a study is designed to “confirm” or validate and provide insight into the quantitative results.

Underlying epistemological assumptions of qualitative research include the following concepts:

  • Positivism
  • Interpretivism
  • Critical Theory

This underlying epistemology (i.e., philosophical assumptions) influences qualitative research. These paradigms of “positivism,” “interpretivism,” and “critical theory” represent the constructs upon which qualitative research evolved.

Positivism is a philosophy that states that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.

Interpretivism is a philosophy that suggests a way to gain insights through discovering meanings by improving our comprehension of the whole. Qualitative research evolved from interpretivism as a way to “explore” the richness, depth, and complexity of phenomena.

Critical theory is social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole. This is in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it. Core concepts are: (1) critical social theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e., how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), and (2) critical theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including economics, sociology, and history.

Perspectives on Qualitative Research Method

Another way to gain an understanding of qualitative research is to consider two important disciplinary or meta-theoretical perspectives used by qualitative researchers. They are (1) Critical Social, and (2) Phenomenological research:

Critical Social Research

This type of research method is used by a researcher to understand how people communicate and develop symbolic meanings.

Phenomenological Research

A phenomenological approach enables the researcher to understand/explore the experience of an activity or phenomenon from a participant’s perspective.

Phenomenological research requires that a philosophy be combined with the research method. In fact, qualitative research generally demands that the researcher has a well-developed philosophical approach that serves to guide the direction of inquiry.

The purpose of phenomenological research is to describe the “lived experience” of the study population; however, it is defined simply as the study of phenomena. Obviously, phenomenology takes on a deeper meaning when referred to as a research method. To a phenomenologist, each person experiences his or her own reality of life. The world is interpreted differently…by each individual; thus, reality is understood as being subjective.

Consider this point about phenomenological research: It is directly tied to one’s experience. Phenomenologists explore the meaning of an individual’s experience. Phenomenological research deals with families, groups, or even a small community. For example, it explores the meaning of extreme poverty, a serious crime against a family member, or a very poor education. PBS, National Public Radio, and many other well-known media programs often use a phenomenological approach to public interest stories.

Introduction to Role of Qualitative Research in Mixed Methods

In the academic social sciences (i.e., the field of education and health sciences), the most frequently used qualitative research strategies, within a mixed methods approach, include the following:

Ethnography: This is a type of qualitative research used for investigating cultures by collecting and describing data that is intended to help in the development of a theory. An example of applied ethnographic research is the study of a particular culture and their understanding of the role of a particular disease in their cultural framework.

Critical Social Research: This qualitative research method is used by a researcher to understand how people communicate and develop symbolic meanings.

Historical Research: This qualitative method allows one to discuss past and present events in the context of the present condition, and allows one to reflect and provide possible answers to current issues and problems. Historical research helps us in answering questions such as: Where have we come from, where are we, who are we now and where are we going?

Phenomenology: This qualitative method of research describes the “subjective reality” of an event, as perceived by the study population; it is the study of a phenomenon.
Grounded Theory: This is an inductive type of research, based or “grounded” in the observations or data from which it was developed. Grounded theory research, although by definition a qualitative strategy, can use a variety of data sources, including quantitative and qualitative data (i.e., review of records, interviews, observation, and surveys).

Action Research: This strategy represents a “participatory” approach led by individuals working with others in teams or part of a “community of practice.” Action research is done as part of everyday activity, with the aim of improving practices and knowledge of the environment. Action research is most often qualitative research. A focus group is a facilitated group discussion of a topic of research interest. The technique originates from the field of marketing research but has been increasingly applied in health science research. A unique feature of the focus group is its reliance upon the discursive interaction of group participants to bring to surface multiple perspectives on a given health issue/concern, oftentimes those that would not have been uncovered in an interview.

Case Study: A case study is a type of research common in social science and used to investigate a single individual, group or event. Case studies may be descriptive (qualitative) or explanatory (quantitative). The latter type is used to examine causation.

After reading this introduction, please review Research Paradigms and Meaning Making: A Primer (by Steven Eric Krauss), and respond to the following questions:

  • How should a research paradigm be treated in professional practice?
  • For example: Does a researcher need to treat one paradigm of research as the “right” paradigm and pay attention to the research generated from that paradigm?
  • Or should a researcher consider all the major paradigms as having some validity and pay attention to research based on any of the major paradigms?
  • Or is there another approach that is better than either of these?
  • For all discussions, students must respond to or evaluate two peer postings with at least a 125-word response that is well thought out, supported by resources, and instigative of critical analysis or discussion

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