Confessions of a PhD Student (13): “Positivist? Interpretivist? Neither. I am a pragmatist”

In science there are different paradigms which attempt to explain the world. Is there a single reality, one that is out there, available for anyone who looks for it? Or is it something more variable, something internal, something we create and modify? Positivism views reality as objective, fixed. Interpretivism considers it subjective, depending on relevant actors.

Positivists tend to use quantitative methods to study phenomena; interpretivists prefer a more qualitative approach. Both have limitations. Positivists identify statistical trends, but their findings lack depth. Researchers may fail to fully appreciate the context and the voices of participants. Interpretivists seek an in-depth understanding of the matter of study, but their results lack breadth. Researchers’ personal interpretations are subject to bias, and generalising is complicated due to a small number of participants.

Imagine a company wanting to know if employees are satisfied with a course. A positivist applies a survey to all participants, and finds that 80% report liking the training and would recommend it. An interpretivist conducts interviews to a sample of students, and finds a tendency to provide positive comments about the training and praise the collaborative activities embedded in the course. While both approaches have the described limitations, both yield valuable information, and their conclusions are rather similar.

Me, I like statistics. I also like tangible, observable things. I like operationalising variables. I like making sure we are talking about the same thing. More than once I have been called a positivist. However, I do not consider myself a positivist. I do not like labels, as they tend to imply characteristics that may or may not apply. If I call myself a positivist, then people might expect me to only look for the objective reality, only look at numbers and statistical trends and miss the beauty of the detail. And I also believe that truth is socially constructed. People’s subjective perceptions are a valuable source of information, not only to themselves but to the world. Personal accounts of phenomena help to obtain explanations. Yet, I do not consider myself an interpretivist either.

I am a pragmatist. I focus on what works. I do research using mixed methods (both quantitative and qualitative). I can see the value of objective and subjective knowledge. I understand truth as a tentative, evolving entity. I believe that different situations could (and should!) be studied in different ways. I reject the idea that there are two options, positivism or interpretivism, white or black. I see a world full of colors. Understanding this world requires openness to different ideas, approaches and explanations. How could I discard a paradigm that works? Both positivism and interpretivism can work. Pragmatism for the win.

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For further readings, please see:

Creswell, J. W. & Plano Clark, V. L. (2007). Designing and conducting mixed methods research. California, USA: Sage Publications.

Teddlie, C. & Tashakkori, A. (2009). Foundations of Mixed Methods Research: Integrating quantitative and qualitative approaches in the social and behavioural sciences. USA: SAGE Publications.

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2 Comments

  1. Natalia

     /  March 5, 2014

    I do not see it as two options. I think your epistemological and ontological assumptions depend on your research question. As Crotty puts it: “Not too many of us embark on a piece of research with epistemology as our starting point. ‘I am a constructionist. Therefore, I will investigate…’ (Crotty, 2003, p.13).
    I see it as a continuum and where I stand will depend on my research questions.
    As a pragmatist ☺ you might be interested in Biestas’ book:

    http://www.tcrecord.org/library/abstract.asp?contentid=11310

    Reply
  2. Corrie Williams

     /  August 24, 2014

    I am currently annotating an article for my PhD thesis and was honestly quite taken aback that they openly admitted to choosing to operationalise their dependent variable in the way they did for pragmatic reasons (specifically it was measurable in that way). They did cite theoretical reasons as well that are somewhat logical. Although I am a pragmatist in that I can relax my positivist approach to get the right data for the job at hand, I think that the pragmatic paradigm should be related only to the specific questions you are trying to answer. Maybe I have had it drilled into me too much and this is the new way to research? It makes me nervous as a person who is also a planner lol.

    Reply

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