The world according to researchers

Introduction to FIT6021

So, the mandatory coursework unit as part of the new Monash PhD program is underway and it has been mind-boggling so far, to say the least. The coursework unit is aimed to advance our understanding, the new PhD students, in contemplating, selecting, and applying a diverse range of research methods which we are going to use in our own research projects. The coursework is in a format of workshop series and has been designed with the best of intentions despite trialling for the first time in this semester. I have been very pleased with the delivery of the unit so far, including the discussion and stimulation throughout the workshop which has been fruitful. Well, this was on top of the magnificent hot chocolate being served in each workshop, of course 🙂

philosopher stone

Is the world what we think we know?

The workshop is only starting, but it really cannot take off without embarking on the philosophical battle that underpins every original research. Yes, I am talking about research paradigm. The notion of paradigm in research is not a new thing to me, as I had touched on this issue lightly when I did my minor thesis project. At that time, I claimed ‘my research’ as interpretivist, and I was using qualitative method for data collection and analysis. Until recently, I didn’t really give much thought on the difference and clashes between existing paradigms, i.e., positivist, interpretivist, and critical (plus their variations). As it turned out, there is a long tradition of beliefs, values, and worldviews in each of the paradigms that has existed for as long as human knowledge has existed. It can even be traced as far back as the 17th century through the work of great philosophers such as Hume, and Locke.

The debate revolves around deep philosophical thinking about what constitutes knowledge and the way we acquire knowledge through considering what is truth (epistomology) and also about the nature of the world around us (ontology). PhD research is about making significant contribution to knowledge which is why gaining deep understanding of where, what, why, and how our research can fit into existing human knowledge is imperative. And this was not simple. Imagine the 400+ years of scientific inquiry to the nature of the world and the amazing results that have brought us to the life what we have and what we are now. It can be overwhelming yet fascinating just to explore how scientific research has been conceptualised, argued, embraced, conducted, evaluated, and advanced. Let alone, contributing to that knowledge through our research whatever petty it might be.

The overarching paradigms that guide research can generally be categorised into positivist, interpretivist, and critical, although there are modifications and evolution to the philosophies through the notion of constructivist, social constructivist, social constructionism, postpositivist, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and so on (note: to not misspell the words is already a big success for me). Positivist is concerned with an objective view of the world which incites that ‘facts’ exist independently in the world. Interpretivist, on the other hand, claims that reality is socially constructed, thus implies a subjective view of the world. By subjective I mean interpretation of the world. Critical paradigm, on the contrary, challenges the existing reality and advocates certain values in understanding the nature of the world.

While the definition provided here is trivial at best, the baggage that comes with each of them is even worse. Couple this shallow understanding of research paradigm with what research methods to select (i.e., qualitative vs quantitative), and the different terminologies used in research (e.g., methods vs methodology, approach vs strategy). A headache resulting from the strings of confusion and hallucination is considered normal. Some would argue that positivist may use qualitative and quantitative methods while interpretivist may only use qualitative. Others would say that positivist is the better paradigm as it has impacted human knowledge widely through natural science. Interpretivist, which is originated from social science, may be considered unscientific due to inherent subjectivity. The latter had led me to question, why is then social science labeled as ‘science’? All these preliminary questions may not get satisfying answers yet, partly because it is in the nature of PhD research that we keep pondering and reflecting (Yes! more reasons for haunting your sleep).

Which paradigm are you closely identifiable with?

One important question raised in the workshop was exactly that. The premise was that the value we bring as a researcher determines our tendency to be associated as positivist, interpretivist, critical, or a ‘tutti-fruti’ type. As a person with little-to-no background in philosophy, I argued that I am more of a contingency-based person. I contend that my research paradigm is determined by the research question and the goal I would like to achieve from the research. I also pointed out that the world, in the fullest understanding, is comprised of both objective and subjective meaning. There are independent ‘hard facts’ such as commonly found in natural science, e.g. the sun always rises from the east. But there is also merit in social science which helps the society advances. e.g, how people interact with the world. A researcher, I argued, has to be flexible enough in operating between these paradigms in order to not miss out the opportunity that is offered by each of them. We cannot see the world simply by closing one eye. A fuller understanding of the world is needed from positivists, interpretivists, and critical theorists to help advance the world. That was until I attended the second workshop on grounded theory.

I became more realistic (darn! is that a paradigm on its own?)

What is the problem with changing paradigms? Can we change or switch back?

So, grounded theory (GT) implies that inductive reasoning can be used in research to come up with theory that is grounded on data. A more complete version of my reflection on GT is on another post. My current problem with this is the notion of theory, particularly from the interpretivist point of view. While GT is argued to be applicable for any paradigm (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), I tend to see it as more fitting to the interpretivist due to its large relevance with qualitative data analysis. Drawing from Gregor (2006), I understand theory as a mechanism to either (i) analyse; (ii) explain; (iii) predict; (iv) explain and predict; or (v) design and act on a phenomena. There is this strong theme of explanation and causality for something to be regarded as a theory. I realise that it is hard for me to describe a ‘theory’ without explaining a cause-and-effect relationship, although there is certainly some phenomena out there that can only be ‘described’ without necessarily addressing its antecedents and consequences.

If I casually tell someone that I have a ‘theory’ of insulting-someone-you-hate, for example, it is likely that I will describe it in a fashion of “if you do X to Mr. Y, you will most likely make him pissed off.” In my opinion, the causality and generalisability of constructs are what makes a ‘theory’ a theory. However, I realised that interpretivists would reject this claim. Interpretivists view the world in a rich nature which often argue that there are multiple realities of the world dependent upon human interpretation. For the above reason, I might consider myself a positivist although I may have another eureka moment in the future that can lead me to think as an interpretivist. This brings to the next question, is it common for researchers to change paradigms?

Based on my own reflection (N=1), I can conclude that it may be (N=1 and I still use the word may be). My conclusion up to this point is that there is a natural tendency for any researcher to build affinity with a particular research paradigm. But, this may not easily be seen in the case of novice researchers. A research trainee like me will need more hands-on experience on research thinking, experimentation, and contemplation before coming to terms with what research paradigm works best for my beliefs about the world. So, it’s a bit like a conundrum in a sense that I will probably need to try out some research with different research methods before being able to take a firm stance over which way of seeing the world that I am most comfortable with. Get familiarised with a diverse range of methodologies (and their baggage) then proceed with reflection, not the other way around. To which I am glad I have the opportunity doing these series of workshops in FIT6021.



One thought on “The world according to researchers

  1. As a graduate student I am very much in touch with the Paradigm wars that have ensued from the Enligtenment Era onwards. The clash between Mill’s Utilitarianism and Feminist Communitarianism is one of many battles in the domain of ethics in qualitative research. I can’t help but feel that interpretive paradigms like constructivism are merely scholarly as opposed to scientific. I also feel that Ethnographers are glorified journalists as purported by positivists. I enjoy that label and don’t feel to be derogatory as other qualitative researchers do.

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