Philosophical Approaches to Research Methods

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Assignment Question: Compare and contrast two philosophical approaches widely used within your discipline/topic of research

 

Introduction

The endless debates debate between qualitative and quantitative research are hugely influenced by the very nature of research today. However, as Creswell (2007) points out, even before considering whether to adopt a qualitative or quantitative approach, it is important to understand the philosophical approaches underpinning each of these research designs as these hold claims on what counts as valid knowledge.  As such, a number of philosophical approaches exist and this is attributed to the divergent ways of thinking and explicating natural phenomena. Although a hidden feature of any research process, these approaches continue to influence decisions at different points along the process right from choosing a research design down to research methods. The importance of these is highlighted by Mack (2010) who posits that in order to conduct clear congruent research, there is need to work through different  philosophical debates down to more concrete and practical decisions about research questions, methodology and methods. However, central to this, are assumptions the researcher holds about the world. These assumptions include ontological assumptions, epistemological assumptions as well as axiological assumptions  which are central to the continued quantitative – qualitative debates (Denzin and Lincoln, 2011).

Ontological assumptions deal with the nature of reality while epistemological assumptions deal with knowledge and what constitutes valid and legitimate knowledge while on the other hand axiological assumptions deal with the researcher’s values and the role these play within the research process (Schwandt, 1998). The importance of these is highlighted by Hammersley (1993) who contends that these bring to the fore competing claims regarding what constitutes knowledge. Therefore, based on these core assumptions there are several philosophical approaches that exist along the continuum such as positivism, critical realism, feminism, and constructivism. However, this discussion will be centred on the positivist and constructivist philosophical approaches as these have been the predominant approaches in the nursing field. This essay will unpack these two philosophical approaches and respectively highlight the similarities and differences.

The Positivist Approach

The positivist approach often referred to as the scientific approach is one thatapplies scientific methods of natural science to study human activity using objective inquiry and thereby presupposes the unity of the sciences” (Delanty, 2005, pp.10–11). It originates from the works of Aristotle through Francis Bacon to August Comte(Mertens, 2015).  Pertinent to this approach is that natural sciences are the best way to study the social world and this can be studied the same way as the natural world while regarding human behaviour as passive, controlled and determined by the external environment (Albon and Mukherji, 2009). It hinges on the ontological assumptions that there is one reality  that is constant across different settings and is external to the researcher and epistemological assumption that knowledge can be tested empirically independent of the researcher’s values (Seale, 2004; Mackenzie and Knipe, 2006).  Therefore, this approach assumes that there exists an independent objective reality and that this can be observed empirically. Proponents of this approach have identified core tenets that are important in defining it.

Firstly, Blaikie (2007) identifies that in positivism, what counts as knowledge is only what can be perceived by the individuals senses. Delanty (2005) also agrees that in a positivist approach anything that cannot be observed cannot be valid and ultimately will not be taken as the truth.  As such, in a positivist approach,  any scientific explanations must be derived from experiences, therefore, any explanations for which “observation is not possible have no legitimate existence” (Blaikie, 2007, p.110). Therefore, the purpose of this approach is simply to stick to what can be observed and measured. Consequently, there is a general consensus that scientific knowledge is the only valid and accurate knowledge and this can be tested, confirmed, verified and generalised through the right data to produce absolute truth. Therefore,  as a  basic rule of this approach, Tuli (2011) remarks that the overall goal is to develop the most objective methods possible to get the closest approximation of reality with emphasis on universal laws of cause and effect.  Hence, any research that follows a positivist approach will be deductive with the main goal of predicting results, testing a theory or establishing relationships between variables and employs a quantitative research design (Tuli, 2011). In this type of research, ideas, concepts, theories or hypotheses are a starting point with methods such as experimental, randomized control trials, quasi-experimental, correlational and causal comparative often applied to generate generalisable knowledge (Delanty, 2005; Mack, 2010; Mertens, 2015).

Furthermore, when dealing with axiological assumptions, positivism demands value free research with the aim of separating the knower from the known and facts from values in an attempt to ensure objectivity (Blaikie, 2007).  In fact, the use of scientific methods for data gathering to achieve objectivity and neutrality throughout the process is strongly emphasised as Giddens (1984, p.20)  highlights that “judgements of value have no empirical content of any sort”.  Ultimately, positivism is an assertion of science and stability and its attempt at searching for objectivity, causality and value neutrality made it appealing (Macdonald et al., 2002). As such, this approach and the subsequent use of quantitative methods dominated the nursing field, however, the growing criticisms of this approach particularly the lack of attention given to human behaviour identified led to the development of other philosophical approaches one of which is constructivism.

Constructivist Approach

There are different ways by which constructivism is defined in literature, however, Wilson (1996) defines it as an approach which contends that individuals  construct their own meaning and knowledge of the world through their experiences. This approach argues that knowledge and reality do not have an objective or absolute value and aligns with the relativist ontology (Murphy, 1997). As such realities are constructed with the knower interpreting and constructing this reality based on their experiences and interactions with their environment. On the epistemological continuum, constructivism aligns with subjectivism which assumes that the researcher and the researched are co-creators of meaning or reality. Therefore, as Murphy (1997) points out, in constructivism there are as many realities as individuals.  As such, various types of constructivism have emerged and some of these cited include radical, social, physical, evolutionary, postmodern constructivism, social constructionism (Steffe and Gale, 2009; Wilson, 1996; Murphy, 1997).

 

However, distinctly different from the positivist approach, constructivism recognises that individuals are intelligent and reflective, and these influence how individuals understand the world (Moses and Knutsen, 2012). Subsequently, the inquirer must explicate the process of construction as well as clarify what and how meanings are expressed in the language and actions of the participants.  This in turn influences the axiology with the approach asserting that the inquiry process is value-laden and as a result the knower cannot separate their experiences from what is being studied (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005). Ultimately, these biases will influence the research findings.  As Moses and Knutsen (2012, p.11) point out, ‘observations can contain bias and can be understood in different ways, consequently making even factual facts value laden’. Therefore, the researcher has to openly discuss values that shape the research and must include one’s own interpretation as well as the participant’s interpretation.

 As such, the constructivist approach is used to underpin qualitative studies that aim at understanding how individuals make sense of their everyday lives in their settings and generally the researcher will use inductive logic. This allows the researcher to understand the complexities, details and situated meanings of everyday life to generate knowledge (Schwandt, 1998). Most importantly, this knowledge is limited to context, time and to individuals or a group of people and consequently cannot be generalised into one reality. Therefore, the researcher may employ a variety of data collection methods which may include but are not limited to interviews, focus group discussions, observations and document reviews (Denzin and Lincoln, 2011). However, Schwandt (1998) cautions that examination of these methods cannot explain the approach because it is primarily concerned with knowing and being,  focus on the methods masks a full understanding of the relationship between the method and the inquiry process.

 

Discussion

In understanding these two approaches, it is important to closely contrast in detail the key features of these approaches. The literature suggests that there is a huge divide between these two approaches and these are centred around the differences in the ontological and epistemological assumptions (Delanty, 2005; Mackenzie and Knipe, 2006; Denzin and Lincoln, 2011). A discussion about these is provided below.

To begin with, it’s been argued that while being a predominant approach in generating appealing knowledge in a vast array of disciplines, the positivist approach has boundaries and limitations, therefore, cannot not be used to answer all questions. Mertens (2015) contends  that the  positivist approach falls short of knowledge generated by human behaviour particularly due to that fact this is unobservable and complex yet still vital in when studying phenomena. This is supported by Zaman (2016)  who posits that facts alone based on deterministic concepts are never enough to lead to the truth and therefore, one must add subjective interpretations which are against the core tenets of positivism. Additionally, Blaikie (2007) asserts that positivism ignores social reality and as a result fails to account for ways in which this reality is constructed and maintained thus creating fictitious social worlds.  However, Denscombe (2002) cautions that  this does not mean that the positivist approach is not useful but rather there are certain realms where it will not be able to provide answers and ultimately a more suited approach will have to be adopted.

On the issue of objectivity, proponents of the positivist approach maintain that social reality does not count as knowledge because it simply cannot be verified nor confirmed (Persson, 2010). Thus, findings from research undertaken with this approach are considered more reliable and valid as compared to than those from the constructivist approach. On the contrary, there are doubts about the validity of such findings and whether they claim to represent accurately what they claim to capture (Nudzor, 2009). This is supported by  Tuli (2011) who posits during the interpretation of data, there is a bias towards a particular conclusion which subsequently results in dismissing or ignoring particular findings that fail to fit current theories  and ultimately this affects validity. 

On the other hand, the innate subjectivity of constructivism, has been a source of criticisms with Nudzor (2009) asserting that this approach produces findings that lack reliability. With constructivism more interested in issues of subjectivity, it is argued that often contradictory and inconsistent explanations are produced and would need to be advanced to explicitly explain social phenomena (Krauss, 2005). Ultimately, all knowledge produced by research is interpreted subjectively underpinned by political and different ideologies thus disputing the objectivity stance taken by the positivist approach (Zaman, 2016).

Furthermore, central to positivism, is the rule that research lending itself to this approach should be context free thus generalisable.  This implies that in undertaking positivist research, observed occurrences in the studied phenomenon should be able to explain what can be expected elsewhere in the world. However,  Krauss (2005) believes  that the importance of generalisability is often over-estimated.  According to Kraus (2005) differences in contexts cannot allow knowledge to be generalisable because of the role context plays in research findings. Additionally, this approach runs a risk of neglecting or ignoring individuals whose understanding and interpretation related to phenomena could reveal a lot of truth about reality (Kester, 2011).  Therefore, society cannot be reduced to an abstract set of universal generalisations. Scott and Usher (2001) caution that generalisations are possible but they often tend either to be truisms or too general.

On the other hand, the lack of generalisability in the constructivist approach has drawn criticisms with Mack (2010) asserting that this approach does not allow for generalisations since it encourages the study of a small number of cases which often do not apply to the whole population. However, it has been argued that the detail and effort involved in constructivist inquiry generates insight into particular events and other perspectives that may otherwise have not come to light without that level of  scrutiny (Macdonald et al., 2002). Additionally, in a constructivist approach generalisations are not sought and independent and dependent variables are not predefined since the goal of the research is often to understand the deeper structures of the phenomenon rather than generating numbers (Schwandt, 1998).

On the issue of axiology, the positivist approach demands value free research with the aim of separating the knower from the known and facts from values in an attempt to ensure objectivity.  In fact, the use of scientific methods for data gathering to achieve objectivity and neutrality throughout the process is strongly emphasised on the premise of enabling generalisability (Delanty, 2005). On the contrary, in the constructivist approach, the idea of ethical neutrality has been dispelled with Scott and Usher (2001) arguing that the separation of scientific knowledge from the realm of values, freedom and will of the individual is not possible since every individual has feelings and ultimately this affects how one defines and attains knowledge.  Lee (2002) argues that research does not take place in a vacuum but is rather entrenched in social systems and beliefs, all of which play a major role in the final findings. Gadamer (1975), cited in Scott and Usher (2001) contends hat it is impossible to separate oneself as a researcher from the historical and cultural context which subsequently influence the individual beliefs and this as a result defines what is observed and the outcome.

Additionally, causality has been identified as one of the important tenets of positivism, however, critiques suggest that causality is not observable but rather requires many different analyses of the situation  yet these  remain meaningless among standard positivists (Blaikie, 2007).  However, Zaman (2016)  argues that even if it is unobservable, causality remains core to the understanding of natural phenomena. He also contends that the vast majority of human knowledge is unobservable and the fact that positivism cannot deal with unobservable remains the main failure of this approach. As such, this approach does not lead to sufficient comprehension of the phenomena under study even with the notion of objectivity at the core (Khlentzos, 2004). However, it should be noted that  the positivist approach does not reject inquiry into any unobservable causes of phenomenon but rather those that are only inaccessible to human knowledge as pointed out by  Hammersley (1993).

Similarly, it has been argued that the constructivist approach with its ontological assumptions creates problems when undertaking health and disease research. As Broom  and Evan Murray (2007, p.27) contend that ‘what can be more real than cancer, pain or diabetes? How can it be argued that these phenomena are socially and cultural determined rather than purely physiological conditions?’.  This argument tends to suggest that a positive approach is more suited for health and disease research, however, Broom and Evan Murray (2007) call for a middle ground when choosing an approach in studying certain phenomena and ultimately, the appropriateness and usefulness of a particular approach will be intimately tied to the nature of the research question.

As the essay elaborates the dichotomies between the positivist and constructivist approaches underpinning nursing research science, it is undoubtedly clear that these centre on the issue of the nature of reality and how to construct it. The arguments put forward challenge orientations towards both approaches thus raise the issue of what constitutes the best approach. However,  they also share some commonality when studying natural phenomena as Cupchik (2001) notes that in examining natural phenomena, both approaches segment the social world into an object of inquiry.  They both deal with data and in the process of collecting data, the flow of events in the social world is disrupted to selectively focus on a particular object of study. This act, consequently, creates bias and distortion ultimately displaying the inherent subjectivity of both approaches.   However, notably, none of the approaches is superior to the other and choice will ultimately depend on the individual’s professional, education and/or personal background and the phenomena under study.

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