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The adoption of social constructivism and positivism has created discussions and arguments concerning their use in research. Studies have shown that since the 1980s, social constructivism has been consistently in use, however it is important to note that research is not solely based on ideologies of a single philosophy. Positivism postulates that society is marked as an external agent. Therefore, its characteristics and properties must be objectively measured instead of using subjective means such as sensation and intuition. Auguste Comte, a French theorist, was the first to propose this view on positivism. Based on Comte’s perspective, it can be deduced that reality is objective and external, while knowledge is established by observing this reality and that Truth is universal. The views of positivism changed in the mid-20th century and acquired a new perspective called post-positivism which add that although reality is real, and Truth is universal, one cannot directly access either. In contrast, social constructivism was founded based on the works of Luckman & Berger (1966), Shotter (1993) and Watzlawick (1984). Social constructivism is based on the idea that multiple realities and truths exist and that people use language as a channel of sharing experience in which, through it, the sense of the world is made. Constructivists propose that people create and form their society through verbal skills. Social constructivism is concerned more with people’s processes and the way they interact with each other. Social constructivism and interpretivism share common ideas creating a relationship between the two. There is no theoretical framework or paradigm that is considered to be best however research provides the differences and similarities between social constructivism and positivism. It further addresses how these paradigms inform research practices.
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Based on the nature of reality, positivism suggests that there is a tangible and single reality that does not vary in a setting across time (Michell, 2003). Therefore, it is essential for the researcher to make discoveries about this reality. According to theorists of positivism, the nature of reality is objective, and it is independent of the interest of the researcher. Additionally, positivists believe that truth can be measured and can be converted into variables (Glăveanu, 2010). Contrastingly, in social constructionism, it is believed that reality is intangible since many people are constructing it. Constructivists theorize that existence is mind-dependent and a social or personal construct. For example, does one believe that witchcraft is real? If affirmative, then, that is the true reality of the believer, and a reality in which creates a sense of what surrounds us. Therefore, in social constructionism, the reality is limited to space, time, context, group, or individuals and cannot be placed into everyday reality by the fallacy of generalization (Burr, 2018).
In positivism, knowledge is inherent, and it is believed that expertise is found in statements of facts or beliefs that can be empirically tested, confirmed (or disconfirmed), and verified. Furthermore, positivists believe that knowledge can be generalized and is stable. This suggests that in positivism, education is considered to be objective, constitutes data, and is independent of the researchers’ feelings, interests, and values. Therefore, researchers are required to have the right instruments for gathering data for the provision of truth (Ponterotto, 2005). For constructivists, it is studied that knowledge is mind-independent and socially constructed; hence, it is subjective (Raskin, 2002). Truth can only be found from human experience. It means that what is false or true are statements that are bound on culture and depend on history and context. For instance, belief that God exists on human perception, depends on their historical events, and life meaning.
Within positivism, all inquiries are considered value free. Therefore, scientific methods of collecting data should be acquired by researchers to attain neutrality and objectivity during the process of investigation (Molenaar & Campbell, 2009). In contrast, constructivists suggest that social inquiry is value-laden, and value bound. This is because they consider; reality as mind-dependent and constructed, and knowledge as subjective. Further, it influences the research topic, methods of collecting and analyzing data together with data interpretation, and how the findings are reported (Morrow, 2007). Constructivists assume that, during research, the study should be admitted as being value-laden, and the biases and values that may interfere with the neutrality should be reported. However, in positivism, research is conducted to test a theory, predict results, or to establish the strength between the relationships of variables. Researchers in positivism start with concepts, approaches or ideas which then establish the variables of interest within the study. The problem statements are then formulated which specify the variables under investigation and their relationship. Additionally, variables are defined so that other researchers can replicate, confirm, and verify research outcomes. On the other hand, the aim of researching social constructionism is to understand the experiences of people. The context of the research is within the participants’ natural setting, one in which is their original place of residence. Constructivists believe that multiplicity of realities inform the process of research (Madill & Gough, 2008). For instance, research questions may evolve as the study continues, and it is not essential that they formulate them before the beginning of the study.
In social constructivism, research questions are non-directional, descriptive, and open-ended (Wahyuni, 2012). Hence, the research questions take the form of a general problem that generalizes the issue of study followed with small sub-questions (Mölder, 2010). The use of sub-questions is meant to act as guidelines for the research methods and methodology in an attempt of answering the general question. The positivistic paradigm assumes the use of quantitative methodologies, which are designed to discover principles and laws that govern the world. They are also expected to predict situations and behaviors. These methodologies include quasi-experimental, correlational, surveys, and experimental data. They determine the methods of data collection, which includes tests, experiments, questionnaires, and observation (Sheehan and Perry, 2015). According to social constructionism, a researcher, is responsible for the gathering of data and remembering the subjective nature of the research. The research is co-constructed between the researcher and participants and as such, the researcher is required to describe themselves, and their closeness to the study topic, relationship to those participating, and ideological biases. Based on social constructivism, it is essential to create rapport, precise communication methods, and trust with research participants to entirely capture the intended meaning in their words (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008). Furthermore, ethics is essential and needs to be addressed throughout the research. Therefore, based on those aspects, social constructionism applies research designs such as phenomenology, case study, grounded theory, ethnography, and biography. The techniques of gathering data are chosen depending on the characteristics of respondents, research problem, and on the design that has been selected (Yardley et al., 2003). From the methodological designs of social constructionism, the tools of data collection that are applied include; photographs, observations, interviews, document analysis, visual aids, artifacts, drawings, and informal conversations.
The paradigm of interpretivism was developed to critique the ideas of positivism (Glăveanu, 2010). It assumes that reality can only be acquired using social constructions like language since it is subjective. Correspondingly, it supports the use of qualitative methodologies rather than quantitative methods like phenomenology. Therefore, it employs the use of data collection instruments such as observation and interviews.
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An example of a research methodology that portrays how qualitative data is achieved can be observed through unstructured interviews. Through this research methodology, there is the utilization of open-ended questions which produces qualitative data (Wahyuni, 2012). This is due to the respondent having the chance to speak openly and use the words they have personally chosen. Further methods that produce qualitative data include voice recordings, photographs, and videos. After qualitative data has been obtained, interpretations are made, which are usually qualitative. These interpretations may be through grounded theory, thematic, content, and discourse analysis. In contrast, quantitative data can be achieved through structured interviews. This method uses closed-ended questions that produce quantitative data either categorically such as “no,” “yes,” or numerically. Structured interviews do not give the participant the chance to express and react to issues. The findings that are obtained confirm the already established assumptions. The collected quantitative data is analyzed through inferential or descriptive statistics.
Based on the assumptions of positivism and social constructivism, it can be considered that they are similar in that they both engage in research studies. These research studies are concerned with the study of reality (Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006). Therefore, they both follow well-planned research procedures from data collection up to the stage of reporting the findings. Both have research methodologies which help in conducting research (Ponterotto, 2005). They also have research instruments that are used in the collection of data. Additionally, in both paradigms, it is believed that the researcher’s hypothesis, background knowledge, and theories, influence the topic that is being observed, the way it is perceived and results of the study.
In conclusion, particular paradigms have different assumptions that make them different from each other, as seen in positivism and social constructivism. As such, specific methodologies are associated with particular standards, for example, the positivistic or post-positivistic paradigm assumes a quantitative method which differs from that of the interpretative or constructivist model that assumes a qualitative methodology. Universally, this is not the case as there comes a time when individuals use quantitative methods when pursuing interpretative research. There is no theoretical framework or paradigm that is considered to be best. This confirms that it depends on a researcher’s personal choice when determining their view on these paradigms, which will inform the research design that then provides an answer to the study question. A researcher’s selection on the most appropriate model to use, may be reinforced by their own world view on what is real, their ideas, morals and value systems, as well as their theoretical perspectives on the studied topic.
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