According to Cheek (2008, pp. 762-766) research design refers to the combination of three important and interrelated considerations requiring focused attention when formulating and conducting research; the theoretical foundations guiding research, data collection and analysis methods, as well as ethical concerns. Theoretical frameworks essentially provide a lens through which to examine and conduct research. Inherent to each framework are specific philosophical perspectives which inform and reflect the researchers’ ontological and epistemological views. The choice of theoretical framework will subsequently impact and guide decisions about research methods, which will then influence ethical considerations. Denzin and Lincoln (1994, as cited in Finlay & Ballinger, 2006, pp. 16-17) identify four research paradigms underpinning the theoretical framework of a research project; positivist and post-positivist, constructivist-interpretive, critical, and feminist-post structural. While post-positivism is closely associated with the quantitative approach, interpretivism is embedded within the qualitative approach.
Quantitative and Qualitative
Baumgartner and Hensley (2006, p. 17) describe quantitative research as “â€¦involving the collection of numerical data in order to describe phenomena, investigate relationships between variables, and explore cause-and-effect relationships of phenomena of interest”. Quantitative data can be obtained from an extensive array of sources including experiments, randomised controlled trials, and structured observation. While quantitative data can be analysed using such methods as correlation, factor analysis, and psychometrics. At the most fundamental level, the quantitative research process is guided by application of the scientific method. This involves a set of structured steps through which the researcher moves in a logical and systematic manner to obtain knowledge, answer a question, or solve a problem (Baumgartner & Hensley, pp. 9-11). While Haig (2010, p. 1326) identifies four dominant theories within the scientific method including the inductive and hypothetico-deductive methods, Baumgartner and Hensley (2006, pp. 9-11) identify five basic steps inherent to this process: (1) Identifying the question; (2) Formulating a hypothesis; (3) Developing a research plan; (4) Collecting and analysing data; (5) Interpreting results and forming conclusions.
Experimental research is characteristic of quantitative research. Accounting for independent variables, while identifying and classifying all other extraneous variables, the experimental researcher works to manipulate dependent variables with the aim of establishing direct (value-neutral, cause-and-effect) relationships between phenomena (Baumgartner & Hensley, 2006, pp. 159-162). Garwood (2006, p. 251) identifies advantages of the quantitative method as including, its ability to measure change over time; the generalizability of research findings; and the variability of statistical analysis which numerical data allows. However qualitative researchers have criticised the quantitative method in its traditional positivist philosophy for its inability to analyse the social constructs influencing relationships and phenomena under investigation (Garwood, p. 251).
According to Sumner (2006, p. 249) qualitative research “â€¦is concerned to explore the subjective meaning through which people interpret the world, the different ways in which reality is constructedâ€¦in particular contexts”. Qualitative data can be obtained through various methods such as interviews, action research, surveys, and observation. While qualitative data can be analysed through a myriad of methods including discourse analysis, hermeneutical analysis, and content analysis. Despite this diversity of approach, Finlay and Ballinger (2006, pp. 6-8) identify five commonalities which all qualitative researchers “acknowledge and value” (p. 6). These include: the impact of researcher subjectivity on knowledge production; the importance of the researcher-researched relationship; a commitment to hypothesis-generation through exploration and induction as opposed to hypothesis-testing; the influence of social constructs upon subjective experience, beliefs, and interpretations; as well as the ambiguous, multiple, and fragmented nature of reality which is constantly shifting and open to re-signification (Finlay & Ballinger, p. 6).
According to Munhall (2007, p. 6), the value of qualitative research lies in its ability to provide insight and meaning into the situated context of individual experience. Acknowledging the contextual and dynamic nature of reality, qualitative research also allows for in-depth analysis of complex phenomena. As outlined by Sumner (2006, p. 249), criticisms of the qualitative approach commonly refer to a supposed lack of rigour and generalizability. These comments, however, appear more to reflect the different philosophical and theoretical aims of the qualitative and quantitative approach.
For example, while quantitative researchers attempt to examine phenomena objectively, qualitative researchers employ reflexivity; identifying and explicitly stating their subjective values and bias (Baumgartner & Hensley, 2006, p. 206). Further, while quantitative research is structured and rigorous in approach, establishing hypothesis and conducting experiments to test these, qualitative research is emergent; hypothesis are generated as the research process progresses with the development of new and unexpected patterns shifting the research focus (Baumgartner & Hensley, pp. 202-203). Of importance, and as explicated by Sumner (2006, p. 249), qualitative research “â€¦is often based upon interpretivism, constructivism, and inductivism”. Thus, while quantitative research is primarily deductive, attempting to control, explain, and predict phenomena external of influence; qualitative research attempts to understand, explore, and describe phenomena from within the social and cultural constructions of the lived experience.
Post-Positivism History and Philosophy
Classical positivism emerged from the works of August Comte (1789-1875). Comte believed that empirical verification (observation and measurement) was the foundation of all scientific development (Polifroni & Welch, 1999, p. 8). During the 19th Century classical positivism was reconceptualised through the work of philosophers from the Vienna circle into what became known as logical positivism. As Polifroni and Welch (1999, p. 8) explain, logical positivists aimed to eliminate all metaphysical considerations from within the scientific process. The possibility of theory was rejected, with claims to knowledge justified through observation of phenomena, which logical positivists believed could be examined external to its context (Munhall, 2007, p. 127). By obtaining theory-neutral facts, logical positivists maintained it was possible to obtain objective truth and develop Universal Laws to describe and predict phenomena.
The 20th Century philosopher and critical realist Karl Popper (1902-1994) challenged the assumptions of logical positivists, arguing all attempts at objectivity were inherently subjective. For Popper “all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical” (Thornton, 2013 (Spring Edition) para. 19). Thus, as Thornton (2013 (Spring Edition) para. 19) explicates, scientific theories cannot be empirically verified, only momentarily confirmed or empirically falsified. Furthermore, Popper believed metaphysical questions should be returned to scientific enquiry to enable deeper analysis of phenomena (Polifroni & Welch, 1999, p. 67). By acknowledging the fundamental relativity and fallibility of knowledge claims and enabling the exploration of ontological concerns, Popper believed science could advance through the constant redevelopment of theories as informed by previous falsifications (what he termed ‘verisimilitude’) to gradually arrive at a position closer to the truth (Thornton, 2013 (Spring Edition) para. 20-30). Poppers’ philosophical observations represent the foundations of post-positivism.
Interpretivism History and Philosophy
Interpretivism has a long, rich, and complex history which is compressed and rather succinctly explained by Scwandt (1994, as cited in Willis, 2007, p. 100) as having foundations in “the German intellectual tradition of hermeneutics and the verstehen tradition of sociology, the phenomenology of Alfred Shutz, and critiques of scientism and positivism in the social sciences [including] the writings of ordinary language philosophers critical of logical empiricism”. Interpretivsits believe what constitutes reality is socially constructed and that therefore, understanding the context in which research occurs “is critical to the interpretation of data gathered” (Willis, p. 98). Unlike post-positivist research, interpretivist research does not seek to gain knowledge through explanation but rather through understanding (Willis, p. 98). As Willis (2007, p. 100) states, this fundamental distinction was first made by William Dilthey (1813-1911) who proposed that although explanation (erklaren) and the establishment of Universal laws may be an appropriate aim for the natural sciences; it is incompatible for research in the cultural (human) sciences. Instead, Dilthey believed the human sciences should focus upon gaining meaning through understanding (verstehen). An aim achieved by examination of the lived experience. Dilthey’s conceptualisation of interpretivism reflect his origins in hermeneutics; a tradition which Baumgartner and Hensley (2006, p. 203) describe as fundamental to qualitative research.
Hermeneutics, given foundations by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) (Munhall, 2007, p. 111), refers to a theory and method of interpretation; of discovering hidden meaning by understanding the context in which meaningful human action occurs (Baumgartner & Hensley, 2006, p. 203). According to Willis (2007, p. 104) philosophical hermeneutics is grounded in interpretivist epistemology; rejecting foundationalism in favour of a subjective, contextual understanding. This grounding was heavily influenced by the work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), through whose efforts the entire foundation of philosophy shifted from an epistemological to an ontological focus. Challenged by the work of Edmund Husserl, Heidegger developed a hermeneutical interpretation of phenomenology (Finlay & Ballinger, 2006, pp. 186-187) aimed at understanding the experience of ‘being-in-the-world’ or Dasein (Wheeler, 2013 (Spring Edition)).
Enabling analysis and interpretation of experience or phenomena, through which themes and meaning emerge, is the hermeneutic circle. As explained by Willis (2007, p. 106), during this process the researcher constantly shifts between the parts and the whole; continually revising and further developing interpretations by moving from the research topic, to the research context, to the researchers own subjective understanding. Originally developed by Dilthey (Polifroni & Welch, 1999, p. 242), the circle was reconceptualised by Heidegger to reflect and inform his ontological investigations, coming to represent “the interplay between our self-understanding and our understanding of the world” (Ramberg & Gjesdal, 2009 (Summer Edition) para. 33). Appropriated by the existentialist Hans-Georg Gadamer in his search for “â€¦an understanding of understanding” (Polifroni & Welch, 1999, p. 242) the circle remains in use today; representative of the origins of interpretivism.
Post-Positivism and Interpretivism
As the preceding sections have alluded, post-positivism is grounded in the ontology of critical realism. Post-positivists therefore maintain that although there exists an external reality independent of human consciousness, obtaining a truly objective view of this reality is not possible. Nonetheless, the post-positivist preserves objectivity as an ideal in the search for truth. Conversely, interpretivism is grounded in the ontology of relativism. Thus, interpretivists believe not only that access to an objective reality is impossible as all knowledge is contextually relative, but that there exists no universal truths (Smith, 2008, p. 275). These foundational beliefs are reflected within the data collection and analysis processes.
Creswell (2003, as cited in Baumgartner & Hendley, 2007, p. 201) identifies four types of qualitative data collection methods: documents, observation, audio-visual, and interviews. According to Rebar and Macnee (2011, p. 151) at the most foundational level, data collected in qualitative studies should function to enable the researcher to “â€¦construct a description of the meaning of the variables under study”. This is in comparison to quantitative data collection methods which “â€¦aim to measure the variables of interest clearly, specifically, and accurately”(Rebar & Macnee, p. 155). Reflecting the aim of statistical analysis of numerical data, quantitative data collection methods may include chemical laboratory tests, systematic observations, physiologic measurement or highly structured questionnaires (Rebar & Macnee, p. 155).
In relation to data analysis, Rebar and Macnee (2011, p. 69) assert that while organising and assessing data to find meaning remains the same for both the qualitative and quantitative approach, methods to achieve this aim differ considerably. For example, within the qualitative research approach the aim is to describe and explain; to gain insight into a specific experience or phenomena, understood as contextual and relative (Rebar & Macnee, p. 69). While in contrast, results obtained from quantitative data analysis (which may also describe and explain) primarily aim to infer and predict; to be generalizable beyond the specific research setting (Rebar & Macnee, pp. 66-67).
As Baumgartner and Hensley (2006, pp. 323-341) state, central to attaining inference from quantitative data is the presence of objectivity, reliability, and validity during data collection. Conversely, avoiding error and establishing rigor within qualitative data collection and analysis requires the researcher to constantly review data to ensure its trustworthiness, confirmability, transferability, and credibility (Rebar & Macnee, 2011, p. 151). Therefore, while the quantitative researcher employs formulae and statistical methods to organise data and extract meaning; the qualitative researcher derives meaning via methods of induction and interpretation. As explained by Julian (2008) the “intellectual process” (para. 1) of content analysis, within which the qualitative researcher categories and codes data identifying dominant themes which are subsequently explored and described, represents one of these methods.
With the aim of comparing and contrasting the post-positivist and interpretivist research paradigms, this essay began by delineating the fundamental distinctions between the quantitative and qualitative research method. Following this, the history and philosophy of both post-positivism and interpretivism were outlined, with significant figures impacting upon each paradigm identified. Finally, methodological differences between the post-positivists and interpretivist research paradigms were compared and contrasted, with differences within data collection and analysis methods of each framework outlined. In summary, while post-positivism emerged from the work of Karl Popper, is associated with the quantitative research method, and adopts a critical realist philosophy; interpretivism emerged from the work of William Dilthey and Martin Heidegger, is associated with the qualitative research method,