Engaging with educational research
Engaging with educational research

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Engaging with educational research

3.1 Scientific theory and the positivist paradigm

Over the course of the twentieth century, an approach to educational enquiry emerged, one that treated educational theory as factual, as referring to how things are rather than to how they should be. This interpretation of theory derives in large part from the influence of natural science as a model. From this point of view, theory tends to be seen as a system of laws that explain the occurrence of particular types of event in particular types of circumstance – for example, by identifying the mechanisms involved. Scientific knowledge, in contrast to everyday knowledge, was viewed as value-free and, therefore, objective. Science looks for relationships between variables to explore and explain natural phenomena. In particular, science, with its concern with cause and effect, was seen as capable of showing why a policy or practice might work in some circumstances, or in relation to some people, and not others.

Positivism is a research paradigm associated with scientific theories. Positivists apply scientific methodology as the way of understanding and researching social and psychological phenomena. They believe that the success of natural science in modern times has stemmed from scientists’ refusal to go beyond what can be supported by empirical evidence, especially evidence derived from careful observation of phenomena and/or experimental manipulation of them. Positivists had high hopes that a science of human social life would pave the way for substantial social and political progress, by undermining beliefs and practices that were based solely on superstition or tradition, and replacing them wherever possible with ones founded on scientific evidence.

Positivists have, to a large extent, adopted experimental physics as their model. There has, therefore, been a strong tendency for them to:

  • use the experimental method, and/or the forms of statistical analysis modelled on it to engage in the careful measurement of phenomena;
  • rely on quantitative data
  • seek causal or statistical relationships among variables.

Ontologically this paradigm, and associated methodology, with its concern to establish causal or statistical relationships necessarily reduces people and their behaviours to variables. Individuals are treated as separate units. Another common feature of a positivist paradigm is that explicit or transparent procedures or methods must be followed to produce sound knowledge to achieve what is sometimes referred to as procedural objectivity. The belief that certain methods are transparent and objective means that research can be replicated, which is necessary in order to test whether the knowledge produced is sound, or whether it has been distorted by error or bias on the part of the researcher. This, epistemologically, reflects the belief that there is an external, objective reality and what you see and experience is stable across contexts and people. Items in a questionnaire, for example, are assumed to be understood in the same way by the respondents. Others, who hold different epistemological positions, would argue that it is in the construction of the questions and the respondents’ interaction with them where subjectivity necessarily emerges in the research process.

The assumptions of positivism have been challenged within science as misrepresenting its nature and the way that scientific thinking and knowledge develops (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn emphasised the social character of natural science research. He argued that, rather than being a process of deriving knowledge logically from empirical evidence in the manner assumed by many positivists, it necessarily relies on shared concepts which are open-ended in character, but anchored by particular studies that are treated as exemplars. These concepts and exemplars make up what he referred to as a paradigm, indicating both what is already known and ‘puzzles’ that require further work. He saw mature sciences (e.g. physics), or particular fields within the sciences, as being dominated in any one period by a single paradigm.

However, over time, some puzzles prove recalcitrant and become ‘anomalies’, at which point there may be a ‘scientific revolution’ that eventually leads to the adoption of a new paradigm – for example, the move from Newtonian to twentieth-century physics. Kuhn pointed out that the shift from one paradigm to another could not be based on a rational appeal to common ground between the two paradigms, since each effectively offers a different conception of the world. Judgement is necessarily involved – in particular, judgement about the chances of resolving anomalies in the old paradigm and the potential of the new paradigm in that respect. What Kuhn offered, then, was a very different epistemological perspective of natural science from that assumed by positivism.


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