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Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth
Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth

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3.7 Pragmatism

One alternative to thinking about positivism and interpretivism as being mutually incompatible is to embrace them as offering two different ways to see, and hence study, the world. Rather than competing, they can be seen as complementary. A study can be planned which seeks to look for the synergies between different ways of studying a situation, for example positivists and interpretivists. This means different researchers can be brought together and different methodologies applied within the same study. This practical or pragmatic approach to gaining insights about social science phenomena has been coined as a Mixed Methods methodological approach (with deliberate capitalisation to separate it from ‘multiple method’ research designs).

Mixed Methods researchers explain that they are using pragmatism as their theoretical foundation, which does not preclude working with those holding different personal paradigmatic positions within the same project (Biesta, 2010).

Pragmatism views reality as fluid and somewhat indeterminate, and open to multiple interpretations.

Charmaz, 2014, p. 263

Therefore, by adopting a pragmatic approach the researcher can focus on finding ways to examine experience, action and its consequences, rather than ‘arguing about whether something is true or not’, or about the nature of reality (Morgan, 2020, p. 65).

The Journal of Mixed Methods Research was launched in 2007 as a home for discussing and reporting Mixed Methods research designs and their applications. An analysis of the first ten years of this journal’s content identified that researchers were defining this as a pragmatic, alternative paradigmatic position by explaining how it related to decisions about ‘research questions, perspectives, training, data analysis, paradigms, integration, and challenges for mixed methods research’ (Molina-Azorin and Fetters, 2017, p. 144).

Examples of research designs within this paradigmatic stance might include (Creswell, 2003):

  • Sequential explanatory designs, in which quantitative data is collected as a first stage of a study from a broad sample. The quantitative data is analysed and then qualitative data collected which seeks to identify key factors affecting the patterns identified in the first stage, with a smaller sample in a second stage.
  • Sequential exploratory designs, in which qualitative data is collected from a small sample in the first stage of a study to identify some likely key themes and issues. The study is then scaled up in a second phase to collect quantitative data from a much broader sample.
  • Concurrent study designs, when quantitative and qualitative elements of the study take place simultaneously and an analysis phase needs to integrate the findings.

Note here that quantitative data is being considered a proxy for positivist-based elements to the study, and qualitative data for the interpretative-based elements. You will probably appreciate by now that there is not such a stark divide as to which paradigmatic stance generates which form of data and that methodological decision-making is more nuanced than this.

In Mixed Methods research, the emphasis is taken away from naming the paradigmatic stances underpinning the type of data generated. Instead it focuses more on which kinds of data are useful in offering different insights to a research focus and answering different aspects of a research project. Often multiple research questions will be set within such projects, for example a positivist-based question, an interpretative-based question and an overall question that requires integration of the other two. It was noted earlier that such designs are different to those using ‘multiple methods’. Many designs collect data from different data collection tools – for example surveys, interviews, observations and/or documents – each of which might generate quantitative or qualitative data, or a mix of the two even in the same method. The data is triangulated between the tools but this is usually within the same paradigm stance and overall ontology, epistemology and methodology.

As a postscript, please note that it has not been possible to cover all the paradigmatic positions taken by researchers in Education, Childhood and Youth research in this course.