Friday, 9 March 2012

'Positivism' and 'Social Constructionism' are two contrasting traditions of social science research



'Positivism' and 'Social Constructionism' are two contrasting 
traditions of social science research. 

By: Vera Ndrecaj, BA(Hons), MBA 
verandrecaj@yahoo.co.uk 

The research philosophies contain important assumptions about the way the ‘world’ will be
 viewed (Saunders et al., 2008). Most of the topics belong to social science because they contain human aspects (Smith and Dainty, 1991; Saunders et al., 2009). In this context, Biggs (1986) explained that, social science research is a technique of  talking to people about their experience, attitudes, opinions, complains, feeling, emotions and believes. 
Burrell and Morgan (1979) model will help us to distinguish between the nature of science and society research, to understand various research approaches, and also to clarify the research direction (Saunders et al., 2009). The research contain elements of  inside-inquiry research that is characterized as an anti-positivistic, phenomenological, enthnomethodological, experiential, existential, ideographic, participative, anthropological, qualitative, dialectic, pragmatic, subjective, intensive, soft, and unscientific (Smith and Dainty, 1991). Each of these characteristics represents a ‘high context’ nation (Hall, 1976). The research will investigate the relationship between two variables  ‘high staff turnover’ and structure of the organization by identifying factors causing the phenomenon since is a little known about the nature of these variables. Building and establishing body of knowledge can possibly be associated with ‘science’ (Bennett, 1983; Smith and Dainty, 1991).

Despite the fact that there is an ongoing debate how social research could be conducted, ‘positivism’ and ‘social constructivism’ are seen as a red and blue corners two contrasting epistemological philosophises of social science (Holton 1993; Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Feigl, 1969; and Easterby-Smith et al., 2008),  their principals and characteristics separate epistemological assumptions, but share the ontological or real word assumption (Knorr-Cetina, 1983; Guba and Lincoln, 1989; Becker and Niehaves, 2006). Confusion can occur at the time that the social science is often interchangeable with the natural science, or if is not distinguished between epistemology described by (Crotty, 1998) as a set of assumptions as regards the best way of inquire into the nature of the world, and ontology described by (ibid) as a philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality. However, Remenyi et al., (1998) cited by Saunders et al., (2009) argued that, the philosophical position of the natural science will be suitable if the research philosophy reflect the principals of positivism. While, Weber (2004) clarified that, they have something in common, both share the assumption that, ‘real world’ exist beyond the realms of human cognition. Although, Kuhn (1962; 1970) claims that, research is validated not only by objective scientific evidence, but also by the consensus of community orientated practitioners. This is a description which has appealed to sociologists because it appears to question their believes that natural science hold higher authority than social science (Bryant, 1975; Heyl, 1975; and Barnes, 1983) cited by Hassard (1991). Social science studies the human aspects of the world, therefore is important to understand (McQueen and Knussen, 2002).  

The idea of ‘positivism’ initially dissented from Comte (1853) since several scientists came to realise that there is a problem with epistemological approach in applying physical science model (Dilthey, 1913; Pierce 1931; Husserl et al., 1970; and Bernstein, 1971) it is developed in to a distinctive paradigm (Kuhn 1962 as cited in Easterby-Smith et al., 2008). While the idea of social constructivism is developed by Berger and Luckman (1966); Watzlawick (1984); and Shotter (1993), people make sense of the ‘world’ by sharing their experience.  But on the other hand, the key idea of positivism is that the social world exists externally, knowledge is explicit, and it is regarded as an objective ‘facts’ (Feigl, 1969; Holton 1993; Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998; Weber, 2004: Easterby-Smith, 2009).  While, the idea of social constructionism is that, people make sense of the ‘world’ through sharing their experience with other via the medium of language, which mean that, negotiation persuasion and power (Gergen (1991). It also creates tacit knowledge which is regarded as a subjective (Berger and Luckman, 1966; Watzlawick, 1984; Shotter, 1993; Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998;   and Estearby-Smith, 2009).

Alternatively, Crotty (1998) states “... social constructionism emphasises the hold our culture has on us: it shapes the way in which we see things (even the way in which we feel things!) and gives us a quite definite view of the world” (1998:58).  This mean that, the knowledge being socially constricted is seemed as constructionism, it is a product of linguistic, social and cultural practices Hall, (2008). Whereas, Gergen (1994) argued that, through psychological views an individual’s knowledge of the world is constructed within a social community.         

The philosophical assumption of positivism is “...use existing theory to develop hypothesis” (Saunders et al., 2008:103) while social constuctionism is associated with theory development such as ‘social cognitive’ theory (Shunk, 2000), emphasise the importance of culture in context of better understanding of situation and create knowledge based on this understanding (Derry, 1999; McMahon, 1997) and also is associated with interpretive method (Habermas, 1970). On the other hand,  positivism ... “observe social reality” (Remenyi et al., 1998:35), the observer must be independent, identify causal explanation, and use  deduction approach to find out what kind of observations will demonstrate the truth (Collis and Hussey, 2003). In context, concepts need to be operationalized enable facts to be measured quantitatively. Nevertheless, Wood and Welch (2010) criticised the view by explaining this,”...the term quantitative and qualitative, should be avoided because their meaning is confused. If we want to distinguish between a study involving a very large sample, and a study involving a more detailed analysis of a smaller sample, then we should say this and not use potentially misleading terms like qualitative and quantitative (2010:68).

However, the modification of positivist views began with Von Bertalanffy, (1962) explaining that, as a result of development in natural science field and technology researches are capable to examine full complexity of data and use mix method to analyse these data. Positivist management research problems could be reduced in samples’ possible elements, reductionism, generalisation, and cross-sectional analysis (Easerby-Smith, 2009). According to Burrell and Morgan, (1979) positivism takes a problem orientated approach to have a better understanding of phenomena it is concern with”...providing explanation of the status quo, social order, consensus, social integration, solidarity, need satisfaction, and actuality”  (1979:26). However, Patton, (2002) criticised that, a social world differs from natural, physical world and it should be studied differently.

Alternatively, social constructivism referred as an interpretive (Habermas, 1970), generate theory, it is associated with inductive approach    and its fundamental assumption are reality, although, positivism test theories and is associated with deduction approach (Kukla, 2000). This view is supported by Saunders et al (2009); (see table 4 appendix). Social constructivism gather rich data from which ideas are inducted (Easterby-Smith et al., 2008), creates knowledge (Pratt and Floden, 1994; Gredler, 1997; and Ernest, 1999), encourages learning (McMahon, 1997), and also ‘facts’ are measured qualitatively in small number of cases chosen for specific reason, while for positivism approach (see table 2 appendix) select large numbers of sampling (Easterby-Smith et al., 2008).  This epistemology of social science rejects the positivism view that society could be studied objectively; it has been developed as a critique of positivism to achieve an objective value-free social science (Delanty, 1991; Hall, 2008).  Although, the view that positivism is the best research philosophy of investigating human and social behavior is criticized by (Aiken, 1956) argued that, it is just assumption of natural philosophise. The view is supported by Saunders et al., (2009) explained that, working with observable social reality the end product can be law-like generalisations similar to those in physical and natural science.

There are many dimensions along which the two broad types of research are said to differ. For example, Easterby-Smith et al (2002: 30) list eight differences between positivism and social constructionism, Robson (2002) lists eight assumptions of positivism and eight “characteristic features” of “relativistic qualitative” approaches (2002:.25), and Morgan and Smircich (1980) describe five dimensions of difference between subjectivist and objectivist approaches. All three of these sources actually point out that, the distinction is over-simplified or misleading, but each explains the distinction in sufficiently clear terms to contribute to this oversimplification (Wood and Welch, 2010). Regardless of the arguments put forward, differences between two contrasting traditions is still not clear, which philosophy approach is ‘better’ to be applied, despite the fact that both are common approaches for management research (Weber, 2004).  According to Saunders et al., (2008) they are ‘better’ at doing different things (2008:116); it depends in research question (ibid). However, Campbell and Staley, (1963); Cook and Campbell, (1979); and Kerlinger (1973) have described good research as a careful sampling, precise measurement, sophisticated design and analysis in the test of hypothesis, these characteristics are similar with features of positivism (see table 1). However, the cling of positivism, especially in management research has possibly been partly encouraged by the status position of management discipline. Smith and Dainty (1991) clarified that, any movement away from positivistic methods does not mean that management research must therefore be more biased, or unimportant, or that slavish loyalty to positivistic methods ensure that these problem have overcome. 

  Strength of positivism
 Strength of Social Constructivism
Testing and validities theories
Testing hypotheses before the data are collected
• Can generalize a research finding when it has been replicated on many different populations and subpopulations
• Useful for obtaining data that allow quantitative predictions to be made
• The researcher may construct a situation that eliminates the confounding influence of many variables, allowing one to more credibly assess cause-and-effect relationships
• Data collection using some quantitative methods is relatively quick (e.g., telephone interviews)
• Provides precise, quantitative, numerical data
• Data analysis is relatively less time consuming (using statistical software)
• The research results are relatively independent of the researcher
(e.g., affect size, statistical significance).
• It may have higher credibility with many people in power (e.g., administrators, politicians, people who fund programs).
• It is useful for studying large numbers of people
• The data are based on the participants’ own categories of meaning
• It is useful for studying a limited number of cases in depth
• It is useful for describing complex phenomena
• Provides individual case information
• Can conduct cross-case comparisons and analysis
• Provides understanding and description of people’s personal experiences of phenomena
• Can describe, in rich detail, phenomena as they are situated and embedded in local contexts
• The researcher identifies contextual and setting factors as they relate to the phenomenon of interest
• The researcher can study dynamic processes (i.e., documenting sequential patterns and change)
• The researcher can use the primarily qualitative method of “grounded theory” to generate inductively a tentative but explanatory theory about a phenomenon
• Can determine how participants interpret “constructs” (e.g., self-esteem
• Data are usually collected in naturalistic settings in qualitative research
• Qualitative approaches are responsive to local situations, conditions, and stakeholders’ needs
• Qualitative researchers are responsive to changes that occur during the conduct of a study and may shift the focus of their studies as a result
• Qualitative data in the words and categories of participants lend themselves to exploring how and why phenomena occur
• One can use an important case to demonstrate vividly a phenomenon to the readers of a report
• Determine idiographic causation (i.e., determination of causes of a particular event)
Weakness of positivism
Weakness of social constructivism
• The researcher’s categories that are used may not reflect local constituencies’ understandings
• The researcher’s theories that are used may not reflect local constituencies’ understandings
• The researcher may miss out on phenomena occurring because of the focus on theory or hypothesis testing rather than on theory or hypothesis generation (called the confirmation bias)
• Knowledge produced may be too abstract and general for direct application to specific local situations, contexts, and individuals

• Knowledge produced may not generalize to other people or other settings (i.e., findings may be unique to the relatively few people included in the research study)
• It is difficult to make quantitative predictions.
• It is more difficult to test hypotheses and theories
• It may have lower credibility with some administrators and commissioners of programs
• It generally takes more time to collect the data when compared no quantitative research
• Data analysis is often time consuming
• The results are more easily influenced by the researcher’s personal biases and idiosyncrasies
Table 1 Sources: Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004); Easterby-Smith et al (2008); and Saunders et al., (2008).


Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004); Easterby-Smith et al (2008); and Saunders et al., (2008) have identified strength and weakness of positivism and social constructivism as shown in table 1, which will help the author to chose which philosophical research approach will answer the question (Saunders et al., 2008), but on the other hand, the author has to take into consideration the nature of research topic (Creswell, 1994). In this context, quantitative and the positivist approach provide wide exposure of whole situation, focus in hard data rather than opinion, it can be fast and economical, but it required a complicated structure and become inflexible (Easterby-Smith, 2008; Saunders et al, 2008). This approach is criticised by Dalton, (1959) and Watson (1994) by pointing that, this approach is rather idealistic, natural science do not follow its selves except in laboratory. Although, social constructionist management approach could be good for processes, and meanings, flexible and good for theory generation, data collection is less artificial and employs qualitative approach ((Easterby-Smith, 2008). But on the other hand it could be time consuming, analyses and interpretations are difficult, and also may not have credibility with policy makers (ibid). 

Burrell and Morgan (1979); Punch (1986); Bulmer (1988); and Fielding and Fielding, (1986) support Easterby-Smith et al (2008) statement about two contrasting traditions, emphasis that, mix methods provides more perspectives in investigating phenomena. Another goal of using mix methodology is to boast strengths and minimize weakness of both philosophies (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004). However, Howe (1988) argues that, qualitative and quantitative research paradigms cannot and should not be mixed. The ‘high staff turnover’ study represent the first attempt at developing a multiply paradigm analysis of the organisation.  The qualitative differences between theory-community perspectives have been described by (Silverman, 1970; Lincoln, 1985; and Martin 1989 cited by Smith and Dainty, 1991) and many have cited a meta-theoretical debate as a root of such differences (Pondy and Boje, 1980; Morgan, 1986, and Wilmot 1989), than it can be argued that, (Burrell and Morgan, 1979) model offered opportunities to learn languages and practice of rival communities, and in turn to conduct characteristics of research of their form of life, and also, through developing multiplies paradigm research we  are  able to realise greater epistemological variety in organisational analysis (Smith and Dainty, 1991).

Therefore, to conclude, there is an ongoing debate how social research could be conducted, ‘positivism’ and ‘social constructivism’ are seen as a red and blue corners two contrasting epistemological philosophises of social science (Holton 1993; Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Feigl, 1969; and Easterby-Smith et al., 2008). Their principals and characteristics separate epistemological assumptions, but share the ontological or real word assumption (Knorr-Cetina, 1983; Guba and Lincoln, 1989; Becker and Niehaves, 2006). Social science is often interchangeable with the natural science, it is not distinguished between epistemology  (Crotty, 1998) described it as a set of assumptions as regards the best way of inquire into the nature of the world, and ontology described by (ibid) as a philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality. However, the key idea of positivism is that the social world exists externally, knowledge is explicit, and it is regarded as an objective ‘facts’ (Feigl, 1969; Holton 1993; Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998; Weber, 2004: Easterby-Smith, 2009).  While, the idea of social constructionism is that, people make sense of the ‘world’ through sharing their experience with other via the medium of language, which mean that, negotiation persuasion and power (Gergen (1991). It also creates tacit knowledge which is regarded as a subjective (Berger and Luckman, 1966; Watzlawick, 1984; Shotter, 1993; Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998;   and Estearby-Smith, 2009).

Positivist approach, or quantitative research provide wide exposure of whole situation, focus in hard data rather than opinion, it can be fast and economical, but it required a complicated structure and become inflexible (Easterby-Smith, 2008; Saunders et al, 2008). This approach is criticised by Dalton, (1959) and Watson (1994) by pointing that, this approach is rather idealistic, natural science do not follow its selves except in laboratory. Although, social constructionist management approach could be good for processes, and meanings, flexible and good for theory generation, data collection is less artificial and employs qualitative approach (Easterby-Smith, 2008). But on the other hand it could be time consuming, analyses and interpretations are difficult, and also may not have credibility with policy makers (ibid). The whole point of the study is that which of contrasting traditions provide a better result, the perfection is fur from both philosophise, they have their own strength and weakness. Therefore, mix methodology could be a solution, in order to boast strengths and minimize weakness of both philosophies.

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