Learn about three opposing assumptions about knowledge that underlie contemporary methodologies: Positivism, Postpositivism, and Scholarship.

Different ideologies underlie research methodologies. In other words, different research communities have opposing ideas about what knowledge is and how it is produced. Scholars produce scholarly knowledge by participating in the never-ending debate. Surveyors, scientists, formalists and most clinicians hope to produce positivistic knowledge. Ethnographers and some clinicians focus on producing postpositivistic knowledge.

Understand the different languages of explorers

You will get the most out of your research journey if you learn the languages and customs of native speakers. Before embarking on your research journey, you are wise to pick up a phrase book. Before interviewing authorities or seeking information via the Internet, media, or Library, you can enrich your journey by familiarizing yourself with key research terms and concepts.

Researchers are curious about the world, and they undertake research projects in order to generate new knowledge about the world they are investigating. Their results—what they can claim to know as a result of their research—are important. But, how they can claim to know what they know—their research methodology—is equally important. Whether your research results are understood and appreciated will depend to a great extent on whether you have selected an appropriate methodology for your subject and your audience.

The importance of methodology is not all that surprising or difficult to understand. You consider methodology when you make judgments about knowledge claims every day. You would, for example, probably take your doctor's diagnosis of a life-threatening disease more seriously than a fortune teller's prediction of an early death. What distinguishes a physician's prognosis from a fortune teller's prophesy is their methodology. How you choose to respond to each of these claims will be determined by your evaluation of the methodologies on which they are based.

Since different methodologies produce different kinds of knowledge and appeal to different audiences, you will need to consider what methodology is appropriate for your rhetorical situation. Obviously, your choice of methodology will be influenced by what kind of knowledge you want to produce and by your readers' preferences. But your selection will also be determined by your beliefs about what is important, about what can be known, and about what you can do best. These choices will become much easier to make when you understand more about how methodologies operate.

What are the Three Most Widely-Accepted Ideologies that Inform Contemporary Research Practices?

The task of selecting an appropriate methodology would be impossible if every reader's preferences were different. Fortunately, although we each develop our own individual ideologies, we also tend to share important fundamental beliefs about knowledge and knowledge-making. These shared beliefs define ideological communities. That is, just as people with similar religious beliefs, political loyalties, or cultural practices can be said to make up a community—even though they have never met—those with shared ideologies can constitute an ideological community.

What is Positivism?

Comte De Saint-Simon introduced the term "positivism" in the 19th century to describe the set of beliefs that underlies modern scientific inquiry. Early positivists rejected inquiry based on subjective experience or intellectual speculation. Instead, they argued that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis for knowledge. That is, positivists argue that knowledge developed by carefully controlled observation is more valuable than knowledge that is derived from intuition or logic.

In The Making of Knowledge in Composition, Stephen North identifies three assumptions that support positivists' reliance on sensory perception as the best means to knowledge:

  • A nonrandom order of causes and effects exists.
  • This nonrandom order exists independent of our experience of it.
  • Researchers can use objective methods to discover the nonrandom order.

Since they are interested in discovering the laws and general principles that regulate the universe, positivists use the data they collect, not to explain any particular individual or event, but as evidence concerning the universe at large. Ultimately, positivists hope to construct a paradigm—a consistent, general concept or framework—that explains the phenomena they study. Positivists, then, work like puzzle-solvers, solving the puzzle of the universe one piece at a time.

A nonrandom order of the universe exists. Positivists assume that the universe is an orderly place. That is, they believe that events have causes and occur in regular patterns that can be determined through observation. Positivists conduct observational studies to uncover these regular, nonrandom patterns and the relationships among the patterns. Working collaboratively and inductively, positivists sort through a multitude of relationships, seeking to discover the rules or principles that govern the way things work in the natural universe.

This nonrandom order of the universe exists independently of our experience of it. Positivists assume that, not only is the universe an orderly place governed by laws and principles, but that this order exists whether or not we are aware of it. That is, positivists have faith in the "objective" nature of knowledge. They view knowledge as "external" to human experience and proceed as though knowledge is somewhere "out there" waiting to be discovered.

The natural sciences provide the best examples of the kinds of knowledge generated by positivistic methods. From a positivist's perspective, the rules of gravity operated efficiently long before we understood them. Likewise, the principles that govern the reproduction of genetic traits in fruit flies or hundreds of other natural phenomena are unaffected by our understanding of them. In positivistic research, the observer's role is passive, and the researcher discovers rather than creates knowledge about the phenomena under study.

Positivists assume that researchers can employ objective methods to discover the nonrandom order. This third assumption follows logically from the first two. That is, positivists reason that if the universe is governed by nonrandom laws and principles that exist independently of human experience, then these patterns must be accessible to the right kinds of investigation. Exactly what method provides the best access depends upon the specific phenomenon being studied and the circumstances under which it is studied. But while positivists differ in how they seek access to these universal patterns, they share the conviction that the patterns are discoverable and describable.

Positivists have developed a variety of methods for conducting objective observations, for verifying their findings, and for generalizing their observations to the universe at large. Often positivistic research is conducted in laboratory settings where variables can be carefully controlled, but it may also be carried out in more natural settings. But because positivists rely on sensory perception rather than intuition or speculation, careful, objective observation is essential to their methodology regardless of the setting.

What is Postpositivism?

While positivism dominated research in the 19th century, by the early 20th century knowledge-makers in several academic fields were becoming disillusioned with this approach. The positivistic methods that had been so successful in advancing knowledge in the natural sciences— physics, chemistry, biology—were proving to be much less successful in social science research. Particularly in the fields of anthropology and psychology, researchers were frustrated in their attempts to identify universal patterns and construct paradigms that could adequately account for the complexities of human behavior. In the first half of the 20th century, two intellectual movements swept across Europe and eventually made their way to America, changing the way knowledge is defined and produced.

In the early decades of this century, structuralism—the notion that culture and other subjects could be studied as a system of signs—offered knowledge-makers an attractive alternative to the methods of science. Influenced by the work of French semiotician Ferdinand Saussure, French linguist Claude Lévi-Strauss began applying structural theory to the study of kinship patterns, myths, magic, and culture in general. Soon French structuralists were using structural theory to study cultural anthropology, psychology, mathematics, and biology.

Initially, structuralism was enthusiastically accepted as a "scientific" method that avoided the limitations of positivism. About the time of the 1968 student protests in Paris, however, structuralism's influence began to wane. During this period of turmoil, French intellectuals recognized the inherent limitations in structural theories and began the shift away from structuralism to poststructuralism. This shift in thought was part of the global movement called postmodernism. In the arena of research methods, this change in thinking provided the theoretical basis for new, postpositivistic methods.

The intellectual movement that resulted from the shift away from positivism and structuralism is difficult to define, partly because postpositivism sought to avoid the kind of rational, orderly, patterned thought that makes tidy conceptual boundaries possible. In general, though, postpositivism represents a reaction against the "certainty" that forms the foundation for positivism. While it is difficult to pin postpositivism to a set of specific assumptions, postpositivists tend to share the following beliefs:

  • Difference should be celebrated not suppressed.
  • Knowledge is subjective and negotiated by people within discourse communities.
  • Making knowledge is an interpretive act

Their focus on difference leads postpositivists into areas unexplored by positivists. Instead of searching for broad patterns and general principles, postpositivistic researchers seek out what is unique. By specifying what is different and individual, they expand our understanding of ourselves as well as the subjects of their studies. They do not try to account for the behavior they observe or to generalize their data to the universe at large, but rather seek to enlarge our experience by exposing us to diversity and complexity.

Difference should be celebrated not suppressed. Postpositivists reject positivism's preoccupation with general principles and paradigm building. Instead, postpositivists argue that patterns suppress the differences that characterize the human condition and define our existence. In fact, postpositivists see difference as key to all meaning. That is, we can make meaning only by distinguishing one thing from another in an endless cycle of comparisons and contrasts. These distinctions provide the stuff from which we define our selves and our world.

Knowledge is subjective. Postpositivism assumes that any attempt to ground knowledge outside human consciousness is futile. While postpositivists do not, of course, deny the existence of a physical world, they argue that all knowledge about that world is constructed by human consciousness through language. Because we make meaning by naming things, postpositivists understand the power of language to shape and control our understanding of the world. They tend to view knowledge-making as a rhetorical activity and are interested in the social and cultural forces that cause knowledge to be accepted or rejected.

If knowledge is subjectively experienced and socially constructed, then considerations of history and context are essential to knowledge-making activities. Postpositivists recognize that prior experience and current social contexts influence our perceptions and shape our consciousness. They point out, for example, that two witnesses to an event rarely see it in precisely the same way and that what is true in one situation may not be true in another. Postpositivists believe that other researchers are foolhardy when they attempt to "strip meaning from a context"—that is, take results from one community or case study and assume that these results can predict behavior in other communities and case studies.

Making knowledge is an interpretive act. If knowledge is constructed out of individual experience and consciousness, then knowledge-making is an act of interpretation rather than an act of discovery. Postpositivistic research, then, is not a search for some objective knowledge waiting "out there" to be discovered. For the postpositivist, research is a quest for new understandings, and the results of this quest are tentative, provisional, and contingent upon the experience and language of the researcher. 

By casting knowledge-making as an interpretive act, postpositivism acknowledges the researcher's proactive role in the research project. Decisions about what they will study, how they will study it, what constitutes evidence, and what data mean are all filtered through the researchers' consciousness. Rather than claiming emotional objectivity, postpositivist researchers are likely to be self-conscious about their role in the research process. Postpositivists consider what effects the researcher's presence may have on the subjects being studied and how research subjects are changed by the research project. Postpositivistic methods reject statistical measures of validity and reliability and rely instead on rich, detailed descriptions and strongly-voiced writing to persuade readers of the authenticity of their observations.

What is Scholarship?

Unlike positivists, scholars are not concerned with identifying a nonrandom order of causal relationships. They do not got out into the field or even into the laboratory to conduct objective observations. And, unlike the postpositivists, scholars are not concerned with observing behavior or with celebrating differences. Instead, scholars are concerned with texts and with dialectic—the process of reasoning correctly—to generate, test, and defend the knowledge they generate. Rather than looking outward for evidence from which to make knowledge, scholars look inward to the power of logic and rational thinking.