Education-line Home Page

Paradigms and Methodology in Educational Research

Katrin Niglas

Tallinn Pedagogical University
Narva mnt 25, Tallinn, 10120, ESTONIA

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lille, 5-8 September 2001

This paper proceeds from the ideas presented by me on the conferences in Lahti and Edinburgh, where I focused on the debate about the differences and similarities, as well as the relationship, between quantitative and qualitative research in the field of social sciences and education (see Niglas 1999, Niglas 2000). We saw that there are several different ways how one can look at the relationship between methodology and philosophical paradigms. Proponents of (strong) paradigmatic view so called purists propose that there are different mutually exclusive epistemological positions or paradigms and that quantitative and qualitative research methodologies are tightly bound with them. Pragmatists on the other hand do not agree that this connection between paradigms and methodology, but also between paradigms themselves, exists in such clear-cut fashion; they rather accept that there is a mutual influence and that the integration of different standpoints may give the best results in many circumstances. In between of these two extreme views one can find several others as well.

In this paper I will present a scheme, which attempts to summarise in a reasonably simplified way the relationships between different paradigms and methodological traditions as I see them from my clearly pragmatist position. I have worked out this scheme first of all for the purposes of the research methods courses and seminars I give, but the genesis of it goes back to the days when I was trying to make sense of the multitude of different partially overlapping terms connected to the newer non-positivistic and qualitative ways of doing research. While I was reading various textbooks and other papers I reached the point where I felt quite lost, but as I did not want to give up I decided to start to sketch a systematic scheme and every time I faced a new term I fitted it in. My scheme was still very incomplete when I happened to read the book about qualitative analysis and relevant computer software by Renata Tesch (Tesch 1990). I was deeply fascinated finding on the first hundred pages of her book a systematic and throughout overview of most terms connected with the qualitative research I had faced before. Although she was using a little bit different basis for her classification than I had used, it gave me the major help in finding the final form for my scheme.

Renata Tesch looks at the main research interest that different qualitative methodological traditions take and gets four main groups for her classification:
(the research interest is in)

* the characteristics of language,
* the discovery of regularities,
* the comprehension of the meaning of text or action,
* reflection (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Types of qualitative research as classified by Tesch (1990)

The research interest is in ...



She divides every main interest into narrower subgroups pointing out that one can not draw clear-cut borders between different groups but should take the scheme like a continuum with many different shades and mixes (Tesch 1990, 71). In the Figure 1 I have reproduced the scheme presented by Tesch skipping the subgroups for the sake of simplicity but retaining the order of types of qualitative research from the left end with very structured approaches close to natural science research to the right with most unstructured ones close to the arts.

We can find almost thirty different 'types of qualitative research' on that list (Tesch 1990, 71). Tesch stresses out that "qualitative research" may mean very different things to different people and that different disciplines like sociology, psychology and education use different types of qualitative research and talk about it using different terms (Tesch 1999, 3). It is obvious that these thirty terms on the map presented by Tesch are not from the same level: some of these like for example phenomenology are rather the philosophical schools of thought, while others like phenomenography or content analysis are quite concrete methodologies for analysing qualitative (that means textual or narrative) data.

Although very comprehensive the scheme presented by Tesch does not reflect the discussions about the relationships between different paradigms and methodology mentioned in the beginning of this paper. The attempt to suit my developing scheme with Tesch's map (or vice versa) brought me to the idea to add one additional dimension to it. Hence, on the new scheme there are two main dimensions: from left to right runs the quantitative-qualitative continuum and from top to bottom the philosophy-methodology continuum. The attempt to illustrate the mutual relationships and influences of different research paradigms took me to the conclusion that I would need a third dimension as well. I solved the situation on 2-dimensional paper by extending the second dimension to the both sides from the center. So, on the final scheme the second dimension goes from top/bottom to the center (see Figure 2).

If to start from the philosophical level or paradigms (if one likes to use this term better) one can see that unlike the proponents of paradigmatic view I see there an overlap and mutual influence between different traditions. When we (imaginably) fold the scheme the overlap between the paradigms in the upper and lower edge of the paper becomes perceptible as well. If it has been quite common to talk about only two big paradigms positivism and something which denies positivism (however different authors name this new paradigm) today even radical proponents of paradigmatic view extend their lists of paradigms to four. As it can be seen, I have used six different terms on that level, but it is obvious simplification, as there are many smaller traditions which can not be fitted very easily into given six 'paradigms'. Besides philosophical schools there are some important disciplines like anthropology and linguistics which have had remarkable influence on social scientific and educational research.


The post-positivism is presented with question mark and undefined borders because that term is used in so many different meanings. On the one hand some authors use this term as a common label for all philosophical thought and research that is not positivistic (or is qualitative), on the other hand authors like Guba and Lincoln (1994) describe post-positivism as a newer version of positivism, which is in opposition with qualitative (or constructivist) paradigm. On the scheme under discussion post-positivism denotes mainly views, which have influences from both positivism and hermeneutic traditions and accept quantitative as well as qualitative research as valid ways of finding out about social life.

The circle of terms below the philosophical level illustrates the change in main focus and research interest along the continuum of paradigms. Although the meaning and interpretation are relevant terms throughout all research (no matter what paradigm we look at) they get the central and very special position only in the hermeneutical thought. From that level downward it was my intention to follow with different disciplines and research traditions step by step to more concrete methods for doing research and analysing data, but as I did not want to make the boxes overlap one should not take this order of terms in very one-to-one fashion. This scheme can embrace only the highest of methodological levels - that is different strategies of research. More concrete methodological aspects like different methods for data gathering and analysis can not be fitted in because of several practical reasons.

It is important to notice that the closer we move to the level of concrete methodology the more and more mixed is the influence of philosophical paradigms, which on the other hand means that the same methods can be used in various research traditions and philosophical frameworks.

From left to right runs the quantitative-qualitative continuum which has its roots in the methodology of natural sciences and blends with arts in the other end. Here again the width of the boxes should not be compared in very rigid manner, nevertheless I have intentionally extended the width of some of them to stress that these terms are rather general headings embracing many different methodological ways of doing research. An especial example here is the case study which has its roots in the hermeneutic tradition but can be used and is used today to denote very different types of studies whenever the sample studied is relatively small.

To the conclusion I would like to say that, this scheme has been criticised as being too complicated and "mixed" making by that students heads to swim. My intention has been the opposite - to handle and to simplify the dizzy multitude of different terms one can find in methodological texts connected to the research methodology and paradigms in social scientific and educational research. One does not have to worry finding on that scheme several terms he or she has never heard about before - it does not obstruct him or her to understand the overall framework that this conceptual map is offering. Vice versa - having perceived that terms in he boxes which are under each other have similar roots and are therefore very close in the basic character, should help to fit the new terms into existing frame of methodological knowledge and see the relationships there are between different research types.

Figure 3. Methodological decisions to be made and steps to be taken in the process of the empirical research study:


Guba, E.G. & Lincoln, Y.S. (1994) Competiting Paradigms in Qualitative Research. In Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research. London: Sage, pp. 105-117.

Niglas, K. (1999) Quantitative and Qualitative Inquiry in Educational Research: is there a paradigmatic difference between them? Paper given at ECER 1999. Education-line:

Niglas, K. (2000) Combining Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches. Paper given at ECER2000. Education Line:

Tesch, R. (1990) Qualitative Research: Analysis Types and Software Tools. The Falmer Press.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 25 September 2001