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Positivism, Post-Positivism, and Constructivism Essay

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Updated: Feb 12th, 2021

Positivist vs. post-positivist approach

The world of social science has suggested many answers to difficult questions. However, there are still many questions to the scientific approaches. Thus, the reign of positivist methodology ended in the twentieth century, and scholars worked out several alternative paradigms. Of course, the major dispute of the merits and demerits of positivist and post-positivist methodologies is still continuing. Scholars admit that post-positivist methodology is developed on the basis of the positivist methodology, and, thus, these approaches have many features in common (Morris, 2006). However, these two approaches have certain weak places since they can be characterized as two opposites.

Thus, it is quite impossible to exploit one of the approaches to reach a complete understanding of human behavior. To my mind, it can be helpful to use an alternative approach to understand social behavior, i.e. constructivism paradigm, the middle road between positivist and post-positivist methodologies, which contains the most winning techniques of the two approaches.

Merits and demerits of the approaches

The major characteristics of positivist methodology

In the first place, it is necessary to depict the major characteristics of positivist and post-positivist methodologies. Thus, one of the main postulates of the positivist approach is that the reality existing “out there” should be analyzed by science, and the essential objective of science is “to predict and control natural phenomena” (Guba, 1990, p.19). The inquirer’s aim is to observe the natural processes standing behind “a thick wall of one-way glass” which enables the inquirer to understand the nature of phenomena without altering them (Guba, 1990, p.19).

Positivist methodology presupposes that the results of the researches held are based on “the foundation of indubitable observation” (Phillips, 1990, p.34). So, the results of the observation are summarized “in the form of time- and context-free generalization”, which can further become a law (Guba, 1990, p.20). Admittedly, positivism excludes any evaluation and it exploits mainly quantitative research methods. This approach is based on the research which initially formulates a hypothesis and then tests the validity of this or that theory.

The major characteristics of the post-positive approach

As I mentioned above, post-positivism has many similar features. For instance, this methodology also seeks to reach objectivity. According to Guba (1990), objectivity is still a central concern in post-positivist methodology. Post-positivism presupposes that reality is out there, but the inquirer can never have a complete understanding of nature. For instance, post-positivist methodology criticizes the reliance on the quantitative methods only, arguing that they cannot provide the observer with the comprehensive picture.

Besides, this approach criticizes the positivist methodology claiming that it is impossible to keep to neutral, distant posture during research; the inquirer inevitably influences the results of the research. As Phillips (2009) put it: “The theory, hypothesis, or background knowledge held by an observer can influence in a major way what is observed” (34). Moreover, the post-positivist approach is based on the understanding that generalization (acquired in positivist methodology) can distort the real results (Guba, 1990).

For instance, laws based on some generalized assumptions do not often “work” in some specific environments which proves that the reality was, probably, observed from a different angle and it is necessary to observe the particular environment. Thus, to reach the fullest understanding or close look at some phenomena post-positivist approach is mainly based on the qualitative research methods which give more information and enable the inquirer to observe a more complete picture.

Drawbacks of the two approaches

Admittedly, the post-positivist methodology provides more reliable tools to understand the nature of social behavior. To my mind, the basic postulate of the positivist approach that the reality is out there is the main merit of this approach. However, it is erroneous to admit that an observer can make assumptions and conclusions from the distant posture since people will inevitably distort the reality in accordance with their experiences, beliefs, and so on. This brings up the understanding of the flaws of both approaches, positivist and post-positivist, since the former does not take into account the possibility of facts distortion by the observer, and the latter, though, admits it does not provide the necessary way out, a definite methodology which will help to reach the full understanding (or at least as full as it is possible).

Constructivism is the possible middle road between the two approaches

Fortunately, there is a paradigm that exploits the merits of the two methodologies and provides possible methods of observation and research. This paradigm is constructivism (Guba, 1990, p.25). Thus, the construction approach is based on the understanding that there is no theory that can be “fully tested because of the problem of induction” (Guba, 1990, p.25). Guba (1990) suggested an example with swan observing: if we observe a million white swans, it does not mean that there are no black swans (25).

Thus, it is essential to take into account all possible constructions. Constructivism also admits that results are evaluated by the observer, so scientists do not have the pure results but evaluation of results presented by a scientist. As Guba (1990) put it: “Findings are literally the creation of the process of interaction between the two” (27). Moreover, the construction approach suggests a really helpful research method. Thus, scientists should observe the reality, constructing or rather re-constructing it, and then it is essential to study these constructions considering what is common and what is different.

Only in this case, it is possible to achieve a fuller understanding of the existing processes. From my standpoint, it is the best approach to use to observe and understand reality. Constructivism is especially helpful when considering various patterns of social behavior and human communication. It is essential to understand that it is impossible to fully observe all the peculiarities of human behavior, sometimes it is hardly possible to come to some commonly accepted conclusions. However, by reconstructing the reality, piece by piece, scientists will reach an understanding of some basic phenomena.

Constructivism is the most suitable paradigm which is based on the merits of the two approaches

On balance, I assume that positivism is too narrow, basing on the fact that it is possible to observe reality from a distant posture using definite data, and it should not be exploited in contemporary research. However, post-positivism has also several shortcomings, one of which is the lack of definite efficient research methods. Thus, the best approach which can meet the requirements of modern social science is constructivism which is based on the merits of two major approaches (positivism and post-positivism) and can lead to approaching the complete understanding of the nature of reality since it reconstructs the reality, step by step.

Reference List

Guba, E.G. (1990). The Paradigm Dialog. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

Morris, T. (2006). Social Work Research Methods: Four Alternative Paradigms. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Phillips, D.C. (199). Postpositivistic Science. Myths and Realities. In Guba E.G. (Ed.), The Paradigm Dialog (pp.31-45). Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Positivism, Post-Positivism, and Constructivism'. 12 February.

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