Sunday, 27 September 2015

More reading... Sparkes on the Paradigms Debate

Alternative title: Help me, my brain is melting...

This was a big article. I got lucky with Eisner as my first read - it was an easier read and made intuitive sense. This overview of three key research paradigms, however, was not so easy.

This wasn't helped by coming at it piecemeal - 20 minutes here, half an hour in the soft play centre there, and so on.

Much of what I'm going to write (and there's lots because I found it so difficult) is pretty much verbatim from the text, as I don't yet have the knowledge to be able to condense. As I always tell students asking about paraphrasing, if you don't understand the text, you can't effectively paraphrase it. So, this is mostly direct from text.

Sparkes, A. C. (1992). The paradigm debate: An extended review and a celebration of difference. In: A. C. Sparks (ed.). Research in physical education and sport. (pp. 9-60). London, United Kingdom: Falmer.

There has been a revolution in philosophical paradigms, including in Sparkes' specialism (PE), where empirical predominance is being rethought. [Bear in mind that this was written in 1992, so there has probably been a lot more re-thinking since then!]. The purpose of the paper is as a framework to aid understanding of the debate that is taking place. It covers three paradigms, interpretive, critical and positivist.

There is a discussion on the nature of paradigms but effectively that they are a shared conception of problems and the methods shared within them. They can be described as a shared world view, a way of breaking down the complexity of the world. Paradigms are deeply embedded within the researcher's own socialisations, experiences and framework. Herein lies their strength and their weakness. The strength is that they make action possible without thinking about *every* angle of research. Their weakness is that there are hidden, unquestioned assumptions within each paradigm - an awareness of them is needed to ensure an understanding of the unseen frameworks within which the researcher operates. Paradigms act as a theoretical lens through which we experience the world.

To add to what Sparkes says, and to link to Eisner: these frameworks and assumptions within each paradigm don't just affect how we think and act but at a more fundamental level it will act as a barrier as to whether we *see* specific aspects of what we observe. I'm not sure that's clear, but I think I know what I mean there. We are blinkered, so we don't know that we can't see something, so we have no ability to research/understand it, because to us, it's not there!

I suppose it makes me uncomfortable that Sparkes states "the individual must not only learn the content of the field but also a particular way of seeing the world that eventually becomes not only unquestioned but unquestionable." Is this a healthy way of working? Perhaps so, If the alternative is a philosophical dam against which we ultimately can't move because of the inertia of philosophical vacillation.

During the 'socialisation' process into a paradigm the researcher absorbs assumptions on ontology and epistemology. Social scientists need to question whether there is an external 'reality' or one coloured by individual consciousness and experience - ONTOLOGY.

External realists of positivism vs the internal idealists of interpretivism.

The epistemology - how we know what is true or false - differs too. The objectivist view is that knowledge is capable of being transmitted in a tangible form and is 'hard' and 'real'. The subjectivist epistemology believes that the truth/knowledge is subjective and as such subject to interpretation through our individual lenses or the lenses employed when working within a specific paradigm.

There is a third set of assumptions, based on human nature:
Deterministic: people react to their environment and are products of it;
Voluntaristic: people have control over at least some of their environment and exhibit autonomy, "actively creating their environment".

The standpoint of the researcher on these three sets of assumption affects how they gather date:

1. External realist vs internal idealist
2. Objectivist vs subjectivist
3. Deterministic vs voluntaristic.

Sparkes discusses these assumptions to show that all researchers make assumptions relating to ontology, epistemology, human nature and methodology. These assumptions cluster and are given coherence within the frameworks of particular paradigms. No researcher approaches research as a blank slate - ontological assumptions give rise to epistemological assumptions which have methodological implications for the choices made regarding particular techniques of data collection, interpretation of findings and the ways they are understood and discussed in texts or orally presented.

Essentially, those working within different paradigms view the world in different ways, investigate situations in different ways and report the results of their investigations in different ways. The researchers' basic assumptions concerning ontology (reality), epistemology (truth), the physical world and the social world affect all aspects of research. Confusion is increased through the inaccurate use of words such as methods, research methods, and methodology. Sparkes uses the following definitions:
Methodology: the philosophical underpinning of the investigation
Research strategy: the design and carrying out of the investigation
Research techniques: specific methods to yield data, e.g. questionnaire construction, statistical analysis.
Methods cannot be independent of the philosophical underpinning and similarly the interpretation of results and their recording. "Techniques of data collection do not constitute the uniqueness of a paradigm" - the same data collection method can be use din both a positivist and behavioural way but the meaning put on the findings will differ, as well as the content gathered.

In investigating various paradigms, Sparkes explains that it is important to avoid caricatures. It must be remembered that within each paradigm there is heterogeneity - different traditions within each form of paradigm.

The Positivist Paradigm

This has a  long history, and uses the notions of science as a framework. It is historically important - Sparkes discusses its role within PE and that it offers "almost unquestionable respectability". For example, objective measurement of teaching and learning, the use of standardised data collection instruments. Inter-related assumptions listed by Popkewitz (1984) shape the positivist paradigm:
  1. theories are universal and not affected by the values of the researchers;
  2. the science is "disinterested" and not affected by the values of the researchers;
  3. the social world can be reduced to variables that can be studied independently;
  4. concepts can be formalised and defined so as to provide dependent and independent variables to manipulate;
  5. use of quantitative analysis to reduce ambiguity.
Ontologically: the social world is ontologically objective and concepts such as intelligence, self esteem exist separate from the individual. The researcher observes nature in such a way as to not affect nature's answers. Sources of bias must be recognised and controlled. Internal and external validity, as well as reliability must be provided by the research techniques.

VALIDITY can be established when the extent to which conclusions represent empirical reality, and also when assessing whether the constructs devised by researchers measure the categories of human experience that occur. "A judgement is 'true' when it corresponds to this external reality and 'false' when it does not - the correspondence theory of truth. Observation (empirical verification) is needed so that we can judge whether a statement is true. To achieve objectivity, positivists follow the 'scientific method'.

The interpretive paradigm

In contrast to the positivist paradigm is the interpretive paradigm, an umbrella term within which sit a whole range of methodologies. We cannot lump them all together as 'qualitative vs quantitative' as some interpretive methodologies are at least partially quantitative. It only cam einto more common usage in the late 1980s, and developed as a reaction against positivism, as it was suggested that studying the social world couldn't be achieved objectively.

The interpretive paradigm adopts an 'internalist idealist' ontology and a subjective epistemology and prefer an IDEOGRAPHIC methodology. For example, facts only exist within the context of a mental framework (construct); i.e. reality is only viewed through a window tinted by values. Knowledge is the consequence of human activity, i.e it is a human construct and can never be agreed as ultimately true. The paradigm takes a position of RELATIVISM - there are multiple realities existing within different individual's minds, and are open to subjective interpretation. The mind of the researcher doesn't "create" the findings, but colours the interpretation of the findings, assigning meaning and intentions makes the social reality.

The paradigm rejects the positivist idea of an independently existing reality that can be found through specific methods. Even 'objective' methods are value-laden and open to interpretation. It takes an EMIC approach. Sparkes discusses authors' views on ethnography, explaining social reality from within the group, as opposed to the positivist view, detachedly looking in.

Interpretive research and the 'researcher as instrument'
Sparkes discusses researchers viewing the role of the researcher within ethnographic studies as being *the* most important research instrument - it is "engagement of the self". Within ethnographic studies, the data that are not gathered, as well as those that are, shape the research - the framework within the researcher will affect the data gathered.

In interpretivism, truth/validity isn't a matter of correspondence, it is a matter of COHERENCE - what is true is what we can agree (within the confines of that time/context) is true. 2Within a coherence theory of truth, a proposition is judged to be true if it COHERES (connects consistently) with other propositions in a scheme or network at a particular time - COHERENCE is a matter of internal relations as opposed to the DEGREE OF CORRESPONDENCE with some external reality.

Popkewitz describes objectivity in this area is the result of inter-subjective consensus through social interaction. He also states that this also applies to the scientific community - knowledge of science is considered valid and truthful only insofar as it reflects the consensus of the scholarly community.

The "truth" of an ethnographic report depends on how well it "rings true" to natives and colleagues within the field. However, interpretation remains an INTERPRETATION of a set of events; credibility is not necessarily is altered by agreement or disagreement by the subjects. The subjects will have their own interpretation of their social world (first order constructs) which often differ from those of the researcher (second order constructs). It is still important for the researcher to check their findings and that certain words were used/events took place. It's also important to discuss interpretations even though there may be disagreements - these, in themselves, can be of use and provide further data for interpretation - REFLEXIVE ELABORATION. Furthermore, there may be disagreements amongst scholars studying the same group. These differences are generally those of emphasis or orientation. "qualitative research cannot be made researcher-proof". Because multiple interpretations can be made even on the same group, there can be 'many truths' available. So, with multiple interpretations possible, which is 'best' or 'most nearly correct'?

There can be multiple truths through multiple interpretations, but we must make sure that we don't lose our critical abilities - not all interpretations stand up to scrutiny. This is true, even though interpretivism is relativistic. There are three main views of relativism (Rorty, 1985):
  1. every belief is as good as any other;
  2. "true" is an equivocal term, with as many meanings as there are procedures of justification;
  3. There is nothing to be said about truth or rationality apart from descriptions of the familiar procedures or justifications which our society uses in areas of inquiry.
Most interpretivists adhere to the third view - judgements of truth are relative to a particular framework, paradigm or point of view. Therefore, not everything goes; researchers within an interpretive paradigm differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' research, according to their own framework.

Some researchers have discussed how constructivist research can best be judged, in this case. e.g. trustworthiness, credibility, transferability, dependability and authenticity. Under these come sub-lists - these checklists help to judge the 'goodness' of constructivist research.

Harris states that at least three levels of interpretation are needed for 'good' qualitative research:

  1. Grounded in shared understandings about the culture developed between the researcher and members of the group being examined.
  2. Must include the researcher’s insights of the culture that are not well-articulated by the members of the group;
  3. Must include theoretical generalisations that go beyond the group culture to link to relevant parts of other research.

Athens discusses here criteria for evaluating qualitative studies.
  1. Theoretical import – the contribution towards new theories or refinement of existing theories;
  2. Whether the scientific concepts are empirically grounded;
  3. “Scientific credibility” – the researcher must make the study credible by providing an account of the research along with a description of the results. An account is a story told by the researcher about how they performed the research in question.
It is important to remember that different researchers using different frameworks and theoretical underpinnings, when observing the same group, may well provide different interpretations using sound interpretive research.
To try to consider which research is ‘stronger’ we are tied by HERMENEUTICS – truth is constructed by the rhetoric of the researchers. “A good explanation makes sense of the behaviour, but to appreciate the good explanation, one must agree on what makes good sense. What makes good sense is a function of ones readings, and these in turn are based on the kind of sense one understands.” ”Truth is what we agree to be true at any one time”.
However, different interpretations can co-exist, providing a richer view of a culture.

The Critical Paradigm

There is no such thing as ‘critical theory’; it’s an umbrella term for a range of different theories. The key commonly shared assumption is EMANCIPATION – enabling people to gain knowledge and power in order to take control of their lives. There is a dismissal of positivism as a means of enforcing the status quo whilst producing theories that are “often trivial and useless”.

Critical theory developed from the work of the Frankfurt School; it is overtly political, highlighting substantive social issues, uncovering the oppression within these issues and, importantly, doing something about it.

With regard to ontology and epistemology, there are two strands running through the critical paradigm:
  1. Associated with positivism – a RADICAL STRUCTURALIST strand with an external realist ontology, an objectivist epistemology and a deterministic view of people. It concentrates on STRUCTURAL relationships within a realist social world via analysis of deepseated internal contradictions and the analysis of power relationships.
  2. Associated with radical humanism – similar to the interpretive paradigm, it has in internal-idealist ontology, a subjectivist epistemology and a voluntaristic view of people. It is believed that reality is socially constructed, knowledge is context specific and value-laden.
Critical theorists see interpretive paradigm research as having major weaknesses as they do not consider the wider sociohistorical, political and economic movements on the theories.

One major concern within education research (PE) is that interpretivist research has not taken into account the way individual and group behaviour is influenced by the way society is organised. Findings are determined within a social and organisational context permeated by the inequal power relationships (cf Foucault?) Anderson (1989a) suggests these following critical research questions regarding the nature of knowledge in organisations:
  1. What counts as knowledge?
  2. How is what counts as knowledge organised?
  3. How is what counts as knowledge transmitted?
  4. How is access to what counts as knowledge determined?
  5. What are the processes of control?
  6. What ideological appeals justify the system?
The central emphasis is the way human consciousness is shaped and controlled by existing social arrangements to serve some groups in society at the expense of others (INEQUAL POWER RELATIONSHIPS). Relational analysis is often used to analyse these relationships – viewing the historical, social and cultural constructs surrounding the practice under study.

Griffin (1990): “
  1. Society is made of groups with power and privilege and those without;
  2. Social institutions in a society perpetuate the status quo of this power imbalance;
  3. The powerful and privileged have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (their power and privilege);
  4. The powerless and disadvantaged have a vested interest in social change;
  5. The competing interests result in conflict and tension, often below the surface of apparent harmony and consensus;
  6. The critical perspective brings to light the contradictions between apparent harmony/consensus and conflict/tension, in order to problematize the status quo;
  7. A critical perspective is concerned with ‘why/why not’ questions – whose interest is served? The intention is to change the world, not describe it;
  8. A critical perspective believes in the importance of changing individual and group consciousness in creating social change.
Critical researchers may use data collection techniques from the interpretive paradigm, but go further, to investigate the inequal power relationships – critical ethnography. This can be done in three ways:
  1. Consider the subject group in a wider social context. This is weak as the critical analysis can be omitted if it just analyses functional relationships between the subject group and the wider social milieu.
  2. Critical ethnography through focussing on the wider structural relations and examining how social processes in the subject group are mediated by structural relations.
  3. The strongest form is to incorporate ethnography into a DIALECTICAL analysis – the understandings from the ethnographic study are analysed in relation to the social structures that shape the lives of people.
This final method begins with structural relationships and then undertakes an ethnographic study in order to facilitate a structural analysis.
Where critical ethnographers differ is that they claim that the subject’s perceptions of social reality are permeated with meanings that sustain powerlessness. The conscious models used by people exist to ensure the continuance of the social phenomena.
Researchers investigate the process by which certain meaning structures become accepted as the status quo. They then consider whose interest the status quo benefits. They actively engage with the social group to elicit transformation through understanding and action. They seek to change the world. Examples of the critical paradigm are: feminist research and neo-Marxist critical ethnography.
For transformation to occur, research must be done with the full participation of the people under study. The researcher provides those researched with insights that might act as the basis for change. The researched are participants in the process not subjects to be studied.
Validity has a very different definition in critical research. It needs to be understood as being relevant to the practitioner’s situation, and potentially transformative, to be valid. “Validity in critical research relates not only to the trustworthiness and credibility of the interpretation but also how effective the research process has been in empowering the participants and enabling them to create change.” This is very different to the positivist view of researcher neutrality. Therefore, validity’s definition changes significantly depending on the paradigm within which you work.

Comment by Sparkes

Validity derives its meaning from different sets of assumptions, theories and purposes within the different paradigms. Each paradigm needs to be understood in its own terms. It is important to recognise that each paradigm can help develop our understanding of the social world, and also that new paradigms will be developed. You must judge research carried out within a paradigm according to that paradigm’s own criteria and assumptions. It is important to be aware of the assumptions within each paradigm, even if you do not work within it.

What does all this mean to me?

Not a lot at the moment…
Firstly, this paper was written a long time ago, now. I’m sure the arguments have moved on and that there are new paradigms that have taken over as the most in touch with the ‘zeitgeist’.
Secondly – the long words… my brain hurts…
Thirdly, whilst I get the gist of critical research, I doubt I could get involved in it. The thought of being transformative in the research seems such a huge jump, especially with my background in empiricism and the ‘detached scientist’ viewpoint. Interpretivism doesn’t seem quite such a huge leap, though. We’ll see. Lots more to read, and I need to go back to look at some of the terms I don’t understand.

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