While taking a short break during some late night studying in the library last night, Susan and I got talking about the difficulties in our field of figuring out a theoretical framework for studies. Susan has just begun a new qualitative methodologies class in the Sociology department here at OSU and was showing me some cool insight she had gained from the class around the differences between a positivist and a interpretivist framework for social science studies. She was describing where she felt she belonged, and why it seemed appropriate to take a mixed-methods approach to her upcoming research on family learning in museums.

Here’s a nice little factsheet I found highlighting the differences.

What we realized was, as graduate students, we had yet to have very little conversations with other researchers about their theoretical and methodological approaches, and why they had taken such paths in their academic careers. We were aware of the theoretical and methodological choices we’re presented with, but realized that we somehow had avoided those conversations in case of conflict.

I position myself as an interpretivist and a qualitative researcher, and like many others have had to endure at one point or another a skeptical and frowning positivist while explaining my research, and, I’m sure the reverse case is not uncommon. It  got me thinking that, similarly to us avoiding confrontation in education around climate change and evolution, the positivism vs. interpretivism conversation has become as equally controversial.

But why? Isn’t this discussion simply about the choices we make as researchers? I argue that conversations around our choices as upcoming academics is as important to our research development as the time we spend writing lit reviews, and we must not avoid them simply to avoid having to defend our choices outside of our theses. Understanding the choices our peers make is part of the process of understanding our field as a whole, and allows us to think outside the bubble of our research norms for future work, which of course drives innovation.

As a set of tools for learning research applicable to a variety of theoretical and metholodical approaches, the free-choice learning lab has some interesting opportunities in the future for scholars to interact with those outside their “bubble”. I’m looking forward to finding out what kind of impact that has on the research that takes place within it.




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One thought on “Play nicely positivism and interpretivism

  1. Thanks for the fact sheet! I had better clear this up for myself before my defense, but I’m pretty sure I’m (mostly) interpretivist and mixed quantitative/qualitative.

    I think the reason we still have the “frowners” is the lack of ability to see the value in both sides. It’s similar, at least, to the evolution debate in which you’re pitting two belief systems (science and religion) against one another rather than trying to understand what questions one can answer and how, and in turn, what the limitations of each are.

    At least, that’s how I see it!

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