Morgan’s Paradigms

David L Morgan Paradigms Lost and Pragmatism Regained: Methodological Implications of Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Methods Journal of Mixed Methods Research 1(1):48-76 January 2007 DOI: 10.1177/2345678906292462


For the past two decades, much of the discussion in social science research methods has focused on the distinction between Qualitative Research and Quantitative Research. …

First, I will argue for a version of paradigms as systems of beliefs and practices that influence how researchers select both the questions they study and methods that they use to study them. In addition, I will contrast that version of paradigms to the currently widespread version in social science methodology, which emphasizes metaphysical issues … .
In the second section, I trace out the rise of this “metaphysical paradigm” in social science research methodology. In doing so, I will concentrate on the advocacy efforts of a set of researchers who promoted this view as a replacement for what they considered to be an outmoded “positivist paradigm.” … In the third section, I contrast that metaphysical paradigm to basic beliefs and practices involved in combining qualitative and quantitative methods, and in the fourth section, I propose what I call a “pragmatic approach” as an alternative to the previous paradigm.

Alternate Applications of the Paradigm Concept in Social Science Methodology

… it is all too easy for social scientists to talk about “paradigms” and mean entirely different things.

The Renewal of Qualitative Research and the Role of the “Metaphysical Paradigm”

Labeling Positivism as the Dominant Paradigm

It is … not unusual for an existing paradigm to lack both a well-known label and a clear characterization of its content—until that existing system is called into question by a set of challengers. In the present case, it was indeed the challengers who not only labeled the existing dominant approach as the “positivist paradigm” but also provided the initial summary of what was included in that paradigm.

Several commentators (e.g., Shadish, 1995a) have pointed out that this version of positivism has little to do with the formal movement in the philosophy of science that was known as “logical positivism.” Instead, it largely served as a label that the advocates of Qualitative Research used to summarize the conventional approach to Quantitative Research.

… when the advocates of Qualitative Research began emphasizing the term positivism … it corresponded to a larger use of “positivism” as a label to characterize what critics considered to be outmoded thinking across a range of academic disciplines. Eventually, those debates became a central element of what were known as the “science wars” in the 1990s (e.g., Labinger & Collins, 2001).
…. From this perspective, arguments about which methods to use were merely mechanical or technical issues. What was really at stake was the nature of research itself.

The Need for an Alternative to Positivism

Within the classic Kuhnian version of paradigms, the key threat to the existing beliefs and practices in a research field is the recognition of a series of “anomalies” … . For Kuhn, anomalies were essentially empirical concerns that consisted of either failed predictions from the existing paradigm or new observations that were incompatible with that paradigm … . Interestingly, the advocates of renewed attention to Qualitative Research … based [their critique of ‘positivism’] on concerns from the philosophy of knowledge.

Creating an Alternative Paradigm

… comparisons (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, 1988) … between positivism and competing [paradigms] were rooted in ontological issues, thus leading to my choice of the term metaphysical paradigm for this approach.

… the metaphysical paradigm took a strong stand on incommensurability, arguing that the radically different assumptions about the nature of reality and truth in paradigms like realism and constructivism made it impossible to translate or reinterpret research between these paradigms. …

The Metaphysical Paradigm as a Resolution to the Problems of Positivism

The major strength of this new system was that it reduced positivism to the status of just one among a series of competing “paradigms” in social science methodology.

… the key questions for research methodologists shifted toward a focus on differences in the underlying philosophical assumptions associated with different ways of doing research.

The Exhaustion of the Metaphysical Paradigm and the Need for a New Alternative

… we are currently in the midst of a new paradigm shift that will replace the metaphysical paradigm as a dominant belief system for discussing core issues in social science research methodology, just as it replaced positivism.

How Should We Define the Paradigms?

Addressing this issue requires a shift from the conception of paradigms as epistemological stances to a version of paradigms that emphasizes the belief systems and practices within a field, which leads to questions about who defines and draws boundaries around groups of scholars who are working. This shift in attention often locates active campaigns to establish or undermine the legitimacy of competing groups and their belief systems.

These issues come up repeatedly in the evolving list of paradigms that Guba and Lincoln put forward. One persistent problem was their preferred contrast between constructivism and a version of “positivism” that looked far more like “naïve” or “crude” realism, rather than anything that was actually proposed by the logical positivists themselves (Shadish, 1995a).

… it makes little sense to claim that principles such as ontology, epistemology, and methodology are actually defining characteristics for such paradigms. This shift from a view of paradigms as enduring epistemological stances to dynamic systems of belief within a community of scholars calls into question the meta-physical paradigm’s basic attempt to “impose order” on the practices in social science research through an externally defined, a priori system from the philosophy of knowledge.

When Are Paradigms Incommensurate?

Because the metaphysical paradigm took a strong stance with regard to incommensurability, this meant that “accepting” any one of its paradigms required rejecting all the others, while also creating major communication barriers between the knowledge that was produced through each of these paradigms.

… there is nothing about the nature of paradigms (in the sense of shared beliefs among the members of a specialty area) that inherently prevents the followers of one such paradigm from understanding the claims of another. Rather, the essential question is how effectively the proponents of the two camps can communicate with each other.

Yet there is clearly a difference between incommensurable assumptions about the nature of reality versus communication about the similarities and differences in research findings among those who work in the same field.

To What Extent Do Metaphysical Assumptions Guide Our Research?

Outside of “how-to” advice about constructivism, however, the metaphysical paradigm was mostly absorbed with abstract discussions about the philosophical assumptions behind the paradigms that it defined, with correspondingly little attention to how those choices influenced the practical decisions being made by actual researchers. Interestingly, Guba and Lincoln (1994) alluded to this issue in: …

Paradigm issues are crucial; no inquirer, we maintain, ought to go about the business of inquiry without being clear about just what paradigm informs and guides his or her approach. (p. 116)

An Alternative: The “Pragmatic Approach” to Methodology in the Social Sciences

Addressing the Anomalies in the Metaphysical Paradigm

In particular, deciding on a site for a vacation, selecting a method for a research project, or developing a framework for talking about the decisions that researchers make all amount to what Dewey would call “inquiries,” which we undertake to assess either the workability of any potential line of action or the bases for what we claim as warranted assertions. In comparison to the metaphysical paradigm, this means giving up on the assumption that there is some external system that will explain our beliefs to us.

Turning to the anomalies associated with the metaphysical paradigm’s reliance on a strong version of incommensurability, a pragmatic approach would deny that there is any a priori basis for determining the limits on meaningful communication between researchers who pursue different approaches to their field. Instead, a pragmatic approach would place its emphasis on shared meanings and joint action. In other words, to what extent are two people (or two research fields) satisfied that they understand each other, and to what extent can they demonstrate the success of that shared meaning by working together on common projects? Here again, the essential emphasis is on actual behavior (“lines of action”), the beliefs that stand behind those behaviors (“warranted assertions”), and the consequences that are likely to follow from different behaviors (“workability”).

It would be foolhardy to claim that every person on earth could eventually arrive at a perfect understanding of every other person on earth, but for pragmatism the key issues are, first, how much shared understanding can be accomplished, and then, what kinds of shared lines of behavior are possible from those mutual understandings. This is a far cry from a strong version of incommensurability that peremptorily denies the possibility of meaningful communication across externally defined boundaries. For example, if a realist and a constructivist share an intellectual exchange on a conference panel and the audience applauds in response ,that is more than enough to convince a pragmatist that something other than complete incommensurability has happened.

… this quintessentially pragmatic approach has always been at the foundation of social science’s approach to questions about how to connect “theory” and “methods” in our research—what M. Patton (1988, 2002) called a “paradigm of choices.”

Retaining the Valuable Contributions of the Previous Paradigm

In this section, I want to address two contributions from the metaphysical paradigm that I think are especially important to retain and build upon: the importance of epistemological issues within social science research methodology and the need to recognize the central place of worldviews in our work as researchers. …

Dewey created a revised version of metaphysics that focused on the experience of actions in the world, rather than the existence of either a world outside those experiences or experiences outside such a world . This contrasts sharply with the metaphysical paradigm’s emphasis on the nature of reality and possibility of objective truth. Instead, one of the defining features of pragmatism would be an emphasis on “what difference it makes” to believe one thing versus another or to act one way rather than another.

… a pragmatic approach would treat issues related to research itself as the principal “line of action” that methodologists should study, with equal attention to both the epistemological and technical “warrants” that influence how we conduct our research.

… it is not the abstract pursuit of knowledge through “inquiry” that is central to a pragmatic approach, but rather the attempt to gain knowledge in the pursuit of desired ends.

This attention to the ethical aspects of both the lines of action that people follow and the means they choose to attain them is not, however, the sort of crude pragmatism that simply claims “the ends justify the means.” …

New Opportunities Offered by the Pragmatic Approach

… the distinction between induction and deduction shows up in almost every methods textbook as one of the key features that distinguishes Qualitative and Quantitative Research. … Try to imagine acting in the real world for as long as 5 minutes while operating in either a strictly theory-driven, deductive mode or a data-driven, inductive mode—I certainly would not want to be on the same road as anyone who had such a fatally limited approach to driving a vehicle.

The pragmatic approach is to rely on a version of abductive reasoning that moves back and forth between induction and deduction—first converting observations into theories and then assessing those theories through action. … one of the most common uses of abduction in pragmatic reasoning is to further a process of inquiry that evaluates the results of prior inductions through their ability to predict the workability of future lines of behavior.

… although one often hears arguments about the impossibility of “complete objectivity,” it is just as hard to imagine what “complete subjectivity” would be.

… we need to achieve a sufficient degree of mutual under- standing with not only the people who participate in our research but also the colleagues who read and review the products of our research. Thus, this dimension represents the emphasis on processes of communication and shared meaning that are central to any pragmatic approach.

Intersubjectivity also represents the pragmatic response to issues of incommensurability. In a pragmatic approach, there is no problem with asserting both that there is a single “real world” and that all individuals have their own unique interpretations of that world. Rather than treating incommensurability as an all-or-nothing barrier between mutual understanding, pragmatists treat issues of intersubjectivity as a key element of social life. In particular, the pragmatist emphasis on creating knowledge through lines of action points to the kinds of “joint actions” or “projects” that different people or groups can accomplish together. From a methodological point of view, this suggests a “reflexive” orientation where we pay more attention to the social processes that produce both consensus and conflict within our field by asking the following questions: Which aspects of our beliefs about research are in contention and which are widely shared, and how do issues make the transition back and forth between these statuses?

From a pragmatic approach, an important question is the extent to which we can take the things that we learn with one type of method in one specific setting and make the most appropriate use of that knowledge in other circumstances. Once again, this involves a process of working back and forth, in this case between specific results and their more general implications. … we cannot simply assume that our methods and our approach to research makes our results either context-bound or generalizable; instead, we need to investigate the factors that affect whether the knowledge we gain can be transferred to other settings.

Overall, I believe that an emphasis on abduction, intersubjectivity, and transferability creates a range of new opportunities for thinking about classic methodological issues in the social sciences. At the same time, I want to avoid being misinterpreted as claiming that there is no value in the distinctions between induction and deduction, subjectivity and objectivity, or context and generality. These concepts do have their uses for comparing different approaches to social science research. In particular, I find it helpful to think of Qualitative Research as research that emphasizes an inductive–subjective–contextual approach, whereas Quantitative Research emphasizes a deductive–objective–generalizing approach … the pragmatic approach offers an effective alternative through its emphasis on the abductive–intersubjective–transferable aspects of our research.


One important lesson from the successful advocacy for renewed attention to Qualitative Research was the value of separating mechanical issues related to qualitative methods per se from a larger set of questions about why we do the kind of research that we do.

The great strength of this pragmatic approach to social science research methodology is its emphasis on the connection between epistemological concerns about the nature of the knowledge that we produce and technical concerns about the methods that we use to generate that knowledge. This moves beyond technical questions about mixing or combining methods and puts us in a position to argue for a properly integrated methodology for the social sciences.

The final lesson I want to draw is that merely offering better ways to answer existing questions is not enough to create major changes in a dominant belief system. Thus, despite the problems that resulted from an excessively metaphysical approach to social science methodology, it is also important to recall the initial excitement that greeted those ideas. New paradigms offer new ways to think about the world—new questions to ask and new ways to pursue them. This is the essential nature of paradigms as “worldviews,” and those of us who value the possibilities that come from combining qualitative and quantitative methods need to promote a worldview that encourages others to share our beliefs. One part of that work involves inspiring others about the practical value of research designs that combine different methods. Another part involves linking those practical strengths to larger methodological issues in ways that create a sense of excitement about the directions in which our field is headed, and that is the ultimate goal of this article.

My Comments

Mathematics, to be useful, must be part of collaborations (e.g. with scientists and other academics and practitioners) using ‘mixed methods’. Unfortunately for mathematicians, some practitioners are influenced by a ‘metaphysical view’ that all reasoning is essentially subjective, and so mathematics as such can only be an optional ‘tool’ at the disposal subject-matter experts, not something that can guide or constrain reasoning more broadly.

Of course, mathematicians are human and hence fallible, and so even if there were some idealised ‘objective’ logic it would be foolish for practitioners to just accept whatever others say at face value. But if the metaphysical view above is taken seriously then the findings of any collaboration, however broad and deep, can only ever reflect the views of the collaborators, and can never claim any greater validity. It is therefore of interest to consider the thinking behind this unfortunate view.

Morgan is arguing that the view is based on a confusion between logic, mathematics and ‘qualitative thinking’. If so, then while the view may remain credible it seems not to provide any reason to discount ‘positivist’ thinking, without at least seeking to clarify what it might be.

Morgan does not characterise any ‘positivist’ thinking as such., but draws our attention to ‘logical positivism’ as something that differs from the qualitative thinking that the metaphysicists (rightly) criticise.

In its most strident form, logical positivism ” itself became erroneously stereotyped as a movement to regulate the scientific process and to place strict standards on it”, in which form it was discredited.

Morgan offers his own ‘pragmatic’ approach, with “its emphasis on the abductive–intersubjective–transferable aspects of our research.” Could this work? If it does, this would seem to me to suggest some common underpinning reasoning or ‘logic’, about which we can be ‘positive’. On the other hand, if we had some logic that survived such research, wouldn’t we use it to underpin further researches, at least until we had an anomaly?

It seems to me, then, that for Morgan’s approach to be fruitful we would need something like the logic of the logical positivists but without the metaphysical baggage that the metaphysicians (rightly) criticised. For example, it seems to me that if we required science to be strictly logical we would be left with virtually nothing. So we might see specific schools of science, such as in physics, as reasoning using some common logic supplemented by some paradigmatic (‘metaphysical’) principles. This would differ from the metaphysical view critiqued by Morgan in that it would allow for some common elements in reasoning, and hence a ‘positive’ role for logic and mathematics. It is hard to see how such a principled ‘logical positivist’ would differ in practice from what the pioneers of logical positivism or Morgan actually envisage.

An alternative way of considering logical positivism is to see it as a way of regulating the scientific process placing strict standards on it. in which the emphasis is on anomalies: one should strive to seek out and characterise anomalies, and to minimise, preferably eliminate them. A theory might then be judged according to the extent to which possible anomalies have been identified and looked for (e.g., experimentally.) Thus in physics, typical theories have been well researched in this respect, whereas in ‘mainstream economics’ (to take an important example) they have not. This then gives logic and mathematics a key role in identifying possible anomalies and ways of exploring them.

Dave Marsay

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