Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Examination of Postpositivism & Postmodernism

By: Erica Hutton


The following discussion will consider the ontological, axiological, epistemological, and methodological tenets or assumptions within the epistemological paradigms of postpositivism and postmodernism. An assessment of the challenges and strengths associated to these two paradigms is examined in correlation to practice theory and research.

Ontological Assumptions

Ontology is representative of the nature of reality and being (Ponterotto, 2005). Positivism supports that the laws of nature are derived from the collection of data and that it is necessary to incorporate empirically defined categories to assist in the direction of explanation and prediction (Ponterotto, 2005). Postpositivism is similar to positivism in relation to the goal of predicting phenomena within the approach of realism, the correlation of assessing causative factors to that of consequences, and the implementation of an objective role of research; however, these two theories are quite diverse in relation to overall ideology (Ponterotto, 2005).

Evolving from a contemporary movement, postpositivism focuses on the importance of utilizing multiple measurements in addition to observations for both methods assist in the identification of bias prevalent within interpretations (Trochim, 2006). According to Lincoln and Guba (2000), positivism aims at verifying a theory while postpositivism promotes theory falsification (as cited in Ponterotto, 2005).

According to Mirchandani (2005), postmodernism is a term that is most referred to when describing a concept within the state of knowledge that is expanding and enveloping present day society. Postmodernism is an epistemological paradigm that rejects modernism (Crotty, 1998) and is representative of the perspectives that promote uncertainty, relativity, fragmentation, and especially discontinuity (as cited in Blaikie, 2007).

Axiological Assumptions

The axiological assumptions of research are referenced to when examining the overall role of value and bias associated to science. The axiological assumptions in relation to postpositivism appraise the level of subjectivity within the realm of research. Therefore, the overall results within a given study are reflective upon the perspective of both the researcher and the participant (Schulze, 2003). The principle considered is declarative of the fact that if researchers admit their bias, they are more likely to objectively complete the study without implementing any bias into their perspective or interpretation of human behavior (Schulze, 2003).

The axiological assumptions comprised within postmodernism consider the social and cultural perspective of reality. In other words, one’s reality is descriptive, consisting of various narratives that tend to be grounded within one’s values, prohibiting one fixed certainty (Webb, et al., 2000). Postmodernism is considered to be a form of constructive thinking that promotes fragmentation of reality (Moules, 2000) and specializes in the establishment of discovering meaning through the process of deconstruction (Davidson, 1977; Dumm, 1996; Gane & Johnson, 1993; Laird, 2000) (as cited in Chan & Ma, 2005).

Epistemological Assumptions

The study of epistemology is relevant to the analysis of comprehension, knowledge, understanding, and the characteristics correlated with how individuals are able to distinguish what they know and the method of how they acquired this knowledge. The epistemological assumptions of postpositivism center on the scientific explanation of reality versus reality itself (Fischer, 1998). The premise behind this paradigm assesses the conceptualization of reality and the manner in which scientific research contributes to social interaction to shape what is known as knowledge (Fischer, 1998). According to Hughes (1994), it is possible to construct many different angles of reality (as cited in Crossan, 2003).

Proctor (1998) asserted that the subsisting interactions of one’s culture, gender, behavior, attitudes, socio-cultural issues, and cultural beliefs manipulate and inspire their overall construction of reality (as cited in Crossan, 2003). The epistemological paradigm of postpositivism states that it is impractical for a researcher’s stance to refrain from manipulating the subject chosen for research as well as in the interpretation of the results. A postpositvist’s perspective of empiricism tends to be on the analytical side of things, maintaining that the fundamental purpose in science is defective in regards to aiming to understand reality with any manner of sureness (Trochim, 2006).

Postmodernism implements the strategy of deconstruction (Derrida, 1978) when engaging in the examination of diverse social processes, rejecting a singular correlation between causal mechanisms and their effects (as cited by Webb, et al., 2000). In other words, in relation to the epistemological assumptions of postmodernism, there is no single truth but rather an approach that embraces social construction which provides permission for the researcher to examine and consider the various contradictions within social processes (Webb et al., 2000). Postmodernism rejects determinism and causality and concentrates on the meaning associated with concepts. This paradigm represents a false ideal of unity, and is classified by the fluidity and diversity of knowledge (Chan & Ma, 2005).

Methodological Assumptions

Methodological assumptions are strategic steps that researcher’s implement within the overall process of collecting data pertaining to a particular phenomenon. The methodological assumptions distinguished within the epistemological paradigm of postpositivism centers on the philosophy of critical realism, which states that a reality is said to exist autonomously from an individual’s ability to cognitively comprehend it (Trochim, 2006). In addition to critical realism, the method of multiplism (Cook, 1985) is utilized to pertain to postpositivism, stating that it is possible to approach research from a multiple of perspectives in relation to defining the research goal, selecting research questions, choosing the most appropriate methods/analyses to use, and in the interpretation of the results (as cited in Crossan, 2003).

The of methods of postpositivism within the realm of conducting research tend to be on the qualitative end of the spectrum in which concepts can be measured and quantified. Postpositivism holds the theory that there indeed is an objective reality, but this reality is not obtained without interjecting a multifaceted perspective into the scope of measurement (Ponterotto, 2005). In other words, it is not straightforwardly obtained with a single measurement and various methods must be incorporated into the research process.

In relation to methodology, the postmodernism paradigm denies the reductive position to intervention and evaluation, maintaining partiality to the comprehensive characterization of implementing multiple perspectives (Webb, et al., 2000). The methods the postmodernist typically incorporates within the realm of conducting research tend to be on the qualitative end of the spectrum challenging the monovision manner of interpretation while taking a relativistic view in the production of diverse knowledge (Chan & Ma, 2005).

Challenges and Strengths

Postpositivism affirms that one’s rational mind is limited in the area of comprehension and the recognition of other ways of knowing are considered. This consideration incorporates the interrelationship of the individual to that of society and takes account various aspects such as race, gender, class, and political group; however, this is limiting because reality is more than this and may truly be revealed or discovered (Aziz Said, 1996). Another limitation to postpositivism is the fact that it is virtually impossible to separate one’s own perspective or bias from the research being conducted.

One of the strengths associated with postpositivism include the recognition that not all knowledge is gained from one single method. Postpositivist’s aim at implementing several measurements into the research process and reject the notion of being able to capture objective reality seamlessly (Ponterotto, 2005). There is a rejection of idealism and an acceptance of critical realism and multiplism.

According to Webb, et, al., (2000) postmodernists have rejected the utilization of coherent methodologies and have given precedence to the area of chaotic social process. There is an apparent dichotomy prevalent within the realm of postmodernism that rejects the very methodological tools that are needed to analyze relativistic concepts (Webb, et al., 2000). Another challenge prevalent within the realm of postmodernism is associated with limitation of movement. In other words, postmodernism developed as the result of a cultural movement and just as our society is forever evolving and advancing in relation to development, new social trends are prevalent within society meaning that a shift will occur again. The most dominant challenge credited within this paradigm subsists between the issues of relativism, all truth is constructed and objectivism, truth is realized by reason.

A strength that the postmodernism paradigm possesses is the ability to implement diversity in research, enabling individual’s subjective experiences to be considered which is not as easily retained within a systematic or standardized strategy (Chan & Ma, 2005). Postmodernism is helpful in providing various points of view while implementing a socio-cultural specific framework within the practice arena.


In conclusion, postpositivism is flexible in nature and aims at providing an alternative perspective to the realm of conducting research (Crossan, 2003). Postmodernism embraces the ideas that have emerged within philosophy that have the propensity to be unconventional in nature. As social animals, humans naturally contribute their perceptions, opinions, and experiences of events in the overall construction of their interpretations. Postmodernists reject the theory of objectivity, supporting relativism, diversity, and fluidity. Both paradigms are supportive of the implementation of multifaceted measurements but both are different in relation to the ontological, axiological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions associated with research.


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