The Psychological Paradigms – what they are an explanation

On Paradigms

There are many different ways of categorizing paradigms. Have a think about the similarities and differences between different categorizations – for example the Alvesson & Deetz version compared to Guba & Lincoln – does the Guba & Lincoln constructivist paradigm perhaps include what Alvesson & Deetz term interpretive – so is it a much broader category.

There are indeed many ways of organizing paradigms – and the term itself is often misused (later on you will read an author who refers to the qualitative paradigm for example, which I would strongly argue is the incorrect use of the term). Similarly, you will see some research articles refer to constructionism when I would say they are talking about interpretivism, and so on. One of the important things to take away from all this is to be sure you know how people are using a term. Have they defined it? If not you can often tell what they mean, once you have worked a bit more on these modules, by looking at how they use the term.

For now, let’s not worry too much about the rather complicated issues about how we understand knowledge (epistemology). What is important is that you understand there are different ways of approaching organizations and research, that each of these make particular assumptions about the best way to do things and the nature of the thing they are studying, and that each of these has particular strengths and weaknesses. There is no one best way, but you can develop a more critical and analytical way of looking at organizations by using this type of knowledge.

Reading up on the history of psychology can help to put the different positions into perspective, but please do not think that the latest paradigm must be the best. They all have problems. It can help to draw up charts as your learning moves on, which cover things like main assumptions, examples of literature, similarities and differences, and strengths and weaknesses, of the four main paradigms outlined in the PowerPoint lecture on Issues. These four (normative, interpretive, critical and postmodern) are the ones that we tend to refer to the most.

The positivist, or normative paradigm is perhaps the one you are most used to, being the most ‘popular’ – or acceptable – at the moment in journals. However psychology at least, really started with more interpretive approaches, and then later shifted to ‘scientific’ studies. To some extent there has been a shift back, as some researchers became disillusioned by yet more questionnaire studies that seemed to shed little light on what was happening in the ‘real’ world of organizations. However the normative paradigm has its uses, and as long as the researcher is aware of the weaknesses (as with any approach), and does not assume that everything can be answered by numbers and broad general laws, then it can be informative.

The postmodern view does indeed question everything, and argues against any broad generalisations, they argue that society, and organizations, are far more fragmented and prone to change than is allowed for by other positions. The emphasis on language is partly to ensure a shift away from the isolated, coherent individual carrying out internal cognitive processes in the head, which dominates the positivist paradigm. Instead they suggest that looking at how groups of people talk, the similarities and differences both within and between accounts, can say something about how we organise and what influences us. They suggest that talk is active, we do things with words – for example when we make a statement we are often setting up a position that says something else cannot be true.

The critical paradigm is, in my view, less of a paradigm and more of a way of looking at organizations. In other words, it shares some of the assumptions of other positions, and can use a broad range of method, but will always take that very political, power based view of what is going on. I will go over the critical and postmodern perspectives (especially as there are a lot of similarities), and the interpretive, in further detail in a later note. For now, it would be great if some of you could comment on where you have perhaps seen these.

I would also like to add that you can indeed use all of these paradigms, or at least, use an awareness of them, to help with your work. When doing research or consulting, you will often have a preference for one paradigm. Indeed for something like an MSc thesis, it can be far too time consuming and complicated to try to cover more than one. However you can strengthen your use of the one by showing an awareness of the others, and how they might have informed (differently) on your subject matter.

You will also find that there are overlaps, and that some are more of a continuum – there are extreme positivists and others who tend more towards the interpretive.