Research Methods of Objectivists and Constructivists

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” - T. S. Eliot

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“The purpose of research is to discover new variables and to show the relationships among these new variables with already determined variables and, of course, new relationships among already known variables” (Corsini, 1994, p. 304). Many researchers in the relatively new fields of the social sciences have attempted to incorporate epistemological and methodological approaches emulating the hard sciences in order to gain respect and prestige in the scientific community (Soltis, 1984). Challenging this approach, other researchers have de-emphasized the importance of standard types of empirical data and traditional paradigms which investigate independent variables, advocating the consideration of the context within which the variables operate as significantly influencing the event (Marshall, 1996). Thus research is divided into two basic categories, qualitative inquiry and quantitative inquiry, which differ in goal and procedure as well as in basic methodological assumption.

Quantitative research utilizes objective measurements and numerical analysis in order to determine relationships which may help explain the occurrence of or change in a particular phenomena. In quantitative research the observations are quantified, or transformed into numerical measurements, by utilizing ratings, scales, test scores and other specific enumerations. Typically, quantitative studies attempt to determine the degree and nature of the relationship that exists between relevant variables under investigation. Inquiry arises from a theory of the phenomena under investigation from which hypothesis are deduced and tested by systematic procedures with the ultimate goal of revising or supporting the theories based on the results of this hypothesis testing. Various statistical operations are applied to analyze the data and compare the results to relevant standards. From these procedures the strength of support of the various hypotheses and alternative hypotheses are determined. These conclusions are used to confirm or refute certain assumptions and speculations and thus advance theory. Methods of quantitative research include experiments, causal comparative studies, correlational research and survey analysis (Ary, Jacobs & Razavieh, 1996; Corsini, 1994).

Qualitative research attempts to formulate a more comprehensive understanding of the total situation, rather than isolating specific components for analysis. The goal of this type of inquiry is to interpret phenomena in order to provide a portrayal of the complex pattern of the subject of study in sufficient depth and detail to facilitate insight. Therefore, qualitative studies focus more on thorough descriptions which lead to explanations instead of categorization and quantification. In qualitative research the observational objectives are inculcated in a theoretical system which delineates the dimensions to be attended to and recorded. Qualitative research seeks to conceptualize new dimensions of behavior, thought, feelings, and aspects of the interior and exterior environments that elicit these actions and reactions in order to reach a holistic and comprehensive understanding of the situation. Qualitative explanation includes the following type of interpretation: (1) construction of patterns through the analysis and resynthesis of constituent parts; (2) interpretation of the social meaning of events; and/or (3) analysis of the relationships between events and external factors. This type of inquiry includes such research methodologies as case study, ethnography and content analysis (Ary, Jacobs & Razavieh, 1996; Corsini, 1994, McCutcheon, 1981).

From a broader philosophical perspective, the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge can be approached from two opposing orientations. Objectivism posits that knowledge and truth exist as entities outside of and independent of the mind and perception of the individual. This perspective has as its basic tenet the belief that,

“knowledge is stable because the essential properties of objects are knowable and relatively unchanging. The important metaphysical assumption of objectivism is that the world is real; it is structured and that structure can be modeled for the learner. Objectivism holds that the purpose of the mind is to mirror that reality and its structure through thought processes that are analyzable and decomposable. The meaning that is produced by these thought processes is external to the understander, and it is determined by the structure of the real world” (Jonassen, 1991, p.28)

Objectivists tend to view the world, and particularly research, in terms of value-free science and application where reality is perceived as external to the individual, measurable, predictable and generalizable across settings. Because knowledge is viewed as fixed, research is considered a replication of and addition to the existing knowledge base of the field. According to the objectivist perspective, the only legitimate approach to creating knowledge about reality is through positivist, empirical research in which evidence must be verifiable and replicable (Robertson, 1994, Jonassen, 1991).

Constructivism emphasizes the active construction of knowledge in contrast to passive response to the environment, and adaptive, personal organization of the experiential world rather than the discovery of the ontological reality. Constructivists have a subjective phenomenological perspective wherein the meaning of reality is perceived as created over time within a context of interaction. Constructivists view objects and behaviors external to the individual as having no intrinsic meaning in isolation from human experience, but take on meaning only when interpreted (i.e. constructed) through human perception and cognition. In this way, constructivism assumes that there are multiple perspectives through which individuals may view the world and fashion an account of reality. Because knowledge and truth are believed to be constructed by individuals and have no existence outside the human mind research is a matter of developing these unique sets of experiences and beliefs about them and, through interaction, developing shared understandings (Robertson, 1994, Jonassen, 1991). In contrast to the objectivist orientation, the constructivist view argues that knowledge and reality do not have an objective or absolute value. Instead, the knower interprets and constructs a reality based on experiences and interactions with the environment. “To the constructivist, concepts, models, theories and so on are viable if they prove adequate in the contexts in which they were created” (Von Glaserfeld, 1995, p.7)

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Table 1 - Objectivist and Constructivist Epistemologies (Jonassen, 1991, p. 9)

Clearly, at their core, the constructivist and the objectivist perspectives represent dichotomous poles of the cognitive/reality construct (see Table 1). “While objectivists strive for acceptance and closure of a world view constructivists celebrate differences and debate” (Cunningham, 1991, p. 26). Objectivist oriented research has as its purpose explanation through measurable and quantifiable observations which support theories and laws, while, in constrast, constructivist oriented research attempts to understand experience and its meaning. The fundamental constructivist epistemology rejects the notion of an objective base of truth or concrete observations against which hypotheses can be tested and compared (Lythcott & Duschl, 1990; Merrian, 1988; Gilbert & Watts, 1983).

Seemingly then, purist objectivist researchers would gravitate almost exclusively toward the quantitative methods which would systematically support or contradict facets of the objective view of reality to which they adhere. Quantitative methodologies seem to merge easily with the empirical objectivist epistemologies. Conversely, the purist constructivist researcher would probably most naturally dismiss this empirical methodology in favor of the qualitative approaches which can allow for more freedom of interpretation and flexible design. Typically, the research paradigm of the constructivist includes qualitative methods and interpretive data analysis without emphasizing the factors of prediction, generalizability, control of variables and replication which constitute the core of quantitative research. However, the inverse is not necessarily true. In a sense, a situation exists analogous to the theorem of logic which states that ‘all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares’.

While one who maintains the broad philosophical perspective of the objectivist would most likely choose the quantitative methods because they support that logic structure and theoretical framework, all researchers employing quantitative methods are not necessarily strict objectivists. For example, a researcher may employ correlational research methods, which attempt to clarify relationships and patterns of relationships among variables. Correlational studies are often exploratory in nature and are utilized to attempt to understand a complex construct or develop a theory regarding a particular phenomena (Ary, Jacobs & Razavieh, 1996). This quantitative methodology may be used as the basic research in the development of a theory with a constructivist orientation or as the preliminary investigation on which to base more qualitative research.

Similarly, all researchers employing qualitative methods are not necessarily strict constructivists. Qualitative research is often the forerunner for other research methods because it identifies new variables which are more rigorously and specifically examined using quantitative experimental methods. Quantitative researchers utilize the observational techniques of qualitative studies to generate ideas about which variables other than those systematically examined in their study might contribute to an explanation of the phenomena (Robertson, 1994). In this way, qualitative methods can be used to identify the relevant independent and dependent variables for subsequent quantitative studies and/or to formulate or expound upon the basic premises of theory which is grounded in the objectivist perspective .

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Finally, much of the research which contributes to a greater understanding of a particular field is actually a synthesis, incorporating the strengths of different theoretical philosophies and methodologies. “The best designers of research and implementation are those that select, use, adapt, massage, or otherwise apply attributes and components of different models, strategies and a variety of tactics in order to accommodate the nature of the problem” (Jonassen, 1991, p. 7). As with many aspects of life, it is through consideration of commonalities, respect and tolerance for the differences of orientation, cooperation and utilization of the respective strengths that true progress and advancement for everyone is achieved.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY
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