Discovering a landscape of research practice

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My current PhD module is ‘Philosophy of research’.  On the one hand, I love it – finally a chance to get to grips with all that language associated with philosophy – epistemology, ontology, axiology and so on.  But I’ve also found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the endless list of ‘research paradigms’ and talk of stances and positions and the assumed direct (but really blurred) relationship with ‘methods’.  It’s not that I don’t understand it or ‘get it’, I’ve just found myself wondering what it is we are doing when we are distinguishing, labelling, categorising, and ultimately reifying research paradigms – and what is our purpose in doing so.

A couple of lines in one of my research text books (Robson, 2012) has led me into an interesting – I was going to say tangent, but that would mean I should go back – it’s a new interesting way of framing my understanding of the world of research

Robson (2012, page 27) states “In terms of research paradigms, a way forward is to be less concerned with ‘paradigms as philosophical stance’ and to adopt a notion of ‘paradigms as shared beliefs among groups of researchers’ (Morgan, 2007)”

These lines sparked my interest and led me to look up the Morgan (2007) reference.  It’s quite a long article and even though I have now read it twice, I still think I haven’t digested the whole thing – but I’ve understood enough to know that Morgan’s explanations resonate with me.  This is what I’ve begun to understand from it…

Firstly Morgan starts out by providing alternative explanations of the word ‘paradigm’.  He identifies four but for the sake of my summary I’ll focus on the two that Robson hinted at in the quote above.  The currently dominant way of thinking about paradigms in research is as an epistemological stance – in that we draw from philosophical discussions about ontology, epistemology and methodology to create distinctions between different types of research.  Morgan himself prefers a different explanation drawn from the work of Kuhn who introduced the word paradigm – it is more about shared beliefs amongst a group of researchers about the type of questions that need answering and how best to go about answering them.

Morgan then focusses on large scale historical shifts in social science research.  He uses the word paradigm here too – the shared beliefs amongst the WHOLE of the social science research community – kind of a meta-paradigm (I guess sometimes referred to as a worldview). I’m going to use the word ‘era’ to draw attention to these historical phases.  Transformations of these meta-paradigms tend to happen through the advocacy of people offering a viable alternative – Morgan explains (drawing on Kuhn) that the alternative has to deal with the frustrations of the previous era; bring with it the virtues of the previous era; and, offer new possibilities.

Once upon a time, we were in the era of positivism – it wasn’t named as such then, it was just accepted as the way science is done.  But some people, particularly those with an interest in legitimising the use of qualitative data, got frustrated with that era and started to highlight its problems.    In order to argue for the acceptance of qualitative design, its proponents drew on philosophy to create different categories of research paradigm (as epistemological stance).  The category of ‘positivism’ became contrasted with the category of ‘naturalism’ – later called constructivism or interpretivism.  The success of this advocacy ushered in a new era – an era that is reflected in most social science text books.  Morgan refers to this as the metaphysical paradigm – we are in an era where our shared beliefs lead us to think that the ‘right’ way of going about research is to understand the research paradigm you are drawing from – your epistemological stance.  This feels normal as it is so embedded – but it is only a era – a phase in the history of social science research practice.

Morgan then draws attention to the frustrations and anomalies in the era of the metaphysical.  They are exactly the struggles some of my fellow students and I are grappling with.  Firstly, the era of the metaphysical leads us to believe that there is a top-down schemata for possible paradigms – depending on different combinations of ontological position, epistemological position, methodological position and sometime axiological position.  (Anyone who follows Just Practicing will know I’ve blogged and blogged about these schemata and the different ways authors represent them).  But in reality, what goes on a ‘list’ of possible paradigms is something that is negotiated within the research community – different people advocate for different approaches and create new distinctions so that ‘their’ preferred approach becomes legitimized – and power dynamics within the community as a whole determines what emerges as an acceptable ‘list’.  Secondly, the era of the metaphysical leads us to believe that different types of knowledge are ‘incommensurate’ with each other and at its extreme that the language of these different paradigms prevents any real communication between researchers operating in different modes.  This causes problems with those who want to ‘mix methods’ – and dbates about not only how to synthesise the knowledge back together but whether one should.  Thirdly, the era of the metaphysical implies that the metaphysical beliefs of researchers ‘determine’ the decisions that researchers make on a day to day basis – but there is little evidence that really happens, it is just  constructed that way in texts (aka research articles).

For Morgan, these frustrations mark the time to usher in a new era and he proposes a new era as one of a pragmatic approach.  It’s worth saying here that some authors seem to list ‘pragmatism’ as a possible research paradigm (as epistemological stance) within the existing frame of the era of the metaphysical and is particular advocated for by those seeking to legitimise mixed methods research.  Morgan is saying something different – he says that in the same way that the era of metaphysical was a transformation from the era of positivism, so too pragmatism is a transformation from the era of metaphysical.  A third ‘wave’ if you like – not something completely new but bringing some different, currently non-mainstream ideas to the fore.  I see parallels here with the  writings of Schön (1973, see this blog) – currently the idea of a range of research paradigms with metaphysical distinctions between them is an idea in good currency and is perhaps getting disrupted.  The idea of pragmatism has been operating at the margins but offers an interesting alternative.

So – what could be the characteristics of this new era – this is where I have got a lot more reading and digesting to do.  However these are the areas that I recall from what Morgan emphasises:

  • moving on from the notion of paradigm as epistemological stance to a renewed view of paradigm as a set of shared beliefs and practices amongst a community of researchers – these shared beliefs include a consensus around which questions are important to study and which methods are appropriate to study them.  This resolves the frustration of trying to create, maintain and fit into a schemata of ‘research paradigms’ and recognises that shared beliefs/practices are something more fluid, negotiated and evolving.
  • moving on from either/or dualisms – inductive vs deductive; objective vs subjective; context-specific vs generalisability – to recognise the interplay of all of these and the possibilities of abductive; intersubjective; transferability (need to understand these terms more)
  • drawing on concepts from pragmatic philosophers such as Dewey, James and Mead – these concepts include ‘lines of action’, ‘warranted assertions’ and ‘workability’.  I’ve got some further reading to do there too.
  • keeping the era of the metaphysical’s virtue of learning the language of philosophy and valuing the distinctions that helps create – not to reify categories, more to help with a reflexive understanding of the everyday way in which theory and practice intertwine.
  • keeping the era of the metaphysical’s virtue of separating out discussions of why we do what we do from a pure focus on technique and method.

Morgan’s account takes responsibility for the way he has deliberately characterised the era of the metaphysical and its frustrations in a way that allows him to offer the era of the pragmatic approach as an alternative.  I find his account authentic, the explanations resonate with me.  I also take responsibility for my summary embedding in parallels with the traditions and language of systems thinking in practice.  I need to perhaps inquire into some of the words and ideas more but overall they appeal to me.

Communities of research practitioners

As I read Morgan, I found myself thinking – he is talking about ‘a set of shared beliefs and practices amongst a community of researchers’.  If I turn that on its head ‘a community of researchers with a set of shared beliefs and practices’, it sounds awfully like a community of practice (sensu Wenger, 1998, 2000, 2010 – see this blog).  That’s where I was originally going to leave this blog – my sudden connection with the familiar world of social learning systems and the concept of communities of practice.  But then I checked the list of papers that have cited Morgan’s paper – and found that someone had been there before me (Denscombe, 2008).

The downside of the article is Denscombe doesn’t consistently use the word paradigm in the same way as Morgan and seems to align pragmatism with ‘mixed methods’ (the third paradigm – in the sense of epistemological stance).  On the upside, Denscombe returns to Kuhn’s discussion of paradigm as a set of shared beliefs/practices.  He highlights (page 276) four areas that Kuhn says characterises a ‘paradigm’

  • centre around a specific problem that are collectively seen as important to the advancement of knowledge
  • there is a shared practice – it is generally understood what are the most appropriate ways to research the problem
  • there is a sense of shared identity – reinforced through journals read, conferences attended and interpersonal relationships
  • the paradigms operate through ‘communities’ – which operate at a variety of different levels (e.g. community of social science researchers; through to community of social science researchers in public health; through to those using multivariate quantitative techniques to research the determinants of health etc etc).  Communities therefore can be quite small and an individual researcher may identify with more than one at any point in time and over time.

This is where Denscombe draws the parallel with the concept of community of practice.  Like me, he detected synergies with the writings of Wenger and others.  The new angle that the concept of CoP brings is the focus on learning – of people coming together through a shared interest in an issue and learning with, and from, each other about how to progress their domain of practice.  As time goes on people are bound by this learning and ‘artefacts’ help to represent it to new members and perpetuate it over time (Journal of Mixed Methods Research anyone?).  This idea of practice-based learning coming to the fore isn’t without its critics – it has raised concerns that ‘learning through doing’ is elevated above ‘learning through education’ (which of course is the model of knowledge transfer that researchers traditionally advocate).

And into the landscape…

There is a lot in Denscombe that I also need to return to.  But for now, I remind myself of Wenger’s concept of the landscape of practice.  Framing the world of research as a landscape of practices containing different communities each with particular shared beliefs, concerns and practices brings me to a whole different outlook.  As well as being able to distinguish different communities, it is also possible to see overlaps and encounters that hold the potential for new possibilities.  As a newcomer to the world of research, I am currently discovering that landscape – looking to see which communities have beliefs that resonate with my own, looking to see which ones ask the questions that I want to ask, looking to see which ones practice in the way I want to practice, looking to see which ones use research methods that appeal to me, looking to see which ones will invite me in and hoping like mad that my own traditions and experiences doesn’t make me so unique there is nowhere to belong.  But at the same time I remember Wenger’s idea of learning citizenship (Wenger, 2010).  By virtue of my own history, I am in a unique position to see possibilities for communities to come together, to create new bridges – in my own small way I can contribute to the shifting landscape.

I am sure this blog will lead to a few more – I’ve got to engage more in particular with Morgan’s explanation of the era of the pragmatic approach; look back at the pragmatist philosophers and follow through on Denscombe’s own discussion of CoP.  But even more so I need to explore me – understand a little more the features of the community/ies that I am seeking out so that I can act purposefully to connect with them.  That’s not to say I negate the others – just find my own comfort zone(s) within this landscape from which I can operate and within which I can learn and contribute.


Denscombe, M. (2008), Community of Practice: a Research Paradigm for the Mixed Methods Approach. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 2(3), pp.270–283.

Morgan, D.L. (2007), Paradigms lost and pragmatism regained: methodological implications of combining qualitative and quantitative methods. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 1, pp.48–76.

Robson, C. (2009), Real world research Third Edition., Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Schön, D.A. (1973) Beyond the stable state pp.30, 116 – 179. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton and Company INC, New York reprinted as Chapter 1 in Blackmore, C. (Editor, 2010) Social learning systems and communities of practice, The Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

Extracts from Wenger, E. (2000) and Wenger, E. (1998) in ‘Conceptual Tools for CoPs as Social Learning Systems: Boundaries, Identity, Trajectories and Participation’ in Blackmore, C. (Editor, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

Wenger (2010) ‘Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the career of a concept’ in Blackmore, C. (Editor) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

2 thoughts on “Discovering a landscape of research practice

  1. Dear Helen,
    thanks for sharing your thoughts and new insights on your blog (great to see this active again!). It is great to see how you build on further on the learning and the concepts encountered on the systems thinking journey, and continue travelling that path through your PhD, making new discoveries along that way! Thanks for sharing these interesting new references such as Robson, Morgan and Denscombe. I feel inspired to look them up, and maybe still tackling that MSc in due course! (once I hopefully overcome my deep despair with ‘institutional development’ – a course I unfortunately don’t enjoy at all, and am deeply disappointed with… ) – maybe might be helpful to reflect on why this, using the paradigms and ‘stances’ ideas – there is something there I find deeply irritating! You post here helps me to reframe this experience from a different perspective. Therefore – thanks! Looking forward to your next postings!

  2. Pingback: Just Practicing − Fact – there is no ‘getting there’ – learning is always about ‘getting started’

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