The Positivist Paradigm

The origin of positivist views are usually credited to Descarte.  Others have traced these beliefs back to Galileo.  Both share the following beliefs about the nature of knowing and reality.

Assumptions and beliefs of the Positivist Paradigm:

  • realist ontology - assumes that there are real world objects apart from the human knower.  In other words, there is an objective reality.
  • representational epistemology - assumes people can know this reality and use symbols to accurately describe and explain this objective reality.

By positing a reality separate from our knowlege of it (separation of subject and object), the positivist paradigm provides an objective reality against which researchers can compare their claims and ascertain truth.

  • Prediction and control - assumes that there are general patterns of cause and effect that can be used as a basis for predicting and controlling natural phenomenon.  The goal is to discover these patterns.
  • Empirical verification - assumes that we can rely on our perceptions of the world to provide us with accurate data.
  • Research has been assumed to be value-free; if strict methodological protocol is followed, research will be free of subjective bias and objectivity will be achieved.


  • Positivist approaches rely heavily on experimental and manipulative methods.
  • These ensure that there is a distance between the subjective biases of the researcher and the objective reality he or she studies. 
  • This generally involves hypothesis generation and testing.
  • Typically, quantitative methods are used. 

View of Criteria for 'Good' Research

The positivist position is grounded in the theoretical belief that there is an objective reality that can be known to the researcher, if he or she uses the correct methods and applies those methods in a correct manner.

Research (typically quantitative and experimental methods) is evaluted based on three criteria:

  • Validity - the extent to which a measurement approach or procedure gives the correct answer (allowing the researcher to measure or evalute an objective reality)
  • Reliability - the extent to which a measurement approach or procedure give the same answer whenever it is carried out
  • Generalizability - extent to which the findings of a study can be applied externally or more broadly outside of the study context


Angen, MJ. (2000). Evaluating interpretive inquiry: Reviewing the validity debate and opening the dialogue. Qualitative Health Research. 10(3) pp. 378-395.

Burell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis.  London: Heinemann.

Creswell, JW. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Guba, EG and Lincoln, YS. (1994). "Competing paradigms in qualitative research." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 105-117.

Popper, K. (1972). Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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