Postmodernism: paradigmatic comparison

August 20, 2016 – 1:12 am

I’m just going to keep posting these until they are all done. I’ve lost the ability to write useful annotations at the start. See previous posts, or something.

Since I am presenting postmodernism here as a qualitative research paradigm to be incorporated into engineering education practice, I will compare it to the philosophies and practices already present in the field as they appear in several qualitative research paradigms previously discussed within it. Glesne’s introductory book on qualitative research defines a paradigm as “a framework or philosophy of science that makes assumptions about the nature of reality and truth, the kinds of questions to explore, and how to go about doing so” (2011, p. 5). These assumptions affect our research, as “research approaches inherently reflect our beliefs about the world we live in and want to live in” (Lather, 1991, p. 5). Becker (2001) describes qualitative research fields as being protective and self-preservational about their own boundaries, as human communities are wont to do. After all, one needs a way to distinguish who and what belongs within a group and who and what does not, and how to determine which things within the field’s accepted boundaries are “best.” Paradigms provide a way to legitimize and privilege work that shares a field’s assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge.

Koro-Ljungberg and Douglas’s JEE meta-review of qualitative research in engineering education synthesizes four perspectives (2008, p. 165) that align with the paradigmatic breakdowns given by Glesne in her research methodology textbook (2011, p. 7) and Lather’s now-classic paper on postmodern research “paradigm talk” (2006, p. 38-40). In the table below, if paradigm names vary between sources, I use the first names listed by Koro-Ljungberg and Douglas, with selected alternate names given in parentheses afterwards in the extended explanations. Following the table, I discuss each paradigm more extensively in turn.

Table 1: Qualitative paradigms in engineering education research





View of reality

Single objective reality, objective and falsifiable

Multiple subjective, constructed realities

Multiple subjective political realities constructed on the basis of power

Multiple, fragmented, unknowable

View of truth

Truth is one

Truth is many

Truth is many and constitutes a system of socio-political power

Contains the signs of its own contradiction

Purpose of research

Prediction, cause and effect

Describe and understand

Emancipate, socio-political critique

Deconstruct “grand narratives”

Methods of research

Defined in advance, hypothesis driven, ex: experimental or quasi-experimental, causal comparative

Preliminarily defined in advance, emergently adjusted during the study, ex: grounded theory, ethnography

Designed to capture inequities, ex: participatory action, critical discourse analysis

Generated during the study, “theory as methodology,” ex: deconstruction, geneaology, rhizoanalysis

Role of researcher




various changing roles

Outcome of research

Context-free generalization

Situated description

Critical essays, policy changes

Re-conceptualized descriptions

Positivism (postpositivism, logical empiricism) is the paradigm used by mainstream scientific research, according to Popper’s (1959) definition of science as the usage of empirical falsification. The positivist paradigm assumes a pre-existing and objectively knowable reality (Lather, 2006). Consequently, using a postmodern paradigm, inquiries as to the truthful nature of this reality can be conducted by formulating and testing falsifiable hypotheses via experimental procedures defined in advance of their execution. Knowledge produced by this style of research builds linearly upon itself until researchers know how the world works (Glesne, 2011), or in the case of postpositivism, until they approach as close as possible. The purpose of research is to determine cause and effect (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008) and predict future results (Glesne, 2011) since experiments for testing falsifiable hypotheses should be repeatable. Researchers are therefore interchangeable components who serve as neutral, detached observers. Furthermore, research outcomes are expected to be generalizable across contexts (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008); under such a paradigm, transferable knowledge is privileged.

Lather (2006) playfully compares positivism to classical ballet, with its rule-driven precision. Since engineering training includes a great deal of science background, the positivist paradigms are commonplace among engineers. Indeed, they are so commonplace that sometimes they are assumed to be te only paradigms available. Such assumptions can cause conceptual difficulties for engineering researchers transitioning towards education research and suddenly encountering the existence of other paradigms of research (Borrego, 2007).

Interpretivism (constructivism, phenomenology) is a research paradigm frequently used in the social sciences such as anthropology and sociology. From an interpretivist point of view, reality is subjective and constructed (Lather, 2006) and therefore leads to multiple truths. The focus turns away from prediction of an absolute reality and towards understanding of a co-constructed one (Glesne, 2011), with researchers and participants acting as partners in creating that understanding. The result is often thick description, situated in a contextually-dependent environment (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008); it is no longer required to be generalizable and transferable in order to count as valid knowledge.

Many methodologies and theories fall under the umbrella of interpretivism, including constructivism, constructionism, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, and narrative analysis, to name a few. Lather’s analogy for interpretivism is a community picnic, with its dynamics of humanistic cooperation amongst parties (2006). Qualitative research projects in engineering education often employ an interpretivist paradigm, for example when examining case studies and stories from underrepresented groups or describing the engineering cultures of indigenous groups.

The critical approach shares interpretivism’s assumptions about the social construction of reality, then adds an emphasis on the sociopolitical power relations of those constructs (Lather, 2006). These power structures create oppression; therefore, the goal of research is to liberate (Glesne, 2011). By capturing and proclaiming inequities and injustices, researchers and participants become activists who can affect policy change (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008) Projects employing critical paradigms are also often associated with a focus on marginalized groups (Lather, 2006). Within engineering education research, a good deal of work using the critical paradigm focuses on aspects of diversity: gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc., and the power dynamics that lead to under-representation from particular demographics within the engineering field. Feminist theory, critical theory, and critical discourse analysis are examples of theories that might be employed within this paradigm (Glesne, 2011).

The critical perspective “springs from an assumption that we live amid a world of pain, that much can be done to alleviate that pain, and that theory has a crucial role to play in that process” (Marc Poster, Critical Theory and Postructuralism: In search of a context. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1989, p. 3). Consequently, projects within the critical paradigm move beyond understanding to demand action. Their research outputs move beyond disseminating knowlege to an academic elite and often frequently aim towards positive impacts on the research participants and their communities. This might take the form of political initiatives, the design and manufacture of products, performance art, or other action-oriented approaches.

Finally, postmodernism (deconstruction, poststructural, postcolonial, and the other “posts”) both draws from and works against each of the other perspectives. Like positivists, postmodernists acknowledge the utility of prediction and control, but question how they are pursued and the ends to which they are used, and whether such pursuits, dependent on the assumption of an impossible level of objectivity, can ever ultimately be successful. Like interpretivists, postmodernists acknowledge the social construction of reality and the unique positionality contributed by researchers and participants; unlike many interpretivists, postmodernists do not seek a convergence, stabilization, or taxonomical ordering of this constructed understanding. Like critical inquiry, postmodern inquiry is concerned with power, but “instead of having the critical theorists’ goal of eliminating the oppressive acts of society, postmodernists seek to delineate the multivocal relations of power that exist in order to understand differences” (Tierney and Bensimon, 1996, p. 15).

As previous sections of this chapter have described, the postmodernist emphasis is on play and disruption of assumptions made within a variety of paradigms. Instead of settling within one paradigm, postmodernism proliferates paradigms. In a sense, a postmodern paradigm creates, uses, and attempts to shift between multiple paradigms; in the case of this project, the primary shift is between interpretivist and postmodernist paradigms. Shifts between paradigms disrupt existing ways of thinking and dominance relationships, and provide opportunities for Lather’s (2006) analogy of the postmodernist paradigm is of a carnival; there is no single reference point, and reality is ultimately unknowable and self-contradictory. Inasmuch as it can be said to have a particular goal, postmodern projects aim towards reconceptualizations of phenomena (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008), or to borrow a title from one of Lather’s (2008) papers, to work with, within, and against the world so that it may “appear other to itself anew.”

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