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Positivism and Interpretivism: A Simple Explanation

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Positivism and interpretivism are words that many students will be only too familiar with. Yet, it’s not always easy to get your head around exactly what these words mean. In this post, I will give you a simple explanation for positivism and interpretivism.

Research philosophy

Whether you’re doing a research project in tourism management, aviation management or any other subject, you first need to determine your research philosophy. As I explained in my post- ‘Why do I need a research philosophy?’, you need to define your world views and perspectives in terms of your research. 

Research philosophy is essentially a set of beliefs or metaphysics that represent the researcher’s world-view: the nature of ‘the world’, the individual’s place in it and the range of possible relationships to that world. This tends to be either scientific or society based. The former is associated with positivism and quantitative research, and the latter is associated with interpretivism and qualitative research.

Positivism and Interpretivism

Positivism and interpretivism are epistemological positions adopted by the researcher (click here for a simple explanation of ontology and epistemology). You will choose your epistemological position based on what best fits with your research aims and objectives of the research.


What is positivism?

Positivism aligns itself with the methods of the natural sciences. It is associated with deductive logical reasoning (starting with initial theories or hypothesis’ and working towards the more specific details). It tends to be very black and white – it either is or it isn’t. And it can be proved, or it can’t. It does not lend itself particularly well to areas that are not so black and white in nature, such as the study of society.

Positivism uses only research data that is verifiable and is collected in a value-free manner, enabling objective results to be generated and general scientific laws to be created. It often uses numbers. A number is a number, it is not subjective in any way. Calculations and equations can be easily developed.

You can also think of it in terms of a scientific experiment. Take fire, for example. We need the three elements of oxygen, heat and fuel in order for fire to occur. If one element is missing, there is no fire. This is not up for discussion. It is a black and white fact.


What is interpretivism?

Interpretivism lends itself well to studies that have a lot of grey areas, like society, for example. Understanding why or how somebody feels or behaves cannot be achieved through the analysis of numbers. Instead it requires an in-depth assessment of words, actions and behaviours. An interpretive researcher concentrates on the meanings that people bring to situations and behaviour and the ways that they use this to interpret the world.

What’s more, is that an interpretative researcher believes that reality and the individual who observes it are inseparable. This is because a person’s views of the world are inextricably linked to their life experiences. Take my experience as a TEFL teacher, for example. Having been educated in the UK, I had a perception of the way that lessons should be taught based on my own personal experiences. This would likely be very different to someone who was educated in a different environment, such as rural India.  

Positivism versus interpretivism

There are benefits and limitations to both types of research. A positivist study enables control and precision and returns verifiable data, that is very black and white in nature. Interpretative studies are unable to produce generalised laws in the way that positivist research can since the data cannot be guaranteed as objective and true (it’s often grey or subjective).

However, a positivist approach is limited in that the data that it produces can be inflexible and fails to address aspects such as personal beliefs, experiences and motivations. Interpretivist studies aim to understand things, as opposed to providing the rigid explanations that a positivist study would do.

Despite their ability to provide in-depth and valuable results, however, interpretative studies can be criticised for the researcher’s subjectivity that they inevitably entail throughout the data collection and analysis. In other words, what I think may not be what you think. I might observe somebody to be upset and you might see them to be fine. We all see things differently.

Fore more information on how positivism and interpretivism fit within your wider research project I suggest you read my post- ‘The research onion for beginners‘. 

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