Niall’s virtual diary archives – Friday 8th June 2012

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Friday 8th June 2012: 4.44pm. My thanks to +Anthem Press, my publisher of +Economists and the Powerful today for having me over to visit which was very interesting and useful. I hope you like the Irish chocolates I brought!

Exam went okay yesterday, there was a bit of a curve ball in the mandatory question in that it was different from past papers for the first time ever. Who knows how I did!

Anyway, I figured given my whinging about that exam over the past few Google+ posts that I'd try posting one of my model answers here for shits and giggles, and to see how large Google+ posts can be. Please note I was aiming for a pass mark or higher in this model answer, as for resits your grade is capped to the lowest grade possible. And as earlier posts mentioned, I am taking the piss, the below is puke inducing on purpose :)

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Discuss methodological debates in Interpretivism and Positivism (1000 words)

The positivist approach to research maintains that a true explanation or cause of an event or social pattern can be found and tested by scientific standards of verification. The interpretivist approach to research does not seek an objective truth so much as to unravel patterns of subjective understanding, thus revealing how the meanings of the event or social pattern are constructed and structured as “webs of significance” into the broader sociocultural milieu.

Validity of analysis differs greatly between positivism and interpretivism. Positivism uses the “verification principle” which categorises statements as one of (i) tautological claims i.e. those true by definition (ii) verifiable empirically (ii) neither of the former two, which means the statement is meaningless. The problem with this principle, as established by Karl Popper (1959), is that unrestricted (scientific) generalisations cannot be verified, but can only be falsified. This eliminates the ability to use induction and abduction, permitting only deduction, and in so doing renders the verification principle – which is inductive – as invalid by its own definition.
Validity in interpretivism is much superior because interpretive analysis of subjective meaning cannot be held to empirical tests of validity across cases due to it by nature being tied to particular cultural systems, so no claim for universal validity is made in interpretivist research. Instead, as Geertz (1973) argues, the analysis of the search for meaning must be self-validating by demonstrating its legitimacy within the case being studied and how well the analysis is supported by the evidence collected.

How this difference in how validity is understood affects research methodology is best made clear in an example. Research taking a positivist approach would seek a law-like generalisation of cause and effect e.g. it might yield a result such as concluding from the evidence that punishing students for doing badly in their exams improves average grades. Such a generalisation tends to perceive students as rational agents and entirely similar in that they would therefore all interpret and react to such a stimulus in the intended fashion, with any empirical aberrations from this conformity perceived as dysfunctional “troublesome” cases which are by definition atypical. Such an interpretation of the world clearly disempowers individuals by homogenising them and eliminating any motives other than the desire to avoid punishment, and it implicitly empowers those with the power to define what is “good” and what is “bad” with regard to examination performance. Bourdieu would call this an act of “symbolic violence” against the learner.

In contrast, research taking an interpretivist approach sees people as giving meaning to the world in their own peculiar fashions according to the experiences and contingencies of their lives. Unlike positivist research, interpretivist research does not claim a special objective status for the researcher – rather the researcher is embedded in a discourse where truth claims are contextualised by their cultural field and their institutional context, both of which are driven by wider social and political forces. Unlike in the positivist research case which places focus on objective, measurable results such as grades, interpretivism sees education as assisting learners in the development of agency in their learning and providing them with the opportunity to take ownership of their learning which by definition is unique to each learner. Therefore interpretivist research empowers rather than disempowers the individual by recognising the individual for what they actually are; it heterogenises rather than homogenises the milieu; and it classes performance as relative to each individual’s personal tastes and preferences rather than sitting in symbolically violent judgement over them.

Therefore, interpretivist research methodology creates and constructs a view rather than “discovering” a view as positivism claims. Where positivism tends to make static, unchanging, immutable findings, interpretivism creates partial, tentative accounts about the world which can be modified and improved through exchange and further research. This is not to say that there are not stable and obvious meanings which can be found in interpretivist research – for example, within the community of practice in teaching it would generally be felt obvious that lengthy summer holidays are absolutely necessary to reflect upon and recuperate from the publicly underappreciated draining intensity that is modern exam led teaching (“teaching to the test”) implicitly required by both the state and the general public. Rather one is concerned whether the findings are an appropriate description or interpretation of the case being studied: have the research participants been understood correctly? Has the analysis gone too far beyond what has been told to us, or have we not in fact read enough into their comments? If our accounts of their interpretations are themselves only interpretations, how do we know when we should finish the work of interpreting?

Of course, positivist research also interprets empirical findings – positivism calls such interpretation a “hypothesis” which is subject to type one (overinterpretation of the findings) and type two (underinterpretation) errors. However usually a verified positivist interpretation is held to have predictive capability, whereas interpretivist research would be hesitant to be so definite in its findings when we cannot empirically enquire into whether or not empirical facts actually exist, and moreover it is very hard to be sure that individuals will always interpret their surroundings in the same way (Becker, 2000).

In summary, interpretivism carries the following implications for methodology: the researcher should adopt an exploratory orientation which seeks to arrive at an understanding of particular situations and the meanings understood by those actors within the sphere of study. This implies that the data collected ought to be structured as little as possible by the researcher’s own prior assumptions, which implies a general qualitative over quantitative bias. This contrasts against positivism which tends to assume that the only worthwhile data are those which can be numerically measured and statistically analysed, perhaps by regressing a quantitative explanatory model from those data which can then be later presented either as a causal or predictive relationship. This implies that only the numeric data presented have meaning.
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Unfortunately this question didn't come up this year, so the above answer was memorised for no purpose. Oh well!

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