Constructivist Realism: An Ontology That Encompasses Positivist and Constructivist Approaches to the Social Sciences

Cupchik, Gerald
February 2001
Forum: Qualitative Social Research;2001, Vol. 2 Issue 1, p29
Academic Journal
It has been argued that positivist and constructivist ontologies are irreconcilable. According to LINCOLN and GUBA (2000), positivism's "naive realism" holds that reality is both "real" and "apprehendable," whereas constructivism maintains that meaning is generated by individuals and groups. This analysis implies that the quantitative and qualitative methodologies associated with positivism and constructivism, respectively, are also incommensurable. In this paper, constructivist realism is proposed as an alternative ontology that accommodates positivism and constructivism and the methods that they subtend. The first step is to acknowledge a social world (or worlds) that is reflected in the natural attitude of daily life and exists prior to and independent of either positivist or constructivist analysis; hence realism. Phenomena are understood as processes which cut across the physical, social, and personal (self) worlds. Qualitative and quantitative researchers examine these phenomena, offering rich descriptive accounts or precise analyses of functional relations, respectively. It is assumed that both approaches to research practice face the problem of constructing "data" and are therefore subject to potential bias. While description has traditionally been viewed as preceding hypothesis testing (i.e., natural history precedes hypothesis testing), the two approaches are viewed here as complementary and in parallel. Qualitative methods offer an in-depth account of underlying processes and can help frame hypotheses that test specific functional relationships, while empirical findings related to processes can suggest areas which might benefit from detailed descriptive examination.


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