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Methodological Paradigms in Educational Research              

Martyn Hammersley

Martyn is Professor of Educational and Social Research at the Open University.

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Introduction: divisions, issues, and debates

For the newcomer to educational research, and even for those already familiar with the scene, there is now a baffling array of different approaches advertised and practised. The days are long gone when the main internal divisions were marked by the disciplines (psychology and sociology, but also philosophy and history), each adopting one major methodological approach. Now, the disciplines have become less salient, and are in any case themselves internally diverse; so that what we have is a large and complex field in which work of sharply different kinds is carried out, accompanied by debates in which a disparate collection of theoretical and methodological labels are deployed.

Some of the issues which divide educational researchers today include:

  • Should research be aimed primarily at producing knowledge about educational practices and institutions, or should it be designed directly to improve those practices and institutions?
  • Should it be neutral in political orientation or should it, for example, be committed to challenging inequalities (in relation to social class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity or race, religion, etc)?
  • Can it demonstrate ‘what works' in terms of policy and practice, or is it limited to providing broad understandings that are, at best, of only indirect use to policymakers and practitioners?
  • Should the process and product of all research be under the control of specially trained researchers, or should it be pursued in partnership with participants in the setting being studied? More radically, should the latter be in control of research?
  • Is qualitative evidence superior to quantitative evidence, or vice versa? Can and should these different methods be ‘combined' or ‘mixed'?
  • Can there by criteria by which the quality of research is judged? If so, what are these?

These are just a few of the issues that have been, and continue to be, widely discussed. Implicated in them are diverse methodological positions and arguments.

Changing Paradigms

One common way of thinking about this methodological diversity within educational research employs the concept of competing ‘paradigms'. The standard, everyday meaning of ‘paradigm' is ‘exemplar' or ‘model'. But, in the context of research methodology, the term has also come to mean a set of philosophical assumptions about the phenomena to be studied, about how they can be understood, and even about the proper purpose and product of research. This sense of the term came from the influential work of the philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn. He played a major role in overturning the image of science that had prevailed for much of the twentieth century, in which it was seen as following a method that rigorously derived findings from data, findings whose validity was certain, and which cumulated to produce a single body of knowledge about the world.

Thomas Kuhn's Account of the Development of Science and its Reception in Social and Educational Research

The older, broadly positivist, model of science had dominated social and educational research for the first half of the twentieth century, prioritising the ideal of the experiment, the use of standardised tests and ‘systematic' observation, and statistical analysis. The influence of Kuhn's work and other developments in the 1960s and 70s in philosophy and social science led to major changes within the field; and these changes often came to be understood in Kuhnian terms as a process of paradigm change - even though Kuhn had portrayed the social sciences as pre-scientific at best. Where quantitative work had been dominant up until the end of the 1960s, there followed a growth in the influence of qualitative approaches. Furthermore, these diversified into competing, self-identifying ‘paradigms', as new approaches were recurrently developed. These have included: symbolic interactionist ethnography, ethogenics, Marxist ethnography, ‘critical' research, feminist method, phenomenography, discourse analysis, postmodernism, and so on. Along with this proliferation in labelled orientations, there have been appeals to influential philosophical ideas, for example phenomenology, pragmatism, and post-structuralism.

Philosophical Concepts Used in the Methodological Literature


It is not possible to give a definitive and exhaustive list of paradigms, because the labels for different approaches are not used in standard ways and do not form part of a single, well-defined typology. Instead, they are usually employed by researchers in socially situated ways: to distinguish their own approach from that of others, with the same term being used in somewhat different, and sometimes very different, ways on different occasions.

Typologies of Educational Research

Some of these typologies have been quite abstract, concerned with quite fundamental differences in view about the nature of the phenomena being investigated (ontology) and how they can be understood (epistemology), and also about the purposes of research. From what is sometimes labelled as a positivist point of view, the task is to conceptualise and measure human behaviour in terms of key variables, and to discover causal relationships among these. From other points of view, the task is to understand how people see, think, and feel about the world, seeking to grasp diverse perspectives in their own terms. Very often, the links between perspectives and actions, and between behaviour and its effects, are seen as complex and uncertain, rather than reducible to any kind of universal statement about fixed relationships. Other points of view emphasise the need to grasp the forces that structure the wider society if we are to be able to understand how institutions like schools or colleges operate. There are also those who stress what they see as the constitutive role of discourse in generating not just our experience of the world, but also what actually happens within it. Moreover, cross-cutting these differences are disagreements about what the product of educational research ought to be, and about what should be the proper relationship between (indeed, about whether there should be any distinction between) researcher and researched.

An Outline of Methodological Approaches

There are conflicting responses to the methodological pluralism that currently prevails in educational research. Some believe that it is a sign of health and should be celebrated. Others regard it as having reached an undesirable level, and insist that some means must be found of generating greater methodological consensus.



How to reference this page: Hammersley, M. (2007) Methodological Paradigms in Educational Research. London: TLRP. Online at (accessed )

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