Can research be both positivist and interpretivist?

research Dec 04, 2023
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These two research paradigms, seemingly at odds, can indeed intersect and complement each other, offering a richer and more nuanced understanding of complex phenomena. In this article, we will explore how international postgraduate students can navigate this intriguing interplay between positivism and interpretivism in their research endeavors.

Understanding Positivism and Interpretivism:

Before we delve into their intersection, let's briefly clarify the characteristics of positivist and interpretivist research:


  1. Objective Approach: Positivist research emphasizes objectivity and the scientific method. It seeks to uncover universal laws and causal relationships through empirical observation and experimentation.

  2. Quantitative Data: Positivist research relies on quantitative data, often collected through structured surveys, experiments, or statistical analyses. It aims for measurement, prediction, and generalization.

  3. Detached Observer: Positivist researchers adopt a detached observer role, aiming to minimize their influence on the research process. Their focus is on uncovering objective truths.


  1. Subjective Understanding: Interpretivist research, on the other hand, emphasizes subjective understanding and the importance of context. It seeks to explore meanings, perspectives, and social constructs.

  2. Qualitative Data: Interpretivist research often employs qualitative data collection methods such as interviews, observations, or content analysis. It values rich, descriptive data over numerical measurements.

  3. Researcher's Influence: Interpretivist researchers acknowledge their role in shaping the research process. They recognize that the researcher's perspective and interpretations are integral to the study.

The Intersection of Positivism and Interpretivism:

While these paradigms have distinct philosophical underpinnings, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can intersect and mutually enrich one another in various ways:

1. Mixed-Methods Research: researchers can engage in mixed-methods research, which explicitly combines both quantitative (positivist) and qualitative (interpretivist) approaches within a single study. This integration allows for a more comprehensive exploration of a research question.

For example, a postgraduate student studying the impact of educational interventions on student performance might use a quantitative survey to gather numerical data on test scores (positivist), while also conducting qualitative interviews to explore students' experiences and perceptions (interpretivist).

2. Sequential Exploratory Design: In this design, researchers first collect qualitative data (interpretivist) to explore a phenomenon, generate hypotheses, or identify key variables. These qualitative findings then inform the subsequent quantitative phase (positivist), where researchers test hypotheses using numerical data.

3. Triangulation: Researchers can use the concept of triangulation, where multiple sources of data (both quantitative and qualitative) are used to validate findings. This approach enhances the credibility and trustworthiness of research outcomes.

4. Contextual Understanding: Positivist research can benefit from interpretivist insights by providing a deeper understanding of the context in which quantitative data is collected. Interpretivist research, in turn, can draw on positivist methods to support or challenge qualitative findings through statistical analysis.

5. Theory Building and Testing: Researchers may start with qualitative research to build theories or develop conceptual frameworks (interpretivist), which can then be tested quantitatively using large datasets (positivist). This approach strengthens the theoretical foundations of research.

Practical Implications:

Navigating the interplay between positivist and interpretivist research requires thoughtful planning and consideration:

  1. Research Design: Determine the most suitable research design that aligns with your research question and objectives. Consider whether a mixed-methods approach, sequential design, or triangulation would be most effective.

  2. Data Collection: Choose data collection methods that align with the research paradigm. For positivist research, use structured surveys or experiments; for interpretivist research, use qualitative interviews or observations.

  3. Analysis: Select appropriate analysis techniques. Quantitative data may involve statistical tests, while qualitative data requires thematic analysis or content coding.

  4. Integration: Ensure that both paradigms are integrated effectively. Clearly articulate how the two approaches inform each other and contribute to a holistic understanding of the research question.

Research can be both positivist and interpretivist, and this duality offers a powerful approach to understanding complex phenomena. By strategically integrating these paradigms, students can enrich their research, produce comprehensive findings, and contribute to the depth and breadth of knowledge in their fields. Embracing the interplay between positivism and interpretivism is a testament to the dynamic nature of research and the diverse approaches available to researchers worldwide.