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Discuss some of the reasons why we include methodological theory in our research? What purpose does it serve? What role do inquiry paradigms play in research? Your posts this week should demonstrate critical reflection upon the assigned readings.
Critical Theory
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology
By: Kerry E. Howell
Pub. Date: 2015
Access Date: June 17, 2022
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: London
Print ISBN: 9781446202999
Online ISBN: 9781473957633
DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781473957633
Print pages: 75-87
© 2013 SAGE Publications Ltd All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the pagination of the
online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
Critical Theory
On the basis of a mixture of both positivist and phenomenological perspectives, in Chapter 5 attention is
turned toward critical theory and identifies the problems post-positivism left for those social sciences that
sought to identify and challenge what was taking place in institutions from historical and mainly qualitative
perspectives. Critical theory was initiated by the Institute of Social Research (ISF) at the University of
Frankfurt in the late 1920s; consequently, most commentators argue that the critical theory position was
developed by members of the Frankfurt School. Nevertheless, when we examine the works of members of
the Frankfurt School, none claimed to have formulated a unified approach to social investigation and criticism.
Critical theory stems from a critique of German social thought and philosophy, particularly the ideas Karl
Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber (1864–1920), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Erich Fromm (1900–1980),
Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Marxism is a type of critical theory
because it critiques capitalism and illustrates problems with existing institutions, as is the Weberian theory of
rationalisation and the limiting effect on the human spirit; indeed through such a critical theory perspective
the ideas of Marx and Weber may be combined. In general, Adorno, Fromm, Horkheimer and Marcuse
argued that modern society involved totalitarian regimes that negated individual liberty. In early work this
was seen as the outcome of Marxist understandings of capitalist modes of production, whereas later thinking
stressed technology and instrumental reason (these ideas and thinkers are dealt with in more detail below).
Instrumental reason argues that rationality may only be concerned with choosing effective means for attaining
arbitrary ends. Indeed, in contradiction with Weber’s objective causality the Frankfurt School was based on
neo-Marxist dialectical reasoning and subjective tendencies. There existed two generations related to the
Frankfurt School: the first included Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm and Marcuse and the second a number of
thinkers of whom Jurgen Habermas was the most distinguished. The main tenet of critical theory involved
a necessary re-interpretation of modernist positions in the aftermath of the First World War (1914–1918)
and the depression, unemployment and hyperinflation that followed during the 1920s and 1930s. It was
recognised that capitalism was changing, consequently Ardorno, Fromm, Horkheimer and Marcuse assessed
and analysed changes in power and domination that was related to this.
When the National Socialists took power, the main players from the Frankfurt School left Germany for the
USA and took up residence on the West coast. These critical theorists were shocked by the positivistic nature
of research in the USA and how this form of inquiry was taken for granted in the social sciences. Indeed,
critical theory was viewed as a means of temporarily freeing researchers from the bonds of positivism in
particular and post-enlightenment thought in general. Following the Kantian tradition Fromm considered that
even though:
Enlightenment taught man that he could trust his own reason as a guide to establishing valid ethical
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norms and that he could rely on himself. The growing doubt of human autonomy and reason created
a state of moral confusion where man is left without the guidance of either revelation or reason.
(Fromm, 1997: 3)
Enlightenment had removed both spiritual and rational guidance and rendered nature an objective entity
external to human existence. ‘Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that which they
exercise their power’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997: 9).
Within the critical theory approach there emerged the ‘discourse of possibility’, which was intrinsically linked
with the dialectical transformations within the social sciences and the broader social changes these could
bring about. In contrast to Enlightenment, thinkers such as Hegel and Marx and their dialectical immutable
laws of spirit, history and the idea that (at least to a certain extent) human beings determined their own
destinies and existence gave an impetus to social research. Indeed, critical theory was perceived as a
generalised perspective where through education different strands of the tradition or schools of thought
provided values, understanding and knowledge that engendered empowered critical beings who questioned
the status quo. The main idea for critical theory was the formulation of social theory based on philosophical
positions and empirical studies. Horkheimer (1972) considered that research programmes should absolve
the opposition between the individual and social structures and the relationship between objectivity and
subjectivity should be embraced.
What Is Critical Theory?
So what exactly is critical theory? In general, one may argue that critical theory is ‘characterised by an
interpretive approach combined with a pronounced interest in critically disputing actual social realities …
The aim … is to serve the emancipatory project, but without making critical interpretations from rigid frames
of reference’ (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2008 144). Unfortunately, for a number of reasons this is a difficult
question to answer. As one would imagine because of its very nature there is much room for disagreement
about what critical theory entails and a definitive perspective negate the very premise of critical theory. In such
a way a number of different critical theories exist that renders it a continually evolving dialectical set of ideas.
However, certain similarities between the strands of critical theory exist in terms of criticism of occidental
complacency and that ruling elites and ideologies should be challenged as well as greater equality and liberty
sought. Furthermore, most critical theorists consider that individual assumptions are influenced by social and
historical forces and that historical realism provides a unifying ontological position.
Given these similarities it becomes possible to synthesise points of agreement and determine the basis for
a paradigm of inquiry with a specific ontology, epistemology and appropriate methodological approaches.
Such a synthesis exposes positions of power between institutions, groups and individuals as well as the role
of agency in social affairs. In addition, this synthesis identifies the rules regulations and norms that prevent
people from taking control of their own lives; the means by which they are eliminated from decision making
and consequently controlled. Through making clear the relationships between power and control, agency may
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be extended and humanity emancipated. Of course, individuals are never completely free from the social and
historical structures that they both construct and from which they emanate. Through shaping consciousness,
power dominates human beings in social settings. Individual critical theorists disagree but one may argue,
that power constitutes the foundation of social existence in that it constructs social and economic relations;
that is, power is the basis of all political, social and organisational relationships.
Initial perspectives of critical theory espoused by Horkheimer considered that the paradigm of inquiry was
about connecting critical theory with everyday life in the interest of abolishing social injustice. One of the
main concerns for critical theory, as Adorno and Horkheimer argued was investigating the ultimate source
or foundation of social domination, For Adorno and Horkheimer (1997) state intervention in the economy
abolished the capitalist tension between the ‘relations of production’ and ‘material productive forces of
society’, which according to traditional critical theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism.
The market (as an unconscious mechanism for the distribution of goods) and private property had been
replaced by centralised planning and socialised ownership of the means of production. However, contrary to
Marx’s prediction, this did not lead to revolution but fascism and totalitarianism. As such, critical theory was
bankrupt and left without anything to which it might appeal when the forces of production synthesise with
the relations of production. For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the
apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the contradiction that, according to traditional critical
theory, was the very source of domination. Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Fromm rejected positivism
and attempted to build ‘social theories that were philosophically informed and (involved) practical political
significance’ (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2008: 145).
The idea of the objective observer was challenged and ‘specific methodological rules for acquiring knowledge’
disputed (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2008: 145). Knowledge recognises the opaqueness of common sense
perceptions because as with the platonic cave what we see does not correspond with reality. Most individuals
are ‘half awake or dreaming’; to know means to ‘penetrate through the surface in order to arrive at the roots,
and … knowing means to see reality in its nakedness … to penetrate the surface and to strive critically and
actively in order to approach truth ever more closely’ (Fromm, 1997: 33).
In the 1960s, Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level when he identified critical
knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities
through orientations toward self-reflection and emancipation. Adorno and Horkeimer considered that the
modern era illustrated a shift from the liberation of Enlightenment toward enslavement. Indeed the
Enlightenment equates with positivism, because for ‘the Enlightenment that which does not reduce to
numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism rights it off as literature’ (1997: 7).
‘Under the leveling domination of abstraction (which makes everything in nature repeatable) and of industry
(for which abstraction ordains repetition) the free themselves finally came to form that “herd,” which Hegel
has declared to be the result of Enlightenment’ (Adorno and Horkeimer, 1997: 13).
Hegemony and Ideology
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Hegemony (see Definition Box) is an important factor for critical theorists and exists when power is exercised
through consent rather than force. People consent to their own domination through accepting notions
propagated by cultural institutions, for example, the media, family, school and so forth. Even those
researchers that comprehend hegemony are affected by it; this is because understandings of the world and
knowledge fields are structured by different and competing definitions of society. Certain social relations
are legitimised and considered the natural order of things; we give our hegemonic consent. However, this
is never total because different groups in society have different perspectives and compete for hegemony.
Critical theorists note these distinctions and utilise them in their research programmes. This given, it is
difficult to divorce the idea of hegemony from that of ideology. Hegemony indicates the means by which
powerful institutions formulate subordinate acceptance of domination through ideology. Ideology incorporates
the meanings, norms, values and rituals that facilitate the acceptance of the social situations and the place
of the individual within this. Hegemonic ideology allows critical theorists to understand the complex nature
of domination and move beyond the idea that power is simply about coercion. Individuals are manipulated
through media, education and politics to accept oppression as normal and the only situation that could exist;
change is unthinkable and utopian.
Critical theorists comprehend hegemonic ideology as a means by which ideology and discourse construct
our ontological positions or notion of reality. Consequently, different ideological positions exist at different
points in time and provide the basis for a historical reality and that this reality changes through dialectical
transformation. Indeed, the epistemological position places the researcher in the world that is constructed
through people manipulated by power. Such identifies on-going struggles between and among individuals,
groups and classes within society. Through their understanding of hegemonic ideology critical theorists
investigate the relationships between classes and groups and the different values, agendas and visions they
portray and adhere too. Furthermore, discourse is seen as historical and not a clear reflection of society but
an unstable practice with meanings that shift in relation to the context within which it is used. Discourse does
not provide a neutral objective description of an external world but incorporates the very building blocks we
use to construct it.
The concentration on hegemonic ideology has implications for economic determinism and Enlightenment
thinking some commentators consider was displayed by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels in the Communist
Manifesto (1849). Certain thinkers interpreted Marx and Engels as concentrating solely on the economic base
rather than the social and political dynamisms of dialectical change. For Marx, economic base determined
superstructure or economic factors determine all other elements of social life. Following the death of Marx,
Engels did deny this but in works such as the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, this does seem to
be the case. Engels stated that historical materialism involved the production and reproduction of reality
and that neither, he nor Marx had ever inferred more than this. Indeed Engels indicated that economic
determinism was senseless and that numerous variables relating to superstructure (ideology, politics, culture)
were also part of the dialectical process. Neo-Marxists, such as Antonio Gramsci, accepted this position and
further argued that through hegemony and ideology there existed interaction between base (economics) and
superstructure. Indeed, based on neo-Marxist thought, the Frankfurt School accepted that many forms of
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power existed, for example, racial, gender, class.
Definition Box: Hegemony
This involves the means by which ruling elites obtain consent to dominate subordinates
within their dominion. The worldviews of the rulers is diffused throughout society so as
these become common sense; to question such norms appears to be nonsensical. The
exercise of hegemonic subordination involves a combination of ‘force and consent which
balance each other reciprocally without force predominating excessively over consent’
(Gramsci, 2005: 80). Attempts are made to ensure that force is supported or consented
by the majority and this is expressed through the ‘so-called organs of public opinion
– newspapers and association – which therefore in certain situations are artificially
multiplied’ (Gramsci, 2005: 80). Hegemony illustrates how ruling elites perpetuate their
rule and domination through consent rather than coercion. Contending groups in any
society must aim to control ideas in civil society; ‘a social group must, already exercise
leadership before winning governmental power’ (Gramsci, 2005: 57). Leadership is a
precondition of winning power and the consequent exercise of power; domination can only
be legitimised and continued through hegemonic consent.
Critical Theory as a Critique of Instrumental Rationality and Positivism
As noted above, critical theorists also question the idea of instrumental rationality that is closely linked
with Enlightenment thought. Such an understanding of rationality concentrates on a positivistic methodology
and simplification. Research is limited to questions regarding ‘how’ or ‘how to’ rather than ‘why’ or ‘why
should’. Critical theorists argue that such a positivistic approach directs the researcher toward procedure and
method rather than the more humanistic elements of the research process. Instrumental rationality is mainly
concerned with objectivity and separates values and facts, which loses the interactive and iterative nature
between values and facts in interpretation and understanding.
Critical theory accepts certain assumptions, these include:
• social and historical constituted power relations affect and mediate all ideas and thinking;
• values and facts can never be separated;
• facts always contain an ideological dimension;
• ideas and objects are mediated through social relations;
• relationships between signifier and signified are continually in flux;
• relations of capitalist production and consumption affect relationships between individuals and
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• subjectivity is determined by discourse;
• privilege and oppression characterises social relations;
• oppression is more endemic when subordinates accept the hegemonic inevitability of their position
in society;
• oppression is multi-faceted;
• positivistic research is elitist and unwittingly reproduces existing social power relations.
Critical theory involves ideas relating to empowerment of the people; it should challenge injustice in social
relations and social existence. Whereas, for more traditional research approaches the objectives involve
attempts at description, understanding and explanation, for critical theory transformational conscious
emancipation is central and involves initial moves toward political activity. Research is not about the
accumulation of knowledge but political activity and social transformation.
Reflexivity is a central mechanism for critical theory; or self conscious criticism. Underlying ideological
perspectives are made explicit in relation to self-conscious subjectivity, inter-subjectivity, normative morality
and epistemological precepts. Subjective pre-conceptions in terms of epistemological and political positions
are incorporated with the research process. These are reflected upon and analysed in relation to the research
and may change as this process progresses (for further on reflexivity see Chapter 13).
Reflection Box: Reconnecting Meaning
Bullying in the workplace may not be interpreted as isolated action pursued by socially
pathological individuals but narratives of transgression and resistance identified by
unconscious political perspectives underlying everyday interactions and related to power
relations in terms of race, class and gender oppression.
Consider how bullying may be identified as a social phenomenon and assess its
relationship with power.
Change in assumptions may emanate from a realisation of emancipator actions, which are revealed through
interaction between the researcher and researched and the realisation that the dominant culture is not a
natural state of affairs. This involves understanding both ‘self’ and society or ‘other’ in greater detail so
inequality, exploitation and injustice are rendered explicit. Critical theory requires reconstruction of worldviews
in ways that challenge and undermine what appears normal or natural. Research needs re-location toward
transformative practice that pursues the alleviation of oppression and autocracy (see Reflection Box above).
Questions regarding how things have become are paramount and link closely with the phenomenological
position. Critical theorists challenge positivistic positions and traditions and questions whose interests are
served by institutional arrangements. Correspondence theory is challenged and it is argued that facts are
constructed in relation to values and meaning. Engagement in critical research involves formulating a critical
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world in relation to a faint idealised world conditioned by equality, liberty and justice; critical theory is about
hope in a cynical world.
Critical theory involved a critique of the dominant position of positivism. Positivism had provided the basis for
scientific study and knowledge accumulation during the rise of capitalism but by the 20th century incorporated
endorsement of the status quo. In his essay ‘Traditional and critical theory’ Horkheimer asks ‘what is theory?’
He considered that for most individual researchers ‘theory … is the sum total of propositions about a subject,
the propositions being so linked with each other that a few are basis and the rest derive from these’ (1972:
188). In social research, basis propositions can be arrived at either inductively or deductively, then the
researcher attempts a ‘laborious ascent from the description of social phenomena to detailed comparisons
and only then to the formation of general concepts’ (Horkheimer, 1972: 192). How the primary principles were
arrived at is secondary as the important element is that division exists between conceptual knowledge and the
facts from which this was derived; or those facts to be subsumed under this framework. Indeed for traditional
theory the ‘genesis of particular objective facts, the practical application of the conceptual systems by which
it grasps the facts and the role of such systems in action, are all taken to be external to the theoretical
thinking itself’ (Horkheimer, 1972: 208). Conversely, critical theory argued that such were false separations
or alienation and the researcher was always part of the object under study so that object and subject were
inextricably linked. The researcher is neither embedded in society nor abstraction from it; values, action,
knowledge and theory generation were inseparable. Critical theory pursued change and liberation whereas
traditional theory thought the ‘individual as a rule must simply accept the basic conditions his existence as
given and strive to fulfil them’ (Horkheimer, 1972: 207).
Adorno and Horkheimer (1997) considered this issue further and examined two types of reason:
• pursuit of liberation from external constraints and compulsion;
• instrumental reason and technical control.
The former was linked to critical theory and the latter related to Enlightenment thought and during the early
20th century became the basis of totalitarianism, fascism and National Socialism. Positivism equated with
Enlightenment as for each ‘whatever does not conform to the rule of computation and utility is suspect’
(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997: 6). Indeed, like Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World, they argue
that the culmination of Enlightenment involves non-thinking pleasure and limited analytic capability. ‘Pleasure
always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even when it is shown. It is flight: not as
is asserted flight from wretched reality, but the last remaining thought of resistance. The liberation that
amusement promises is freedom from thought and negation’ (Ardono and Horkheimer, 1997: 144). ‘The
power to respond to reason and truth exists in all of us.’ However so too does the ‘tendency to … unreason
and falsehood – particularly … where the falsehood evokes some enjoyable emotion (and) primitive sub
human depths of our being’ (Huxley, 1994: 47). Critical theory perspectives accept our ability to reason and
truth challenges negation and promotes resistance. Furthermore, Marcuse (2004) identifies how marketing
and mass media achieves control and standardisation of expectations and needs. Marketing and mass media
enables social control and develops individuals into malleable and predictable people who without critical
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analysis accept social situations and consumerism. He argued that in contemporary society under the rule
of repression freedom and liberation could be used as a ‘powerful instrument of domination’ (2004: 9). The
choices available do not determine the ‘degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is
chosen by the individual. Free elections of masters does not abolish masters or slaves’ (Marcuse, 2004:
9–10). Overall, critical theory challenged acceptance and wished to develop individual antipathy.
Critical Theory and Habermas
Habermas argued that control and understanding should be subordinate to emancipation and liberation. That
social science should initially comprehend the ‘ideologically distorted subjective situation of some individual
or group … explore the forces that have caused that situation and … show that these forces can be overcome
through awareness of them on the part of the oppressed individual or group in question’ (Dryzeck, 1995: 99).
The shift is one that challenges post-positivism through an interpretive, phenomenological approach to social
science. Verification, in this context, is not achieved through experimentation but the action of those involved
in the research process, who on reflection decide on a perspective based on their suffering and means
of relief. In this way, post-positivism itself could be seen as a dominant form of reasoning which distorted
reality in relation to liberal ideals and progress. Critical theory should initially ‘understand the ideologically
distorted subjective situation of some individual or group, second … explore the forces that have caused
that situation and third to show that the forces that have caused this situation can be overcome’ through
making these forces clear to those groups or individuals that exist within these situations (Dryzeck, 1995: 99).
Consequently, critical theory involves reflective action, specifically the reflective action of those individuals
and groups involved in the research programme.
Critical theory illuminated the very basis and ‘truth content’ of liberal ideals such as freedom truth and
justice and used them in its pursuit of an improved existence for humanity. In introducing his critical theory,
Habermas (2004) identified the need for a fundamental paradigm shift. Understandings of theory needed to
be moved from intellectual situations in which the ends justify the means or instrumentalism to one where
communicative rationality took centre stage. Post-positivist pursuits of objectivity that ignored the worldviews,
values and norms through which the world is structured failed to fully comprehend social phenomenon.
‘Habermas was able to draw on developments in the phenomenological, ethnomethodological and linguistic
traditions and thus … anticipate the decline of positivism and rise of interpretivism’ (McCarthy, 1999: 400).
However, he argued that it would not be helpful to reduce social research to the interpretation of meaning
because such meaning may conceal or distort as well as reveal and express human conditions. Habermas
attempted to identify the main difficulties with positivism through a historical analysis of its early proponents
and its links with Enlightenment.
In place of controlled observation … there arises participatory relation of the understanding subject
to the subject confronting him. The paradigm is no longer the observation but the dialogue-thus, a
communication in which the understanding subject must invest part of his subjectivity. (Habermas,
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2004: 10–11)
Based on Pierce’s reflections on natural science, Dilthy’s historical and cultural inquiry and Freud’s self-
reflection, Habermas uncovered different types of knowledge and argued for an ‘internal connection between
structures of knowledge and anthropologically deep-seated human interests’ (McCarthy, 1999: 401). He
distinguished between technical interest in terms of positivistic prediction, control and objectified processes
and the practical interest of mutual understanding and emancipatory interest of free flow undistorted
communication between individual subjects (McCarthy, 1999: 401). Habermas attempted to ‘reconstruct the
formative process of the human species phenomenological self reflection was meant to expand the practical
self understanding of social groups. Critical of ideology, it analysed the development of the forms of the
manifestation of consciousness in relation to constellations of power and from the standpoint of an ideal social
arrangement based on undistorted public communication’ (McCarthy, 1999: 401). Critical theory ‘resorts to
interpretation based on hermeneutic disciplines, that is, we employ hermeneutics instead of a measurement
procedure, which hermeneutics is not’ (Habermas, 2004: 11).
‘Critical of ideology (critical research) asks what lies behind the consensus, presented as a fact, and does so
with a view to the relations surreptitiously incorporated in the symbolic structures of the systems of speech
and action’ (Habermas, 2004: 11–12, author’s brackets). This may be achieved through communicative
competence, which by uttering sentences, draws together subjectivity and objectivity through placing
‘sentences in relation to the “external world” of objects and events, the “internal world” of a speaker’s own
experience, and a “social world” of shared normative expectation (McCarthy, 1999: 401–2). This recognises
the existence of many truths and claims to truth regarding the external world and actions in relation to ‘the
shared social world’ (McCarthy, 1999: 402). Social systems are different from machines or systems and reflect
learning and subjective tendencies ‘and are organised within the framework of … communication’ (Habermas,
2004: 12). Consequently, a systems theory for the social sciences ‘must be developed in relation to a theory
of ordinary language communication which also takes into consideration the relationship of intersubjectivity
and the relation between ego and group identity’ (Habermas, 2004: 13).
A general perspective of critical theory ontology involves an understanding that reality is shaped through
social and historical processes and may be defined as ‘historical realism’. The epistemological aspect of
the critical theory paradigm considers that findings and theoretical perspectives are discovered because the
investigator and investigated are intrinsically linked through historical values, which must influence the inquiry.
This leads toward a specific methodology, which identifies a dialogic and dialectical approach. Dialogue is
needed between the researcher and the researched and between past and present. In this methodology
structures are changeable and actions affect change. In this context, theory is changeable in relation to
historical circumstance. Theory is developed by human beings in historical and cultural circumstances as the
interaction between researcher and researched and historical values influence the analysis.
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Definition Box: Historical Realism
An example of this would be the nation-state in terms of its changing role within
international relations and the issues this raised for ideas such as sovereignty and
democratic accountability. As the role of the nation-state changes, so does our
understanding of it, which has implications for our interpretation of reality in terms of the
role of the state, the nation and sovereignty. Indeed, the EU and international institutions
have implications for changes regarding these issues and provide the impetus for
theoretical change as well as empirical outcomes (Howell, 2004).
Definition Box: Theory
Theory is not defined from a positivist perspective where immutable laws predict either
forever or until they are displaced, but developed in a historical context: theory is
developed by subjective humans in a historical context.
Aspects of the critical theory paradigm are based on phenomenology and include theoretical perspectives
that challenged the status quo, for example, neo-Marxism, feminism, determinism and so forth, and provided
a specific understanding of reality in that it is shaped by ‘social, political, cultural, economic and gender values
crystalised over time’ (Guba and Lincoln, 1994: 105). Indeed, in his search for the essence of truth Heidegger
begins with the question of what is truth which leads to historical reflection and that the pursuit of truth is to
understand it in a historical context and as a reflection of the past. Humanity
alone can be historical i.e., can stand and does stand in that open region of goals, standards, drives,
and powers by withstanding this region and existing in the mode of forming, directing, acting carrying
out, and tolerating. Only man is historical – as that being which, exposed to all beings as a whole,
and in commerce with these beings, sets himself free in the midst of necessity. (Heidegger, 1994:
This incorporates historical ontology, a process of temporality and being in the world. An example of this
would be the nation-state in terms of its changing role within international relations and the issues this raised
for ideas such as sovereignty and democratic accountability. As the role of the nation-state changes, so
does our understanding of it, which has implications for our interpretation of reality in terms of the role of the
state, the nation and sovereignty (Howell, 2004). Indeed, these changes having implications for Being and
interpretations of the world in relation to Being which provide the impetus for theoretical change as well as
empirical outcomes.
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Phenomenology is also displayed in the epistemological aspect of the critical theory paradigm, which
considered that findings and theoretical perspectives are discovered because the investigator and
investigated are intrinsically linked through historical values, which must influence the inquiry. However, in this
context the distinction between ontology and epistemology begins to break down. For example, ‘Heidegger
breaks with Husserl and Cartesian tradition by substituting for epistemological questions … ontological
questions’ (Dreyfus, 1991: 3). Substituting questions relating to the relationship between the investigator and
the researched, for questions regarding what can be known and how humanity is bound with the intelligibility
of the world (Dreyfus, 1991). The means by which we can know the world was re-assessed and ‘by attending
to the enigmatic of the everyday – exposing the unnoticed metaphysical presuppositions by means of which
we understand the everyday and behind which the everyday is concealed’ a clearer understanding and
explanation of being and the world may be realised (Faulconer, 2000: 3).
Further Reading
Adorno, T.W. and Horkheimer, M. (1997) Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso.
Critchley, S. and Schroeder, W.R. (1999) A Companion to Continental Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (1994) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2000) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2005) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Fromm, E.T. (1997) To Have or To Be?New York: Continuum.
Fromm, E.T. (2004) The Fear of Freedom. London: Routledge.
Honderich, T. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Edited by: Kearney, R. and Rainwater, M. (eds) (1998) The Continental Philosophy Reader. London:
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Critical Theory
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology
Grounded Theory
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology
By: Kerry E. Howell
Pub. Date: 2015
Access Date: June 17, 2022
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: London
Print ISBN: 9781446202999
Online ISBN: 9781473957633
DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781473957633
Print pages: 131-153
© 2013 SAGE Publications Ltd All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the pagination of the
online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
Grounded Theory
This chapter outlines grounded theory and explains how this methodological approach constructs theory
and provides in-depth insight and understanding of the area or situation under investigation. Grounded
theory builds theory through data collection and analysis in relation to pre-existing theory and practice.
Grounded theory suggests that there is an over-emphasis on quantitative research and wishes to demote
the idea that the discovery of relevant concepts and hypotheses are a priori to research. For further see
(Bryant and Charmaz, 2007a, 2007b; Charmaz, 1983, 2000, 2006; Clarke, 2002; Corbin and Strauss, 1990;
Cresswell, 2007; Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Goulding, 2002; Hood, 2007; Strauss, 1987;
Strauss and Corbin, 1990, 1994). Grounded theory posits that theory is derived from data and cannot be
divorced from the process by which it is developed. Subsequently, questions, hypotheses and concepts are
generated through the data and worked out during the course of the research (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).
Strauss and Corbin (1998) argued that grounded theory provided methodological lenses for seeing and
comprehending the world and involved the following characteristics: first, on the one hand, the means for
critical analysis of events and situations from an objective stand point, while on the other hand the capability
for recognising subjective tendencies. Second, abstract thinking and openness to useful criticism as well as
empathy and sensitivity when dealing with the actions and discourse of those involved with the investigation.
Finally, there should be immersion and absorption within the research, analysis and data collection process.
Fundamentally, grounded theory allows the direction of the research and analysis of the data to be guided
by an empowered researcher. Indeed, because of the flexibility of the approach, grounded theory is used
by researchers from a range of different subject areas and disciplines and deployed in eclectic and distinct
ways. It is used in areas as diverse as business, nursing, political studies, psychology, sociology and many
areas of social science in general. Furthermore, when using grounded theory a number of philosophical
issues in terms of ontological and epistemological positions may be ascertained. This chapter accepts that
this methodological approach is primarily concerned with data collection, analysis and theory construction but
because of the philosophical underpinning as well as eclectic areas that utilise grounded theory, it is worth
identifying its roots and evolution as a useful tool or mechanism for undertaking qualitative research.
Philosophical Underpinnings of Grounded Theory
Even though there is a phenomenological underpinning to interpretations of grounded theory Glaser and
Strauss (1967) primarily drew on the US pragmatist tradition of Dewey (1950) and symbolic interaction
approach of Mead (1962) and Blumer (1969). Dewey (1950) argued that ‘flowers can be enjoyed without
knowing about the interactions of soil, air, moisture and seeds of which they are the result. But they cannot
be understood without taking just these interactions into account and theory is a matter of understanding’
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(1950: 12). Theory cannot answer questions ‘unless we are willing to find the germs and roots in matters of
experience’ (Dewey, 1950: 12).
Definition Box: Pragmatism
Pragmatism defines truth as those tenets that prove useful to the believer or user. The
verifiability of truth exists to the extent that actuality or things correspond with statements
and thoughts. Objective truth cannot exist because it needs to relate to practice; both
subjective and objective dimensions are necessary.
In the acquisition of knowledge, an essential element ‘is the perception of relations, especially the relations
between our actions and their empirical consequences’ (Scheffler, 1974: 197). In such a way, the world
around us and individuals take on deeper meaning; in this context, humans need experience and the means
of storing that experience. However, as with phenomenology experience is more than ‘a passive registering or
beholding of phenomena; it involves deliberate interaction with environmental conditions, the consequences
of which are critically noted and fed back into the control of future conduct’ (Scheffler, 1974: 197). Pragmatists
considered that from ‘the child’s exploration of its environment to the scientist’s theorising about nature the
pattern of intelligent thought is the same: a problem provides the initial occasion of inquiry … Experiment …
is, experience rendered educative’ (Scheffler, 1974: 196).
Through these pragmatist foundations grounded theory can be understood in terms of symbolic interaction,
where the ‘individual enters as such into his own experience only as an object not as a subject; and he
can enter as an object only on the basis of social relations and interactions’ (Mead, 1962: 225). Through
the language and structure of roles we become a generalised other; we attain a consciousness of self as a
generalised other. This may allow the individual to take an impartial and general standpoint in observing and
evaluating one’s own conduct when one becomes a generalised other or the object of one’s own reflection. At
this point one has become self, which reflects the phenomenological underpinnings of Hegelian recognition
and being in the world.
Blumer (1962, 1969) also built on the work of the pragmatist tradition and considered that, ‘ordinarily human
beings respond to one another, as in carrying on a conversation, by interpreting one another’s actions or
remarks and then reacting on the basis of interpretation’ (Blumer, 1969: 71). Grounded theory builds on this
understanding and considers that research should be grounded out of reality and that the researcher should
enter into the field and discover/comprehend what is going on. People have an active role in shaping the
world and through interrelationships in terms of meaning, action and conditions the nature of experience
continually evolves, which creates continual re-interpretation of phenomenon (Corbin and Strauss, 1990).
Indeed, grounded theory is primarily inductive and pursues the interpretations of those involved in the
situation that is being researched and the interpretations of the researcher in relation to the data. Through this
process, grounded theory is enacted and substantive theory constructed. Symbolic interaction is distinct to
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human beings, it is part of what makes us human because we ‘interpret or define each other’s actions’ rather
than simply react to them (Blumer, 1962: 179). Furthermore, humans have and are able to act towards self.
Mead considered that the ability to react to self was the central mechanism of existence.
This mechanism enables human beings to indicate to themselves things in their surroundings and thus guide
action through what is noted. ‘Anything of which a human being is conscious … he is indicating to himself
… The conscious life of the human being … is a continual flow of self indications’ (Blumer, 1962: 180). Such
is similar to phenomenology in terms of being in the world and intentionality. Fundamentally, ‘the formation
of action by the individual through … self-indication always takes place in a social context’ (Blumer, 1962:
183); as does the background or environment (fore-structure) which indicates possible ways of questioning
(Heidegger, 1962/1984). Additionally, Stern considered that grounded theory was an interpretative method
and was underpinned by ‘phenomenology that is methods that are used to describe the world of the person
or persons under study’ (1994: 213).
Furthermore, with distinct linkage to Heidegger and later Merleau-Ponty, interpretation ‘is grounded in
something we have in advance … understanding operates in … an involvement whole that is already
understood’. Effectively the environment or background determines possible ways of questioning. However,
interpretation is also ‘grounded in something we see in advance – in foresight’ (Heidegger, 2004: 191).
Additionally, interpretation is made on the basis of those interacting with the researcher; in this context, the
individual is both subjective and objective. The researcher is interpreted by self in relation to society and
interpreted by society in relation to self through self-indication. ‘Self-indication is a moving communicative
process in which the individual notes things, assesses them, gives them a meaning, and decides to act on
the basis of meaning’ (Blumer, 1962: 183). However, to accomplish this some foresight is necessary, even if
this is only a comprehension of language or culture. This foresight takes into consideration the theories that
already exist or more formal theories. Additionally, the researcher brings to the analysis expertise, knowledge
and theoretical sensitivity. Effectively, objectivity is continually pursued through the recognition of subjective
influences throughout the research process. As with phenomenology there are relationships between reality
and the human mind. Indeed, the ‘research findings constitute a theoretical formulation of the reality under
investigation rather than consisting of a set of numbers or a group of loosely related themes’ (Corbin and
Strauss, 1990: 24).
‘One now regularly takes an impartial and general standpoint in observing and evaluating one’s own conduct
… (however) … The organised community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may
be called the generalised other which is the attitude of the whole community’ (Blau, 1952: 162–3, original
parentheses). Interpretations of situations change as individuals change (this includes the researcher and the
researched). Indeed, with the knowledge that pure objectivity cannot be attained the research can become
more objective, for example, through accepting subjectivity one can become more objective. Grounded theory
attempts to understand social patterns and construct social theory. ‘Grounded theory involves soliciting …
emic viewpoints to assist in determining the meaning and purposes that people ascribe to their actions’ (Guba
and Lincoln, 1994: 110). ‘Grounded theory methodology incorporates … assumption(s) … concerning the
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human status of actors whom we study. They have perspectives on and interpretations of their own and other
actors’ actions. As researchers we are required to learn what we can of their interpretations and perspectives’
(Strauss and Corbin, 1994: 280, authors’ brackets).
Reflection Box: Pragmatism, Phenomenology and Symbolic Interaction
Demonstrate where similarities exist between pragmatism, phenomenology and symbolic
Indeed, such identifies aspects of being in the world and intentionality outlined by Heidegger and Husserl.
The rest of this chapter will outline what grounded theory entails and explain how it may be applied. It then
discusses the different perceptions of grounded theory displayed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss as
well as the subsequent variants that evolved from these distinctions.
Using Grounded Theory
Grounded theory is a way of collecting data and through comparative analysis and coding a means of
generating or building substantive theory. Grounded theory is about building theory through the collection
and analysis of rich data; that is data that exists below the surface of the social entity being investigated.
To achieve rich data some persistence and creativity in the inquiry process is required. Initial questions the
researcher may first attempt to develop include:
• What research problem should be studied?
• How may the project be undertaken?
• Which methods should be used in the collection of rich data?
The research problem should emanate through work or ideas generated through previous studies; issues that
have become apparent following the writing of a report, essay, dissertation or academic paper. Furthermore,
when identifying the research problem, issues regarding access and participant numbers requires some
consideration. If the right participants are located and access to these allowed, then the first hurdles for
accumulating rich data have been overcome. Such data will illuminate further detail regarding the research
question or issue and enable new insight into what may initially have seemed mundane concepts. Grounded
theory is social science based and involves research about and with people. Rich data enables insight into the
veiled and sometimes opaque feelings, ideas and beliefs of the individuals involved in the investigation as well
as those investigators will undoubtedly carry themselves. Grounded theories are developed or built through
the comparative analysis of rich diffuse data (data collected from different places and through separate
methods). Through writing thick description based on field-notes, observations, personal diaries and accounts
of events as well as interviews and secondary data, detailed narratives may be formed.
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Fundamentally, grounded theory attempts to improve theory as one can only replace existing theoretical
frameworks with improved or enhanced theories (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). ‘Grounded theory is based
on the systematic generation of theory from data, and itself is systematically obtained from social research
(and) offers a rigorous orderly guide to theory development that at each stage is closely integrated with a
methodology of social research’ (Glaser, 1978: 2). Through comparative analysis, grounded theory creates
theories made up of general categories. It is not necessary to know the empirical or specific situation better
than those involved; the researcher simply wishes to develop theory that applies to relevant behaviour.
Theory is never complete but always under development. Theory generated from data means that ideas or
hypotheses are not only derived from this but worked out in relation to the data as the research progresses.
While positivism seeks to verify deduced hypotheses, grounded theory implies steps prior to discovering
what concepts and hypotheses are relevant to the area of research should be made explicit. Ultimately, the
relationship between categories and sub-categories which are discovered during the research should be as a
result of information contained within the data or from deductive reasoning which has been verified within the
data, but not from previous assumptions which have not been supported (Howell, 2000).
Grounded theory offers a rigorous approach to research in terms of:
• interactive iterative nature of data collection and analysis;
• comparative methods;
• conceptual analyses through memo writing;
• refinement of emerging ideas through sampling;
• theoretical framework derived from and integrated with both data and theory.
Glaser (1978, 1992) identifies the following criteria:
• Fit
• Work
• Relevance
• Modifiability.
Theoretical categories must emerge and be developed from data analysis; they must fit. Grounded theory
should order the data so as to explain the phenomena; it should work. It should have relevance in terms of
dealing with actual problems and processes located in the research setting. In addition, through accounting
for variation grounded theory is durable and flexible.
Glaser and Strauss (1967) challenged the division between theory and data as well as the perceived lower
importance of qualitative techniques in relation to quantitative. Furthermore, they also synthesised data
collection and analysis and critiqued ideas that qualitative research was unsystematic and relied heavily on
impressions. Overall, they argued that qualitative research could go beyond descriptive case studies and
engender theory development. Glaser used his training in positivism to develop a rigorous form of qualitative
analysis. Strauss brought a pragmatic perspective that built on ideas relating to symbolic interaction. Glaser
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(1992) clearly states that he used the statistical analytical method as a model for the qualitative method in
grounded theory. Consequently, a model for quantitative analysis provided the basis for a unique qualitative
The other side of the equation that is symbolic interaction involved a number of underpinnings for grounded
theory. These include:
• pragmatism (close relationship between theory and practice);
• idiographic as opposed to nomothetic research;
• qualitative research as primary rather than secondary;
• exploration as a central function;
• creation of worldviews through sensitising concepts (empathy and judgment are central);
• social action rather than structuration as the main focus;
• symbols are relayed between actors through agency;
• intersubjectivity is central;
• interaction between self and other is central for humanity;
• self is a world of meaning not an external structure (primarily cognitive).
Open and axial coding examines phenomena through comparing and categorising data. This text will break
down coding procedures and explain the processes and activities involved in each of the procedures. The
initial objective for grounded theory is to identify categories and properties which are relevant to the theory
and allow a level of integration. ‘The goal of the analyst is to generate an emergent set of categories and
their properties which fit, work and are relevant for integrating theory. To achieve this goal the analyst begins
with open coding’ (Glaser, 1978: 56). Attention should be fixed on a category and the properties that emerge
continually coded and analysed as the initial basic steps. Fundamentally, the researcher constantly compares
and continually categorises data and concepts.
Theoretical Sampling
Theoretical sampling is undertaken on the basis that ‘concepts have proven theoretical relevance to the
evolving theory’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 176). Theoretical sampling involves three processes: open
sampling, which relates to open coding; relational and variational sampling, which is associated with axial
coding; and discriminate sampling, which is linked to selective coding (coding processes are discussed
below). Proven theoretical relevance identifies concepts that are significant enough to be considered
they are deemed significant because (1) they are repeatedly present or notably absent when
comparing incident after incident (2) through coding procedures they earn the status of categories
… The aim of theoretical sampling is to sample events, incidents, and so forth, that are indicative of
categories, their properties and dimensions, so that you can develop and conceptually relate them.
(Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 177)
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The sampling is undertaken purposefully which encompasses choosing individuals and documentation that
demonstrated variations in the categories and what happened when change occurred. As with the coding
(see below) the distinction between relational and variational sampling and discriminate sampling became
unclear. Discriminate sampling is direct and deliberate. ‘In discriminate sampling, a researcher chooses the
sites, persons and documents that will maximise opportunities for verifying the story line and relationships
between categories’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 187). Sampling in grounded theory studies is concerned with
the ‘representativeness of concepts in their varying forms. In each instance of data collection, we look for
evidence of its significant presence or absence, and ask why?’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 190) (see Table
9.1). Grounded theory studies look ‘for incidents and events that are indicative of phenomena’ (Strauss and
Corbin, 1990: 187). They pursue density and:
the more interviews, observations and documents obtained, then the more evidence will accumulate,
the more variations will be found, and the greater the density will be achieved. Thus there will be
wider applicability of the theory, because more and different sets of conditions affecting phenomena
are uncovered. (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 190–1)
Open, Axial and Selective Coding
Grounded theorist code data as it is collected. Coding defines and categorises data. Codes are created as
the data is studied. Data should be continually interacted with and questions continually posed as the analysis
develops. It should not fit into pre-conceived codes but codes that have emerged through the researcher’s
interpretation of the data. Coding is iterative and interactive and line by line coding can ensure that the
researcher’s beliefs are not imposed on the data and interpretation.
Glaser (1978, 1992) stressed continual comparative methods, that is, comparing:
• views, action environments, narratives, discourse, beliefs and stories;
• data from the same individuals at different points in time;
• situation with situation;
• incident with incident;
• data with categories;
• categories with categories. (Charmaz, 1983; Glaser, 1978, 1992)
Strauss and Corbin (1990) are more structured and developed new procedures:
• dimensionalisation;
• axial coding;
• conditional matrix.
These are supposed to make emerging theory thicker or denser, complex and rigorous.
Through memo writing, coding provides the very bedrock of grounded theory; the essential relationship
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between data and theory is a code, which conceptualises the underlying patterns of the data. Consequently
through ‘generating a theory by developing the hypothetical relationships between conceptual codes
(categories and their properties), which have been generated from the data as indicators, we discover a
grounded theory’ (Glaser, 1978: 55).
Charmaz (1983) considered that coding incorporates ‘the initial phase of the analytical method (and) is simply
the process of categorising and sorting data. Codes then serve as shorthand devices to label, separate,
compile and organise data. Codes range from simple concrete, and topical categories to more general,
abstract conceptual categories for an emerging theory’ (Charmaz, 1983: 111). Indeed, in ‘grounded theory
research there are three basic types of coding; open, axial and selective’ (Corbin and Strauss, 1990: 9).
Through memo-writing, coding requires researchers to re-assess what may seem like an obvious perspective
of the phenomenon under investigation; the data should undergo analysis from different standpoints and
it should be continually critiqued and questioned. Comparison is a central technique and the researcher
should continually compare memos with codes and data with data and codes. Through coding interviews,
documentation, observations, focus groups and secondary data, categories emerge through data
segmentation on which labels may be placed. Coding involves interpreting the data and moving from
concrete to more abstract conceptualisations; through coding one takes the first tentative steps towards
theory generation. Coding involves the very framework of the analytical process and identifies the bridge
between the data and emergent substantive theory. Coding involves microanalysis (detailed close line-by-
line attention) and involves a dynamic fluids process; categories and properties are created and relationships
assessed through open and axial coding.
Definition Box: Microanlysis
Microanalysis can involve word by word coding of the data which forces the researcher
to concentrate on specific meanings incorporated in the text; this means the way the
sentences are structured and flow as well as distinct contexts. Line-by-line coding which
comprises of labelling each line read (not sentences but each line); this throws up
unexpected themes and ideas that one may not detect when coding sentence by
sentence. When dealing with empirical difficulties accounted through observations, focus
groups, interviews or documentation, line-by-line coding is particularly useful as it details
and reveals opaque issues, problems and situations. This coding procedure investigates
underlying meanings and actions as well as clarifies the significance of ideas through
identifying and comparing deficiencies in the data.
Indeed, open and axial coding are undertaken together in the formation of categories and properties, however
for the purpose of explanation we will now separate these activities and explain the processes individually.
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Memo Writing and Open Coding: A Practical Example
Initially, grounded theory is inductively derived from the study of the phenomena it represents. Data collection,
analysis and theory are reciprocal; one does not start with a theory, which is then tested but with an area
of study from which what is relevant to the area is derived through data collection. Induction is grounded
in social phenomena or observations and experience; hence the strong link between inductive procedures
and grounded theory. Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Charmaz (1983) proposed that data collection and
analysis were undertaken simultaneously and interpretations formed through data discovery. This process
which simultaneously led back to the data (the researcher resides in the field of discovery) allows for emerging
ideas because it provides for further data collection. A main strength of the grounded theory approach is
that data and ideas are derived through the research rather than through a priori deduction. Verification is
secondary to understanding, not simply understanding the phenomenon, but an understanding of social life
as process.
As such, theoretical analyses may be transcended by further work either by the original or later
theorists. In keeping with their foundations in pragmatism, then, grounded theorists aim to develop
fresh theoretical interpretations of the data rather than explicitly aim for any final or complete
interpretation of it … Although every researcher brings to his or her research general preconceptions
founded in expertise, theory, method, and experience, using the grounded theory method
necessitates that the researcher look at the data from as many vantage points as possible.
(Charmaz, 1983: 111–14)
Data is analysed as it emerges or collected and through coding, ‘order created’ (Charmaz, 1983: 114). It is
given that researchers have pre-understandings through their expertise, experience, theoretical frameworks,
and for grounded theory these are important elements of analysis and important perspectives to be taken
into consideration when dealing with the data; it is important that data be considered from many different
perspectives or positions
With grounded theory, data collection procedures and strategies are continually refined; flexible guidelines
are outlined rather than dogmatic prescriptions. Methods that deal with research questions should be targeted
and followed in an investigative manner; methods of data collection affect the extent phenomenon will
become important and how when and where this will be observed. Indeed, methods of data collection
determine how we make sense of the phenomenon investigated. Coding for grounded theory involves posing
analytical questions. Memos provide a record of the research process and include modes of ‘analysis,
thoughts, interpretations, questions, and directions for further data collection’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998:
Strauss and Corbin (1998) give an example of an interview they undertook with a drug user which homed in
on the term ‘use’ as it is specifically used by people when speaking of drugs. Usually when the term used is
employed it means that something is employed in a specific way ‘that an object or person is used for some
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purpose’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998: 110). When one uses something one considers that the user is in control
and when one reassesses the term drug user in this context, even though it specifically means to consume,
remnants of these ideas may also be included in the term; ‘for example, being used for some reason, having
control over what one does’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998: 111). Rather than simply taking drugs the term drug
user takes on a number of connotations in terms of ‘self-control over usage … purposeful … directed act that
serves as an end and has a desired effect’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998: 111) Consequently, even though such
issues may not be explicit in the data during the initial stages, this code or idea is something that may be
kept in mind and used as the analysis and further data collection progresses (ibid). So the memo ‘user’ arises
and directs the researcher to think in more detail about this term, for instance, one does not usually employ
the term an ‘alcohol user’ and if one did what would this actually mean? Think of the reasons you may use
alcohol; do you use it to cook, get to sleep, get drunk, take to dinner parties or provide for individuals invited
to your home, do you use alcohol in bars, the park, at home, what type of alcohol do you use spirits or wine,
do you drink alone or only with company, does it relax you and assist sleep, for how long does someone
and how often do they use alcohol? Each of these questions raise certain properties regarding alcohol use
‘such as frequency, duration, type, purpose, way of using and place of use’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998: 111)
Consequently, in subsequent interviews issues regarding these properties may be further explored in terms
of, reasons for usage, place, type, environment, levels of usage. Indeed, the category use or user is beginning
to emerge and the properties relating to this may be placed on a ‘dimension’ with say ‘usage’ at one point and
‘reason’ at the other with the other terms placed on this dimension in relation to these two extremities. User
emerges into a category with properties representing property locations along the continuum. For example,
alcohol usage in terms of alcoholism and social drinker may be identified in terms of frequency and type (the
number of times one gets drunk and strength of alcohol) will distinguish between these properties within this
category. However, we may wish to clarify what we mean by social drinker and identify distinctions regarding
drinking alone or not and the type of alcohol consumed. Further delineations may emerge in terms of binge
drinking and how this may differ from alcoholism or social drinking; through such a process, property patterns
begin to emerge and congregate on the dimension. Dimensions involve the ‘range along which general
properties of a category vary, giving specification to a category and variation to the theory’ (Strauss and
Corbin, 1998: 101). Obviously, through further data collection and analysis this dimensionalisation may be
further developed and/or transformed.
Axial and Selective Coding
Axial coding involves the re-structuring of the whole process by finding connections between the data. Axial
coding pulls the analysis together and provides a means of unifying the data into a coherent whole. It indicates
how the categories created by open coding fit together and how they congregate around a core category. This
type of coding provides a means of organising large amounts of data as the analysis details and understands
the development of a major or core category. Fundamentally axial coding links categories and sub-categories
through diagrams as it pursues the development of substantive theory. It uses a set of terms to denote the
process which include: causal conditions and phenomenon, which involve the environment of the researched
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in terms of circumstance or specific situation and the entity under analysis as well as the context or the
more general historical and social/cultural situation within which the research or investigation is undertaken.
The intervening conditions which pull together answers relating to questions regarding why where, what,
when, how? This portrays the need for action/interaction between entities in terms of the reason certain
ideas and events occurred, for example, whether these be strategic or routine responses made to certain
conditions, phenomenon or questions; action and interaction correspond with questions relating to whom and
how. Finally, the consequences are the outcome of the process especially the success or failure of the action/
interaction between entities. Consequences are denoted through questions relating to the outcome of actions
and interactions, for example what would happen if x or y occurred? In ‘axial coding we continue to look for
additional properties for each category and to note the dimensional location of each incident, happening or
event’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 114–15).
Definition Box: Axial Coding
Axial coding is illustrated through:
• causal conditions;
• phenomenon;
• context;
• intervening conditions;
• action/interaction;
• consequences. (Corbin and Strauss, 1990: 96–7)
Axial coding can be used as a framework to encourage the emergence of categories which provide insight
into the core category and the substantive theory. Glaser considered that axial coding ‘undermines and
confuses the very method that he (Strauss) is trying to build’ (1992: 61). This process forces the data
and negates theoretical coding. The grounded theorist should code categories and properties and allow
theoretical codes to emerge where they will. Strauss and Corbin (1990) argued that axial coding allows
a more focused means of discovering and relating categories. Strauss and Corbin develop categories
(phenomenon) in relation to the underlying conditions that enable its development, and through identification
of properties the location of this phenomenon on a dimension (dimentionalisation), the context and the action/
interaction strategies used to ‘handle, manage, and respond to this phenomenon’ (1990: 61).
Selective coding illustrates how the phenomenon fits around a core category and involves the process by
which emerging categories are organised and unified around a core category (Corbin and Strauss, 1990).
Core categories incorporate central phenomenon of research projects as they are identified through questions
such as: ‘What is the main analytical idea presented in this research? What does all the action/interaction
seem to be about? The selection of data and the creation of other categories are processed with the core
category in mind which are identified and unified through axial coding.
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Between these three coding procedures exists ‘process’ through which changes to the data are monitored
and made explicit. Process is also built into the theory. Process analysis involves ‘breaking phenomenon
down into stages, phases, or steps. Process may also denote purposeful action/interaction that is not
necessarily progressive, but changes in response to prevailing conditions’ (Corbin and Strauss, 1990: 10).
Even though initially inductive, grounded theory also involves a deductive component, which is primarily used
during the identification and pursuit of process. ‘As you have probably noticed while coding we are constantly
moving between inductive and deductive thinking’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 111). When process is difficult
to identify, the researcher may turn to deductive analysis so as to identify, possible situations of change, ‘then
go back to the data or field situation and look for evidence to support refute or modify that hypothesis’ (Strauss
and Corbin, 1990: 148).
Theoretical Sensitivity
Grounded theory research should be approached with an objective demeanour, pursed with an open mind
and primarily through inductive processes. That said, one must acknowledge that objectivity, an open mind as
well as a completely inductive position are difficult to attain. Everyone is instilled with subjective tendencies
and pre-conceptions, that said recognising these tendencies is part way to dealing with them. To overcome
these tendencies one may use one’s theoretical sensitivity, which allows the researcher to remain sensitive
and ‘record events and detect happenings without first having them filtered through and squared with pre-
existing hypotheses and biases’ (Glaser, 1978: 3). As identified in the phenomenology of Heidegger and
Merleau-Ponty individuals have pre-determined ideas and different levels of sensitivity, which depend on
‘previous reading and experience with or relevant to the area … Theoretical sensitivity refers to the attribute
of having insight, the ability to give meaning to data, the capacity to understand, and the capability to separate
the pertinent from that which isn’t … It is theoretical sensitivity that allows one to develop a theory that is
grounded conceptually dense’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 40–1). Glaser expanded on his earlier definition of
theoretical sensitivity and argued that it ‘refers to the researcher’s knowledge, understanding, and skill which
foster his generation of categories and properties’ (1992: 27).
Question: Theoretical Sensitivity
What is theoretical sensitivity? How does this relate to ideas outlined by certain
phenomenological positions?
Surveys in Grounded Theory
Within the grounded theory methodology the role surveys and quantitative data play is ambiguous. ‘The
sociologist whose purpose is to generate theory may of course collect his own survey data, but, for several
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reasons, he is more likely to analyse previously collected data called secondary (data)’ (Glaser and Strauss,
1967: 187). However, the researcher should give him/herself the ‘freedom in the flexible use of quantitative
data or he or she will not be able to generate theory that is adequate … (and) in taking this freedom … be
clear about the rules he is relaxing (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 186). Such flexibility will allow the richness of
qualitative data to become apparent:
and lead to new styles and strategies of quantitative analysis, with their own rules yet to be
discovered … For example, in verification studies cross-tabulations of quantitative variables
continually and inadvertently lead to discoveries of new social patterns and new hypotheses that are
often ignored as not being the purpose of the research. (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 186)
Grounded theory relaxes rules of verification and accuracy of evidence to enable further theory generation
‘the way they are relaxed for purposes of generating theory could apply to many styles of analysis’ (Glaser
and Strauss, 1967: 187). ‘One might use qualitative data to illustrate or clarify quantitatively derived findings;
or, one could quantify demographic findings. Or, one could use some form of quantitative data to partially
validate one’s qualitative analysis’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 18–19). This outcome may be realised through
triangulation. Consequently, although surveys are not grounded theory techniques in the purest sense, used
in certain ways they may benefit theory generation. In this context, they may be utilised in a grounded theory
study and eventually they may be considered as part of the technique. This, one may speculate, is the
direction in which Glaser and Strauss (1967) pointed toward and Glaser (1992) makes clear. ‘To repeat,
qualitative analysis may be done with data arrived at quantitatively or qualitatively or in some combination’
(Glaser, 1992: 11) All methods are acceptable and how they may be used ‘together effectively … depends on
the research’ (Glaser, 1992: 12).
Example: Using a Survey
To supplement categorisation and provide further coding a survey can be conducted
to investigate further perceptions. The survey questions can be formulated in relation
to …categories dimensions and properties (developed through previous coding) and
emphasised basic questions such as When? Where? What? and How Much? (Howell,
Substantive and Formal Theory
Glaser and Strauss (1967) argued that grounded theory was concerned with two types of theory: substantive
and formal. They emphasised that theory generation was accomplished through the collection, coding and
analysis of data and that these three operations, as far as was possible, were undertaken together. Collection,
coding and analysis should interact throughout the investigation as their separation hinders theory generation
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and set ideas stifle it.
Definition Box: Substantive Theory
Substantive theory necessitates four central criteria. Fit, comprehension, generality and
control: first, theory should be induced from diverse data and be faithful to reality (it should
fit). Second, the fit should be comprehensible; third, the data should be comprehensive
and interpretations conceptually wide (there should be generality). Finally, in relation
to generality, it should be made clear when conditions apply to specific situations and
phenomenon (there should be control) (Corbin and Strauss, 1990).
Grounded theory generates substantive theory through comparative analysis and coding. It does not attempt
to undermine theory but improve it ‘a theory’s only replacement is a better theory’ (Glaser and Strauss, 1967:
Grounded theory is based on the systematic generation of theory from data, and itself is
systematically obtained from social research. Thus, the grounded theory method offers a rigorous
orderly guide to theory development that at each stage is closely integrated with a methodology of
social research. (Glaser, 1978: 2)
Through the general method of comparative analysis, grounded theory wishes to create a theory made up of
general categories.
A formal theory is composed of a model plus an indefinite number of interpretations, and there
is a sharp distinction between model and interpretation. A model is not affected by any of its
interpretations, but can be understood and studied in abstraction from all of them … A substantive
theory … is … about something in the real world. (Diesing, 1972: 31)
Consequently, substantive theory needs to be verified and if changes to the theory are to be made there must
be references to empiricism. The formal theory ‘can be understood and studied in abstraction … one can …
make deductions, search for inconsistencies, study the effects of changes in those postulated, and add new
terms without referring to anything empirical’ (ibid). Formal theories are more abstract and may be broken
down into meso (middle range), grand or meta theories (philosophies); as discussed in more detail above.
Substantive theory relates to a practical situation and through accumulation of substantive theory can develop
and become meso, grand and eventually meta theory.
This chapter acknowledges that it is easy to find a problem with a theoretical concept by identifying that
certain data is missing. This could be the charge against most analyses. However, as Glaser and Strauss put
it: ‘If each debunker thought about the potential value of comparative analysis … he would realise that he has
merely posed another comparative datum for generating another theoretical property or category’ (1967: 22).
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Despite what those concerned with evidence may say, nothing has been disproved, only another comparison
created (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Theory is never a finished product, but always under development.
Generating theory from data means that most of the ideas or hypotheses are not only derived from the data
but are worked out in relation to the data as the research progresses.
Question: Grounded Theory
Identify why and then how you might undertake a grounded theory approach for an
upcoming research project. What would you consider the major strengths and weaknesses
of this approach?
Theory building is an important element within the phenomenological tradition or approach. Made explicit in
grounded theory qualitative research allows substantive frameworks to emerge through the categorisation
of data. Substantive theory is concerned with a specific domain or area of inquiry and closely related to
practical situations. Substantive theories are developed to illuminate nuances of human interaction; they are
embedded in the relationship between theories and practice (praxis).
Categories are continually synthesised to form a theoretical framework through the continual attention to
the relationship between memos and existing theoretical ideas. Memos and ideas are continually coded
and through weaving these together substantive theory gradually emerges. Coding data and memo-writing
are central to the grounded theory technique of constructing substantive theory; memos may be written
representations, diagrams, tables, matrices or vignettes. Through such a process substantive theory will
gradually emerge. Furthermore, a core category may be identified around which peripheral categories
revolve. Core categories require the following dimensions: they need to relate to other categories in some
form or another in qualitative (depth of relations) and quantitative (number of relations) contexts, be recurrent
in the data, maximise variations and build theory with implications for pre-existing formal theory. In relation
to these approaches substantive theory may also involve a model or a diagram of the framework identified
through the core category and related peripheral categories. The substantive theory should identify how
the separate categories are integrated within the theory; it needs to be conceptually dense and integrated.
However, density and integration require intimacy with the data and close proximity to those being researched
and analysed which may fall into the trap of simply stating the obvious. Consequently, the substantive
or emergent theory needs to relate to formal or pre-existing theoretical frameworks. ‘A substantive theory
generated from the data must be formulated, in order to see which of diverse formal theories are, perhaps,
applicable for furthering additional substantive formulations’ (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 34).
Substantive theory is developed in relation to an empirical situation whereas formal theories either pre-exist or
are built with regard for a formal or conceptual area. Glaser and Strauss (1967) argued that both substantive
and formal theories exist between models and grand theory but in the main they take the form of meso
theories and allow a bridge between lower range theories and philosophical perspectives. Formal theory may
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be generated directly from the data but it is more conducive to develop substantive theory and from this move
onto more formal applications.
Disputation in Grounded Theory: Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss
For many years there existed a dispute between Glaser and Strauss, which revolved around differences
regarding the emergence and forcing of data. Glaser considered that Strauss and Corbin’s ‘pet theoretical
code violates relevance and forces data’ (Glaser, 1992: 28). He contended that such a structured outlook
undermines the emergent, empirical and endless ways of relating substantive codes. ‘The researcher must
be aware of the vast array of theoretical codes to increase his sensitivity to their emergence in the data’
(Glaser, 1992: 28). However, in their work Strauss and Corbin address their book to those ‘who are about
to embark on their first qualitative analysis research project and who want to build theory at the substantive
level’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 8). In other words, it is a simplification, which may lead the researcher into
the more difficult nuances of grounded theory.
Verification also seems to be a sticking point between the scholars. However, on closer examination neither
is pursuing pure verification; each wishes for it to add to theory generation not to negate or disprove ‘but add
variation and depth of understanding’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 109). Glaser argued that the ‘two types of
methodologies should be seen in sequential relation. First we discover the relevance and write hypotheses
about them, then the most relevant may be tested for whatever use may require it’ (1992: 30). Whereas,
Strauss and Corbin saw it as an aspect of the grounded theory method; they considered that statements
should be verified against data, not to ‘necessarily negate our questions or statements, or disprove them,
rather … add variation and depth of understanding’ (Corbin and Strauss, 1990: 108–9). It is just as important
to ‘find differences and variation as it is to find evidence that supports our original questions and statements.
The negative or alternative cases tell us that something about them is different so we must move in and take a
closer look’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 109). However, each considers that it is possible to utilise verification
as part of theory generation, the latter as part of grounded theory and the former as a methodology in its own
right (see Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 107–9, Strauss, 1987: 11–15 and Glaser, 1992: 27–30).
Strauss (1987) makes his position clear where he contends that induction, deduction and verification are
the very basis of grounded theory. ‘Because of our earlier writing in Discovery (1967) where we attacked
speculative theory – quite ungrounded in bodies of data – many people mistakenly refer to grounded theory
as “inductive theory” (however), as we have indicated all three aspects of inquiry … are absolutely essential’
(Strauss, 1987: 12 author’s brackets). ‘Grounded theory is of course inductive; a theory is induced or
emerged after data collection starts. Deductive work in grounded theory is used to derive from induced codes
conceptual guides as to where to go next for which comparative group or sub-group, in order to sample for
more data to generate the theory’ (Glaser, 1978: 37–8).
Glaser and Strauss’ disagreements are based around their emphasis on deductive and inductive processes;
Strauss considers that induction, deduction and verification are essential elements of grounded theory.
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Induction is primarily based on experience with the same kind of phenomena at some point in the past. It may
be apparent because of personal experiences, exploratory research into phenomenon, previous research or
because of theoretical sensitivity (knowledge of technical literature). ‘As for deduction: Success at it rests
not merely on the ability to think logically but with the experience in thinking about the particular kind of
data under scrutiny’ (Strauss, 1987: 12). This means drawing on experience as well as thinking about the
phenomenon and may include comparative analysis to further the deductive powers (Strauss, 1987: 12). He
also indicated that experience and learned skills are very important for verification. ‘If … experience and
associated learned skills at verification, deduction and induction are central to successful enquiry, do not
talent-gifts-genius contribute to that success?’ (Strauss, 1987: 13).
Strauss and Corbin (1990) proposed that in grounded theory there is a continual movement between inductive
and deductive thinking and that their statements are deductively proposed and verified. There is a continual
comparison of incidents ‘there is a constant interplay between proposing and checking. This back and forth
movement is what makes our theory grounded’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 111). Glaser posits that it is
at this point that Strauss and Corbin indulge in ‘full conceptual description by forcing the data and leaving
the emergence of grounded theory out completely’ (Glaser, 1992: 71). The sticking point is the confusion
between induction and deduction. Glaser charged that he (Strauss) ‘confuses induction with testing deductive
hypotheses which are forced on the data (and) that it is not inductive to say the data disproves a hypothesis, it
is simply a verification’ (1992: 71). However, Strauss and Corbin contended that it is necessary to continually
verify ‘concepts and relationships arrived at through deductive thinking must be verified over and over again
against actual data … we are building grounded theory and it is the grounding or verification process that
makes this mode of theory building different’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 111–12). In response to this Glaser
argued that Strauss and Corbin are developing a verification method. ‘It simply tests forced conceptual
hypotheses’ (Glaser, 1992: 92). It is not a method that generates theory but one that verifies; it is a theory that
forces the data rather than allowing it to emerge. For Glaser it was crystal clear that Strauss and Corbin had
created a verification method.
Glaser argued that ‘grounded theory is multivariate. It happens sequentially, simultaneously, serendipitously
and scheduled’ (1998: 1). Grounded theory is suitable for dealing with many research problems and requires
that the researcher let go (pursue induction) and not attempt to force models onto the data. ‘Grounded theory
requires a tolerance for feeling out of control while generating the beginning of a relevant main concern, a
core category and sub-categories’ (Glaser, 1998: 11). It is a revolving step-method that starts the researcher
from being ‘know nothing to becoming an expert who will later become a theorist with a publication and with
a theory that accounts for most action in a substantive area’ (ibid, p 13).
Glaser (2001) further argued that as the most widely used methodology in the social sciences grounded
theory provides a set of steps that are closely linked or underpinned by the rigours of good science. Grounded
theory was identified by Glaser (2001) as an approach to both qualitative and quantitative data collection
and analysis in response to positivistic attempts to force theory on data which created misfit and irrelevance.
Glaser (2005) reassesses grounded theory analysis and identifies the differences between data gathered in
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everyday life and that collected for scientific study. Glaser and Holton (2007) are predominantly concerned
with what they label ‘exampling’ (that is providing case studies or examples of research where grounded
theory was used) and how this offers a learning experience no matter how experienced in grounded theory
the researcher may be. Exampling identified ‘the power and scope of classical grounded theory … the global
reach of the methodology and the varying levels of methodological maturity of the authors … exampling …
provides a rich range of theories that have emerged largely from novice efforts at applying the methodology.
They are theories from which all may learn about the application of grounded theory’ (Glaser and Holton,
2007: 1).
Question: Glaser and Strauss
Discuss the main differences between Glaser and Strauss. Which approach to grounded
theory would best suit your research project?
Charmaz (2000) considered that even though Glaser and Strauss were not quantitative, each of their
perspective involved a post-positivist ontological position. Even though both Glaser and Strauss were deeply
divided regarding a number of issues relating to grounded theory, both identified an external objective reality
and neutral observer. Each argued for unbiased data collection, differing levels of technical procedures and
means of representing respondents as accurately as possible. That said, both Glaser and Strauss have
similarities with critical theory and constructivism when they wish to give voice to their respondents and
acknowledge how their views differ from those of the researcher. They also consider that art as well as
science should be utilised as an analytical tool.
Constructivist grounded theory assumes a relativism of multiple realities and the co-creation of knowledge.
It emphasises natural settings and develops a non-post-positivistic stance. To enable this grounded theory,
research should not be rigid or prescriptive, should focus on meaning to intensify interpretive understanding
and desist from using a purely post-positivist approach. Charmaz (2000) juxtaposes constructivist and post-
positivist perspectives to grounded theory but qualifies this when she acknowledges that this methodological
approach may be used with elements of both paradigms of inquiry and that distinctions between the two exist
on a continuum.
Identifying the Nature of Grounded Theory: Further Distinctions
Charmaz (2006) invites the reader to accompany her as she ascends the levels of analysis and theoretical
conceptualisation while ensuring one is firmly adhered to the data on the ground or in the field. She identifies
the main distinction between Glaser and Strauss in terms of positivism and pragmatism; Glaser more aligned
with the former and Strauss closer to the latter. Glaser incorporated empiricism and rigorous coding and
emphasised emergent properties and discoveries, whereas, Strauss emphasised human agency, subjectivity
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and emergent processes. That said, both believed in the emergence of theory and relationships between
objectivity and subjectivity; Glaser was more inductive and less rigid or more phenomenological and Strauss
and Corbin more prescriptive and positivistic in process. However, Strauss based his perspective on symbolic
interaction (see above) which as discussed incorporates elements of pragmatism and phenomenology. Most
grounded theories are substantive because they deal with specific issues in delimited areas. However, these
can become formal theories ‘through generating abstract concepts and specifying relationships between them
to understand problems in multiple substantive areas’ (Charmaz, 2006: 8).
Following the conflict between Glaser and Strauss and Corbin regarding the nature of grounded theory, others
involved themselves in the debate and devised their own understanding of grounded theory. For example,
Denzin and Lincoln (1994) considered that grounded theory can be post-positivist and/or constructivist.
Annells contended that our understanding of grounded theory is based on an ‘awareness of the method’s
ontological, epistemological and methodological perspectives’ (1996: 379) and that these may be broken
down into four paradigms of enquiry; positivism, post-positivism, critical theory and constructivism. Indeed,
that understanding of methodology and consequently grounded theory are determined by one’s metaphysical
assumptions. Through their own epistemological positions scholars formulated their own understandings of
grounded theory with most agreeing that it was not a unified framework. Indeed grounded theory should be
seen as a family of methodologies that are distinct from other qualitative methodologies and share common
characteristics (Bryant and Charmaz, 2007a, 2007b; Charmaz, 2006; Creswell, 2007; Goulding, 2002; Hood,
2007). These differences between grounded theory involve what has been identified as the holy trinity;
that any grounded theory study requires theoretical sampling, emerging categories through the constant
comparison of data and the development of substantive theory through the theoretical saturation of categories
(Hood, 2007)
Definition Box: Grounded Theory
A grounded theory methodological approach requires:
• theoretical sampling;
• emergence of categories through comparative analysis;
• substantive theory development.
A number of perspectives exist but the three main influences in the new streams of
grounded theory emanate from the social constructivist position (Charmaz, 2000, 2006),
postmodernist situational analysis (Clarke, 2002) and anti-post-positivist position (Bryant,
2002; Bryant and Charmaz, 2007a, 2007b). Each transcends the post-positivist
dimensions of both Glaser and Strauss; each places a premium on the relationship
between the researcher and researched and the multiplicity of those involved in the
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construction of reality or theory (Charmaz, 2000, 2006). Furthermore situational analysis
focuses on social situations, the co-construction of knowledge and interaction between
researchers and researched (Clarke, 2002).
This chapter has dealt with grounded theory and identified that it involves developing theory through data
collection and analysis; it mainly uses qualitative data and recognises the close connection between theory
and practice. It has also outlined that some disputation exists regarding the nature of grounded theory
and identified that Glaser and Strauss considered that ‘grounded theory be flexibly interpreted and that
researchers should use it in their own way that is, as it fits their investigation’ (1967: 9). Charmaz viewed
grounded ‘as a set of principles and practices … (which) can complement other approaches to qualitative
data analysis, rather than stand in opposition to them … grounded theory serves as a way to learn about
the worlds we study and as a method for developing theories to understand’ these worlds and phenomenon
(2006: 9). Glaser and Strauss (1967) argued that theory is discovered as it emerges through the data. For
Charmaz (2006) neither ‘theories nor data are discovered they are part of the same world as ourselves and
we construct our grounded theories through our past and present involvements and interactions with people,
perspectives and research practices’ (2006: 10). Theoretical perspectives offer an interpretive portrayal of
the world under study and analysis not an extant picture (2006: 10). Substantive theories are ontological
constructions and grounded theory involves phenomenological, interpretivist positions with pragmatist
underpinning. Charmaz (2000; 2006) deals with re-assessing meanings or interpretations of theory in relation
to methodology: positivist and constructivist types of grounded theory are juxtaposed to illustrate how different
modes of analysis stem from contrasting starting points. Finally, reflection is dealt with in terms of grounded
theory processes.
Furthermore, grounded theory raises difficulties regarding precise definitions of induction and deduction and
the point where the former begins and the latter ends (and vice versa) and the grey area between the two.
Alfred Marshall argued that ‘(y)ou make all your contrasts rather too sharply for me. You talk of the inductive
& deductive methods: whereas I contend that each involves the other & that historians are always deducing,
& that even the most deductive writers are always implicitly at least basing themselves on observed facts’
(Marshall, cited in Coase, 1995: 169). Ultimately, Marshall wished to emphasise the mutual dependency of
induction and deduction. Strauss and Glaser aimed to do the same but each with different weightings. As with
the problems of delineation between induction and deduction the same may be said in respect of emergence
and forcing. Ultimately, one may consider that grounded theory should be interpreted as it was by Glaser. ‘By
its very nature grounded theory produces ever opening and evolving theory on a subject as more data and
new ideas discovered. This nature also applies to the method itself and its methodology’ (Glaser, 1978: ix).
Grounded theory is a flexible methodological approach and should be applied to specific research projects.
Ideas will emerge from data through interpretation but theoretical sensitivity and pre-conceptions will also
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ensure a level of forcing; as with inductive and deductive approaches, pure emergent or forced studies are
impossible. Because of the nature of human existence and ontological and epistemological relationships with
phenomenon, a certain level of forcing as well as subjectivity in relation to interpretation and emerging ideas
necessarily must exist. That said, grounded theory takes into consideration these difficulties and provides a
methodological approach that may be used in a post-positivist, critical theory or constructivist/participatory
Further Reading
Edited by: Bryant, A. and Charmaz, C. (eds) The Sage Handbook of Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks,
CA: SAGE Publications. pp 1–28.
Charmaz, K. (2006) Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis. London:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (1994) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2000) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2005) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N.K. (2007) ‘Grounded theory and the politics of interpretation’, in Edited by: A.Bryant and
K.Charmaz (eds), The Sage Handbook of Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. pp.
Glaser, B. and Strauss, A. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory. New York: Alpine.
Glaser, B. (1998) Doing Grounded Theory: Issues and Discussions. Grounded Theory Institute: Sociology
Howell, K.E. (2000) Discovering the Limits of European Integration: A Grounded Theory Approach. New
York: Nova Science Publishers.
Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. (1998) Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for
Developing Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
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Page 22 of 22 Grounded Theory
Grounded Theory
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology
Explaining and Understanding Theory
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology
By: Kerry E. Howell
Pub. Date: 2015
Access Date: June 17, 2022
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: London
Print ISBN: 9781446202999
Online ISBN: 9781473957633
DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781473957633
Print pages: 19-31
© 2013 SAGE Publications Ltd All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the pagination of the
online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
Explaining and Understanding Theory
Chapter 2 further examines the relationships between theory, truth, knowledge and reality. Indeed, it
concentrates on the notion of theory and considers how this underpins and/or relates to research in social
science. This chapter also considers the links between ontological and theoretical perspectives in relation
to theory and paradigms of inquiry. The etymology of theory is found in antiquity and derives from the
term theoria, which means to behold or view. Indeed theory has the same root as theatre, which provides
reflections on society and the world. Consequently, one may argue that theory involves a way of viewing or
reflecting on the world and in this way it is different from knowledge of how the world is (reality or truth).
Conversely, one may also consider that theories do actually identify knowledge of how the world is through
providing means of looking at it; that there is no difference between knowledge or truth and the theories that
reflect these.
The 20th century witnessed an exponential growth in the social sciences; they have overtaken the arts
and depending on one’s comprehension of what they should achieve they now confront or mimic natural
sciences. Indeed, it is this distinction within the social sciences that underpin and facilitate how social
sciences are perceived and applied. This distinction involves debate regarding the very nature of knowledge
(ontology), the relationship between humanity and knowledge (epistemology) and issues regarding the rigour
required when developing or testing knowledge (methodology). What social science entails and why it is
important for humanity is intrinsically linked with philosophical debates regarding empiricism, rationalism and
phenomenology in relation to emergent paradigms of inquiry that provide the basic beliefs of individuals
when using methodological approaches in the development of distinct research programmes within the social
sciences. Winch (1991) pointed out that a certain fallacy existed regarding social sciences and their slow
development in relation to the natural sciences. Indeed, the social sciences had developed gradually because
they were slow to fully mirror natural science procedures; they had failed to fully emancipate themselves
from philosophy. Winch (1991) accepts the idea that social science may not have found a Newton but
does not consider that if social science is to evolve it should adhere to natural science premises rather
than philosophical perspectives. This text acknowledges this position and explains different perceptions of
the social sciences and theoretical frameworks employed in relation to scientific or positivistic positions
and the relationships with philosophical premises regarding phenomenology. Overall the distinctions provide
backdrops for what different schools consider social science theory is capable of achieving.
Social science is by its nature theoretically informed. Consequently theory discovery development or meta-
theorising should be encouraged as it is a necessary component for rigorous social science research.
Theorising involves the systematic study of social activity through explicating, interpreting, understanding
and predicting small- or large-scale human action. Social science research incorporates a search for reliable
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Page 2 of 13 Explaining and Understanding Theory
theoretical frameworks. Theory generates pluralism, produces choice, creates alternative scenarios,
formulates debate and communication, increases awareness and develops understanding.
Definition Box: Reasons for Theory
Theory is usually seen as being pointless; people usually considering it to be all well in
theory but that it will not work in practice. Theory is seen as something beyond everyday
existence and unimportant for people’s daily lives. However, theory provides a means
by which individuals may consider the difficulties they face on a day to day basis or
may understand other individual, social or political problems. Theory allows generalisation
and through synthesising the theoretical and the practical, understanding is enhanced.
Fundamentally everyone thinks in a theoretical manner, the problem is we do not realise
we are doing so and undertake this thinking in an unsystematic way. When effected by
situations or policies they cannot control individuals theorise; I am unemployed because
of EU membership and incomers from other Member States or I am unemployed because
of austerity cuts and recession. Each is an example of theorising about one’s specific
situation in relation to a general rationale. Overall, theory can explain our everyday close
experiences by relating these to something more distant and abstract. Indeed, theory can
inform us about that which we have no experience; theory can inform an individual about
the world. This is closely related to the Kantian idea of going visiting.
Rather than pursue proof, social science theory can be defined by its ability to provide understanding
of situations at precise moments in time. Take positivism and post positivism, the former theory involves
the pursuit of laws and the latter approximations derived from experimentation in idealised situations,
which allows explanation of phenomenon through what has been labelled thin-data. For critical theory,
constructivism and participatory paradigms of inquiry theory is about providing frameworks for understanding
situations and phenomenon through thick-data (for further on paradigms of inquiry see below). Theory and
practice are two sides of the same coin; good practice is informed by accurate theoretical frameworks
and accurate theory through sound understanding of practical situations. The relationship between theory
and practice has been discussed for centuries with some incisive considerations being determined during
Enlightenment. Indeed, as noted in Chapter 1 we discussed how Immanuel Kant undertook a consideration of
the relationship between theory and practice during the late 18th century and argued that theory and practice
were inseparable and should be assessed together in all analyses and studies.
Theories entail different understandings or explanations of truth, reality, knowledge development as well as
acquisition, application evaluation and critique. The paradigms of inquiry discussed in this chapter render
explicit the linkages between theory ontology and methodology. Furthermore, different types of theory in terms
of theory development, ideational formulation, normativism and levels of theory in terms of grand, meso and
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Page 3 of 13 Explaining and Understanding Theory
substantive theory are explored. This chapter also draws on the abstract philosophy discussed in Chapter
1 and assesses how this underpins theoretical perspectives and ultimately identifies a means of theoretical
synthesis in relation to paradigms of inquiry and methodological approaches. Theory incorporates a ‘set of
well-developed concepts related through statements of relationship, which together constitute an integrated
framework that can be used to explain or predict phenomena’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998: 15). Social science
is theoretically informed and that ontological perspectives determine one’s interpretation of truth, reality and/
or theory. Consequently, theorising, theory discovery, theory building or development should be encouraged.
Theorising involves the systematic study of social activity through explicating, interpreting, understanding and
if possible predicting small- or large-scale action. Furthermore, this chapter discusses what theory is and its
role in relation to practice and contends that theories enable pluralism and choice; provide communication
and open debate, encourage sensitivity toward data and open deliberation as well as enhances awareness
of dogmatism and greater understanding of alternative perspectives.
What Is Theory?
Do theories reflect reality, knowledge or truth? Or are they an aspect of the knowledge, truth and overall reality
that is being expressed? In examining these questions or different perspectives of theory it may be worth
assessing how theories have been used in the past. Take the theories of the heavens: antiquity considered
that celestial bodies were different from earthly counterparts and this differentiation is what made things with
earthly elements fall and entities such as the stars and comets to remain in the heavens. With Newton’s
theory of gravity the lenses for observing the world (theory) changed so knowledge transformed in relation
to this. The distinction between earthly and heavenly matter dissipated and gravity in relation to planet orbits
and the speed matter fell to earth became the means of explaining why some things fall and others do not.
The universal theory of gravity sufficed for many centuries but was surpassed during the early 20th century
when challenged by relativity and quantum theories. Consequently, if Newton’s theory of gravity was seen to
fully correspond with reality it encompassed truth and knowledge of reality until around 1900 when it was, in
post-positivist terms, falsified. Or based on Kuhnian (see below for further) paradigm shifts in a critical theory,
constructivist or participatory context the theory continued to infinitely develop as a form of insight into reality;
that is, there is no end-game where an absolute truth exists in relation to a theoretical perspective. There
exists a continual dialectical process involving parts of the older theory in relation to the present theory out
of which a future theory will emerge. Knowledge is shaped by our theoretical lenses; knowledge of planetary
movement shifted from Ptolemaic epicycles to gravitational forces, then relativity and quantum theory. In a
similar fashion the idea of fixed species in biology gave way to the theory of evolution. Fundamentally, theory
provides the means by which we are able to organise factual evidence that determines knowledge. The way
we think provides the means by which we organise or categorise data; our conceptualisations of space, time,
causality, relativity, universality, and so on, provide general forms of categories that inform or constitute the
basis of theoretical insight.
Clear perception requires a general awareness of how experience is shaped by theories that implicitly or
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explicitly inform the way we think. In this way, experience and knowledge incorporate the same space and
involve the same process, they are not separate but synthesised entities; knowledge and experience are
located in the same space. Theories are ever changing and continually shaping and forming our experience
and knowledge. Indeed, theorising in relation to nature is similar to theorising in relation to humanity. If one
approaches a person as an enemy then the reaction of the individual concerned will confirm this apparition;
the theoretical position will be self-fulfilling. If one approaches nature from a specific theoretical perspective
then it is likely that this position will be self-fulfilling. If we believe in a positivistic sense that that theory gives
immutable laws relating to truth or knowledge then it verifies what already exists and underlines the fact that
such will always exist. This leads toward a blinkered comprehension of society, nature and the individual;
can we ever have ultimate knowledge or know reality as it really is? Can a reality totally independent of our
thought and theoretical perspectives exist? If so then we may approach the object with fixed concepts and
theories and continue to confirm the limitations of these theories and thoughts in relation to experience. Every
theoretical perspective involves a distinct mode of thinking, for example, antiquity heavenly and earthly matter
or Newtonian centrifugal forces. These differences can be seen as separate ways of observing rather than
denoting what really exists; in this way, they do not imply the separate existence of matter from thought.
Conversely, theories may be considered as precise descriptions of reality. However, when historical changes
to theory are considered this seems unrealistic. We should be aware of how we think through theoretical
frameworks and see these as modes of observing rather than providing a true likeness of reality as it
actually exists. In this context, theory may be seen as a particular way of viewing an object that provides
an appearance of the said entity. Fundamentally the observer and observed become the same through the
theoretical perspective used by the observer specifically determining the outcome or interpretation of the
observed. Reality is indivisible and involves a close if not symbiotic relationship between theory and practice.
In this context, there is wholeness to the world and the way it is analysed and researched. Theory provides a
kind of adhesive that brings together the subject and the object which allows the observer to look closely and
learn from the whole process of thought and discover activity relevant to understanding the world in a holistic
In contrast with practice or action, theory incorporates contemplation about what is viewed. In the natural
sciences and positivistic studies, theory involves the relationship between cause and effect through the
study of observable phenomenon whereas the social sciences and humanities deal with ideas and activity
which are not so easy to observe or interpret. Theory is closely related to the idea of truth and consists of
a set of statements that give a true understanding (knowledge) regarding certain phenomenon. That said,
truth is always relative to a given theory and may be true in one context but not in another; consequently,
interpretation becomes a central element regarding relationships between truth, knowledge and theory. In
sum, through truthful statements theory reflects and explains reality and provides knowledge of phenomenon
under analysis. The authority of theory and the academics that expound them ‘must be rooted in their
truthfulness’; through accuracy and sincerity true beliefs and knowledge are formulated (Williams, 2004: 11).
Theoretical frameworks rely on metaphysical subjectivism in that truth depends on beliefs and is relativist to
situations and across cultures.
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Kantian Ideas on Theory and Practice
Kant (1995b) argued that a collection of rules even when they are practical are identified as a theory when the
rules are general and abstractions from the practical. In constrast, all practical activities are labelled practice.
Rules with a particular purpose incorporating ‘conceived principles of procedure’ are considered practical
(Kant, 1995b: 61). From such a position Kant deduced that no matter how complete a theory (to provide
a link with practice) the middle ground between theory and practical application must be realised. A theory
contains a general rule that needs to be judged when the practitioner determines the extent the theory fits
with it in practice and when it does not (see Toumlin below for a similar explanation). However, rules that
direct judgement cannot be provided on every occasion with judgements ‘subsuming each instance under
the previous rule (for this would involve an infinite regress’ (Kant, 1995b: 61). Indeed, because of such many
theoreticians can be found that lack judgement so may never be practical; Kant considered that a number of
lawyers or doctors who even though well educated were unable to provide practical advice. Conversely, even
though someone may have good judgement, theory will be always be incomplete and may only be continually
improved (or for Kant perfected) through further and future experimentation and experience from which the
theoretician draws new rules that informed and finally completed the theory. Consequently, it is not surprising
that in numerous contexts the theory may be wanting but this is not necessarily the fault of the theory. The
problem is that not enough theory exists; we need to learn from experience and develop further theories. Kant
argued that ‘no one can pretend to be practically versed in a branch of knowledge and yet treat theory with
scorn, without exposing the fact the he is an ignoramus in his subject’ (1995b: 62). That said the ignoramus
that ignores theory in practice is easier to excuse than the theoretician who denies the use of theory in the
practical world.
The individual that is immersed in theory then denies the relevance for practice may be seen as to create
‘philosopher’s dreams’ or ‘empty ideals’ with no ‘practical validity’ (Kant, 1995b: 62). This would mean that
mechanics or electrics would have no relevance for engineers and medical theory no relevance to general
practitioners (GPs) or medical consultants. However, a theory which deals with more abstract phenomenon in
terms of perception or philosophy may consist of reason and have limited practical application. In this context
the distinction between theory and practice may be more explicit. Overall, for the social sciences there is a
relationship between theory and practice because theory explains and assesses knowledge or truth which is
derived from reality or practical, empirical situations and contexts.
Paradigms of Inquiry and the Impact on Theory
Theory is concerned with building substantive understanding, normativism and ideational simplification.
Substantive theories are built on the basis of the data collected and normativism determines theoretical
frameworks that have an ethical or moral dimension (there is an ‘ought’ aspect to the theory). Ideational
theory involves simplification of confounding variables and is closely linked to the positivist and post-
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positivist paradigms of inquiry. Theories entail different understandings of knowledge and truth, knowledge
development as well as acquisition, application evaluation and critique.
There are a number of understandings of theory that clearly relate to distinct paradigms of inquiry (further
discussions regarding philosophical positions and paradigms of inquiry are undertaken below). In general,
theory can be positivistic or law orientated, in the natural sciences universal laws are pursued whereas in
the social sciences law-like regularities are developed (the distinction between positivism and post-positivism
is discussed in more detail in Chapter 3). Both natural and social scientific laws should enable prediction.
Overall, this theoretical perspective is a universal law-oriented understanding of theory relating to a positivist
paradigm of inquiry and methodology in the pursuit of regularities and prediction. Theory in this context is
concerned with immutable laws and prediction.
A positivistic perspective of theory involves an idealised or simplified understanding of reality or truth. It is
impossible to understand all variables and those that confound should be removed with focus on conditions
that provide ideal situations. Perfect knowledge cannot be wholly realised but it is assumed in the shape of a
model; prediction is sought in an ideal situation. Theory in this context incorporates falsification and prediction
in an idealised or model world. Consequently, perfect knowledge at a given moment in time is assumed to
hold; but for post-positivism only until such is challenged and usurped.
Both positivism and post-positivism perceive theory as an indication or statement of relationships between
abstracted ideas covering a number of empirical observations. This is an empiricist view of theory
development, which through observation identifies hypotheses or nulls hypotheses that are tested through
reliable (replicable) scientific methods. The goal for positivist theory is parsimonious explanation and
prediction; generalisation and deterministic relationships between cause and effect are imperative.
Critical theory, constructivist and participatory paradigms involve interpretive perspectives of theory which
emphasise understanding and the relationship between interpretation and the phenomenon under
investigation. Emphasis is placed on the interconnection between patterns rather than the identification
of cause and effect. Theory involves interpretation through wide-ranging imaginative analysis and allows
for multiple meanings, realities and uncertainty. Values and facts are intrinsically linked and knowledge or
truth is dialectical or changeable and provisional. As social life evolves into different things/epochs so too
does the theory that reflects or provides an understanding of this transformation. As the phenomenological
approach has challenged positivism, interpretive theory has continued to become more prevalent in social
science research. Theory and practice are closely related and praxis is developed. Aristotle considered
that free human beings were engaged in three fundamental activities: Theoria for which the objective was
truth; Poeisis where the objective is production; Praxis where the end goal or telos was action. Praxis
eventually comes to mean the process by which the relationship between reflection and practice or theory
and practice can transform society and individuals within it. Fundamentally, theories are situated in specific
contexts and the experiences and perspectives of people and institutions within these locations. Interpretive
theories deal with the abstraction of phenomenon and clearly illustrate the depth and relevance of the
theories to the phenomenon under investigation. Subjectivity involves a central position because it is not
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possible to remove the researcher and the bias involved from the investigation. Theories allow sense-
making and are the means for making ideas fit with phenomenon; relationships between phenomena are
made explicit. This process involves theorising that incorporates engagement with those being researched
while at the same time bringing abstract conceptualisations to bear upon the investigation. It also stimulates
imagination and provides further lenses and perspectives for comprehending the empirical data. Indeed,
there are numerous methodologies that provide the means for interpretive theory construction including,
grounded theory, ethnography, hermeneutical and action research (each of these will be discussed in greater
detail below). Furthermore, interpretive theories are based on ontological and epistemological positions
that are relativist and subjective. A critical theory perspective asserts that influential groups define what
theories entail; they are developed in relation to historical change and incorporate ethical challenges to the
existing state of affairs. There are close linkages between theoretical development and ethical reflection.
Habermas (1971) related social science to human interaction based on ethical considerations. Changes
in society have brought about human emancipation and social science should not be defined in terms of
its accumulated stock of knowledge but its commitment to ethical principles. Society is in a state of flux
so theories cannot be determined through correspondence to a present state of affairs because social
mobilisation may prove the existing state of affairs unjust. Furthermore, because social scientists participate in
the research process their judgements are part of interpretations underpinning knowledge and/or theoretical
frameworks. Indeed, Habermas edges toward a constructivist perspective where theory is no different from
everyday life and ground in communities. In this context, theory takes the form of axiomatic models and
ongoing theory development. Social science theory is defined in terms of its ability to provide validity and
understanding rather than its ability to enable measurement, proof or prediction. Constructivism can mean
that individuals actively engage with and create their worlds; that is people perceive reality differently and
create their own understanding of phenomenon. Or that phenomenon exists in its own right and involves
a fundamental meaning that enables a predictable and true interpretation of reality. The latter perspective
involves some form of externality that impacts on the individual in a uniform context and leans toward critical
theory and positivist ontologies and the former a ‘radical constructivism’ that considers reality is different for
each individual and adheres to a participatory ontology. These distinctions can also be explained in terms of
the distinctions between constructivism and constructionism; that is, the extent to which the individual has
control of constructions and how far these constructions are socially determined through institutions and/
or interaction between agents and society. However, there is core agreement between constructivism and
constructionism and certain authors have attempted a synthesis of these approaches (these are discussed in
more detail in Chapter 6).
The participatory inquiry paradigm advocates a philosophy in which the researcher and those being
researched are treated interdependently and responsive to one another in the research process. Torbert
argued that ‘a participatory ontology treats the role of subjective experience in research as essential, and
looks to the research process as a means of healing the split that so often exists among knowledge,
experience, and action’ (2001: 3). Furthermore, ‘a true social science will integrate subjective (first-person),
intersubjective (second-person), and objective (third-person) inquiry in ongoing real-time, for the sake of
developing all humans’ capacities for inquiring more and more of our time how to act in a timely fashion’
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Page 8 of 13 Explaining and Understanding Theory
(Torbert, 2001: 3).
Positivism is extreme in its interpretation of ontology and epistemology and is difficult to deal with in the
social sciences, which causes a number of problems when attempting to synthesise positivist interpretations
of theory with other paradigms. For instance if there is one totally understandable reality that may be
discovered through immutable laws this contradicts the ontological positions of each of the other paradigms.
With the change in ontology and epistemology between positivism and post-positivism we observe the
recognition of human fallibility and theory replacement through critical analysis. This accepts that theory
changes through falsification, which in itself is part of a historical process; critical theory through challenging
the status quo, renders this same point explicit. Consequently, although ontologies, epistemologies and
methodological approaches initially seem exclusive, when we examine them in more detail they may be
considered inclusive and provide the opportunity for mixing theoretical perspectives to attain explanation
and understanding of phenomenon. Furthermore, these gradients of theory identify levels of normativism;
for instance positivism would try and deny normative perspectives whereas constructivism and participatory
paradigms would embrace them.
In the following discussions, for the sake of clarity the above paradigms will be labelled in a general sense,
as positivist and phenomenology, the former includes and primarily incorporates the above definition of post-
positivism, the latter includes critical theory, constructivism and participatory paradigms (discussed in more
detail in the following chapters). This text understands the former as leaning toward modernism and the latter
postmodernism. In the former, theory has to be objective, identify cause and effect, provide generalisation or
prediction and ensure reliability. The latter however, is more concerned with frameworks for providing insight,
understanding and validity in historical and specific circumstances.
Table 2.1 Types of theory
Personal theorising
Reflection regarding individual experience in relation to wider notions or
Substantive theory Derived from data analysis, rich conceptualisations of specific situations.
Models Simplified perspectives of phenomenon.
Meso theory
Middle-range theories that draw on substantiated substantive theories and
Grand theory and philosophical
Sweeping abstract explanations of phenomenon and existence.
Definition Box: Theory Typology
• Philosophy
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• Grand theory
• Meso or middle-range theory
• Substantive theory or models
• Individual.
Individuals theorise in relation to experience through considering empirical phenomenon
in relation to non-empirical phenomenon. Substantive theory is more systematic than
this but draws on experience either through a combination of selves or the individual
researcher interpretation collation and synthesis between theory and practice occurs.
Grand theory involves combinations of meso theory and meso theory combinations of
substantive theories. Philosophy involves total abstraction and limited relationships with
practice. Grand theory and meso theory can collectively be known as formal theory.
To enable a more detailed comprehension of theory in relation to the distinct philosophical positions, this
chapter now concentrates on positivism from a social science perspective so mainly consists of post-positivist
perspectives and phenomenology (which included the idea of a general critical theory, constructivism and
participatory paradigms). Given these philosophical positions the text arrived at distinctions in theoretical
perspectives, and differences in the way theory can be used in explaining and/or understanding phenomenon.
The work provides different levels of theory, on the one hand, and different intensities of normative
expectation, on the other hand. As noted above, for positivism, theory is the pursuit of laws and for post-
positivism approximations in idealised situations and explanations of phenomenon through thin data. For
phenomenology theory is about providing frameworks for understanding situations and phenomenon through
thick data.
This text constructs a typology in relation to levels of theory. Broad philosophical perspectives and grand
theory are not able to fit well with the positivist interpretation of theory even though grand theory would
correspond more easily with post-positivism. On the other hand, although meso theory could also correspond
with elements of phenomenology it does provide a means by which post-positivist stipulations regarding
theory could be realised. Substantive theory is derived from one specific area or part of the research and
can be identified by breaking down theory into constituent parts. Philosophical frameworks, grand and meso
theories are incrementally more abstract and consequently conceptually advanced.
The more simplified the theory, the easier it is to identify cause and effect or dependent and independent
variables. However, the greater this simplification the more difficult it is to provide a full understanding and
explanation. Consequently there exists a distinction between simplified models and more in-depth substantive
theories. Substantive theory is developed through inductive more constructivist procedures whereas models
are normally positivistic simplifications. Synthesis of substantive, meso and grand theories provides insight
and understanding with some identification of cause and effect. However, grand theory and philosophical
frameworks allow understanding in a generic context but is unable to produce prediction or historical
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determinism (even though it may seek to accomplish these objectives). Because of this deficiency and the
fact that they were difficult to verify in a positivist context in the 1960s and 1970 grand theory came under
an onslaught of criticism. This led to a re-assessment of what social science theory could actually achieve.
Positivist notions of prediction were challenged and through a synthesis of post-positivist and phenomenology
meso and substantive theory emerged and gave more incisive theoretical explanations for social science.
Table 2.2 Paradigms of inquiry
Philosophy, grand, meso and substantive theory are closely interrelated because (as noted by Kant above)
reality, truth/knowledge and theory develop through interactions between historical environments, institutions
and individuals (practical situations). Consequently, we may argue that social actors in a changing historical
and social context construct reality truth/knowledge and theory. Researchers are not objective impassive
analysts; they themselves are part of the construction process and as social values change theory is re-
assessed in relation to these changes (George, 1976). Prediction in the social sciences is difficult if not
impossible to formulate, consequently grand theory should be seen as a means of ‘organising concepts’,
‘selecting relevant facts’ and determining how the ‘narrative should be constructed’ (George, 1976). That
said, social research is about a mix of ontological and epistemological positions through a synthesis of
methodological approaches and methods of data collection.
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Overall, these deliberations have continued to have resonance for philosophers during the 20th century
and researchers today identify these distinctions in terms of paradigms of inquiry in relation to different
methodological approaches used in diverse research programmes. To comprehend the relationship between
subjective and objective stances in research programmes in terms of specific paradigms of inquiry and
methodological approaches, this chapter has assessed the differentiations between positivism, post-
positivism and three distinct phenomenological positions. Positivism and post-positivism are linked with
the modernist tradition and phenomenological positions can be seen to incorporate differentiated levels of
postmodern approaches. However, these distinctions vary and can become opaque when closer inspection
is undertaken. For instance, ‘falsification’ and the distaste for grand theory apparent in post-positivism in
certain contexts render it postmodernist. Furthermore, distinctions between epistemological and ontological
positions are identified when one assesses differences between the philosophical positions of the main
phenomenological thinkers. Differences are apparent between Husserl’s ‘transcendental phenomenology’,
Heidegger’s ‘hermeneutical phenomenology’ and Merleau-Ponty’s world of ‘inalienable presence’.
Phenomenology is not a single unified body of ideas and the tradition encompasses diverse interpretations
and philosophical positions (Giddens, 1977). In this text, the distinctions between these philosophical
positions are explored in an attempt to clarify some of the issues relating to ontology, epistemology and
methodology for distinct paradigms of inquiry.
In general, the critical theory paradigm included theoretical perspectives that challenged the status quo, for
example, neo-Marxism, feminism, determinism, and provided a specific understanding of reality in that it is
shaped by ‘social, political, cultural, economic and gender values crystalised over time’ (Denzin and Lincoln,
1994: 105) (critical theory is outlined further in Chapter 5).
Overall, this chapter outlines the relationship between a number of different paradigms of inquiry identified
by Denzin and Lincoln (1994, 2000, 2005). These involve: positivism, post-positivism, critical theory,
constructivism and participatory. In general terms the former two can come under the heading of positivism
whereas the latter three may be perceived as displaying elements of phenomenology. Each paradigm of
inquiry identifies specific methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives and indicates how these fit
together when underpinning research projects and programmes.
Further Reading
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (1994) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2000) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2005) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
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Page 12 of 13 Explaining and Understanding Theory
Honderich, T. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Howell, K.E. (2004) Europeanization, European Integration and Financial Services: Developing Theoretical
Frameworks and Synthesising Methodological Approaches. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Kant, I (1995) ‘On the common saying: this may be true in theory but it does not apply in practice’, in Edited
by: H.Reiss (ed.), Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kuhn, T.S. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Winch, P. (1991) The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. London: Routledge.
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Page 13 of 13 Explaining and Understanding Theory
Explaining and Understanding Theory
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology
Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology
By: Kerry E. Howell
Pub. Date: 2015
Access Date: June 17, 2022
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: London
Print ISBN: 9781446202999
Online ISBN: 9781473957633
DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781473957633
Print pages: 32-54
© 2013 SAGE Publications Ltd All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the pagination of the
online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
Research involves understanding the relationship between theory, philosophy (ontology and epistemology),
methodology and methods. Any research project whether this be a dissertation, thesis or research paper
requires some understanding and explanation of the relationships between these areas. This text explains
these relationships through a discussion of rationalist arguments in Chapter 1, theory in Chapter 2 and
empiricist, positivist and phenomenological positions in this and the following chapter. It is useful to have
some knowledge of these positions when undertaking research projects because the paradigms of inquiry
and subsequent methodological approaches and methods of data collection extend what may be considered
valid knowledge generation or accumulation actually entails. Based in empiricism, positivism provided an
important and relevant addition to our conceptualisation of how knowledge may be measured, defined and
In a bid to fully explain the relationship between methodology and the philosophical and scientific
underpinnings of specific paradigms of inquiry, this chapter analyses the differentiations between empiricism,
positivism and post-positivism each of which, it may be argued, exemplifies a certain modernist approach
to knowledge generation. However, this demarcation can become problematic when a close analysis is
undertaken. For instance, as noted above, the falsification process and the distaste for grand theory apparent
in post-positivism in some contexts render it postmodernist.
The modernist/postmodernist debate picks up on a number of issues identified in Chapters 1 and 2 in terms
of ongoing debates regarding the nature of reality, truth, knowledge and theory. That is, whether or not the
world has a real existence beyond human thought? Positivists consider an external reality exists that can
be understood completely whereas post-positivists argue that even though such a reality can be discerned
it may only be understood probabilistically. Empiricists consider that scientific truth and reality are based on
experience and observation and that ‘human consciousness which is subjective is not accessible to science,
and thus not truly knowable’ (Polkinghorne, 1989: 23).
This chapter considers that positivism is based on aspects of empiricism and identifies how this involves an
adherence to natural science perspectives of reality and methodology. In addition, the chapter goes on to
identify how this adherence to empiricism provided a number of problems for positivism when it attempted to
understand social existence. Indeed, initially through the work of Popper (1969, 1994, 2002, 2002a) positivism
was challenged by post-positivism and a more amenable and less entrenched methodological approach
developed. However, post-positivism still adhered to the idea of an external reality and dualist objectivity,
which was questioned by phenomenologist philosophers in terms of the level of interaction between self and
the world and solipsistic positions.
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Page 2 of 22 Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
Chapter 3 deals with these issues in more detail and covers an assessment of empiricism and a short
discussion of thinkers in the empiricist tradition. Positivism is analysed in relation to how it uses ideas initially
devised for empiricism and how these were challenged through post-positivism. Overall, this chapter identifies
the distinction between positivism and post-positivism and considers the implications this has for knowledge
generation and research in general.
Reflection Box: Solipsism
Solipsism comes from the Latin for solus (alone) and ipse (self) and involves the idea that
only the individual mind certainly exists; all else could be a figment of one’s imagination.
The world beyond the individual mind cannot be known and there is a chance that it as
well as other people may not exist. Furthermore, even if an independent reality does exist
how may an individual know this reality in an objective fashion? Knowledge is the content
of the individual mind and no necessary link exists between experience and thought.
Methodological solipsism argues that mind and thought is independent of environment or
facts regarding this environment; mind content is determined by facts about the thinking
Consider the following statements in relation to the requirements for your research project
and the notion that objective knowledge can be attained and accumulated.
• Nothing can exist.
• If something does exist nothing can be known about it.
• Even if something does exist and we are able to know something of it
communication of this knowledge is impossible.
Empiricism: Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Hume
Empiricism considers that knowledge is dependent on the five senses and that through experience knowledge
can be derived and accumulated. Empiricism is based on the belief that we can only know what the world
tells us; through objective or neutral observation true knowledge may be realised and understood. The human
mind is a blank sheet on which sense-based information is transmitted. Sense data is provided or ‘given’
pre-interpretation, then the mind becomes active and manipulates sense data in numerous ways; that is,
through abstraction and synthesised interpretations of sense-data which give understanding and knowledge
as well as building relationships between ideas and providing the basis for further observation. The search
for immutable laws since has been accepted as the norm for scientific inquiry from the 17th to the 21st
centuries. Science carries out controlled experiments and makes measured observations at a designated
point between the known and the unknown. Findings are recorded and published then further reliable data
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Page 3 of 22 Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
accumulated. Eventually general elements emerge and hypotheses are formulated (law-like statements which
fit with the accumulated reliable data and portray causality). Hypotheses are then tested with the intention of
proving these correct. Verification or proof formulates a scientific law and is used to excavate new information
and enhance the stock of human knowledge. Through procedures labelled induction (data accumulation)
and deduction (hypothesis testing), human ignorance is gradually eliminated. Knowledge accumulation is
progressive and benefits humanity. Natural science justified its view of knowledge on the basis of observation
and experiment, that is, an empiricist view of knowledge. Empiricist philosophers return the compliment
and considered that natural science embodied the highest form of genuine knowledge. For example Ayer
(1946) was keen to draw a distinction between genuine knowledge (science) and belief systems like religion,
metaphysics and Marxism. In fact, he labelled these belief systems pseudo-sciences that had little if any
claim to knowledge embodiment. However, the difficulty here was that the reasons for excluding Marxism or
psychoanalysis in many instances ruled out a great deal of established natural science. Overall, the empiricist
view of science can be characterised on the basis of the following doctrine (see Definition Box).
Definition Box: Empiricism
Empiricism incorporates the idea that genuine knowledge can be tested by experience
and that claims of knowledge must be observable. Scientific laws involve statements of
recurring patterns of experience and a scientific explanation is an instance of a scientific
law. Prediction is achievable and science is objective as it separates testable factual
statements from value judgements (Benton and Craib, 2001).
This doctrine incorporated the underpinnings of positivism and is based on the assertion that human science
should be treated as natural science and anything that failed to adhere to such a presupposition and process
was not knowledge.
Definition Box: Immutable Laws
Immutable can be defined in terms of continuation and permanence; an entity is not
susceptible to change. Law derives from the Norse term lagu, which means that something
is fixed; however, laws are linked with legal systems and rights which are subject to
historical and social change. Immutable laws are laws that cannot be challenged; they
have been tested and found to be true. Newton’s Law of Gravity was one such law. Such
may also be known as natural laws or laws of nature that are universal (that is they stand
in all contexts).
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Francis Bacon
In Novum Organum (1620), Francis Bacon (1561–1626) outlined his belief in the accumulative creation of
knowledge, which could be derived through divine revelation or sensory experience. Bacon said little about
divine revelation and most knowledge, it would seem, is formulated through the senses. Sensory interaction
with the world allows the development of knowledge, which Bacon divided into three types: knowledge of
humanity; God; and nature. However, Bacon was unhappy with the state of knowledge and considered that
most treatises and texts were repetitions and entailed the same arguments, they may vary in method, which
provides a mirage of plenty, but on closer examination proves to be illusory.
Francis Bacon may be considered as outlining an embryonic interpretation of inductive scientific method
because he argued that inductive procedure rather than deductive reasoning should incorporate the basis of
knowledge generation. He argued that on the basis of observation and experience, logical statements could
be uttered and scientific generalisations made based on the logical ordering of empirical observations and
experiences. However, nowhere does Bacon use the term scientific method but his ideas may be considered
as the basis or starting point for such a perspective of scientific procedure.
Bacon argued that the human mind was prone to weaknesses (idols of the mind) and these required attention
before inductive reasoning could proceed. Indeed, these idols of the mind distorted the truth, so needed to
be eradicated. Idols of the mind included; those of the tribe, mental weaknesses held by humanity in general
and idols of the den or cave that involved a preponderance to assess everything from a subjective standpoint
or through the prioritisation of one’s own interest or perspective. The idols of the market incorporate the
misuse and meaninglessness of language and idols of the theatre the misuse of power. The idols formed a
falsity and impinged human capability for seeing things as they truly are; humanity is capable of perceiving
truth but only once these vagaries (idols) were negated. Human potential for knowledge generation and
understanding was beyond question, however, through laziness, avarice or over-confidence in our abilities,
our capabilities and capacities have largely been misused. Through the scientific method humanity may be
liberated from its erroneous ways and mistake free truth or an approximation of true knowledge realised. In his
utopian state called New Atlantis, knowledge is uncovered and nature interpreted in the House of Solomon.
Humanity benefits from the continued development and practical application of science and knowledge;
through inductive reasoning knowledge is developed and the human condition improved. Bacon identified
objectivity and the non-biased accumulation of knowledge; the very basis of all rigorous research.
Thomas Hobbes
In Objections (1641), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) reiterated that philosophy and knowledge accumulation
had remained stunted and advocated that people should ignore pointless attempts at philosophy and
concentrate on daily experience and common sense. For Hobbes, philosophy was more than the knowledge
of cause and effect and sensory experience and was rather the product of rationalisation. Philosophy is
different from knowledge by sense because sensory knowledge is formed through ‘motions’ or events that
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are associated and ordered in the mind. Experience and history provide foresight and prudence; they lead
to the formation of expected outcomes. However, this does not incorporate philosophical knowledge or true
science; sense and memory are common to all living creatures and are a form of knowledge but because
they are simply given and not formed through rationalisation they are not philosophy. For Hobbes knowledge
began with sense-perception, consequently the initial step for developing understanding was to comprehend
what sense-perception actually entailed. Sense-perception involved motions in matter; sensory ideas were
motions in matter. Indeed, everything involved matter in motion. The pressure of objects, for example, sounds,
shapes, colours, are not part of the object but caused by sensations; they are the qualities that emerge
through interaction between thing or the observed and sensations of the mind (they are in motion).
Table 3.1 Empirical knowledge
Unimpressed with the stock of human knowledge and considered the mind and human thought to be weak and
Knowledge is based in sense-perception. Causation involves matter in motion which sees knowledge as either
effects developed through understanding, general causes or causes determined through general effects.
If all things came from experience then how can we deal with generalisation when we may not experience every
occurrence? Understanding not given by experience alone because all wholes or totalities in relation to
generalisation cannot be accounted for by experience alone.
Perceptions of the mind appear twice (as reflections of each other, on the one hand as an impression and on the
other as a corresponding idea of sensation. Consequently, any idea must be associated with some experienced
Hobbes identified the concept of causes and effects or appearances of things that incorporated their
ordinary observable qualities and causes are broken down into two types; efficient causes which bring about
effects and entire causes which involved a combination of causes and effects. Causation involves matter in
motion which sees knowledge as either effects developed through understanding general causes or causes
determined through general effects. However, philosophical knowledge is not simply based on cause and
effect but the idea of ratiocination (a process of logical thinking and knowledge of phenomenon through
understanding what generated it). Consequently, knowledge is not simply derived through sense but by
sensory images (referred to as external phenomenon) that when repeated through motion become imprinted
on our minds. Indeed, sequence recollection identifies and orders our experiences. History incorporates
a general or social sequence recollection which enables prediction, foresight and prudence. However,
because history depends on sense, and memory is dependent on wide experience and not reached through
ratiocination, it does not encompass philosophy. Knowledge derived through ratiocination is different from
experiential knowledge but both begin with history and this is essential for philosophy. History informed
philosophy but long epic historical accounts were not a necessity for total ratiocination as they can inform the
initiation of the methodology but can be quickly peripherised once one begins to excavate the area studied.
Ratiocination is a form of methodology that understands complexity through simplification or breaking matter
down into constituent parts and determining how these parts fit with each other. Subsequently, causes or
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the observable variables are initially made distinguishable (made known), then through synthesis of these
variables the original effect can be identified. Effects are directly known through nature and in any study
we must begin with effects when we investigate concealed causation. However, even though we initially
experience effects, they actually come second to the concealed causes. Indeed, in Hobbes we have the
basis of discovering theory and incorporated inductive procedures whereas a methodological approach that
begins with identifying causation and consequent effects is more deductive and based in proving hypotheses.
Hobbes labels causation to effect composition or synthesis and effect to causation resolution or analysis.
John Locke
Both Bacon and Hobbes were empiricists in that they recognised the primacy of sensory experience but it is
also evident they saw the need for rational thought and the mind in the formulation of knowledge. Conversely,
in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke (1632–1704) questioned how the mind
is given ideas and knowledge. Indeed, he resoundingly answers through experience! For Locke the mind
was a blank sheet and all knowledge derived through sensory experience. If all things came from experience
then how do we know that a whole is equal to its parts? How do we deal with generalisation when we may
not experience every occurrence? Locke realised that such is not given by experience alone because all
wholes or totalities in relation to generalisation cannot be accounted for by experience alone. However, he
rejects the very basis of this argument and considered that no dichotomy between experiential and innate
knowledge existed. Indeed, he considered that all knowledge is found through experience or the senses but
it did not necessarily follow that all emanated from this. Experience provided the materials of knowledge
or ideas but once these have been determined we are able to make generalisations and recognise that
wholes are equal to the sum of their parts. Through observation and experience the senses provide the
building blocks of knowledge (ideas). Experience is divided into sensation and reflection which involves the
latter taking into consideration how the mind operates, that is how it thinks, constructs beliefs or perceives
when dealing with sensation. Locke claimed that pre-experience the mind was a blank sheet and all ideas
emanated from this source; experience involves a dual source of ideas ‘void of all characters without any
ideas; how comes it to be furnished? … To this I answer in one word from experience: in that all knowledge
is founded and from that it ultimately derives itself’ (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chap
I, Sec 2). Some ideas emerge through interaction with the external world or sensation while others develop
through reflection or perception (activity or operation of the mind). The mind reflects on ideas reached through
experience; however, no matter how abstract or removed from experience this reflection becomes the source
exists in interaction with the world. Ideas for Locke involved mind-dependent entities and can involve internal
sensations as well as external perceptions. Bottom-line, ideas can be simple or complex; that is ideas clearly
derived from experience incorporate simple ideas and even though complex ideas need not be derived from
experience but constructed through component parts experienced directly. That is not to say that complex
ideas cannot be experienced directly, for example, time, space and infinity, may be experienced directly
and these are not simple ideas. Locke uses the distinction between simple and complex ideas to underpin
his claim that all ideas are found in experience. However, Locke failed to deal with the dichotomy between
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empiricism and rationalism. Indeed a solution to the problem between knowledge derived from experience or
externality and the relationship with mind or thought continues to exist as a difficulty today.
David Hume
In An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), David Hume (1711–1776) reasserts the hypothesis
that all ideas are derived from experience but considers there to be a relationship between perceptions
and ideas. He argued that perceptions of the mind appear twice or are reflections of each other; on the
one hand as an impression and on the other hand as a corresponding idea of sensation. So any idea
must be associated with some experienced impression. However, unlike Locke, for Hume reflection involves
secondary impressions which are determined through pleasure and pain and involve feelings such as anxiety
and expectations.
David Hume concerned himself with extending the realm of science beyond the natural world and developed
a human science or an embryonic social science. He argued that the bedrock of understanding involved
a comprehension of humanity and society; knowledge regarding human nature was a necessary premise
for a clear perception of science in general. The relationship between human nature and science is clearer
when dealing with issues relating to morality, logic or politics than it is when investigating the natural world.
However, even though the natural world is not about humanity, it is studied by it, that is, it is studied by
individuals who display a specific human nature. Indeed in Hume’s writing we witness the very basis of social
science and the idea that understanding human nature is central to our comprehension of anything else; he
argued that through explaining human nature we develop the foundations of all human endeavours. He built
on the work of Francis Bacon and proposed that as natural science had been based on experimentation and
observation such should also be the foundation for human science. His text An Enquiry Concerning Human
Understanding was sub-titled An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral
Subjects where he argued for the use of experimental philosophy for developing understanding of human
Experience and observation were considered the basis of understanding but Hume did not consider that
observations should simply be accumulated and knowledge derived from this, rather he proposed that
because appearances were deceptive hypotheses should be constructed and experimentation undertaken.
Hume develops his argument through perceptions that he breaks down into impressions and ideas; ideas
involve faint images of more vibrant impressions. Impressions involve the feeling of pain or happiness
whereas the idea involves a recollection of these emotions; the difference between the two is one of intensity
or degree rather than kind. In such a way all ideas are derived through experience; they are the faint image
of something experienced. However, certain ideas exist that do not have impressions, for example, a different
life form on another planet or a fourth dimension in which life could be very different. Hume subsequently
distinguishes between the ‘complex’ and ‘simple’ where he accepts that one may have ideas about entities
that have not been experienced completely but these are based in relevant partial experiences. For example,
it is easier to imagine a different planet and life form than to conjure up exactly what a fourth dimension would
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encompass. Our existence on this planet and images of others in our solar system gives experiences that can
be extrapolated to other unseen planets and our ideas of aliens are usually based in life-form seen here on
Earth, for example, insects or reptilian. However, a fourth dimension is difficult because no experience exists
outside of the three dimensions we exist within. Consequently, the correspondence between impressions
and ideas is limited to simple cases; overall to have meaning an idea must be associated with something
experienced. Hume argued that the correspondence between ideas and impressions formed the basis of
human nature and that such would be useful in further investigating matters relating to human existence.
Question: Empiricism
Provide an assessment of the empiricists identified above and compare and contrast their
distinct perspectives. Which thinker’s understanding or philosophical position most clearly
describes empiricism?
Positivism: Auguste Comtè
Positivism was initially identified during the mid-19th century and was closely linked with certain perspectives
of empiricism and fitted well with the idea of progress that typified this period. In A General View of Positivism
(1844/1856), Auguste Comtè (1798–1857) developed a hierarchy of knowledge which put human science
at the apex and emphasised the science of humanity or sociology. He argued, that human thought evolved
through three distinct stages; the religious, metaphysical and scientific. The scientific stage was the most
important but both the religious and metaphysical stages had their value and were not to be discarded as
primitive or useless.
Comtè considered it possible to build social science based on the same principles as those in natural
sciences, for example, physics or chemistry. He further argued that if we used the same methods as the
natural sciences a ‘positive science of society’ could be achieved. Consequently, based on empiricism this
attempt to mimic the principles outlined for the natural sciences within the social sciences was coined as
positivism. Through empirical observations immutable laws would illustrate that that humanity was governed
by cause and effect. Based on Hume’s empirical position in terms of the theory of regularity, he argued that
the only content of causal laws involved the set of events that have been or will be observed. Events are
identified by their temporal proximity to later occurrences and the probability that events precede specific
types of occurrences. Agency activity or other mechanisms are irrelevant; to indicate causality is simply to
say that an event of a certain type regularly precedes an occurrence of a certain kind.
Through studying case numbers positivism assesses the correlations and confidence levels that events
precede occurrences. Such negates complications involved in the study of individual and collective action
regarding internal processes of institutions. Through causality laws would be as immutable as those displayed
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by the natural sciences. In such a way, Comtè believed that the behaviour of humanity could be measured
in exactly the same way as matter; that human behaviour could be objectively quantified. It was becoming
clear that people (at least as masses) were suitable phenomenon for scientific study, a realisation that led to
humanity being studied through positivist methodologies in developing institutions.
Following Comtè there was less emphasis on the categorisation of human development; the emphasis on
the centrality and all embracing perspective of science remained but metaphysics and religion were denied.
Positivism was both descriptive and normative; it described how human thought had evolved and prescribed
norms for how it should develop. It had an axiological perspective, which argued that human duty was to
further the process that existed, though positivism was more concerned with methodological approaches than
prescribing ethical norms. However, there was an emphasis on furthering the inevitable, a trait which it shared
with Marxism in terms of dialectics and economic determinism.
Positivism became a critical approach to what social science actually was and what it could achieve. Social
science should be based on observation alone, and no appeal should be made to the abstract or invisible.
There should be no recourse to metaphysical debate, all should be simplified and prediction pursued.
Consequently, positivism emphasised observation of human behaviour and argued that things that could
not be observed such as feelings or emotions were unimportant and may undermine or mislead the study.
Emphasis on observation relates to a belief that through causality human behaviour can be explained in the
same way as the behaviour of matter. As with the natural sciences there was little reason to investigate the
meanings and purposes of matter; matter reacts to external stimuli and so did human beings. The task of the
scientist whether social or natural was to observe, measure and explain.
Positivism ‘has been based upon the principle that only reliable knowledge of any field of phenomena reduces
to knowledge of particular instances of patterns of sensation’ (Harre, 1987: 3). Indeed, as noted in Chapter
2, for positivism such patterns are immutable laws, which enabled prediction of future events. Theoretical
frameworks are logically structured amalgamations of laws and used to enable prediction.
Ontologically, positivism considered that an external reality existed, which could be discovered and totally
understood; a comprehension of reality that is sometimes labelled ‘naïve realism’. The positivist
epistemological position is one where the investigator and the external world (or what could be discovered)
are totally separate and objectivity sought through scientific procedure; truth can be found. Methodologically,
this could be achieved by attempts to prove hypotheses through scientific experiments and the manipulation
of confounding conditions. For positivism, theory provides sets of immutable laws, which enable prediction.
However, immutable laws and prediction are difficult enough in the natural sciences, but in the social
sciences, in most instances, almost impossible. This was one of the major criticisms levelled at positivism by
post-positivists who argued that reality or truth existed, however it could only be understood imperfectly or
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Identify the difficulties for social science when dealing with:
• immutable laws;
• prediction;
• objectivity.
Inductive Procedure and Deductive Inference
Popper (1994) asserted that developing knowledge through inductive procedure is questionable because the
validity of induction and science assumes and accepts clockwork regularity in nature. Only if we assume the
future will be like the past can we accept that natural laws exist. However, how can the future be verified
through observation? Such is impossible as is verification through deduction and rational argument because
we cannot truly establish that future futures will continue to mirror past pasts. David Hume dealt with this
dilemma by accepting that inductive validity is difficult to verify but may be accepted psychologically; we see
them work in practice so accept the logic of induction. However, scientific laws or truth cannot be verified
through induction or deduction so have no secure rational foundations. ‘Deductive inference may be said to
be valid if and only if it invariably transmits truth from premises to the conclusion; that is to say, if and only if all
inferences of the same logical form transmit truth. One can also explain this by saying: a deductive inference
is valid if and only if and no counterexample exists’ (Popper, 1992: 143). Popper argued that deductive
inference is absolute and objective; it is a truth. That said there was a caveat here and even though we
cannot always identify the objectivity or validity of deductive inference there are number we can prove to
be true. However, ‘we cannot have a general criterion of truth’ (Popper, 1992: 144). Such would necessitate
omniscience, which is presently beyond human endeavour.
Popper (1992) further argued that he is not a ‘belief philosopher’; just because some statement or inference
has strong support and is believed in does not mean it is valid. For deduction or a theory of truth, beliefs are
meaningless; truth is not about belief but about fact, argument and critical debate. However, we may question
this position and ask whether Popper is here propagating a belief? Induction bases general statements
about the world or theoretical frameworks on accumulated observation. For many years inductive procedure
in both natural and human science (social science) indicated true scientific endeavour. Observation and
experimentation provided scientific statements based on fact that encompassed truth, knowledge or reality.
However, David Hume raised some disturbing questions regarding this status quo when he argued that
accumulated singular observations can never provide a general statement or prove a theory. Just because
one event follows another on one occasion it does not automatically follow that such will occur again. Indeed,
such would be the case if there had been 10,000 observations; we might expect the same occurrence but this
is not certitude.
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Reflection Box: Recurring Observations
A regularly used example of the uncertainty of recurring observations involves laws of
physics and the rising sun; that is, based on the laws of physics we can predict the sun
will rise tomorrow morning. Hume argued that this prediction may be disputed through two
arguments. First, simply because the laws of physics have in the past been immutable this
does not mean this will be the case tomorrow. Second, as noted the laws of physics are
general statements, which cannot be proved by observations (no matter how many times
an activity occurs).
Consider recurring observations and the implications for natural and social science.
This text recognises the difficulty in giving precise definitions of induction and deduction and the point where
the former begins and the latter ends (and vice versa) and acknowledges the grey area between the two.
Alfred Marshall argued that ‘(y)ou make all your contrasts rather too sharply for me. You talk of the inductive
& deductive methods: whereas I contend that each involves the other & that historians are always deducing,
& that even the most deductive writers are always implicitly at least basing themselves on observed facts’
(Marshall, cited in Coase, 1995: 169). Ultimately, Marshall wished to emphasise the mutual dependency of
induction and deduction; this text recognises the difference and necessary interdependency. Indeed, this is a
good point to develop when dealing with a research project that involves either theory development or theory
testing. In general the former would be considered more deductive whereas the latter inductive; the reality is
that no one is able to enter the field with no pre-conceptions and hypotheses are generated through some
understanding of the subject consequently a continuum exists with variable levels of a synthesis between
deductive and inductive approaches utilised in research projects.
Differentiating Post-Positivist Approaches
Positivists argued that social science should establish laws and as with the natural sciences such laws should
be beyond challenge. Such an approach to knowledge generation and the realisation of truth undermined the
critical aspect of positivism and in many instances became a barrier to scientific discovery. If laws could not be
challenged then progress was restrained; positivism omitted and alienated many approaches to generating
theoretical frameworks that reflected understanding and knowledge and was eventually challenged by post-
positivism. Indeed, the relationships between positivism, post-positivism and critical theory exist on a sliding
scale and there is more of a continuum between them rather than hard and fast demarcations. That said, even
though much criticism of positivism from positions more closely linked with critical theory emerged between
the 1950s and 1970s, one of the first to deliver a broadside was Karl Popper. Later post-positivists include:
Toulmin, Lakatos, Feyerabend, Kuhn and Bhaskar (each of these researchers is covered in greater detail
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Falsification and Karl Popper
Popper (1994) considered that immutable laws led to the stagnation of theory and that theory development
should be open to criticism. Through falsification ‘we can get rid of a badly fitting theory’ before it overrides
investigation and undermines objectivity (Popper, 1994: 4). In Popper (2002a, 2002b) falsification offers a
solution to the problem of immutable laws and rational foundations. He argued that no matter how many times
a white swan is observed we can never universally state that ‘all swans are white’. However, one observation
of a black swan allows the statement ‘not all swans are white’. In such a way even though generalisations
are not verifiable they are falsifiable. Consequently, scientific laws can be tested because even though they
cannot be proved they can be falsified. The methodology for the post-positivist position is about falsifying
standing scientific laws and the ontology concerned with criticising existing reality. If a single case exists that
refutes a given law then as long as the case is reported correctly a scientific law is refuted. However, the
reported case may have been reported incorrectly so we can always doubt the evidence; for instance the
black swan may not have been a swan or because it is black we may decide not to label it a swan. In such a
way all falsifiable evidence could be rejected.
Popper suggested that ‘progress in science … based on a revolutionary use of trial and the elimination of
error by criticism which includes severe examinations or tests – that is, attempts to probe into the possible
weaknesses of theories, attempts to refute them’ (2002: 7). Popper (2002a) argued that because of varied
and divergent human behaviour if we looked for confirmation then verification was easier to realise in the
social sciences. Every test of a theory should be an attempt to falsify it, ‘testability is falsifiability: but there are
degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation than others they take, as it
were, greater risks’ (Popper, 2002a: 48). However, Popper indicated that complete or conclusive falsification
was also difficult if not impossible to achieve. ‘If you insist on strict proof (or disproof) in the empirical sciences,
you will never benefit from experience and never learn from it how wrong you are’ (2002b: 28).
Definition Box: Theory Falsification
• If confirmation or verification of theory is pursued then the confirmation or
verification of the said theory is simplistic and straightforward.
• Sound theory prohibits certain events and occurrences; the more entities forbidden
then the sounder the theory.
• Scientific theory is refutable; non-refutability is a vice not a virtue.
• Falsification is the only genuine test or refutation of theories.
• Theories display levels of falsifiability or refutation; some theories are more
testable than others.
• Confirmation of theory should only be accepted if it has been subject to an attempt
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to be falsified and continued to retain validity.
• When theory is refuted falsification needs to be accepted. Reinterpretation and
auxiliary assumptions should be avoided.
Falsification uncovers new arguments, perspectives and experiences which should be
taken into consideration even if they bring into question the most relied upon or recent
theoretical explanations. Because conclusive falsification is difficult at the methodological
level, refutation should not be evaded through re-interpretation. Outcomes of refutation
require acceptance and uncomfortable outcomes integrated with our understanding.
However, scientific laws should not be given up lightly and defended stoutly in the face of
competing theoretical frameworks.
A certain level of dogmatism is required for progress to occur. If old theories are not
defended and do not struggle for survival, the newer theories cannot be robustly tested for
levels of truth and explanatory power; an evolutionary survival of the fittest environment
should exist. Intolerant dogmatism, however, is one of the main obstacles to science.
Indeed, ‘we should not only keep alternative theories alive through discussing them, but
we should systematically look for new alternatives. And we should be worried when there
are no alternatives – whenever a dominant theory becomes too exclusive. The danger
to progress in science is much increased if the theory in question obtains something like
monopoly’ (Popper, 1994: 16).
However, Popper (1969) indicated that certain theories were still upheld even when they
were found to be false. Through manipulating confounding variables or re-interpretation
theory may be rescued from refutation, but only at the price of losing its credibility as a
bona fide scientific theory. By making interpretations of the theory vague anything that may
refute the theory can be explained away: if prediction is vague and unclear it becomes
irrefutable. For instance, the ‘Marxist theory of history, in spite of serious efforts of some
of its founders and followers, ultimately adopted this soothsaying practice’ (Popper, 1969:
49). Popper (2002a) argued that Marx historical materialism or dialectics of history that
predicted the dictatorship of the proletariat. Popper (1969) thought highly of Marx idealism
but considers him a false prophet. ‘He was a prophet of the course of history and his
prophecies did not come true; but this is not the main accusation. It is much more
important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy
is the scientific way of approaching social problems’ (Popper, 1969: 82). Even though Marx
historicism had been refuted by data or events, Marxists re-interpreted the theory and
empirical data in order to deal with the refutation. ‘In this way they rescued the theory from
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refutation … (but) destroyed its much advertised claim to scientific status’ (Popper, 2002a:
Definition Box: Situational Analysis
Situational analysis involves:
• physical entities with elements of properties and states;
• certain social institutions and their properties;
• certain aims;
• certain elements of knowledge.
Positivistic immutable laws hold up scientific inquiry and provide false prophets. Post-
positivism challenges positivism and through Popper identified a critical method of
falsification and refutation. Russell (1980) identified the link between this philosophical
position and methodology when he considered that one begins with a body of knowledge
or data which is complex, vague and confusing. ‘By analysis we reduce them to
propositions which are as nearly as possible simple and precise … These initial
propositions are premises (which) are … quite different from data – they are simpler, more
precise, and less infected with logical redundancy (Russell, 1980: 214).
Popper (1994) argued that because falsification is extremely difficult to achieve,
explanations in the social sciences required the analysis of social situations. This he
labelled ‘situational logic’, which based on ‘situational analysis’ incorporated information or
knowledge that was relevant to the situation. Indeed, ‘situational analysis’ turned the entity
under analysis into a generalised anyone or anything that shared the relevant situation.
It reduced individual aims of personal knowledge to a typical/situational model that in
principle is able to explain a number of structurally similar events. In such a way we
are able to comprehend a social event which is animated through replacing individual
consciousness and situation with abstraction and an assumption that the agent will act,
appropriately or adequately, in accordance with the situation (rational agent).
The situation should attempt to involve all relevant aims, complete relevant knowledge
regarding these aims and the agent should act appropriately or rationally in relation to
the situation. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘rationality principle’, which states that
once the model is constructed it is assumed that agents act within the terms and realms
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of the model. Furthermore, because all variables are not involved in the understanding of
motivations, the situations and agents are explained in ideal terms. Through ‘situational
analysis’ it is possible to discuss, criticise and in some situations test models and if the
test fails then learn from the flaws in the models and comprehend how they are over
simplifications. The ‘rationality principle’ does not assume that human beings will always
adopt a rational attitude. However, it is a methodological device which conjures a minimum
principle ‘which animates all our explanatory situational models, and which, although we
know that it is not true, we have some reason to regard as a good approximation of the
truth’ (Popper, 1994: 181).
Kuhnian Paradigm Shifts
Kuhn (1970) argued that falsification did not actually occur in the research process. Indeed, two types
of research existed; normal research which involved the on-going research within a given paradigm and
research that is brought about through paradigm shifts. Normal science involves ‘the activity in which most
scientists inevitably spend almost all of their time (and) is predicated on the assumption that scientists know
what the world is like’ (Kuhn, 1970: 5). To ensure successful outcomes it is possible that normal science stifles
innovation and remains within the realm of tried and tested techniques.
Normal sciences are based on observation and experiment in different fields, for example, physics, biology,
chemistry, which is identified as a paradigm because they encompass a group of followers or individual
adherents and leave numerous difficulties for following generations of practitioners to deal with (Kuhn, 1970).
That is accepted practice in terms of laws, theories and applications provide the basis of scientific research
(a certain belief system about how research should be conducted and what knowledge entails). Indeed,
required paradigm norms are learned by students in specific scientific areas where they will eventually
become a practitioner and join those who also learned the same required norms prior to full membership.
Consequently, practice within the community seldom invokes dissent with given fundamentals; scientists with
similar backgrounds and rule orientations are unlikely to challenge the paradigm or normal science practice
and procedures.
Table 3.2 Falsification and paradigm shifts
If a case exists that refutes a given law then as long as the case is reported correctly the said scientific law is
refuted. However, the reported case may have been reported incorrectly so we can always doubt the
evidence; for instance in the case of the black swan, it may not have been a swan or because it is black we
may decide not to label it a swan. In such a way all falsifiable evidence could be rejected.
Scientific theory does not evolve through the accumulation of facts but through historical process. Change
happens through the emergence of different intellectual circumstance and possibilities (different paradigm).
This involves a range of ideas available at a given time and the discourse and terminology for a given epoch.
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Adherence to the paradigm norms ensures the continuation of normal science procedures and the research
tradition related to this. However, a moment occurs when tried and tested techniques do not provide the
expected results and the normal way of doing things is challenged and a paradigm shift occurs. ‘Led by a new
paradigm scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important during revolutions
they see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before’
(Kuhn, 1970: 111). Kuhn (1970) argued that scientific theory did not evolve through the accumulation of facts
but through historical process. Change occurred through the emergence of different intellectual circumstance
and possibility. Such involved the range of ideas available at a given time and the discourse or terminology
for a given epoch.
Analysis of the history of electricity provides an example of the way science develops. In the early 18th
century there existed many conceptual perspectives regarding electricity but all ‘were partially derived from
one or another version of the mechanic-corpuscular philosophy that guided all scientific research of the day’
(Kuhn, 1970: 13–14). Furthermore, each theoretical perspective was considered scientific because it had
been derived through scientific method in terms of observation and experimentation (Kuhn, 1970). However,
even though researchers in this area would have read each other’s results and all experimentation was
electrical the theoretical perspectives that emerged only accorded slight resemblance. It was not until the
work of Franklin and his successors that some unity could be formed that provided ‘a subsequent generation
of “electricians” with a common paradigm for … research’ (Kuhn, 1970: 15). Kuhn (1970) argued that similar
long term disagreements and discourse occurred before a paradigm and ‘somewhat arbitrary’ name emerged
in terms of Aristotle and motion, Newton and gravity, Boyle and chemistry or Hutton and geology. Given this
one can see that the formation of a research paradigm is a long-term and difficult route. Indeed, for example
aspects of biology paradigms, such as heredity, are quite recent and so ‘it remains an open question what
parts of social science have yet acquired such paradigms at all’ (Kuhn, 1970: 15).
Khun thought that paradigms incorporated a specific mode of thinking, provided a certain perspective
regarding the history of science and what these modes of thinking entailed. For example, the existing
positivistic paradigm as the main mode of scientific discovery provided the dominant paradigm or normal
science for many years until it was challenged and usurped by post-positivism. Indeed post-positivism did not
completely fulfil the requirements for social science research and analysis and was consequently challenged
through critical theory and constructivism. Indeed, paradigm shifts can take place in relation to ontology and
epistemology as well as theoretical perspectives. Such then determines a new basis for our comprehension
of knowledge truth and theory as a generic concept. For its continuation a certain consensus within the
research community regarding the core normal science is essential. It is the consensus regarding the core
theories or methodological approaches of normal science that break down and brings about a paradigm
shift. However, what would maintain such a consensus and what would this entail? Khun argued that
on the one hand a paradigm incorporates a universal perspective or ‘shared commitments’ of a scientific
community whereas on the other hand it identifies a particular sub-set of the community with a specific
particular commitment within the more generic community. The initial community is broad and entails a
broader conceptualisation of the theory employed in the philosophy of science. Indeed, in explaining the more
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generic idea of the paradigm, Kuhn uses the term ‘disciplinary matrix’ ‘disciplinary because it refers to the
common possession of the practitioners of a particular discipline; matrix because it is composed of ordered
elements of various sorts, each requiring further specification’ (1996: 182). The key elements of a disciplinary
matrix incorporate: symbolic generalisations which involve ‘expressions deployed without question or dissent
by group members … they are formal or the ready formalised components of the disciplinary matrix’ (Kuhn,
1996: 182), for example, general laws of nature and their underpinning definitions. A second part of the
disciplinary matrix involves ‘the shared commitment’ to metaphysical beliefs in specific models that would
include a more heuristic type of model. A heuristic model consists of experiential techniques which enable
discovery and learning, and which provide generic comprehension and rapid means of problem solving, for
example, intuition, common sense, trial and error. Fundamentally, models exist on an ontological/heuristic
continuum and the commitment to these models vary; models provide accepted community discourse and
identify acceptable puzzle solutions and the pecking order of puzzles that require solutions in the designated
area of research. Linked closely to the models and discourse developed in defining problems and solutions is
the idea of values. Though values are apparent at all times their importance becomes explicit when members
of a community are involved in disputed discourse, fissure and eventually incompatibility within the discipline.
Even though commitment to models exist within communities and values are widely and deeply shared by
members, values can be subjective and ‘affected by the features of individual personality and biography that
differentiate the members of the group’ (Kuhn, 1996: 185). So shared values determine group behaviour even
though all members do not hold the values with the same voracity or consistency and this differentiation
identifies distinctions and challenges norms within a community. A further aspect of a paradigm involves the
basic education that students of scientific communities require before full membership is granted; this Kuhn
argued involved the dissemination of exemplars through accepted textbooks, examinations and other forms
of assessment, for example, dissertations and doctoral studies. Indeed, by undertaking a higher degree one
is learning the norms identified in the specific discipline; such will consequently be applied in a practitioner
and theoretical context and the disciplinary matrix reinforced. Modes of normal science are reinforced until
challenged and a paradigm shift realised.
Through ‘research programmes’ Lakatos (1970) attempted to resolve the discrepancy between Popper
and Kuhn. Lakatos argued that theory may be considered as a number of theories strung together in a
succession T1, T2, T3, each of which share some central common idea that he labelled ‘hard core’ and such a
succession of theories may be considered a ‘research programme’. Indeed, through ‘research programmes’,
the theoretical core of the theories may be protected or shielded from falsification by a ‘protective belt’ of
‘auxiliary hypotheses’, that is the scientist may manipulate hypotheses so the core of the theories is not
challenged. The main point propagated by Lakatos involved a judgement regarding the quality of the theory;
what was important was whether one theory was more applicable than another not whether or not it was true
or false.
Toulmin (1953), who pre-dated both Kuhn and Lakatos, argued that rather than tested, theories should be
considered in relation to their usability. Theories can be compared with sets of rules; that a general limited
set of rules may be identified in the context of a domain and entities toward which the rules apply clarified.
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Instances that do not relate to the rules are determined. Consequently, the rules do not need to stand or reflect
every context or in all cases but outline an area where the rules apply (area of application). Normally society
would respect individual liberty but incarcerate someone who had committed a crime. Usually it is wrong to
take a life but this action is accepted when in the name of the state when fighting in a war. Theory relates
to reality through a set of rules some of which correspond and others which do not; the analysis involves
determining which rules apply in a given domain or situation and which are redundant. Overall, on different
levels each of these thinkers existed on an ontological continuum between critical realism and historical
realism in terms of falsification on the one hand and a historical transformation of knowledge and how this is
reflected through theoretical transformation on the other hand. Indeed such a synthesis of ontology may be
perceived in the less naive and more in-depth understanding of critical realism developed by Roy Bhaskar.
Critical Realism: Roy Bhaskar
A post-positivist ontology perceives reality as external to humanity but considers our intellectual capabilities
unable to fully understand opaque and confounding truth. On an ontological level this has been identified as
‘critical realism’ (Bhaskar, 1975; Denzin and Lincoln, 1994, 2000, 2005). Critical realism involves a distinction
between the production of knowledge by human beings (as a social product) which can change in the same
way that any human product may and knowledge that is of things (that is ground within them). The latter
knowledge is not produced by humanity but discovered (it is knowledge that does not depend on human
activity), for example, gravity, light propagation. If humanity ceased to exist, light would continue to travel and
the moon would circle the Earth in exactly the same way; even though there would be no one to know this.
Bhaskar labels the latter ‘the intransitive objects of knowledge’ and the former the ‘transitive objects of
knowledge’, which include facts, theories, paradigms and models. In terms of Darwin’s theory of evolution
the transitive objects involved ‘facts of natural variation, the theory of natural selection and Malthus’ theory of
population’ (1975: 21). Indeed he used these to discover and illuminate what had been occurring for eons.
If we imagine a world without humanity but containing similar intransitive objects (in such a situation there
would be no science to explain phenomenon so things would not be explained but still exist). Natural events
and processes would continue to occur whether or not someone was able to understand and or explain them
(osmosis would continue and atoms would still amalgamate). Consequently events are not ‘dependent on
our knowledge nor perception they are the intransitive, science dependent, objects of scientific discovery and
investigation’ (Bhaskar, 1975: 22).
For social science or the social world the situation is a little more problematic. The social world is a
social construction that does not exist completely independent of human theory and discourse so does not
clearly illustrate an intransitive dimension of knowledge. However, this knowledge is likely to be historical or
understandings ground in the past rather than that posed by present day researchers.
Social science could reject the critical realist position and argue that no independent or intransitive knowledge
exists in this domain. Since social science includes theories that are transitive and these have an impact
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Page 19 of 22 Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
on practice, the social world is unable to reflect an intransitive dimension: fundamentally, an independent
knowledge of the social sciences cannot exist. However, if one is to contend that the critical realist position
does exist in the social science some form of distinction between transitive and intransitive knowledge is
required. In addition, with more researchers employing reflexivity this recognition of subject influence makes
it increasingly difficult to test social theory against independent social reality. Reality becomes multi-faceted
with different facets reflecting on each other and confronting themselves in different forms and ways. Indeed,
as with a hall of mirrors they reflect upon themselves and the clear distinction between subject and object
diminishes (ontology becomes epistemology).
Reflection Box: Intransitive and Transitive Knowledge
Intransitive knowledge incorporates the objects of study or science in terms of physical
processes or social phenomenon. Transitive knowledge involves the human dimension in
terms of theories and discourses (however, as elements of the social world they may be
seen as intransitive). Rival theories and discourses are competingtransitive perspectives
whereas intransitive perspectives are continuous.
Consider the possibility of intransitive knowledge for the social sciences.
Reflection Box: Reality
A tree falls in the middle of the desert but no one is there to witness this; does it make a
noise when it hits the ground?
Conversely, one could consider reflexivity as a useful if not necessary element of critical theory in the social
sciences because it provides critical examination of different standpoints and perspectives. Indeed, reflexivity
may guard against levels of projection and selection that could misrepresent the objective reality. Realists are
always in a position that relates to the objective reality; reflexivity enables a critical comprehension of this
position and the extent to which this affects the study. Self exists in relation to history and social existence;
contemporary theory can be considered transitive and historical theory and interpretation intransitive.
Fundamentally, knowledge is always gathered or derived though a selection process and reflexivity uncovers
the mirage of total separation of researcher and researched. Social science involves multi-faceted reflections
where theories both direct and confront perspectives. (For further on Reflexivity see the Methods chapter.)
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Page 20 of 22 Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
• Explain the differences between transitive and intransitive knowledge.
• Identify the difficulties this distinction may have for social science.
Empiricism is an idealised term coined in the 19th century to illustrate distinctions between those thinkers
who considered experience as the route to knowledge and those who considered the mind as the starting
point, that is, rationalists. As noted in Chapter 1, philosophers, such as Kant and Schopenhaur, outlined the
relationship between internal and external worlds and how understanding, truth, reality, theory and knowledge
involved a synthesis of the two. In this chapter we identified a number of empiricists and outlined how each
dealt with the difficult relationship between experience of the external world and thought or rationalisation.
However, the main point for Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Hume was that experience and observation was the
starting point. This is the premise positivism embraced and provided the basis for social science knowledge
accumulation throughout the 19th century.
The objective of both positivism and post-positivism is explanation, control and prediction; positivism looked
for the verification of hypotheses, facts and laws whereas post-positivism pursued falsification. Consequently
theory, knowledge or truth for the former involves verified laws and the latter non-falsified laws that were
probably true. In this way knowledge is accumulated through law, building and adding to the stock of
knowledge through cause and effect and generalisation. Indeed, knowledge is intrinsically valuable and an
end in itself. Any action relating to the research is minimised; it is limited and highly controlled as involvement
is perceived as subjective and a threat to objectivity and validity. The quality or criteria of knowledge is
measured through internal and external validity, reliability and objectivity; value is denied and scientists
are removed from the research. However, there is a distinction here as the positivist acts as advisor for
policymakers and change agents whereas the post-positivist is involved in policymaking and is a change
agent through activism and advocacy. Both use technical qualitative and quantitative techniques, develop
substantive theories, formulaic text and the researcher is the main voice. That said, for post-positivist critical
theory, reflexivity, may be utilised but for positivists this technique or method impinges on objectivity.
Positivism mimicked methodologies set out for the natural world and wished to form immutable laws that
enabled prediction. If new theory did not adhere to the given immutable laws it was usually discarded.
This had implications for scientific progress and the development of new knowledge. Indeed, it provided
an authoritarian modernist approach to knowledge creation and dissemination. Post-positivist epistemology
abandons the ideal of complete separation between the investigated and investigator, however objectivity
and distance are still pursued. This leads to a methodology that deals with multiple modified scientific
experimentation and hypothesis falsification. Theory is not about the discovery of immutable laws but
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Page 21 of 22 Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
approximations of truth. A new theory may deal with some difficulties but will invariably open many new
problems. If the theory provides significant progress then ‘the new problems will differ from the old problems:
the new problems will be on a radically different level of depth’ (Popper, 1994: 4). Theory development is
open to criticism. Consequently, through falsification ‘we can get rid of a badly fitting theory’ before it overrides
investigation and undermines objectivity (Popper, 1994: 4).
Post-positivism gave greater scope for human endeavour. Popper noted that the ‘future is open. It is not
pre-determined and thus cannot be predicted … the possibilities that lie in the future are infinite’ (1994: xiii).
However, the future depends on humanity, we are responsible for our future. ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,
this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything
we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil
but, rather, to fight for a better world’ (Popper, 1994: xiii). However, the very nature of post-positivism throws
up new problems for research and phenomenology forms criticisms of both positivism and post-positivism.
Indeed, even though phenomenology was defined by Hegel (1977) and more specifically for our purposes by
Husserl in the 19th century, it is not until Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in the 20th century that the
phenomenological approach began to challenge the (by then) dominant position of post-positivism. Chapter
4 explores these different phenomenological perspectives and outlines the main distinctions between the
influential thinkers in this area.
Further Reading
Bhaskar, R. (1975) A Realist Theory of Science. London: Version.
Blackburn, S. (1994) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (1994) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2000) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (2005) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd edn.Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications.
Honderich, T. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kuhn, T.S. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Popper, K. (2002) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge.
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Empiricism, Positivism and Post-Positivism
In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology

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