Researching complex social issues? What’s your paradigm?

February 21, 2016

How would you solve a complex social issue like high school dropout? How would you study it? It turns out, it depends a lot on the assumptions you have about the nature of the world. Without too much jargon, we call this set of assumptions about the nature of reality a paradigm, worldview, or philosophical orientation.

I’m a doctoral student at The George Washington University in DC, so I thought I would share an example about paradigms from my coursework from Merriam and Tisdell (2015) to help us unpack this a little.

So, the question is about high school dropout. How do we approach this from a research standpoint? Without being too reductionist, here are four different perspectives that reveal a lot about the paradigms undergirding the following four people:

Person 1 looks at high school dropout and says, “Hey, this might be the result of low self-esteem. To test this hypothesis, let’s make an experimental design using a self-esteem boosting intervention with an experimental group while having a control group with no intervention. Then, let’s test to see if the intervention in the experimental group makes a difference in lowering the dropout rate. If people with the self-esteem boosting intervention have a lower dropout rate, then that’s something that can be applied to similar high school populations and is trusted to reduce overall dropout.” Person 1 is what Merriam and Tisdell call a Positivist.

Person 2 looks at the problem of high school dropout and says, “Let’s take a different approach. Instead of doing an experiment like Person 1, let’s interview a collection of students we think are at-risk of dropping out of school or recently just dropped out. Let’s also observe students in classes and even go to some of their homes and interview parents and neighbors. Let’s collect all of these interview transcripts and observations and see if we can separate it into themes that help to tell the story about why these students are dropping out.” Person 2 is an Interpretivist.

Person 3 looks at the problem of high school dropout and says, “Let’s look at how the social structures of the school are set up in a way that some people are more privileged than others. Let’s look at the school protocols, systems, and mechanisms in the school and see if they connect at all to patterns of behaviors and attitudes in the students.” Person 3 is a Critical Theorist.

Lastly, Person 4 looks at the “problem” of high school dropout and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s step back here. Why are we thinking about school in terms of someone who completes school vs. someone who drops out? Why are using words like ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’? We need to break down these dichotomies and look at multiple perspectives on what it means to drop out. Person 4 is a Postmodernist.

How do you fix a complex problem like high school dropout? It depends a lot on your assumptions about how the world works. Here you see four different perspectives based on different assumptions about the nature of reality. We all make assumptions about the nature of reality based on our experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds. Disagreements between colleagues on what the problems in our world are and how to solve them are often issues of differing paradigms and assumptions about how the world works. One of the great parts of life is learning about the assumptions in our lives. What are our values? What is our theory for change on a given topic?

Let the journey continue.

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