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Psychological Paradigms – what they are an explanation

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Psychological Paradigms – what they are an explanation


A psychological paradigm is a set of assumptions and perceptual orientations shared by members of a research community. A a paradigm represents the world view of a researcher.

There are many different ways of categorizing paradigms. Have a think about the similarities and differences between different categorizations – for example the Alvesson & Deetz version compared to Guba & Lincoln – does the Guba & Lincoln constructivist paradigm perhaps include what Alvesson & Deetz term interpretive?

How psychological paradigms are categorized


There are indeed many ways of organizing paradigms. And we can often misuse the term. You will see some research articles refer to constructionism when I would say they are talking about interpretivism. The important thing to take away from this is to be sure you know how people are using a term. Have they defined it? You can often tell what they mean by looking at how they use the term.

For now, let’s not worry too much about the rather complicated issues about how we understand knowledge (epistemology). What is important is that you understand there are different ways of approaching organizations and research. That each make particular assumptions about the best way to do things and the nature of the thing they are studying. And have particular strengths and weaknesses. There is no one best way but you can develop a more critical and analytical way of looking at organizations by using this type of knowledge.

Reading up on the history of psychology can help to put the different positions into perspective. But please do not think that the latest paradigm must be the best. They all have problems. It can help to draw up charts which cover things like main assumptions, examples of literature, similarities and differences, and strengths and weaknesses, of the four main paradigms. These four, normative, interpretive, critical and postmodern are the ones that we tend to refer to the most.

Positivist or normative paradigm


The positivist, or normative paradigm is perhaps the one you are most used to, being the most ‘popular’. And most acceptable at the moment in journals. However psychology at least, really started with more interpretive approaches, and then later shifted to ‘scientific’ studies. To some extent there has been a shift back, as some researchers became disillusioned. As yet more questionnaire studies to shed little light on what was happening in the ‘real’ world of organizations.

However the normative paradigm has its uses, and as long as the researcher is aware of the weaknesses (as with any approach), and does not assume that everything can be answered by numbers and broad general laws, then it can be informative.

Post modernism


The postmodern view does indeed question everything, and argues against any broad generalisations. They argue that society, and organizations, are far more fragmented and prone to change than is allowed for by other positions. The emphasis on language is partly to ensure a shift away from the isolated, coherent individual carrying out internal cognitive processes in the head, which dominates the positivist paradigm. Instead they suggest that looking at how groups of people talk, the similarities and differences both within and between accounts, can say something about how we organise and what influences us. They suggest that talk is active, we do things with words. For example when we make a statement we are often setting up a position that says something else cannot be true.

Critical paradigm


The critical paradigm is, in my view, less of a paradigm and more of a way of looking at organizations. In other words, it shares some of the assumptions of other positions, and can use a broad range of method, but will always take that very political, power based view of what is going on.

You can indeed use all of these paradigms or show an awareness of them, to help with your work. When doing research or consulting, you will often have a preference for one paradigm. For something like an MSc it can be far too complicated to try to cover more than one. However you can strengthen your use of the one by showing an awareness of the others, and how they might have informed on your subject matter.

You will also find that there are overlaps and that some are more of a continuum. There are extreme positivists and others who tend more towards the interpretive.

See more posts like this in my Psychology Section
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