Research Methods: Positivism v.s. Postpositivism | Methods of enquiry

Part 3

Following from Part 1 | Positivism v.s. Postpositivism, and Part 2 | Positivism v.s. Postpositivism | Perspectives in this section we will discuss the positivist quantitative method of inquiry.

Research Methods: Positivism Postpositivism | Enquiry Method

The positivist quantitative method of enquiry is often used in social sciences (Hunter, & Leahey, 2008) and employs a systematic, mathematical investigation.  Generally, a researcher comes to a decision about a hypothesis that will guide testing of a phenomenon (Given, 2008).

Furthermore, research designs include all methods and procedures to conduct research (Adèr, Mellenbergh & Hand, 2008). In fact, quantitative research designs can be experimental, non-experimental, correlational or quasi-experimental (Creswell, 2008).

Positivist Designs

  • Experimental designs are usually active interventions where a behavioural change is envisaged that is empirically validated by measurement. It is, therefore, important to choose the correct methods for variables to be measured (Terre Blanche, Durrheim & Painter, 2006). The way the research question will be answered is based on the expectations of the study outcome.
  • Importantly, limitations, such as participation or limited resources, should be considered before beginning the experiment (Adèr, Mellenbergh & Hand, 2008). Possible causal relationships are both considered and controlled by manipulating factors believed to influence a phenomenon whilst controlling other variables applicable to outcomes (Given, 2008). Generally, large sample sizes are required.
  • According to Terre Blanche, Durrheim and Painter (2006), unlike experimental designs, non-experimental designs do not involve manipulation and designs can be classified as categories. Although correlation does not indicate a causal relationship, it identifies the dependence of a variable on another.
  • Non-experimental designs are often called correlational studies because they concern relationships between variables. Furthermore, non-experimental studies are interested in the frequency of co-occurrence in two groups, namely correlation and dependence.
  • Non-experimental designs also include comparative research which compares two or more groups and one or more variables, for example, gender and mathematical acumen. There are also longitudinal designs which measure the performance or behaviour of groups over time (Terre Blanche, Durrheim & Painter, 2006).
  • In addition, quasi-experimental designs are ‘semi-fixed’ designs and estimate the causal impact of an intervention on a target population (DiNardo, 2008). It uses similar sample selection techniques as experimental designs.

The main difference is the lack of random assignment, manipulation or control groups pertaining to treatment controls which could include eligibility for participation or cut-off marks (Henry, Lipsey & Freeman, 2004).  Hence, the researcher controls the assignment of the treatment conditions (DiNardo, 2008). As control groups are possibly not similar at baseline, internal validity may be a concern (Henry, Lipsey & Freeman, 2004).


In summary, the dominant paradigm in quantitative research is positivism. Accordingly, research methodology is based on the paradigm the researcher selects to conduct the study. Post-positivism grew from the positivist paradigm and includes contexts, culture and subjectivity.  Also, mathematical measurement is central to quantitative research because observation can be quantified which allows the researcher to present supposedly unbiased results that can be generalisable to larger populations. The hypothesis will be predicted and empirically tested explaining a phenomenon. Hence, statistical analysis is mostly used in quantitative methods with larger sample sizes serving as verification and validation functions.

Here is part 1: Positivism v.s. Postpositivism,  where we define the meaning of positivism and part 2: Positivism v.s. Postpositivism | Perspectives, where we will discuss various positivist perspectives.

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References (Part 1-3)

Adèr, H. J., Mellenbergh, G. J., & Hand, D. J. (2008). Advising on research methods: a consultant’s companion. Huizen: Johannes van Kessel Publishing.

Alvesson, M., & Sköldberg, K. (2009). Reflexive methodology: New vistas for qualitative research. London: Sage.

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Creswell, J. W. (2008). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

DiNardo, J. (2008). Natural experiments and quasi-natural experiments. In S. N. Durlauf & L.E, Blume. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. Qualitative Research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

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Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, & Chinn. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42 (2).

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Morris, J., McNaughton, D., Mullins, R., & Osmond, J. (2009). Post-positivist epistemology (unpublished paper). Victoria: University of Victoria.

Murzi, M. (2007). Logical Positivism, The new encyclopedia of unbelief, Tom Flynn (ed.). Austin: Prometheus Books.

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Rossi, P. H., Lipsey, M. W., & Freeman, H. E. (2004). Evaluation: A systematic approach, (7th ed.). SAGE.

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