The Four Types of Research Paradigms: A Comprehensive Guide
  • 5-minute read
  • 22nd January 2023

The Four Types of Research Paradigms: A Comprehensive Guide

In this guide, you’ll learn all about the four research paradigms and how to choose the right one for your research.

Introduction to Research Paradigms

A paradigm is a system of beliefs, ideas, values, or habits that form the basis for a way of thinking about the world. Therefore, a research paradigm is an approach, model, or framework from which to conduct research. The research paradigm helps you to form a research philosophy, which in turn informs your research methodology.

Your research methodology is essentially the “how” of your research – how you design your study to not only accomplish your research’s aims and objectives but also to ensure your results are reliable and valid. Choosing the correct research paradigm is crucial because it provides a logical structure for conducting your research and improves the quality of your work, assuming it’s followed correctly.

Three Pillars: Ontology, Epistemology, and Methodology

Before we jump into the four types of research paradigms, we need to consider the three pillars of a research paradigm.

Ontology addresses the question, “What is reality?” It’s the study of being. This pillar is about finding out what you seek to research. What do you aim to examine?

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It asks, “How is knowledge gathered and from what sources?”

Methodology involves the system in which you choose to investigate, measure, and analyze your research’s aims and objectives. It answers the “how” questions.

Let’s now take a look at the different research paradigms.

1.   Positivist Research Paradigm

The positivist research paradigm assumes that there is one objective reality, and people can know this reality and accurately describe and explain it. Positivists rely on their observations through their senses to gain knowledge of their surroundings.

In this singular objective reality, researchers can compare their claims and ascertain the truth. This means researchers are limited to data collection and interpretations from an objective viewpoint. As a result, positivists usually use quantitative methodologies in their research (e.g., statistics, social surveys, and structured questionnaires).

This research paradigm is mostly used in natural sciences, physical sciences, or whenever large sample sizes are being used.

2.   Interpretivist Research Paradigm

Interpretivists believe that different people in society experience and understand reality in different ways – while there may be only “one” reality, everyone interprets it according to their own view. They also believe that all research is influenced and shaped by researchers’ worldviews and theories.

As a result, interpretivists use qualitative methods and techniques to conduct their research. This includes interviews, focus groups, observations of a phenomenon, or collecting documentation on a phenomenon (e.g., newspaper articles, reports, or information from websites).

3.   Critical Theory Research Paradigm

The critical theory paradigm asserts that social science can never be 100% objective or value-free. This paradigm is focused on enacting social change through scientific investigation. Critical theorists question knowledge and procedures and acknowledge how power is used (or abused) in the phenomena or systems they’re investigating.

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Researchers using this paradigm are more often than not aiming to create a more just, egalitarian society in which individual and collective freedoms are secure. Both quantitative and qualitative methods can be used with this paradigm.

4.   Constructivist Research Paradigm

Constructivism asserts that reality is a construct of our minds; therefore, reality is subjective. Constructivists believe that all knowledge comes from our experiences and reflections on those experiences and oppose the idea that there is a single methodology to generate knowledge.

This paradigm is mostly associated with qualitative research approaches due to its focus on experiences and subjectivity. The researcher focuses on participants’ experiences as well as their own.

Choosing the Right Research Paradigm for Your Study

Once you have a comprehensive understanding of each paradigm, you’re faced with a big question: which paradigm should you choose? The answer to this will set the course of your research and determine its success, findings, and results.

To start, you need to identify your research problem, research objectives, and hypothesis. This will help you to establish what you want to accomplish or understand from your research and the path you need to take to achieve this.

You can begin this process by asking yourself some questions:

  1. What is the nature of your research problem (i.e., quantitative or qualitative)?
  2. How can you acquire the knowledge you need and communicate it to others? For example, is this knowledge already available in other forms (e.g., documents) and do you need to gain it by gathering or observing other people’s experiences or by experiencing it personally?
  3. What is the nature of the reality that you want to study? Is it objective or subjective?

Depending on the problem and objective, other questions may arise during this process that lead you to a suitable paradigm. Ultimately, you must be able to state, explain, and justify the research paradigm you select for your research and be prepared to include this in your dissertation’s methodology and design section.

Using Two Paradigms

If the nature of your research problem and objectives involves both quantitative and qualitative aspects, then you might consider using two paradigms or a mixed methods approach. In this, one paradigm is used to frame the qualitative aspects of the study and another for the quantitative aspects. This is acceptable, although you will be tasked with explaining your rationale for using both of these paradigms in your research.


Choosing the right research paradigm for your research can seem like an insurmountable task. It requires you to:

●  Have a comprehensive understanding of the paradigms,

●  Identify your research problem, objectives, and hypothesis, and

●  Be able to state, explain, and justify the paradigm you select in your methodology and design section.

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