Paradigm Accommodation in Water Pollution Assessment

This is a term paper that I wrote during my master's in public health program in Oxford, England. The writing is the result of spending four days hiding out from the cold in my attic apartment on Botley Road over Christmas break. I had a couple of papers to bang out over the two-week time, but after having completed a minor in philosophy along with my undergraduate chemistry degree just a few months before, I had fun with this one. When everything was said and done, I was awarded an academic distinction in the course, partly for this piece.


Oxford is a city that projects an image of bucolic academic life, one rich in historic context played out among extraordinary architecture and surrounded by pastoral tranquility. It is not until one experiences the city from the inside that other relevant aspects of the picture become present: traffic congestion, noise, trash, and dirty river water. Of these, it is the last point that will be the subject of focus in this paper.

It is a long-standing ecological maxim that the health of a community is contingent on the health of its water supplies. Furthermore, bodies of water within a community can often serve as gauges against which that community's attitude toward the environment can be measured. In the case of the City of Oxford, it is the condition of the river water that gives one pause. Whereas postcards convey images of harmony, one has to wonder, Why do the city's rivers look so dirty?

With this and nearly every other research question, there are at least four approaches that one can choose from: positivism, postpositivism, constructivism and critical theory (Guba, 1990; Creswell, 2003). These approaches are known as paradigms . Paradigms are defined simply as a basic set of beliefs that guide action (Guba, 1990). A more developed definition of a paradigm—one of my own creation—proposes that a paradigm is a philosophical framework or structure wherein ideas can be coordinated and arranged to produce an understanding.

Of the four research paradigms, I assert that the first—positivism—serves as a historical precursor to the other three (postpositivism, constructivism and critical theory). And it is these latter three that for the most part dominate in the contemporary fields of academic research today. In what follows, I will describe the basic distinguishing aspects and philosophical assumptions of each paradigm, starting with positivism, in order to lay the historical groundwork for understanding those that followed. I will show how these assumptions come together to create unique research approaches, and ultimately will apply each paradigm to the research question at hand to illustrate what I believe to be a novel approach to paradigm accommodation.

Philosophical Aspects of Research Paradigms

Positivism, postpositivism, constructivism and critical theory can be recognized one from another by differences in ontology, epistemology and methodology. Ontology denotes the nature of being, or reality. This can take a variety of forms: realism, critical realism and relativism. Realism involves an assertion that the nature of reality is fixed and independent of human existence. Furthermore, this reality can be verified and understood through sensory perception and rational thought. Realism is an ontology based in ideas of materialism and physical absolutes (Guba, 1990). Critical realism is similar, but with a degree of skepticism and self-awareness built in. Critical realists hold that reality is certainly out there, but that an understanding of the natural world will always be imperfect and incomplete, due to sensory imperfections and failures in reason (Guba, 1990). Relativism goes considerably further in this assumption, and rejects the idea of an external, independent reality altogether as being either nonexistent or irrelevant. Relativists hold that, as persons, we are immersed in worlds of meaning and context and that, hence, multiple realities exist—each reality being unique to the individual, culture, time and place (Creswell, 2003).

These ideas of ontology are closely linked to epistemologies, or assumptions regarding the nature of understanding and how understanding can be gained. There are three dominant epistemologies among the four paradigms: objectivism, modified objectivism and subjectivism (Guba, 1990).

Objectivism assumes a dualistic notion of the human mind and the physical world. As such, the objectivist researcher assumes an objective, detached and dispassionate stance toward the subject of study (Guba, 1990). The possibility of doing this, however, has been called into question for ontological reasons, and has led to what is called modified objectivism. As with objectivism, modified objectivism holds that the objective posture of the researcher toward the subject is an ideal to strive for, but differs in holding that this stance is one that can seldom be achieved. Nevertheless, in this case reliance upon multiple sources serve to reduce distortions in research, analysis and interpretation, and peer reviews and replication of results can lead to verifiable truth claims (Guba, 1990; Creswell, 2003). Subjectivist epistemology takes the modified objectivist skepticism of knowledge correlation to the real world considerably farther, and rejects all such notions altogether. Herein, understanding is something that holds relevance only between human beings, and which is created through discursive interactions in human life (Creswell, 2003).

Finally, there are four methodologies—or, approaches to gaining knowledge and understanding—distributed among the four different paradigms. They are: experimental (or manipulative), modified experimental, hermeneutic and transformative. The experimental methodology deals with propositional statements that are later subjected to empirical tests under controlled conditions for the purpose of falsification or verification (Robson, 2002). The modified experimental methodology is similar, differing mainly in the incorporation of ideas of critical multiplism, the estimation of natural settings in research, the use of grounded theory, the incorporation of qualitative data and the reintroduction of discovery into the research process (Guba, 1990). Hermeneutics involve the creation of dialectic constructions, usually of human experiences (Guba 1990). The transformative methodology is based on Marx's ideas of praxis (a rather complicated concept, but for the current discussion it can be described as the application of socially responsible behavior), and guides a researcher to an understanding of human relations and potentials through a didactic, dialogic inquiry resulting in personal or social change (Guba, 1990; Wright and Nelson, 2001). These methodologies will be elucidated in greater detail with the ensuing discussion on methods in regards to each respective paradigm. A concise summary of these details is provided for the reader in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of research paradigms.

I would like to further add that these three distinctions—ontological, epistemological and methodological—are not the only aspects in which the four research paradigms differ. There are also ethical, axiologic, rhetorical and aesthetic qualities unique to each, and which further serve to define them. However, discussion of these must be reserved for a larger forum on the topic. I simply note them here for the reader's benefit and to bring them to the reader's attention.

Positivism and the Scientific Revolution

Historically, positivism was the first of the four research paradigms to emerge, doing so during the scientific revolution and Enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th centuries. It remained dominant in the fields of science well into the 20th century and was virtually the only valid approach to systematic research throughout much of this time. Originally, it was a paradigm developed by researchers and thinkers who were trying to figure out the nature of the earth, patterns of motion in the solar system and an empirical and rational understanding of the cosmos in general.

Drawing on rediscovered works of Aristotle and similar philosophers, early positivists started to construct models of the world that were founded in sensory evidence, causal relationships and systematic rational thought. This approach marked a dramatic departure from the mysticism and monotheistic Judeo-Christian theology dominant in their world at that time, and which was largely founded on the platonic philosophy of idealism. Ontologically, this departure created a precedent of realism in positivist thought, conjoined with an objectivist epistemology and an experimental methodology.

Within positivism there is a strong emphasis on quantitative data collected from research using the scientific method. This type of approach has led to marvelous advances in knowledge and understanding of the physical world. However, many researchers have found problems with fundamental positivist assumptions. This has been most apparent when positivist methods of measurement and control have been applied to subjects in the human and social sciences, such as psychology, anthropology and sociology. The most pressing of these problems has been that the positivist approach lacked realism, and that it provided for considerable bias in the experiment (Robson, 2002). These issues also became increasingly apparent within the more traditional scientific fields of natural science over time, as well, and hence some modifications in the approach needed to be made.

Nevertheless, the positivist quest for an understanding of physical laws in nature has served to provide much of the fundamental knowledge available in mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. Today, positivism is regarded as a considerably naïve approach to research (especially in social science circles), while most informed academic inquirers opt for more sophisticated paradigms.


The first paradigm to account for many of the failings of positivism was postpositivism. Here, adjustments were made toward a critical realist ontology, a modified objectivist ontology and a modified experimental methodology. This provided some considerable compensation for the limiting assumptions of positivism, recognized and attempted to reduce sources of bias inherent in the experiment, and created more balance between the competing themes of “rigor and relevance, precision and richness, elegance and applicability, and discovery and verification” (Guba, 1990).

Nevertheless, in postpositivism, emphasis still remains on quantitative data involving numerical values and on the scientific method. An emphasis on control, operational definitions, replication and hypothesis testing still prevails (Burns, 2000). Postpositivist research methodologies provide for fixed designs and include experiments, randomized control trials, surveys, and observation studies. Methods include measurements, structured questionnaires, interviews and observation (Creswell, 2003).

Postpositivism as a research paradigm has a number of strengths, the primary of these (as with positivism) being precision and control during an investigation. In addition, the experimental approach empowers the researcher to make deductive statements regarding causal relationships. The use of this deductive approach allows for hypothesis testing, and the collection of quantitative data during the experiment enables the researcher to employ procedures of statistical analysis. Both of these factors allow for stronger truth claims as a result of the study (Burns, 2000).

Regardless of these strengths, the postpositivist paradigm still proves considerably inadequate in many areas outside of the physical and mathematical sciences. Due to the dynamic nature of human existence, human behavior is complex and difficult to predict. Furthermore, this difficulty may not be a matter of needing greater control or more powerful mathematics. For a human observer, the objective ideal is often impossible to maintain in studies of this nature, and experimental control often comes at the cost of realism in the study (Burns, 2000). Furthermore, an over-reliance on systemization and quantitative data collection leads to alienation and dehumanization of the subject in the experiment (Berlin, 2000). These weaknesses often result in inadequately complete results and oversimplified conclusions. Hence, other attempts have been made to understand the human condition in light of these research difficulties.


Philosophical developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a space in academic thinking that allowed for a shift toward qualitative research in the 1960s, and a more effective paradigm for studying subjective aspects of human existence (Burns, 2000; Creswell, 2003). This paradigm is known as Constructivism.

Constructivism assumes a relativist ontology and a subjectivist epistemology, both developed considerably in this sense by Husserl in the early decades of the 20th century. Constructivist methodology, however, did not reach fruition until some years later after the work of Heidegger, whose ideas related to hermeneutics were able to be appropriated and used by social science researchers (Koch, 1995). Such methodologies take the forms of phenomenology, ethnography, case study, grounded theory and biographical narrative (Creswell, 2003).

In light of these philosophical bases, constructivism differs radically from positivism and post-positivism.   Constructivist researchers recognize multiple realities, each contingent on social and experiential situations, rather than a single absolute. These realities vary according to person in both form and content, yet are valid because they describe thoughts, feelings and reflections on personal experiences. Although these experiential factors are not easily quantifiable, they are nevertheless relevant. Constructivist descriptions come into being not simply through the narrative created by the researched subject, but appear as a result of the conjunctive presence of the researcher. Thus, the researcher attempts to recognize his or her own presence in the research process, and account for the effect of this in the creation of research findings in order to extract a more accurate reading thereof (Guba, 1990).

Whereas both positivists and postpositivists may stress rigor and quantitative data in the research process, a constructivist might use qualitative data and emphasize the importance of relevance to real life in the results (Guba, 1990). The constructivist recognizes that people develop subjective meanings of their experiences, and that individuals create subjective understandings of the world(s) in which they live and work. These meanings and understandings are formed through one's interaction with others and a belief in a particular history (Guba, 1990; Creswell, 2003).

Hence, whereas a post-positivist might employ deductive methods in order to reduce ideas to a small set of testable variables that constitute a hypothesis, a constructivist would look for patterns of complexity in order to generate new ideas (Creswell, 2003). This is achieved through an intense focus on the research process. The constructivist researcher asks broad and general questions allowing participants latitude to express meaning therein. These expressions are compared with other observations to construct interpretive notions of meaning and experience toward which there is substantial consensus (Creswell, 2003). This all comes about through a dialectic process that was not granted validity within earlier paradigms. Hence, constructivists aim not to predict the “real world”, but to reconstruct it at the only point that it really exists: a period of time in the minds of its constructors (Creswell, 2003).

Critical Theory

During the 1980s and 1990s, a movement arose in academic circles informed by postmodern ideas of culture, language, gender and colonialism. Researchers and theorists therein asserted that the assumptions of other research paradigms did not adequately address issues of social justice (Creswell, 2003). From this perspective, it was well and fine to research and understand something, but what good was that research if it did little to make a difference for those who needed it? Questions such as this led to the development of what is known as ideologically-oriented inquiry, or critical theory.

The critical theory paradigm operates from a critical realist ontology. In making assertions such as, “constructivism did not go far enough in advocating for an action agenda to help marginalized peoples,” (Creswell, 2003) to actually state that there is a “far enough” begs the question of a universal reality that holds for all human beings. However, the critical theorist approaches research in a subjective manner, recognizing that all persons see a world distorted by the window of one's own values. All paradigms (and research paradigms, specifically) reflect these values. Hence, inquiry acts are inextricably bound to the values of the researcher. Due to the subjective nature of human existence itself and the premise that value differences result in inequalities, the very act of inquiry, and the results of it, inevitably empower and privilege some, while simultaneously disempowering, marginalizing and silencing others. Thus, it is not a matter of freeing oneself from values during inquiry, but rather that the very act of inquiry, in and of itself, is an assertion of one's own values onto another (Guba, 1990). Inquiry, therefore, by its very nature, becomes a political act (Jameson, 1981).

Researchers working under the critical theory paradigm are concerned with and sensitive to issues related to power, inequality, oppression, domination, suppression and alienation. Most commonly, this concern lies in one or more of these themes as they relate themes of race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual preference, disability or age. The task of the inquiry is to raise others to a level of awareness and ability so that they understand how disadvantaged they were, and act up in order to transform something about their world to make a difference for themselves and others like them (Guba, 1990).

In this process, the researcher is sensitive so as to not marginalize those in the study. Instead, subjects are held as participants (in the interest of equality), and the researcher acts as a collaborator who serves to organize, empower, energize and rally others around a common point of view (Guba, 1990). Participants in such a study design surveys, collect data, analyze information and possibly reap benefits for action and participation in the study. In this process, features about the real world are brought to light, and judgments are made about which of those can be altered (Guba, 1990; Creswell, 2003). (A table summary of the research methodologies and methods related to the four paradigms described above is provided in Table 2.)

Table 2: Summary of research methodologies and methods.

Paradigm Accomodation

In any research inquiry, the question one asks often determines the research strategy (Robson, 2002). In the case of water pollution in Oxford City's rivers, post-positivism is the major and practically default research paradigm. A researcher working from the post-positivist point of view would create a theory as to why the water is dirty. This would most likely be based on standards of prior experience with water quality and pollution, and involve an understanding that small fluctuations in the levels of aquatic pollutants can set off a chain of biological and chemical reactions that ultimately result in an ecological impact. The researcher would test this theory by a controlled analysis of various water samples in a laboratory in order to get data on what pollutants are present in the water samples. Specifically, this would involve measuring suspended solids, biological oxygen demand, enterococci and coliform bacteria, pH, nutrients and possibly a variety of heavy metals, if deemed worthwhile by the researcher in the study. This data would be subject to statistical analysis in order to validate the findings and provide a reasonably strong degree of confidence that the water has been characterized adequately. Further inquiry into the matter would likely involve research into the source(s) of the pollutants found, the effect of weather and flow rate on pollution, and seasonal variance in the water quality (Laws, 1993).

Such a study would certainly provide a picture of what was going on with the water in the river, and would allow the researcher to draw conclusions regarding the reasons for its condition. These conclusions would involve statements regarding the type, degree and extent of the pollution. The researcher could further compare these conclusions to existent standards in water quality, and make judgments about the likelihood of improvement, and what human interventions might be made toward this end.

Doubtless, this is a valuable approach in such a case. Nevertheless, although the approach does acknowledge a human relationship to the quality of the river water, its main value lies in the physical description that it provides. However, water pollution is not simply a biological or chemical problem—it is a human one, as well. For this reason, the post-positivist approach to the question can only give part of the answer; the human aspects of the problem remain crucially important if a complete understanding is to be reached. Herein, other paradigms could prove useful.

A variety of constructivist methodologies could add to the richness of the picture. For example, phenomenological studies of lived experiences with the river could give a valuable understanding of attitudes of people toward it. These attitudes might take the form of fear, disgust, love, respect or indifference, and could provide further insight into the problem of the river's condition and how it came to be that way. A constructivist approach might also employ the creation of a narrative history of the river, or an ethnography of river residents, workers, or the culture of government administrators that are responsible for the river's management.

Critical theory approaches could involve action research methods of holding town meetings and organizing a strategic coalition of local residents in an involved discussion on the problem. Workshops could include educational presentations on the nature of water pollution and the risks associated with it. Participants in such workshops could design surveys and petitions, and organize their own community outreach efforts in order to activate the larger community in the cause. Final efforts could be geared toward democratic government action to effect a change in local policies regarding pollution standards, water treatment, wastewater control, management funding and resource control. The results of these efforts could be used to understand the interest in change and the possibility of effecting such against wider social forces.


A number of writers on the subject of research paradigms have described mixed method approaches. Robson (2002), in particular, describes three multiple design studies, and others have discussed hybrid approaches in research that incorporate both quantitative and qualitative elements to the study. One could put forward that the example of paradigm accommodation in the study of water pollution is a simple appropriation of qualitative aspects in a study that remains quantitative in its most important essence.

It is true that mixed method approaches exist. Creswell (2003) discusses in considerable detail pragmatic knowledge claims, which could be taken to represent an altogether unique research paradigm from the four discussed herein. This approach carries an overriding concern for application and, simply stated, whatever works in order to get the job done. However, this type of approach falls into the category described by Austin (1990) as “personal accommodation.” This type of accommodation tends to occur on the level of research methods and for practical ends. In the above example of water pollution research, it is not simply a matter of appropriating a variety of research methods toward the end of achieving a particular result. Rather, paradigms here are accommodated at a philosophical level, perhaps more closely to what Skritic (1990) and Austin (1990) describe as dialogical accommodation. Although Austin (1990) raises a variety of difficulties with this idea of accommodation, I believe that the case above provides a good example of how something like this could take place in a comprehensive study.

Furthermore, I believe that any of these approaches would be valuable if circumstances necessitated that they be used independently. For example, in a rural or international development context where access to costly analytical equipment is not an option, constructivist or critical theorist approaches such as those that I have described may still prove useful to understanding the problem and effecting change therein.


The quantitative approach may appear to be the default in studying water pollution in rivers. However, without a human aspect, the data and results obtained can be largely meaningless. When well developed, complete understanding of a topic is desired, multiple paradigms can be valuable. The most valuable studies will provide views from an assortment of perspectives to give a balanced, well-rounded and more complete understanding of problems at hand. In principle, syntheses of this nature could be made in studies across a variety of disciplines. Further investigation into the matter might explore additional manners in which this might be accomplished.


Austin, A. (1990). Discussion on Accomodation. In: Guba, E. G., ed. The Paradigm Dialog. London: Sage Publications. 136-138.

Berlin, I. (2000). The Power of Ideas. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Burns, R. B. (2000). Contrasting Perspectives. In: Introduction to Research Methods. London: Sage Publications. 3-10.

Creswell, J. (2003). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. London: Sage Publications.

Guba, E. G. (1990). The Alternative Paradigm Dialog. In: Guba, E. G., ed. The Paradigm Dialog. London: Sage Publications. 17-27.

Jameson, F. (1981). The Political Unconscious . Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Koch, T. (1995). Interpretive Approaches in Nursing Research: The Influence of Husserl and Heidegger. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 21: 827-836.

Laws, E. A. (1993). Aquatic Pollution: An Introductory Text. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Robson, C. (2002). Real World Research. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Skritic, T. (1990). Social Accomodation: Toward a Dialogical Discourse in Educational Inquiry. In: Guba, E. G., ed. The Paradigm Dialog. London: Sage Publications.

Wright, S. and N. Nelson (2001). Participatory Research and Participant Observation: Two incompatible approaches. In: Power and Participatory Development: Theory and Practice. N. Nelson and S. Wright, eds. London: ITDG Publishing. 43-60.


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