Constructivist Realism: An Ontology That Encompasses Positivist and Constructivist Approaches to the Social Sciences

  • Gerald Cupchik University of Toronto
Keywords: qualitative methods, quantitative methods, positivism, constructivism, constructionism, phenomena, process analysis, realism


It has been argued that positivist and constructivist ontologies are irreconcilable. According to LINCOLN and GUBA (2000), positivism's "naive realism" holds that reality is both "real" and "apprehendable," whereas constructivism maintains that meaning is generated by individuals and groups. This analysis implies that the quantitative and qualitative methodologies associated with positivism and constructivism, respectively, are also incommensurable. In this paper, constructivist realism is proposed as an alternative ontology that accommodates positivism and constructivism and the methods that they subtend. The first step is to acknowledge a social world (or worlds) that is reflected in the natural attitude of daily life and exists prior to and independent of either positivist or constructivist analysis; hence realism. Phenomena are understood as processes which cut across the physical, social, and personal (self) worlds. Qualitative and quantitative researchers examine these phenomena, offering rich descriptive accounts or precise analyses of functional relations, respectively. It is assumed that both approaches to research practice face the problem of constructing "data" and are therefore subject to potential bias. While description has traditionally been viewed as preceding hypothesis testing (i.e., natural history precedes hypothesis testing), the two approaches are viewed here as complementary and in parallel. Qualitative methods offer an in-depth account of underlying processes and can help frame hypotheses that test specific functional relationships, while empirical findings related to processes can suggest areas which might benefit from detailed descriptive examination. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs010177


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Author Biography

Gerald Cupchik, University of Toronto
Gerald CUPCHIK is professor of psychology at the University of Toronto where he has taught since 1972. Grammar school talmudic studies led to an interest in meaning and the metaphorical nature of language. He studied sociology, psychology, and art history at the University of Michigan (B.A., 1967), conducting research in experimental social psychology under the supervision of Robert ZAJONC. His graduate training with Howard LEVENTHAL at the University of Wisconsin focused on emotional processes in humor (M.A. 1972) and the nonverbal communication of emotion (Ph.D. 1974). Research in experimental aesthetics was conducted during a postdoctoral stay with Daniel BERLYNE (1972-74) at the University of Toronto. Qualitative and quantitative research strategies have recently been used in a complementary way to study a wide range of topics, ranging from the emotion-evoking potency of odours, to reactions to sculptures, paintings, and magazine photos, as well as the phenomenology of absorption in reading.
The Logic of Relating Qualitative and Quantitative Method