The Four Paradigms in Spiral Form

Subtitle: A positivistically constructed model to critique dominant design with a postmodern flair

This was a group project from a class with Patti Lather at OSU in 2005 that I completed with Carrie Hung, Hana Kang, and Yongfang Zhang. I look at it now and think it’s so twee!

I mean, isn’t it adorable!

In looking at the four research paradigms, positivism, constructivism, critical theory, and deconstructivism, four metaphors help to differentiate the methodology, epistemology, and ontology between the paradigms.  The properties of the glass, the characteristics of The Wizard of Oz movie, the features of a gardener, and the nature of learning language demonstrate the differences between the research perspectives.  The spiral model provides a visual symbol of the evolving research features, as ways of engaging in research and the world expand while remaining attached to the central principle of the pursuit of knowledge.

Positivist View of Research

Of the four paradigms, the earliest, scientific research model is the positivist stance where the spiral begins.  The positivism area is the smallest portion and interacts with the least amount of air space.  The positivist researcher looks only at the facts and does not probe beyond the facts just as the positivist portion of the model interacts with the least amount of space.  Positivism believes in looking outwards at an objective reality, and so the label is external to the spiral, unlike the post-positivist stances.  When taking an empirical look, reality is taken at face value in a quantified measure; therefore the word, positivist, is created with the number sign #.  

Reality is measured objectively, such as looking in a glass mirror.  There are no alterations in what is seen in the mirror because the facts are recorded and quantified.  In positivist research, results and methodology are replicable and in the way that several mirrors may be used and still the same image appears.  The researcher remains in an unbiased stance without being swayed by opinion like in the beginning of the movie, The Wizard of Oz, where everything is black and white; facts drive the research, not opinions.  Hypotheses are tested to confirm and/or improve theories through procedures that are carefully set to measure observations, much as the life Dorothy leads is structured for her.  The researcher remains objective in collecting the data because the facts reflect reality.

 The Positivist Gardener prefers to use a greenhouse to control variables, like climate, pests, and watering, so that effect of the manipulated variable can be measured.  If true experimental conditions are not possible, the positivist gardener will use randomization and statistics to test and confirm the theory.  The bounty of the plants is the face value or reality that is quantified to confirm the hypotheses.  In terms of learning language, the primary level student looks at the quantifiable results or responses as right or wrong. In the example, “ez” for “easy,” the response (“ez”) is considered wrong in a quantifiable, objective way without examining the response any further in depth.  When the research study goes beyond the surface of empirical facts, the researcher takes an interpretative stance and incorporates more of the air space of information, and thus the spiral grows wider.

Constructivist View of Research

Constructivists recognize there are multiple realities.  People understand the world by observing their environments and analyze the world against their previous experiences.  Therefore, each individual will have a different reality depending on the part of world that they perceive.  In the spiral model, unlike positivism, there are more gaps, more ways of looking outward at reality from inside the spiral, from the interpreter’s subjective stance.  The reality inside the spiral or outside the spiral will look different depending on where the viewer is.  Knowledge of the world is best understood as constructed by individuals, and it is by understanding their interpretations that a phenomenon can be understood.  With the related tenets of hermeneutics, phenomenology, and symbolic interactionism, there is drive towards communicating with individuals, through interviews and observations, to know this cycle of perception, interpretation and understanding.

According to constructivism paradigm, standard language learners do not rely on the rule of grammar or teachers.  They interact with the real language community.  They start using their own knowledge of language to analyze and to interpret languages (e.g. using incorrect grammar as an idiom).  They share their language knowledge with other speakers to find the correct usage.  Finally they could construct their own definition of correct usage of language or standard language.  In the standard language learning metaphor, language learners recognize that incorrect usage of language can be correct depending on context because one expression could serve multiple functions.  For example, the statement ‘it is cold here’ could be interpreted in multiple ways.  However, depending on context and the relationship between a speaker and a listener, the meaning can be “Could you please close window for me?” or “The area here is cold in terms of temperature” or “The social climate is not friendly.” 

Constructivism can be explained by three other metaphors.  In the Interpretive Gardener metaphor, the gardener does not mind growing outdoors in the natural environment, learning to garden in a community and/or in commune with nature itself.  Dorothy in Oz and kaleidoscope metaphor show multi-dimensions of reality.  People who look in kaleidoscope will find different shape of pattern depending on how they move it.  Oz has turned her black and white world colorful, and while Dorothy may be set on her mission, it’s up to her to create her adventure, to find her way home.  Reality is negotiated between self’s desires and others’ needs.  As we encompass more of the reality, our spiral expands to shift the examination of the research view leading to the next paradigm.

Critical Theory View of Research

The critical paradigm is the next post-positivism paradigm as we move down our ever-expanding spiral.  It believes that there are multiple realities out there, which are constructed through social interactions and symbolic representation, and thus shares with constructivism the subjective position within the spiral.  However, power engages in the construction, and both dominant constructions and oppressed constructions of the realities exist.  The dominant constructions of reality can promote inequities, highlighted by the label’s depiction of the dominance of consonants over vowels.  Knowledge of the dominant paradigm is promoted to protect vested interests, and other forms of knowledge are obscured.  Critical theory is inherently action based, looking to overthrow the established inequality, as depicted in this sections’ labels that both refuse a stable fulcrum. 

The critical paradigm, including Marxist, feminist, race theory, Freirian participatory, and other praxis-oriented studies, challenges the researcher to critique these power structures to educate and emancipate the oppressed, so that knowledge is no longer dictated by the powerful.  In fact, the oppressed ones should express their voices which are always ignored by the members of the dominant society, and fight for adequate and accurate representation of their voice.  Critical researchers adopt multiple methods such as observation, interviews, document analysis, defamiliarization techniques, anti-oppressive and decolonizing research.  However, all these methods are used to heighten awareness of injustices and begin the change process.  That is, the responsibilities of social researchers are toward a sense of research for social justice.  Social research should expose oppression and uncover the social injustice and imbalance, interpret the truth in dynamic dimensions which are grounded in cultural complexity, and further promote transformation on the injustice.  In this sense, critical theory is to emancipate the oppressed ones from the power.

In our group, we give four metaphors to critical paradigm.  It is a Critical Gardener, who does not mind growing outdoors but knows that the plants may be “oppressed” by weeds, insects, animals, or growth patterns as some plants can take over a yard.  In addition, there are inequities with the type of soil, environment, and care given.  The gardener must actively protect and promote his fledgling plants from these dangers.  The critical paradigm is a pair of transitional lens eyeglasses, because how people see reality depends on what color their glasses are.  But there is no way for them to control this transition as they move from indoors to outdoors – that is preset into the lens by chemical power.  Critical theory is Dorothy versus the Wizard.  Dorothy’s choices and self-determinism are shown to be manipulated by the desires of the all-powerful Wizard of Emerald City.  But the Wizard, the dominant power structure in Oz, is revealed to be a man behind the curtain.  While a structure exists on which the ideology of Oz is based, this ideology is discovered to be based on the whims of an ordinary man. The critical paradigm is the linguistic standards set by dominant groups in a society.  However, the users begin to pay attention to the value of the so-called “non-standard” language such as dialects and slang. When we look at the power behind the reality, the question of the truth of reality or “is there a there there?” leads to the fourth portion of the spiral.

Deconstructivist View of Research

The final paradigm in our model resides at the bottom of the open-ended spiral.  In a postmodern world, deconstructivism challenges the assumption that logic, linearity, and rationality are the essential means by which to understand reality.  A postmodern view denies the existence of universal categories for phenomena, arguing instead that variety exists in perspectives.  Ambivalence and uncertainty are the conditions individuals live in due to conflicting and multiple sources of information from a media saturated world.  Confronted with shifting simulacrum, with hyper-realities juxtaposing traditional norms and counter-normative messages, the pursuit of knowledge needs to involve the deconstruction of sign systems in order to understand the contradictions and the underlying power network that shapes and controls knowledge.  No knowledge of a phenomenon is innocent of social and/or cultural influence.  To truly understand a phenomenon, it is important to deconstruct how the sociocultural influence has described and bounded the phenomenon along a polar dimension. 

Hence we have placed the fourth paradigm at the bottom of the spiral.  Deconstructivism expands upon the previous three paradigms, incorporating both interpretative and critiquing aspects of engaging in scientific inquiry.  In addition, what deconstructivism calls for is a “flipping” of constructions and knowledge.  Thus does the paradigm’s label turn over and over in the hope of equalization, when the opposing colors will blend into one.  This paddle-wheel design also reflects the constantly shifting nature of the postmodern condition.  We are constantly moving, exploring new identities as we move through life.  Nothing stops in hyper-reality; we are all flowing with the current.

But this isn’t the only metaphor to explore deconstructivism.  How does one teach language in a postmodern world?  Well, standard language does not exist in the real world.  It may be spoken by a few people who represent authority (e.g. news anchors).  However, they also use their own accents, own inflections, own experiences to shape meaning, and thus meaning is not fixed; it is both determined by power and left to be negotiated.  There is the Deconstructing Gardener who does not mind indoor or outdoor growing, yet who is caught wrestling with whether what s/he sees and what s/he eats was grown in the hothouse or outdoors; whether it is organic or chemical gardening; whether it is an heirloom fruit or genetically altered “Frankenfruit”.  It is the gardener who faces many choices, between what is really real and what is only a simulation of something that may or may not have existed. 

There is no coincidence that the postmodern age came with the emergence of the mass media.  As a way of looking at the world, deconstructivism as a lens on reality is a movie.  Is there any reality out there?  Probably what you see on the screen has been mediated by an experience that is singular to one mind, or may never have occurred at all.  However, it looks so similar to our experience that we can find it both useful to ourselves and detrimental as it may contradict all that we know.  The simulacrum can build layer upon layer, as in the film The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s filmed dream.  Dorothy’s experience in Oz is found to be nothing more than a dream, in which people she knows took on alternate identities.  Moreover, the entire event is a simulacrum.  Neither Dorothy, her friends in Kansas, or their copies in Oz exist outside of the film’s diegesis.  The filmed dream is a representation of a life that never existed, in which identity is fluid, dependent on its social context.


Our model not only charts the four main paradigms: the construction and embodiment of the model is based on elements from each of the four paradigms.  The model was constructed using positivisitically identifiable objects in our physical reality as a representation of how four separate and unique individuals perceive and interpret the philosophical concepts (constructively combining four separate phenomenological realities), yet fashioned in such a way as to challenge the dominant trend towards linearity (as we are critical of a top-down enforcement of any ideology constricting perception) that results in a fluid, circular, pictorial identity that reverts the notion of positivism as the heavy and important science (deconstructing the notion that it is the only “real science”) while leaving the future open to the birth of new paradigms.  The model contains metaphors, is itself a metaphor, and is metaphorical in its creation.  Paradigms truly do shape what we know of and how we interact with the world around us as scholars and researchers.

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