In undertaking academic research, a broad range of different methods and models are available, some of which are complementary, and some others utterly opposed, with one another. These various differences and similarities derive from conforming or opposing ontological and epistemological perspectives; that is, divergences between, respectively, the nature of what “reality” is (ontology), and the means by which we can understand that “reality” (epistemology). In one sense or another, the above two concepts inform all research considerations, seeing as they relate to the very nature of knowledge and how it can be obtained, measured and reviewed. Contradictory research methods thus generally exhibit opposing ontological assumptions; they have different perspectives on reality, and this consequently motivates different ways of examining that reality. It is therefore essential that students clearly understand the distinctions between the different approaches common to the academy and which research models are best for what they wish to achieve.
As an example of two competing approaches, let us consider positivism and interpretivism. So, we might (ontologically) consider whether “reality” is an objective category which may be analysed independently of individuals – of people. Holding such a vantage, we could employ a positivist research model. Understood by proponents as a “scientific” approach, positivism focuses on highly ordered and measurable phenomena, asserting that knowledge is reliable only when gained through observation and empirical evidence. Hence the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) are good examples of positivist disciplines: where controlled conditions are used to identify cause and effect; these observations used to form hypotheses; and these hypotheses tested by repeating the experiment, thus comparing findings. In contrast to this approach, we have interpretivism, which (ontologically) views “reality” as understandable only inasmuch as human beings construct meaning around it. An interpretivist research model thus sees all experience as mediated by some order of interpretive optic, be it language, thought, consciousness or what have you; this means access to knowledge is ipso facto filtered through social constructs. Accordingly, all knowledge is, after a fashion, subjective. Evidently, the above two research models are best equipped for different purposes. An interpretivist approach to medicine, for example, would be as impractical as a positivist critique of a poem. The key point is that one needs to understand the underlying facets of the various research models in order to identify the appropriate approach for the specific task at hand.
Another important distinction in research models is that between the theoretical and practical. A practical model involves hands-on direct research, where hypotheses are empirically tested (by observation). This includes such research methods as focus groups, interviews, questionnaires, and surveys, for example. Theoretical research entails non-empirical means, secondary research, reviewing critical literature, founding analyses on precursor studies. Again, the nature of the research will be dictated by the kind of data in play. Quantitative data fit more readily with positivist approaches, because they foreground numerical information, objective figures which may be tabulated and compared, measured in a consistent fashion and thus used to form general rules. Qualitative data fit more immediately with interpretivist models, because they obtain to qualities, subjective phenomena which may consequently be explained only through subjective means.
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