7.3 Constructivist Research

Constructivist researchers seek to understand the experience of research participants in order to discover the participants’ subjective truth or perceptions. In contrast to postpositivist researchers who begin with a theory and a hypothesis, constructivists more often start with a broad question, and allow participants to drive the direction of the data collection. Constructivists do value established theory, but they are more likely to use it to support the interpretation of the data they have collected, rather than using it to support hypotheses or questions at the beginning of a study.

Constructivist researchers don’t claim objectivity, but instead acknowledge and describe their subjectivity as they co-construct understanding with their participants. For example, a white, female researcher interviewing a group of Latina adolescent girls might discuss ways in which she is and is not equipped to understand the perspective of these participants. Because the researcher was herself once an adolescent girl, she may have some shared experience with the study participants. At the same time there are differences (due to ethnicity, reaching adolescence in a different time period, etc.) that could introduce misunderstandings as the researcher seeks to interpret the participants’ words and gestures. In addition, because the researcher is older and in a position of authority, her presence might influence what the participants choose to disclose. Constructivist researchers do their best to anticipate these issues and acknowledge them as part of their reporting.

Constructivist researchers often (though not always) use qualitative data collection and analysis.  They are less likely (compared to postpositivists) to use tests and surveys that can be analyzed with statistics. Instead, they gather qualitative data, such as from interviews, focus groups, and observations, that allow the participants to describe or demonstrate their experiences. For example, the researcher described above might interview the adolescent girls to find out how they experienced the gamified math lesson. Did they find the competitive element of the lesson motivating, threatening, or something else the researcher hadn’t thought of? How is the gamified lesson reflected in their feelings about their ability to learn algebra? Reports of research findings may feature quotations of the participants’ words, detailed descriptions of their interactions, or similar rich descriptive information. Data analysis often involves looking for themes that emerge from this rich data, which are sometimes organized into categories.  There are a variety of approaches to qualitative research, and a detailed description of them is outside the scope of this chapter. However, as you read journal articles, you will see discussion of methodologies like ethnography, phenomenology, qualitative case studies, and several others.

Because constructivist researchers believe that knowledge emerges within a specific context, they do not claim their research findings are widely generalizable. In the example above, the researcher interviewed a particular group of Latina adolescent girls in a particular school, and the experiences of these girls might not reflect the experience of other Latina adolescent girls in that school, let alone in a different school or city. While this lack of generalizability is acknowledged as a limitation, it is not viewed as a deficiency. When truth and knowledge are viewed as human constructions created in specific contexts, generalizability is not deemed appropriate or desirable.

The strength of the constructivist research tradition is its focus on the experiences of individual participants and on processes and experiences over time.  A limitation is that it does not allow for conclusions that can be generalized to other populations.  For example, a research project consistent with the constructivist perspective would not tell us the best way to implement a gamified algebra lesson to improve learning or math confidence in adolescent girls.

Advocacy Research

In the advocacy tradition the researcher is seen as a facilitator, with the participants as equal partners. The focus of the research is not the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, but rather on empowering the participants and their communities.  The researcher seeks to support participants as they discover ways to emancipate themselves from an unjust power structure. The end result is usually a concrete plan for action. Action research is one methodology associated with the advocacy tradition. Research questions frequently center on issues related to race, class, gender, and the effects of the prevailing power structure on marginalized groups of people. Advocacy research is often guided by critical theory (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory); it goes beyond mere interpretation or understanding, and aims to critique what its proponents see as the different ways in which dominant ideologies manifest in various contexts.

Pragmatism in Research

In the pragmatic research tradition, researchers do not take a firm position on whether reality and knowledge are objective or subjective. Consequently, their work can reflect elements of postpositivist and constructivist traditions, and their methodologies mix both quantitative and qualitative elements. In some studies, the balance of quantitative and qualitative is fairly equal. For example, a researcher may collect both rich descriptive data and test scores from the adolescent girls doing the gamified algebra lesson in an effort to understand how the gamified pedagogy and the girls’ perceptions worked together to shape their learning experience. In other cases one element may be subordinate to the other. For example, the researcher may be primarily interested in finding out how the gamified algebra lesson affects test scores, but may also want to interview selected participants to enhance understanding of the result.

A strength of this research tradition is the flexibility it provides to approach a single research topic in multiple ways. A limitation is its lack of clear commitment to a philosophical viewpoint. Some argue that it is not really possible to be so flexible in one’s view of reality and truth, and that pragmatism is often a disguised form of postpositivsim (Denzin, 2010).

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Foundations of Educational Technology by Penny Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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