Tectonic Change: The Qualitative Paradigm in Psychology

By O'Neill, Patrick | Canadian Psychology, August 2002 | Go to article overview
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Tectonic Change: The Qualitative Paradigm in Psychology


O'Neill, Patrick, Canadian Psychology


Abstract

Qualitative methods are presented as a candidate for a new paradigm in psychology. Thomas Kuhn's ideas about the role of paradigms and their stagnation and replacement in science are applied to 20th century events in psychology -- principally the shifts from structuralist introspection to behaviourism and then to cognitive science. For heuristic purposes, I suggest that the quantitative emphasis, with its identified shortcomings, may have reached the replacement stage with so-called big-Q research as the new paradigm. Following Kuhn's analysis, I discuss the reasons why new paradigms are difficult to accept even though they may, in the end, answer questions left untouched by ossified approaches.

The earth's crust is made up of huge segments called tectonic plates that float on the mantle below. Their movement is responsible for such slow but momentous changes as continental drift and the building of mountains, and the sudden changes represented by earthquakes. The characteristics of tectonic change include an appearance of ordinary life at the surface, while far below forces are at work, grinding toward a minor tremor, or a major quake that can change the surface for good. Only careful monitoring with sophisticated instruments will disclose to those on the surface the possibility of sudden and perhaps cataclysmic change. For most, it is business as usual until the pictures start falling from the walls.

In this paper I want to use the metaphor of tectonic change to describe the tension between two paradigms in psychological research: quantitative and qualitative. Thought experiments explore what the situation might look like if some state of affairs were the case. What forces might empower qualitative research to become, if not the dominant paradigm in psychology, at least closer to sharing dominance with hypothesistesting quantitative research?

The idea of tectonic change is similar to Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm shifts in science. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) he described the shifts in scientific thinking from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy, from Newton's dynamics to Einstein's, and the shifts in perspective necessary for a range of discoveries including oxygen, x-rays, and the neutrino.

I will begin by defining paradigm as Kuhn uses the term. Then I will talk about the grounds for thinking of qualitative research as a viable candidate for an alternative paradigm. Since the acceptance of a new paradigm would involve some supplanting of the present hypothesis-testing quantitative model, I will offer reasons why paradigms lose their grip on a domain. Then I will ask what sorts of people tend to challenge the dominant paradigm, and, finally, why change is so fiercely resisted.

Kuhn, a physicist, was unsure whether the social sciences could even be said to have paradigms, and hence to experience paradigm change. For instance, he commented: "In parts of biology - the study of heredity, for example - the first universally received paradigms are... recent; and it remains an open question what parts of social science have yet to acquire such paradigms at all" (p. 15). Only mature sciences, in Kuhn's view, qualify as having paradigms.

One knows that a science is mature when it is no longer comprehensible to the general, intelligent public. Kuhn may have thought that the social sciences were still too accessible to qualify. He said that paradigmatic normal science is marked by its incomprehensibility outside the fraternity; "...most... fields of physical science ceased to be generally accessible [to the public] in the nineteenth [century]. Similar transitions can be isolated in the various parts of the biological sciences. In parts of the social sciences they may well be occurring today" (p. 20-21). Kuhn's view of the social sciences is that of an outsider; contrary to his musings, most historians of psychology (e.g., Benjafield, 1996; Hergenhahn, 1997; Leahy, 1997) do think of the discipline as having paradigms, and having undergone 20h century paradigm shifts - in particular from behaviourism to cognitive psychology.

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