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UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009


Educational Research: An introduction to basic
concepts and terminology
By: Hilda Freimuth


One of the major deterrents to pursuing a Ph.D. for many educators is the esoteric
language used in research. This paper is meant to de-mystify some of the terminology
as well as present some basic ideas studied in an educational research program.
Although not perfect, this paper provides an easily-understandable perspective of
some educational research concepts. The hope is to dispel fears other educators may
have of pursuing higher levels of research study due to the difficulty of various
concepts and terminology in the field. The paper concludes that there are many ways
of conducting research and many ways in which the research process itself is

Concepts of Epistemology and Ontology

The first two terms often associated with educational research, epistemology and
ontology, frighten even the most educated of us. Before a discussion begins on
epistemology and ontology and their effects on ones choice of research paradigms,
methods, and techniques, a definition of both is best presented to help us ease into the

The term epistemology, according to Johnson and Duberley (2000), remains to this
day, despite its philosophical roots extending back to the times of Aristotle and Plato,
still somewhat obscure. The word itself stems from two Greek words: episteme
(meaning knowledge or science) and logos (meaning theory or account or knowledge).
The two combined, then, form the following easily-understood meaning: the
knowledge of/about knowledge (Johnson & Duberley, 2000).

This term is further clarified by Walker and Evers (1988) and Somekh and Lewin
(2005) with a general definition of epistemology presented as the study of the nature
and extent of knowledge and truth.
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

Thayer-Bacon (1996) tries to widen this traditional definition of epistemology by
suggesting there is a need too expand the concept itself to relational epistemology.
She points out, by quoting Kant, that what human beings know is not independent of
their external or internal world. She contends that the knowing of absolute truth is
impossible since what we see as truth or knowledge is inherently flawed by our own
social constructions (Thayer-Bacon, 1996). She goes on to say that we are born in a
certain time, place, and within a given culture. As a result, we are not neutral beings.
David Hustler concurs with this, stating it would be silly to imagine that you should
(or could) enter the field with a blank mind (as cited in Somekh & Lewin, 2005, p.
18). Popper felt that truth is hard to find and even more difficult to define, and he
went as far as to create a formula measuring truthlikeness, which he called
verisimilitude, to assist with the concept of truth (Corvi, 1997).

Ontology, on the other hand, is the branch of study concerned with the nature of being,
reality, and existence. The word can be broken down into two Greek words as well:
ont meaning to be and logos meaning knowledge, theory, or account of
something. So, in laymans terms Ontology means knowledge of/about ones or
anothers existence. This field of study was formerly known as metaphysics, dating
back to the word metaphysica used in Aristotles time (Sowa, retrieved Nov.2008).
Sowa broadens this definition by suggesting it is also the study of categories of
existence (retrieved Nov. 2008).

The two terms, then, Epistemology and Ontology have to do with the essence of
knowledge and truth and being. Perhaps in easier terms Ontology can be defined as
the study of what we know or rather what we think we know and Epistemology as the
study of how we achieve knowledge or rather how we think we achieve knowledge.
As a researcher, it stands to reason that ones knowledge and truths (which may easily
be confused with ones beliefs and worldview) can influence ones research in a
number of ways. As a result, any research that is undertaken is best done under a
reflective microscope since it is contaminated with our beliefs about knowledge and
what we hold as true. This is substantiated by Hustler who states that we need to
recognize that we are part of the social worlds we are studying and that researchers
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

own interpretative processes and authorial position need to be taken account of (in
Somekh & Lewin, 2005, p. 17).

Definition of Educational Research

Any discussion on educational research is best preceded with a definition of this term
as well. Educational research emerged in the mid 1890s and was strongly influenced
by the disciplines of philosophy, sociology, and psychology (Somekh & Lewin, 2005).
The term educational research refers to scientific research done on the problems
faced in education. Since there are various competitive philosophies regarding the
conduct of research and what constitutes knowledge, it is no surprise to find
researchers in the field of education at odds with one another at times. Wallen and
Fraenkel (2001) break educational research into two main components: empirical
research and non-empirical research. Empirical research deals with the gathering of
information through direct or personal experience whereas non-empirical research
consists of literature review and other non-testing methods of data collection.

The two categories of empirical and non-empirical research can each be broken down
further: basic research and applied research. Basic research is research whose results
pertain to the greater population whereas applied research is concerned only with a
specific group (Wallen & Fraenkel, 2001).

Empirical research has been guided throughout the centuries by various different sets
of beliefs or paradigms. The following is a closer look at two major eras: positivist
and post-positivist.

Positivist and Post-positivist Thought

Positivism was dominant in what Denzin and Lincoln (2003) term the Traditional
period (1900 1950s). Trochim (2006) describes positivism as simply having one
major aim: to describe phenomena that we experience. Positivism is built on the idea
that certain laws of cause and effect govern the world. Hence, one can use deductive
reasoning to propose theories and test them (mainly using the scientific method).
Consequently, positivists believed in empiricism. Positivists, according to Weber
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

(2004), who draws on USQ Professor Juergen Sandbergs expertise, hold the
ontological and epistemic perspective of duality, that is a separation between the
researcher and reality. There is an objective reality that exists beyond the realm of the
human mind. Since most data is collected using the scientific method, the results are
considered valid and reliable. Because of the typical use of statistical analysis, any
data collected the positivist way is believed to be truly measuring reality. Moreover,
reliability is not an issue since results can easily be reproduced in another experiment.
Whereas Trochim (2006) admits this view of positivism may be slightly simplistic
(various qualitative research methods were used in this era as well), it nonetheless
helps the lay person understand some fundamental differences between positivist and
post-positivist thought.

Post-positivism prevailed in the time of what Denzin and Lincoln (2003) term the
Modernist or Golden Age (1950-1970) is the era after the reign of the positivists.
Trochim (2006) points out that this era is in utter contrast to the one before. In fact, he
believes it to be a wholehearted denunciation of positivism since it swings entirely
towards the opposite direction in research although many researchers disagree
completely with Trochim on this issue. Nonetheless, this time was the dawn of
interpretivism whose ontological and epistemic perspective lie with the idea that the
researcher and reality are inseparable (Weber, 2004). Knowledge is thereby gained
not by hypothesizing a theory and testing it the scientific way but rather by observing
lived experience via predominantly qualitative research methods. Weber (2004) points
out that any data collected this way is open to interpretation and criticism. The
reflexivity of the researcher therefore plays an important role. It is the responsibility
of each researcher to analyze his/her own subjectivity. The idea is that all
measurement is imperfect and therefore all theory is open to scrutiny (Trochim, 2006).
Triangulation, opening the research up to the critical scrutiny of multiple researchers
or using multiple methods of data collection, is one way of ensuring valid results
(Belbase, 2007).

Critical Theory

The Modernist or Golden Age was followed by that of the Blurred Genres (Denzin
& Lincoln, 2003). Loosely, the time frame was from 1970-1986s and it saw a
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

number of new paradigms come to the forefront in research. Criticial Theory was one
of these. Critical Theory, which originated from a group of scholars at the University
of Frankfurt in the 1920s (known as the Frankfurt School), was based on the concept
that certain knowledge may be prejudiced, self-serving, or socially oppressive (Giroux,
1981). According to Giroux (1981), the term now refers to a number of different
critical approaches that assess and criticize existing social, economic, and political
situations. This is grounded in the Frankfurt Schools belief that all thought and
theory are tied to a specific interest in the development of a society without injustice.
So theory, in this case, becomes a transformative activity that views itself as
political. (Giroux, 2001, p 19 ). This political element is key to the theory. Foucaults
concept of critical theory promotes techniques that seek to disclose the imbalance of
power operating in various social practice (Olssen, 2006). It is an examination or
appraisal of society whose main aim is to challenge and destabilize conventional
knowledge in the hope of making things better. Giroux (1981) points out that this
includes the challenging of various assumptions underlying education, theory, and
practice. He claims there are hidden assumptions that educators are unaware of with
regards to the nature of their knowledge and their classroom practice. Critical
questions pertaining to how educators decide to teach the knowledge they have been
told to teach must be answered. Educators themselves are a product of a given
educational system possibly steeped in bias and a specific historical context (Giroux,
1981). Other critical questions, according to Giroux (1981) in education are Who
decided on the knowledge that is taught? and Whose interests are certain practices or
teaching of knowledge serving?.

Whereas Henry Giroux and Michael Apple laid the theoretical foundation for the
Critical Theory, the pedagogy of this was most notably established by Paulo Freire
through his work with exploited minorities (Tripp, 1992). The term critical
pedagogy was born from his efforts in the field.

Post-structuralism in Educational Research

Post-structuralism was an internal philosophical reaction to the shortcomings of
Structuralism popular from the 1950s to 1970s (Green, Camilli, Elmore,
Skukauskaite, & Grace, 2006). Structuralism the belief that cultures and societies
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

consist of organized structures that can be analyzed much like the system of grammar
in language- was almost a kind of mega-paradigm (Burbules & Peters, 2004). Post-
structuralism challenged this notion of mega-paradigm even though it is an
extension of Structuralism in many ways. Burbules and Peters describe the post-
structuralist movement as a time where different forms of critical thought were sought
out and distinctive forms of analysis were developed to critique various social
institutions like schools, hospitals, and even family (2004). Post-structuralists
believed that the notion of self was not a distinct unit, rejecting the notion of
reason at the same time (Barry, 2002). They believed that the meaning of something
was differential, not referential in nature (Belsey, 2002). So to understand an object
two things must occur: the study of the object and the study of the systems of
knowledge that created that object.

Paradigms, Methods (Qualitative/Quantitative), and Techniques

Some of this paper has already focused on various paradigms or certain sets of beliefs
that underpin research. The next step forward is to address methodology. Whereas
epistemology is concerned with how we come to know, methodology deals with
specific ways (Wallen & Fraenkel, 2001). Although there are many ways to classify
methodology, one popular way is to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative
research. Quantitative methods consist of the collection of numerical data and the
analysis of such via statistical methods (Moody, 2002). Quantitative methods
(scientific research methods) tend to be employed when a theory is already well-
developed and is just being confirmed. It is best used in objective studies.
Qualitative research methods (humanistic research methods), on the other hand, are
ones that gather data qualitative in nature, such as observations and case studies. They
use qualitative data analysis to process data (Moody, 2002). This is often used best for
conducting research on human behavior or any other subjective field of study like
educational research (Richards, 2003). The most familiar quantitative methods,
according to Moody (2002), are experiments and surveys. Qualitative methods, on
the other hand, rely more on the experience and knowledge of the researcher for
analysis and include such things as case studies, action research, and ethnographic
research (Gibson et al, 2008). This is usually subjective in nature. Some researchers
prefer a mix of both methods and consider the two as more of a continuum rather
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

than a dichotomy. Moody (2002) states that in practice no research is probably fully
quantitative or qualitative but rather a mixture of both. For Moody and other
researchers who believe this, quantitative and qualitative methods are viewed as
complementary and equal rather than competitive (Somekh & Lewin, 2005).

Techniques are the specific procedures used in the conducting of research. For
example, researchers using the interpretivist paradigm may choose from a variety of
techniques: interviews, focus groups, field notes or diaries etc.. If a researcher is a
positivist at heart, he/she may employ techniques like questionnaires, tests, or surveys.
The selection of an appropriate research method and techniques are derived from the
research question (Moody, 2002).

Objectivity and Subjectivity in Educational Research

The above section has mentioned the terms objectivity and subjectivity
respectively in relation to quantitative research and qualitative research. To take a
closer look at this, one must consider the meanings of both terms. Objectivity refers
to the act of being objective or accurate and bias-free. In quantitative research this
implies that something exists in and of itself and is not influenced by the researcher or
instrument of measure. The researchers personal judgements and existence do not
factor into the equation. When something is considered objective it involves
quantifiable data where the answer/results of an experiment are always the same. A
simple way of looking at this is the equation 1 +1 = 2. No matter where you test this
theory in the world, with whom, or at what cost the results will always be the same.
This is objectivity at its best.

Subjectivity, then, can be found in the opposite realm of research that which holds
multiple realities and is not fool-proof. A subjective study involves the interpretation
of a persons internal reality rather than pure external and independent facts. The
epistemological assumption here is that truth does not exist in a separate vacuum from
research contexts and participants (Somekh & Lewin, 2005). Subjective research is
therefore closely linked to qualitative research and may be seen by the more
traditional, scientific researchers as soft research (Richards, 2003). Richards
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

+ research
fervently disagrees with this perception as he believes that subjectivity in qualitative
research can also lead to valid results (2003). Whereas quantitative research with a
focus on objectivity often consists of hypothesizing and testing a theory and then
measuring the results in a quantifiable way, subjective research aims to understand
and explain social phenomena that people in society have constructed for themselves
(Merriam, 2001). Often the product of qualitative research infused with subjectivity is
deeply descriptive and holistic in nature.

Concluding Thoughts

This paper has explored a number of contentious issues in the field of educational
research from various paradigms and their epistemological and ontological
underpinnings to differing methods and techniques and has hoped to allay fears of
such terminology. As a result, it has revealed a definition and spectrum of research
many educators do not know exist. It reinforces the idea that there is no such thing as
the right way to conduct research. There are principles and methods and techniques
to ensure the research is sound, but there is no one way. Any research question and
the way it is approached is influenced by the very person the researcher is by his/her
existence, personal history, personality, and beliefs. Moreover, the paradigm used in
research (along with its corresponding methods and techniques) is mainly determined
by the research question itself. The diagram below sums up the process nicely.

Diagram 1.1

Leads to
influenced by
UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009


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