Before conducting a study and choosing a research approach, it is important to reflect on the question: “What worldview do I adhere to for this study?” The following figure lists several different so-called research paradigms, all corresponding to a slightly different world view and all compatible with different research approaches.

We can distinguish between the following research paradigms:

Paradigmatic worldviewCharacteristics
Positivist or post-positivist- Knowledge is conjectural
- Based on empirical observation
- Reductionist (measurement of variables) in nature
- Knowledge based on theory verification / refutation
(Social) Constructivism- Knowledge based on understanding and interpretation
- Focus on social processes and cultural / socio-historic antecedents
- Researchers position themselves within the research
Advocacy/ Participatory- Politically and empowerment oriented
- Collaborative methods of inquiry
- Aims to ‘give voice’ to minority or oppressed groups
- Focused on changing processes, policies and practices
Pragmatism- Focus on consequences of actions and solutions to problems (what, how, and what works?)
- Pluralistic (adopt multiple paradigms depending on the situation/ problem)
- Real- world oriented

Quantitative research in public health is often compatible with a post-positivistic research paradigm, which is a value-free research paradigm based on empirical observations (Neumann 2014). A (post-)positivistic research paradigm assumes the existence of an objective, universal truth, and embraces the assumption that knowledge can be obtained through a process of quantifying concepts, followed by the verification and falsification of hypotheses by conducting statistical analyses (Denzin & Lincoln 2011).

Qualitative research in public health often is compatible with a constructivist research paradigm, in which an understanding on a topic is gained by interpreting subject perceptions (Denzin and Lincoln 2011, 102). Constructivism builds on the assumption that reality as we know it is constructed intersubjectively through meanings and understandings developed socially and experientially (Guba and Lincoln 1994).

A quantitative empirical approach versus a qualitative interpretative approach

The following table provides a very concise and somewhat simplified overview of the general characteristics of the empirical approach to research on the one hand, and the interpretative approach to research on the other hand.

Empirical approachInterpretative approach
Tends to produce quantitative dataTends to produce qualitative data
Uses large samplesUses small samples
Deductive reasoning, concerned with hypothesis testingInductive reasoning, concerned with generating theories
Data is highly specific and preciseData is rich and subjective
The location is artificialThe location is natural
Reliability is generally highReliability can be questioned
Validity can be questionedValidity is generally high
Generalizes from sample to populationGeneralizes from one setting to another
Objective, single realitySubjective, multiple realities
Stripped of valuesValue-laden


References (recommended for further reading)

Denzin, N. K., and Y. S. Lincoln. 2011. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Guba, E. G., and Y. S. Lincoln. 1994. “Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by N. K. Denzin, and Y. S. Lincoln, 105-117. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Neuman, W. L. 2014. Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.