Positivism strives for objectivity, measurability, predictability, controllability, patterning, the construction of laws and rules of behavior, and the ascription of causality; the interpretive paradigms strive to understand and interpret the world in terms of its actors (participants). In the former, observed phenomena are important; in the latter, meanings and interpretations are paramount.
Positivism may be characterized by its claim that science provides us with the clearest possible ideal of knowledge. It faces criticism due to its nature if assumptions. First, there is the assumption of determinism. This means simply that events have caused, and are determined by other circumstances; and science proceeds on the belief that these causal links can eventually be uncovered and understood, that the events are explicable in terms of their antecedents
The second assumption is that of empiricism. It claims that certain kinds of reliable knowledge can only originate in experience. In practice, therefore, this means scientifically that the tenability of a theory or hypothesis depends on the nature of the empirical evidence for its support.
The viewpoint has been summed up by Barratt who writes, ‘The decision for empiricism as an act of scientific faith signifies that the best way to acquire reliable knowledge is the way of evidence obtained by direct experience’ (Barratt, 1971).
The interpretive paradigm, in contrast to its normative counterpart, is characterized by a concern for the individual. Whereas normative studies are positivist, all theories constructed within the context of the interpretive paradigm tend to be anti-positivist. Interpretive approaches focus on actions.
Interpretivism is faced with critics where some argue that advocates of an anti-positivist stance have gone too far in abandoning scientific procedures of verification and in giving up hope of discovering useful generalizations about behaviour (Mead, 1934).
Positivistic and interpretive paradigms are seen as preoccupied with technical and hermeneutic knowledge respectively (Gage, 1989).
Critical theorists would argue that the positivist and interpretive paradigms are essentially technicists seeking to understand and render more efficient an existing situation, rather than to question or transform it.
I will attempt to present normative and interpretive perspectives in a complementary light and try to lessen the tension that is sometimes generated between them. Merton and Kendall1express the same sentiment when they say, ‘Social scientists have come to abandon the spurious choice between qualitative and quantitative data: they are concerned rather with that combination of both which makes use of the most valuable features of each. The problem becomes one of determining at which points they should adopt the one, and at which the other, approach’ (Merton and Kendall, 1946).