Edev_501 Response wk4_2

One of the issues I faced in this week’s reading was the notions of  ‘emergent properties’ and ’levels of description’. To give a brief example, we cannot perceive saltiness by tasting sodium or chlorine atoms. The quality of saltiness is one which emerges as a consequence of the combination of the elements. Many phenomena exhibit qualities as a whole that each component lacks (Ponge, 2005). This notion of emergence points to the idea of levels of explanations. At various levels of object integration, different properties, values, and states emerge. Each of these may usefully describe knowledge at each level. In education research, we may talk about, for example, the nature of a class group, while recognising that the emergent phenomenon of overall class properties are not present in any specific class member.

Likewise, any discussion that tries to separate differences in qualitative and quantitative research must address, either implicitly or explicitly, the audience of the description. At the molecular level, if you can forgive this metaphor, there is a strong argument that induction cannot exist (Popper, 1959) which makes a distinction between qualitative and quantitative problematic at that level. When modes of inquiry built upon secure or less secure ontological assumptions form, paradigms emerge. Willis describes these as “comprehensive belief system[s], world view[s],” which include a set of assumptions regarding ontologies and epistemologies (Willis, 2007, p. 8). At these levels, where induction is assumed to exist, talking about distinctions makes more sense. To illustrate the ’emergent’ and ‘levels of description’ ideas, I’ve reproduced the chart from Blaxter’s section on methods (Blaxter, 2010). Ten distinctions are drawn between qualitative and quantitative paradigms.

Qualitative paradigms Quantitative paradigms
Concerned with understanding behaviour from actors’ own frames of reference Seeks the facts/ causes of social phenomena
Naturalistic and uncontrolled observation Obtrusive and controlled measurement
Subjective Objective
Close to the data: the ‘insider’ perspective Removed from the data: the ‘outsider’ perspective
Grounded, discovery oriented, exploratory, expansionist, descriptive, inductive Ungrounded, verification oriented, reductionist, hypothetico-deductive
Process oriented Outcome oriented
Valid: real, rich, deep data Reliable: hard and replicable data
Ungeneralizable: single case studies Generalizable: multiple case studies
Holistic Particularistic
Assumes a dynamic reality Assumes a stable reality

Box 3.4 The differences between qualitative and quantitative research from Blaxter p. 66.

Each of the ten are problematic at the molecular level, yet writers find the distinctions useful. The subtext behind Blaxter and many other writers is that beginner researchers do not benefit from low-level descriptions where philosophers of science still debate highly technical and precise ontological issues. Rather, the wider picture of the emergent and easier to comprehend level of paradigm is given. The assumption is that interested readers will follow up on the details later. This attitude may be useful at the undergraduate or even Master’s level. However, at the incipient doctoral level, fuller descriptions of various levels may be more appropriate.

To take just one point (perhaps the ‘lowest hanging fruit’) Kuhn discharged the notion that positivistic, empirical scientists cannot be perfectly objective; there is always a relationship between the observer and the observed (Kuhn, 1963). While positivist ontologies run against the notion that objectivity carries with it the implication “that the researcher and the reality being researched are separate and objective reality exists beyond the human mind” (Sefotho, 2015, p. 26), few would completely endorse this strong view of objectivity.

It is tempting to go through each of the remaining nine points and show they fail at lower or higher levels. This endeavour is ultimately one that each of us should do as a part of our reflection. Personally, I find it fascinating how the implicit pedagogy in these discussion questions play out in this forum of higher education. At all times, the circular, iterative nature of the questions’ content and how it aims to develop us should never be overlooked.


Blaxter, L. (2010). How to research. (4th edition) Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/ Open University Press.

Kuhn, T.S. (1963). The Function of Dogma in Scientific Research. pp. 347–69 in A. C. Crombie (ed.). Scientific Change (Symposium on the History of Science, University of Oxford, 9–15 July 1961). New York and London: Basic Books and Heineman.

Ponge, J. F. (2005). Emergent properties from organisms to ecosystems: Towards a realistic approach. Biological Reviews, 80(3), 403-411.

Popper, K. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. London: Routledge.

Sefotho, M. M. (2015). A researcher’s dilemma: Philosophy in crafting dissertations and theses. Journal of Social Science, 42(1,2), 23-36.

Willis, J. W. (2007). Foundations of Qualitative Research: Interpretive and Critical Approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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