Chapter 4: Positivist research

Activity 1

Fill in the gaps with the words below.

1. There is a relationship between the ______ in which a research study is located and the ______ approach. ______ is the name given to the paradigm which sees the world as being governed by universal laws and that everything can be explained by revealing these universal laws. Positivism gives rise to ______ methodology which involves the collection of______data using ______methods.

a. Numerical

b. Positivism

c. Scientific

d. Paradigm

e. Methodological

f. Quantitative


  1. Paradigm
  2. Methodological
  3. Positivism
  4. Quantitative
  5. Numerical
  6. Scientific

Activity 2

Positivism is just one of several paradigms used in early childhood research. In Chapter 5, you will read about other paradigms which can underpin early childhood research. The article by Noella Mackenzie and Sally Snipe looks at a variety of different paradigms and how they relate to the methodology chosen. This article describes how using mixed methodologies can be a valid contribution to research.

MacKenzie, N. and Snipe, S. (2006) ‘Research dilemmas: paradigms, methods and methodology’, Issues in Educational Research, 16(2): 193–200.

  • Read an overview of paradigms used in social research.
  • Read an article about the relationship between the paradigm in which research is located and the questions are asked.

Activity 3

Maeve is a student on an early childhood degree programme. She is in the initial planning stages of a piece of research for her dissertation. She is interested in impulse control in children and has heard that there is a test involving marshmallows. Four-year-old children are tested in a room on their own. On the table is a plate containing one marshmallow. The children are told that if they can delay eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes, then they can have more marshmallows. If they give in to temptation and eat the marshmallow then they do not get to have any more. It has been reported that children who are able to delay eating the marshmallow at aged four are likely to achieve more in later life than children who cannot control the impulse to eat the marshmallow (Mischel et al., 1972).

Maeve thinks that gender is a variable that may affect the results and her hypothesis is that boys will do less well on the test than girls. She proposes to conduct a matched pairs experiment of ten four-year-old girls and ten four-year-old boys, using the marshmallow test.

  1. Identify the paradigm in which the research is located and explain your reasoning.
  2. What methodological approach is being taken? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Why has Maeve decided to use a matched pairs design?
  4. What relevant variables should Maeve consider when choosing the children for the matched pairs?
  5. What are your views on this as a piece of worthwhile research?


1. Positivism. Maeve is proposing to conduct a scientific experiment to test a hypothesis which involves the control of variables. She will be collecting numerical data.

2. Quantitative methodology. Quantitative methodology is the methodological approach which emphasizes the collection of data in the form of numbers and often, but not always, involves the formulation of a hypotheses. It is used to measure or quantify the extent of a phenomenon.

3. A matched pairs design is an experimental design where two groups of participants are used, but each participant in one group is matched as far as possible with someone from the other group, according to relevant variables.

4. Maeve could choose a group of girls and a group of boys to test. Each girl could be matched with a boy of the same age, having a similar preschool experience, similar social class and with parents of a similar level of education.

5. There has been some criticism of the interpretation of the findings of the original experiment. It was subsequently found that delayed gratification was strongly linked to the level of trust that the children had on the investigator. If children trusted the experimenter they were more likely to wait for their ‘reward’ than children who didn’t trust that any ‘reward’ would actually materialize (Kidd et al. 2013).


Kidd, C., Palmeri, H. and Aslin, R. (2013) ‘Rational snacking: young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability’, Cognition, 126(1): 109–14.

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E.B. and Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972) ‘Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2): 204–18.

Activity 4

Fill in the gaps in this research cycle using the words supplied below.


a. Test hypothesis

b. Look for a pattern

c. Observe

d. Results support theory or theory needs adjustment

e. Generate hypothesis


  1. Observe
  2. Look for a pattern
  3. Generate hypothesis
  4. Test hypothesis
  5. Results support theory or theory needs adjustment

Activity 5

Sage research methods content

Hughes, P. (2001) ‘From nostalgia to metatheory: researching children’s relationships with the media’, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 2(3): 354–67.

This article explains how the views that a researcher holds about children and childhood influences both the research questions that are asked and the choice of methodology.