Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsCHRIS STEVENSON: What is intelligence and how is it measured? How you answer this question is not inconsequential.

Skip to 0 minutes and 13 secondsNICK BARTER: Intelligence and other cognitive performance tests are used to help make decisions about everything from school funding and career advice to diagnosing intellectual disability.

Skip to 0 minutes and 24 secondsCHRIS STEVENSON: In the early 20th century IQ tests were developed which tested people's cognitive performance in logic, arithmetic, spatial arrangements, and verbal relationships. When asked why these qualities constituted intelligence Edward Boring famously stated that "Intelligence is what the tests test."

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 secondsNICK BARTER: Around the same time some states in the US introduced legislation to allow people with intellectual disabilities to be segregated from society.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 secondsCHRIS STEVENSON: The Virginia state colony for epileptics and the feeble minded opened in 1910. It is most widely remembered today for forcibly sterilising some residents.

Skip to 1 minute and 6 secondsNICK BARTER: In 1984, social scientist James Flynn discovered that Dutch 18-year-olds taking IQ tests in the 1980s were outperforming their parents at the same age in the '50s.

Skip to 1 minute and 16 secondsCHRIS STEVENSON: After collecting intelligence tests from almost 30 countries he found that the pattern was similar everywhere. Why? Is every new generation more intelligent or are they just getting better at the tests?

Skip to 1 minute and 30 secondsNICK BARTER: James Flynn says it's the latter. In the 19th century, if you asked someone in what ways a dog was similar to a rabbit, they might say that you use a dog to hunt rabbits.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 secondsCHRIS STEVENSON: By the 1980s people were more likely to give you the correct answer. They're both mammals.

Skip to 1 minute and 48 secondsNICK BARTER: Flynn thinks that this is because today our education system gives people much more practise at wearing scientific spectacles.

Skip to 1 minute and 56 secondsCHRIS STEVENSON: When psychologists asked the Kpelle tribe members to take an IQ test in Liberia, they pared a knife with a potato, because they could be used together. After they insisted that this was the only wise way to make the pairing, the researchers asked them how a fool would do it. The tribe members rearranged it to the way the scientists considered it to be correct. Take a moment to reflect again on the question, what is intelligence and how is it measured?

Research paradigms

Let’s take a look at how research paradigms can change the way we understand evidence.

Some of the biggest questions that we ask ourselves as communities have no right answer.

  • What is intelligence?
  • How do you define freedom, justice, truth or reason?
  • What does it mean to be a good person?
  • How should important decisions be made?

Assumptions about the answers to these questions are often lying beneath the surface of social or political debate.

It’s the same with research. The way we answer these questions often says as much about us as it does about the question itself.

Ontology and epistemology

Our ontology and epistemology explain the way we put together a coherent understanding of the world and the relationships within it.

Our ontology describes what we are prepared to believe exists (Blaike, 2004). Our epistemology describes how we figure that out.

‘What is intelligence?’ is an ontological question. ‘Can it be measured?’ is an epistemological one.

Positivism, constructivism and realism (pragmatism)

If you really stop to think about it, everyone understands the world in a slightly different way so there is an enormous variety of perspectives.

That being said, in Western research there are three strong traditions that you should be aware of: positivism, constructivism and realism.

Positivism, constructivism and realism diagram Click here to access a PDF copy of this diagram
Figure based on Burrell & Morgan (1985)


Positivism is founded on the proposition that the only way we can be certain of anything is through empirical measurement, verification and replication. Positivists arrive at an understanding of the world through systematic and scientific observation and experimentation.

To a dyed-in-the-wool positivist, intelligence is whatever the tests test.


Constructivism says we take on the worldview of our culture which is often influenced by people with decision-making power over mass media, education and other forms of social discussion. Constructivists pay careful attention to history and culture and consider the way we think and act to be products of our cultural heritage.

A constructivist might focus on how the concept of intelligence has been used to limit people’s rights and entrench the position of dominant social groups.

Realism (pragmatism)

Realists ply a middle ground. Like positivists, they often try to establish what is real using scientific methods. But they also accept that the human element colours their findings due to fallible observations and cognitive biases inherited from cultural assumptions. A realist might study how the results of intelligence tests are influenced by changes in culture.

Why does it matter?

Understanding these different traditions, or paradigms, can help you take different approaches to your research because it allows you to see your problem from different perspectives.

Most problems are solved by a mixture of observation and measurement and by asking people about their experiences, views and values. Taking a variety or mixture of approaches to research helps to broaden and enrich our understanding of a problem. It can also help us to keep our own thinking in perspective and to recognise the value in others.

It can be stressful if people challenge you on these grounds. Remember that disagreements can help strengthen our research approach and lead to progress. If you think critically, look for evidence, keep an open mind and question your own assumptions, you will have done as much as anyone can.

That’s something we can all agree on.

Your task

Consider the research question you proposed in Step 2.3.

How would your approach to this question differ if you adopted constructivism, positivism or realism?

Share your ideas in the comments and have a discussion with other learners.


Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1985). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: elements of the sociology of corporate life. Aldershot, Hants.: Gower

Blaikie, N ‘Ontology, Ontological’ in Lewis-Beck, M. S., Bryman, A. & Futing Liao, T. (2004). The SAGE encyclopedia of social science research methods Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781412950589

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This video is from the free online course:

Why Research Matters

Deakin University