ARTICLE 73: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Contextualising your Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Let’s say you plan on conducting research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the social interaction between people.

Do you think your findings will be the same if you were to do the research in a large city compared to a jungle village in central Africa?

Do you think your findings will be the same for any one population for different seasons?

Do you think your findings will be the same ten years from now as they are now?

I will discuss contextualising your research in this article.

Research is always done in a context.

The context can be expressed as the scope or limits of the research. Teaching and learning, for example, are managed and administered on local, regional and national level so that we can also do research on one or more of these levels.

Context can also be a geographical area, for example a suburb, a city, a country or perhaps even the whole world. Choosing a context for your research can be compared to weightlifting. If you put too little weight on the bar, your performance will be insignificant. If you try to lift too much you might fail and can even injure yourself.

Therefore, keep in mind that, the wider the context for your research, the more likely will your research topic not be viable.

Natural scientists often claim that their findings are valid regardless of time or context. This would mean that the knowledge, principles, tenets, laws, etc. that they develop are not dependent on context. It does not mean that context does not exist but rather that their findings apply to all, or at least most, contexts.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of a context that has an impact on almost all fields of study. Phenomena and events are in many ways different in terms of social, economic, financial, legislative, political, environmental and many other conditions than when the virus was not present.   

Depending on the level of your research, you can narrow down the limits even further by deciding on and describing the appropriate structures, stakeholders and social groups involved in the topic being researched as well as related services that will be included in the research. You can go even further by deciding if the research will be done on a micro (going into much detail) or macro (addressing only some broader issues) level.

Once you have decided on the scope and limits of your research, it will be easier to also decide who and what you will include in your data collection efforts. Unless you already know your participants well, for example if they all come from the organisation in which you work, you will need to collect and record relevant information from appropriate groups. The target group for your research will probably be stakeholders in the project.

This information must be properly structured and updated to ensure that you do not get some unpleasant surprises when you start collecting data on your research topic. It can, for example, happen that you have in mind interviewing miners at a particular mine only to find that the mine ceased operating since you last had contact with the people working there.

You also need to contextualise your research in terms of time. It serves no purpose conducting research on historical events and trends if it is something for which there is no further need. Your conclusions might not apply to the current situation if the situation or people’s needs changed. You need to base your research on current developments and how it impacts on the members of the target group, unless your research is historical.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also a good example of a situation that exists during a particular period. The world did not have the pandemic before 2020 and everybody is hoping that it will disappear at some stage. Research can also now already be done about what to expect after the current pandemic.

Research always needs to be followed up. This means that your research findings need to be communicated to other stakeholders if it is to be of any value to the community. Remember that the community in which the research is done forms an integral and important part of the context of your research, so that you need to explain your research findings to the members of the target group or whoever else were participants in your research.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economies of different countries or different business sectors might not be the same, in the event of which findings will be inconsistent in terms of the context. If your findings apply to the entire world, they will be consistent in terms of the context. If the pandemic dissipates, or is replaced by an even more severe virus, findings that apply now might not apply any longer, say three months from now. Your findings will then be inconsistent over time. If the virus stays with us and becomes the so-called “new reality” then your findings will be consistent over time.

Summary

Research always applies to a specific context.

The impact of context is often more dynamic and inconsistent on qualitative research than on quantitative research.

The more narrowly the limits for your research are defined, the less generalisable will your findings probably be and the other way around.

The scope for your research represents the context in terms of the purpose of your research.

The limits of your research refer to the boundaries, or target for your research.

The data that you collect must be valid.

You need to specify the period on which you will conduct research.

You must point out in your thesis or dissertation if your findings are timeless or valid for only a certain period.

Your research findings will be worthless if you do not share your findings with stakeholders.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time.

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ARTICLE 72: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Here is a hint that will save you lots of time, energy and money on the research that you will do towards your master’s degree or Ph. D.

In fact, your thesis or dissertation will probably not be accepted by the university if you do what I am advising you not to do.

The hint is simply this – avoid doing unnecessary work as far as you possibly can.

To achieve this, you must steer clear of three bad practices:

Do not pad.

Do not confuse volume with quality.

And do not confuse motion with action.

I introduce my series of videos on data collection for research purposes in this article.

Both qualitative and quantitative research covers a wide spectrum but share one important feature – the collection and organisation of research data to enable analysis. Most importantly, though, the data that you collect must satisfy the purpose of your research. Students sometimes complete a research report without producing any significant findings. 

When collecting and analysing data you need to interpret the data creatively to develop insights that will lead to new knowledge or at least add value to existing knowledge. In the case of especially action research your work should also produce new ways of doing things. To achieve this, you need to have the ability to analyse data, be sensitive to theoretical arguments and have sufficient writing abilities to write a professional report. All of this, however, would be worthless and perhaps even damaging to the current knowledge if you collect inaccurate, superficial, irrelevant or simply poor-quality data.

In research, questions of relevance, specificity and scope with which you will be able to cope, bearing the available time, cost and philosophical level in mind, are central to the process of subject analysis, offering strategies for effective information organisation and retrieval. The principles of data collection and organising are important for enhancing the thoroughness of research and any researcher should be aware of them.

In organising data for analysis, the ideal is to turn the raw data into a logical narrative, where emergent themes will be distinct and clearly identified, and will fit into an overall structure that makes sense, given the research questions. However, few research projects fit this ideal, and categories more commonly resemble a bag of puzzle pieces, with one or two pieces missing and a few others belonging to a different puzzle. Here, themes are identified, like the colours and shapes of the puzzles, but need to be picked and sorted carefully from the pile during the analysis process.

In a worst-case scenario, data are splattered all over like the colours when some of the puzzle pieces have been cut in two or three. Potential themes may be identifiable, but overall, the data gives little direction for rigorous analysis.

All research involves the collection and analysis of data, whether through reading, observation, measurement, questions, or a combination of these or other procedures. The data collected during and for research may, however, vary considerably in their characteristics. For example:

  1. Data may be numerical, or may consist of words, or may be a combination of the two.
  2. Data may be neither numbers nor words, but consist of, for example, pictures and artefacts.
  3. Data may be ‘original’, in the sense that you have collected information never before collected; or may be ‘secondary’, already put together by somebody else, but reused, probably in a different way, by you.
  4. Data may consist of responses to a questionnaire or interview transcriptions, notes or other records of observations or experiments, documents and material, or all of these things.

Collecting and using qualitative data are both important parts of qualitative research. Data collection methods tie up closely with the research approach that you choose, i.e. quantitative or qualitative.

Summary

All academic research requires the collection and analysis of data.

On doctoral level you will need to interpret the data that you collect in such a manner that it will lead to new knowledge or at least add to existing knowledge.

On master’s degree level you will need to show that you understand and can apply the data that you collected.

For the sake of efficient and effective research, the data that you collect must be relevant, specific and articulated to the scope for your research.

The ideal is to turn the raw data that you collected into a logical narrative.

You will probably collect many different types of data making use of different data collection methods.

Collecting and using data are equally important for the success of your research project.

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ARTICLE 71: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Symbolic Interactionism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What do you think is the one single concept that can save the world?

It is a concept that can solve all conflicts between individuals, communities and even countries.

It can solve corruption, prevent wars, heal physical and psychological illnesses.

And one day, when the aliens arrive, it is the concept that will decide if we will receive them as friends or enemies.

Sadly, our inability to utilise that concept to the full is responsible for most, if not all the things that it is supposed to solve.

I introduce you to the concept that can save the world in this video.

‘Symbolic interactionism’ emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions between human beings. Human interaction in the social world is mediated using symbols like language, which helps people to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only focusing attention on individuals’ capacity to create symbolically meaningful objects in the world, human interaction and resulting patterns of social organisations can be understood. As a result, not only individuals change themselves through interaction, but also societies.

According to symbolic interactionism, human behaviour depends on learning rather than biological instinct. People communicate what they learn through symbols, the most common system of symbols being language. Linguistic symbols amount to arbitrary sounds or physical gestures to which people, by mutual agreement over time, have attached significance or meaning.

Symbolic interactionism also emphasises the role that the inner mental processes play in people’s subjective experiences. The mental processes are regarded as the key to understanding the link between individuals and the society to which they belong. Individuals and society are intrinsically linked. The individual is born into an already formed society and thus he or she emerges from, and is defined, in terms of an ongoing flux of social activity. Words of habit, fads, jargon, etc. lose their meaning, or the meaning is changed, if it is used in different contexts and different societies.

The emphasis on meaning and its influence on social behaviour are the key features of symbolic interactionism. There are three aspects to this.  Firstly, people act towards things based on the meanings that these things have for them. An example is how some, probably most, people react to how athletes from their own country or rival countries perform at the Olympic Games.

The second premise of symbolic interactionism is that meaning arises out of social interaction. For example, students who would otherwise not have acted aggressively might well do so under group pressure during advocacy campaigns.

The third premise of symbolic interactionism is that meaning is handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process. Meaning is not permanently fixed or unchanged. For example, an inexperienced soldier might be highly upset the first time he sees the body of a comrade or even an enemy killed in action. As he gains experience in war and as he sees more bodies, he loses his sensitivity towards other people and, to an extent, his respect for life. The meaning of a message, regardless of the medium though which it is conveyed, requires time to be absorbed and reflected on before it will make sense to the receiver.

The core task of research following a symbolic interactionist philosophical perspective is to capture the essence of the process for interpreting or attaching meaning to various symbols.

Strictly speaking, symbolic interactionism is utilised in all research, be it quantitative or qualitative in nature. Logically a quantitative research approach will rely more heavily on the use of symbols to convey and interpret messages that require counting, measuring or statistical analysis. Data collection methods need to be selected with the value that symbols have to offer as an important deciding factor. Written questionnaires, for example, do not convey idiosyncratic expressions, such as irony, mocking, sarcasm, etc. as well as a face-to-face interview would. Written documents cannot have the same intonation value as spoken words.

Symbolic interactionism adopts a measure of romantic philosophy by accepting fiction and art as sources of information for research purposes. However, some qualitative researchers regard these sources as less rigorous, less useful, inaccurate, and even wrong while a second group considers such information as insightful and significant.

Symbolic interactionism can be used in conjunction with constructivism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, interpretivism, romanticism and phenomenology.

Symbolic interactionism does not agree with the preference of the technicist paradigms in favour of quantitative research methods. They include rationalism, scientism, positivism and modernism.

The peculiarity of this approach is that human beings interpret and define each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions.

Some researchers regard symbolic interactionism as too unfocused in the research methods that it supports, while at the same time being unsystematic in their philosophies. This loose approach to the research results in the findings of the research being difficult to motivate or prove and, therefore, also difficult to test for validity and accuracy.

Summary

Symbolic interactionism emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions between human beings.

Human behaviour depends on learning.

The role of inner mental processes is emphasised.

Individuals and society are intrinsically linked.

The emphasis on meanings and its influence on social behaviour are key.

Meaning:

  1. Can change in different contexts and societies.
  2. Is handled in and modified through interpretation.
  3. Is mediated using symbols.
  4. Is not permanently fixed or unchanged.
  5. Arises out of social interaction.
  6. Influences the actions and behaviour of people.

Symbolic interactionism can be used with quantitative or qualitative research.

Data collection methods are an important consideration in research.

The core task of research making use of symbolic interactionism is to capture the essence of processes.

Symbolic interactionism can be associated with all the interpretive paradigms.

And is opposed to all the technicist paradigms.

Points of criticism against symbolic interaction include:

  1. That it lacks focus.
  2. That findings are not based on testable evidence.
  3. That data is interpreted but not reacted upon.

In closing,

I hope you noticed that the concept that can save the world is meaning.

And meaning is what symbolic interactionism is all about.

How we act on the meanings that things have for us determine if our lives will be good or bad.

I hope you will inject some positive meanings to the world through your research.

Thank you for watching my videos.

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ARTICLE 70: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Structuralism

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

Imagine, conducting research on human behaviour while focusing on the context rather than the target group.

Do you think that our environment determines our behaviour?

And if so, to what extent and how?

For example, will it be possible to eliminate ills such as conflict, corruption, crime, and many more by changing the infrastructure of a city or country?

And what would be the impact if we were to change the language policy of a country?

I discuss the impact of structure on human behaviour in this article.

Structuralism focuses on the systems (structures) within society and the power relations within and among the parts (subsystems). In formalised structures, one can easily see the hierarchy of positions and levels of power. In this respect structuralism displays three main characteristics:

1.         It focuses on the structures in which humans interact rather than on human interaction as such.

2.         It analyses the relationships between the different elements of a conceptual system.

3.         It investigates human thinking, culture, behaviour and feelings within the boundaries of the structure in which people find themselves.

According to structuralism, underlying “structures” or “essences” determine the meaning of an event or phenomenon. For example, unchanging structures of grammar underpin all language (linguistics); economic structures or organisation determine social beliefs and behaviour (economics); hidden structures of the unconscious mind control behaviour (psychology; psychoanalysis).

Structuralists beliefs that no part in a particular system has any significance in and of itself – its identity is defined in terms of its relationship with all the parts of the system.

Research making use of the structuralist paradigm strives to identify the relationships that determine human interaction. The aim of such research should be the discovery of the factors that cause the people being investigated to act, think and feel the way they do. The physical actions are not important for research purposes but rather the relationships that support the actions. 

If you wish to use structuralism as a paradigm for your research, you will need to deconstruct the channels of power in your research target in order to be able to analyse and describe the relationships and interplay between the parts of the system. In most qualitative research it should not be necessary to emphasise any of the parts, but rather to show how the parts relate to each other. This means that you should follow a holistic approach by determining how the entire system functions rather than just certain parts. 

In qualitative research, structures have the characteristic of dealing with transformation of power positions or the maintenance and reproduction thereof in society. As a structure can only sustain itself by perpetuating a continuous sameness of its parts, structures actively strive to preserve their position, thus extending the oppression and power of the system. In other words, positions of power in society give people control over others (e.g. adults over children, managers over workers).

Education offers a good example of where structure impacts on the relationships between people interacting in the same social setting. Education is criticised for its social reproduction function where traditional power relations are maintained and nourished. Any form of discrimination is an example of this. The aim of the structuralist endeavour is to expose these power relations through critique of the system.

It is rather common practice for those in power to be unwilling to relinquish their power to others. The result of such resistance can often be damaging to the entire community by eroding the service role that the power structures should provide. This can lead to corruption, poor leadership, injustice towards certain groups in the community and a decline in economic prosperity with all the ills that come from that.

Structuralism is a form of critical research, including some elements of neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism and romanticism. In this respect it especially supports post-structuralism. However, post-structuralism developed in reaction against structuralism because of the latter’s view that structures can be discovered, and its insistence on rigid power relations between the parts of the structure (post-structuralism questions the role of structure in human interaction).

Because of the fact that structuralism draws conclusions from relationships without also taking physical activities into consideration, it can lead to overgeneralisation – differences between different events or phenomena are not recognised because they are present in the actions and not the intangible factors.

Structuralism does not take history into consideration, which can be important in terms of the ontology of a research topic. The origin of a phenomenon is often important for its understanding.

Although structuralism is often used as a critical paradigm, researchers also tend to use it as a technicist paradigm, which can lead to social systems being interpreted as scientific phenomena stripped of the influence that affective factors have on social behaviour.

Summary

Structuralism focuses on structures as systems within society and the power relationships within and among the parts.

The identities of substructures are defined in terms of their relationships with all the other parts of the system.

Research making use of structuralism deals with the transformation, maintenance and reproduction of power positions in society, and to identify the relationships that determine human interaction.

Human relationships are regarded more important than human behaviour.

Structuralism is associated with neoliberalism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, radicalism and romanticism.

Structuralism is opposed to post-structuralism.

Points of criticism against structuralism as a paradigm for research include that:

  1. Research can be too technicist.
  2. It can lead to overgeneralisation.
  3. It does not take history into consideration.
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ARTICLE 69: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Scientism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Why do academics write less about scientism than about most other paradigms?

Is it because paradigms deal with philosophy while natural scientists are more interested in cause and effect, exact data and timeless facts?

If this is the case, is research in natural science always more objective, accurate and valid than research in social science?

Or do natural scientists keep the philosophy about their research methods divorced from philosophical arguments?

I discuss the nature and elements of scientism in this article.

Scientism is the belief that science and its method of sceptical inquiry is the most reliable path to the truth. As such it represents the technicist group of paradigms.

Scientific researchers tend to believe that the methods normally used to investigate natural sciences are the only true way in which to investigate any academic problem or topic. Some even believe that any research that is not “scientifically” conducted is not true science at all. This is often called scientific imperialism because of the exaggerated trust in the validity and accuracy of the quantitative methods as opposed to qualitative research methods.    

Supporters of the scientism paradigm claim that it is based on the “rule of law” of science.  The “rule of law” of science refers to the prescription of a domain, a set of practices and an attitude to the world, which should match the development of new knowledge. This implies that the truth can only be known through scientific proof.

Scientism believes that scientific research can be applied to almost any field of research, not only natural sciences. Although a quantitative research approach is more suitable, some scientists believe that the methods of science are not only appropriate for discovering physical truth, but also all other truths, including those traditionally utilised in philosophy, ethics and morality, political and cultural philosophy, and the rights and wrongs of human interaction. This often leads to a mixed approach.

Scientism developed from empiricism. By extending the scope of scientism, it tends to overlap with other technicist paradigms, for example positivism, modernism and rationalism.

Constructivism and post-positivism reject scientism because of its etic approach, which is regarded as divorced from reality and not providing for qualitative arguments, such as morality and philosophy in general. Scientism, in turn, rejects the former two paradigms because of their emic (participatory) approach, which is regarded as unscientific.

Scientism, furthermore, creates a closed system of knowing, that certifies itself by scientific discoveries or evidence that fits its own closed system of paradigm understanding. If the new knowledge does not fit the paradigm, it is usually assumed that there was something wrong with the methodology that produced it, rarely with the paradigm understanding itself. In terms of the nature of research this is a rather risky point of view.

Research should always provide for the possibility that a hypothesis can be disproven, which does not mean that there is anything wrong with the research process, gathered information or conclusions made. It might be possible that not sufficient information was gathered or that the information was not sufficiently corroborated. However, questioning the methodology because you do not agree with the research findings may well be subjective and unscientific.

Summary

Scientism belongs to the group of technicist paradigms.

Many natural scientists regard it as the most reliable path to the truth.

They also regard natural science as the only true science.

Social scientists regard the attitude of the natural scientists as scientific imperialism.

Scientism is mostly used with quantitative research methods.

Scientism can be associated with empiricism, positivism, rationalism and modernism.

Scientism is opposed to constructivism and post-positivism.

Points of criticism against scientism include:

  1. That it is a closed system of knowing.
  2. It ignores qualitative arguments.
  3. And natural scientists tend to blame the research process if the project fails.
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ARTICLE 68: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Romanticism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What can be better than a philosophy that encourages you to follow your dreams?

Imagine how great it will be if you could create your own space in life.

To do the things that you enjoy doing and that makes you happy.

Don’t you think that life would be so much better if you could live your personality, be your own unique self?

Perhaps you can have such freedom by paying more attention to romanticism as your philosophical perspective of life.

I discuss romanticism as a paradigm in this article.

Romanticism originally dealt with art, culture and literature on an intellectual level, starting as a revolt against social and political norms and a reaction against the scientific explanation of nature. It strives towards an understanding of people and nature.

Romanticism, however, no longer deals with art only. It is also not always historical in nature. Many recent phenomena, such as nationalism, existentialism, leadership, interpersonal relationships, democracy, politics and many more are affected by romanticism.

Romanticism focuses on imagination, creativity, uniqueness, emotion, and freedom. Even though appearing to be a rigid and intolerant stance, romanticism promotes tolerance and acceptance of the irrationality of human behaviour. This means that romanticism acknowledges and accepts liberalism, decency and a measure of increased rational self-understanding.

Romanticism accepts as fact that human conclusions and the structuring of knowledge are ubiquitous, though not always accurate. This means that the absence of truth is regarded as truth and the absence of values is regarded as a value. Rejection is regarded as a form of creativity which rejects cause and effect and even logic. Reason is regarded as a kind of confinement, and freedom a triumph of will. Training and culture are regarded as synonymous.

Romanticist researchers believe in naturalness, freedom from boundaries and rules, and living a solitary life free from communal restrictions. Imagination is regarded as superior to reason. Romanticism is individual rather than group oriented, even though some of the romantic values, such as social solidarity, lean towards group cohesion. The mysterious, occult and satanic are often researched following a romanticist paradigm.

Romantic nationalism developed as an extension of romanticism. It can include the manner of government practice, language, race, culture, religion and customs in a country and nation. Romantic nationalism would typically oppose autocratic, discriminatory and corrupt government. Self-determination is often a key issue. The use of a command and control hierarchy is frowned upon.

Romanticism draws a measure of parallelism with liberalism and relativism by claiming that there are many compatible values. It is enlightening and supports values such as striving for justice, the power of science, love of truth, happiness and a focus on wisdom.

In terms of its view of especially power relations, romanticism is the opposite of structuralism, with the former challenging it and the latter embracing it as the foundation for the development of knowledge. Unwittingly romanticism erodes itself by promoting new ideas and creativity which, it seems, is not what romanticists originally had in mind.

Conducting research in topics such as the occult and satanism may invite the disapproval of some people, especially if the purpose of the research is to erode integrity and ethics. This may be regarded as misuse and unprofessional conduct.

Summary

Romanticism:

  1. No longer deals with art and culture only.
  2. Can manifest as a revolt against social and political norms.
  3. Opposes the scientific explanation of nature.
  4. Strives towards the understanding of people and nature.
  5. Promotes tolerance and acceptance.
  6. Focusses on imagination, creativity, uniqueness, emotion and freedom.
  7. Acknowledges liberalism, decency and some rational self-understanding.
  8. Frowns upon the use of a command and control hierarchy.
  9. Researches the mysterious, occult and satanic.
  10. Believes in naturalness, freedom from boundaries and rules and living a solitary life.
  11. Is associated with liberalism and relativism and opposed to structuralism.

Freedom is regarded as a triumph of will.

Rejection is creativity.

The absence of value is value.

The absence of truth is truth.

Reason is a confinement.

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ARTICLE 67: Research Methods for P. Hd. and Master’s Degree Studies: Relativism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I discuss relativism in this article, but I have some questions about the concept.

To me it seems like anything that is relatively one thing is also relatively the opposite.

A relatively near destination is also relatively far.

Relatively healthy food is also relatively unhealthy.

Relatively happy is also relatively unhappy.

Relatively strong is also relatively weak.

How can this be the philosophical foundation for scientific research?

Let’s discuss the paradigm.

Relativism asserts that intangible concepts such as moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, meaning, etc. are individually relative to a particular framework or point of view. Relativists, furthermore, deny that any point of view can be the only truth in terms of objectivity, accuracy, validity, reliability, etc. over any other points of view.

The most basic form of relativism, i.e. focusing exclusively on the truth (or not) is often called alethic relativism. Because of this flexible approach to research, some researchers regard it as incoherent.

A standard way of defining and distinguishing between different types of relativism is to begin with the claim that one phenomenon is dependent on and co-varies with some underlying, independent other variable.  Justice, for example, can be relative to local norms. Driving on the right side of the road might be legal in Germany, but not in England. Keep in mind that co-variation relates to quantitative analysis, specifically statistical analysis. A quantitative change in one variable is accompanied by a positive or negative change in a second variable.

Perhaps I should point out that co-variance indicates the direction of a linear relationship between two variables. Natural scientists mostly use correlation, which measures both the strength and direction of the linear relationship between two variables.

Despite being flexible in terms of judgement, relativist arguments always apply to a certain context, often excluding other contexts. Such arguments, consequently, always need to be qualified, either overtly or covertly. When an argument needs to be qualified and justified, we are dealing with epistemic relativism.

Different cultures often have different values, tastes, beliefs, etc. For example, if a political leader claims that bribery is an invention of Western civilisation, his argument might be true in his country and culture, but probably not in many other countries. In some countries it is regarded as bad manners to eat noisily while in others it is regarded as a compliment to the host or chef. These are examples of cultural relativism.

Relativism is often claimed to be the paradigm of the tolerant. In this respect all ways of life, values and points of view are regarded as worthy of respect. No point of view can possibly be objectively superior to any other. This is often called moral relativism and is characterised by tolerance, open-mindedness and anti-authoritarianism.

Moral relativism can be a risky and, perhaps, irresponsible point of view because of the circular nature of relativistic reasoning. It is, for example, doubtful if a society will flourish, or at least survive, in an environment where “everything goes”, i.e. where everyone does as they please, where the situation determines moral truth, and where lying and cheating is acceptable as long as you don’t get caught.

In the spirit of moral relativism abortion may be judged to be good or bad, depending on the point of view and reasoning of the evaluator. Even so, one cannot deny that truth applies to a particular context and value system, or culture.

The result of the circular argument about relativism being relative is that different people can argue different points of view, with each participant in the discussion offering sound and seemingly valid explanations and proof that their respective arguments are true. Consequently, some researchers are of the opinion that there can, indeed, be more than one truth about a particular issue while others regard this as incompatible with the science and the purpose of academic research.

Relativism is associated with constructivism in the sense that both believe that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world. However, relativism uses subjective reasoning without experiential evidence for this, while constructivism leans strongly on such evidence.

Relativism clashes with the technicist paradigms because of the tolerant and laissez-faire way in which the former deals with evidence of truth.

There are those who feel that the lack of accuracy, consistency and validity means that the results of research based on a relativistic approach cannot have essential endurance.

Ironically, relativism is a beast that devours itself by labelling those who believe in absolute truth as intolerant bigots. Relativist might claim that you are wrong if you judge anybody or anything, thereby labelling their point of view as the only valid one.

If everything is relative, then relativism is also relative. This is countered by arguing that relativist claims only apply in a particular context and, often, scope. It is when we try to superimpose the truth of one context or culture on another that relativism becomes a questionable paradigm.

Summary

According to relativism, no one point of view is the only truth.

Intangible concepts are relevant as data for research.

Relativist arguments always apply to a certain context.

Relativism can be cultural, moral, alethic or epistemic.

The type of relativism can be identified by determining the interrelationship between different variables.

There can be more than one truth about an issue.

Truth often depends on how well an argument can be motivated.

Relativism is associated with constructivism and opposed to scientism, positivism and modernism.

Points of criticism against relativism include that the paradigm has no essential endurance, that it contradicts itself and that relativist claims only apply in a particular context and scope.

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ARTICLE 66: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Rationalism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What is more important for research – knowledge or experience?

What is more important for truth – reason or observation?

Do all events consist of a cause and an effect?

Can knowledge be gained without making use of our senses?

Are sense experiences always infallible and accurate?

I discuss how rationalism would answer these and other related questions in this article.

Rationalism took shape in modern times as an integral system of epistemological views, because of the development of mathematics and the natural sciences. Seeking to substantiate the absolute reliability of the principles of science and the tenets of mathematics and the natural sciences, rationalism attempts to explain how knowledge obtained through human cognitive activity could be objective, universal and necessary truth. Rationalism maintains that scientific knowledge can be attained through reason, which serves as the source of knowledge and a precondition for truth.

Rationalists assume that the world is deterministic in the sense that cause and effect hold for all events. There are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. They also assume that these can be understood through deep thinking. Rationalism, therefore, believes that truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought without experience.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge surpasses the information that sense experience can provide. Rationalists believe that evidence gained through the senses, i.e. seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling, is fallible, confusing and misleading. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides additional information about the world.

Rationalism adopts at least one of five claims: the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis, the innate concept thesis, the indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis. 

The intuition/deduction thesis. The intuition/deduction thesis claims that some propositions in a particular subject area are knowable to us by intuition only, while others are knowable by being deducted from intuited propositions. Intuition is regarded as a form of rational insight. Intellectually grasping a proposition, we just “know” it to be true in such a way as to form a true, defensible belief in it. Deduction is a process in which we derive conclusions from intuited premise through valid arguments, one in which the conclusion must be true if the premise is true. Intuition and deduction thus provide us with knowledge a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently of sense experience.

The innate knowledge thesis. Innate knowledge means having knowledge of some truth in a particular subject area. Like the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis also asserts the existence of knowledge gained a priori, i.e. independently of experience. The difference between the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate knowledge thesis rests in the accompanying understanding of how this a priori knowledge is gained. The intuition/deduction thesis cites intuition and subsequent deductive reasoning as the source of knowledge. Deductive logic begins with regularities that have previously been identified and that need to be explained; a theory that might offer an explanation is either borrowed or constructed, one or more hypotheses are deducted, and these are then tested by matching them against some data.

Our innate knowledge is not learned through either sense experience or intuition and deduction. It is just part of our nature. Some may even call it, together with the innate concept thesis, human instinct. Experiences may trigger a process by which we bring this knowledge to consciousness, but the experiences do not provide us with the knowledge itself. It has in some way been with us all along.

The innate concept thesis. According to the innate concept thesis some of the concepts are not gained from experience – they are part of our rational nature. While sense experiences may trigger a process by which they are brought to consciousness, experience does not provide the concepts or determine the information they contain. The content and strength of the innate concept thesis varies with the concepts claimed to be innate. The more a concept seems to be removed from experience and the mental options we can perform on experience, the more plausibly it may be claimed to be innate.

The indispensability of reason thesis. The indispensability of reason thesis claims that the knowledge that we gain by intuition and deduction, and the knowledge that is innate to us, could not have been gained through sense experience. We need to think deeply in a way that is divorced from sensual experience to gain knowledge. Deep thinking is a way in which we can use the mind to create knowledge. It requires thinking beyond sensual experience.

The superiority of reason thesis. The superiority of reason thesis claims that the knowledge we gain by intuition and deduction, or have innately, is superior to any knowledge gained by sense experience.

The intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis or the innate concept thesis are necessary for a paradigm to be rationalist. The indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis may also be adopted by rationalists, although they are not essential. Rational knowledge claims hold across time and space. This means that rational knowledge is timeless, objective and true. Rational argument implies a superior intellect and we all use it although the truth of our assertions is often open to question.

Rationalism falls back on critical theory although critical theory also uses experience to develop knowledge, which rationalism does not. It supports scientism in the sense that it is scientific knowledge that can be gained though reason. Modernism is also related to rationalism because it also collects deep rather than superficial information to develop knowledge.

Rationalism is challenged by positivism, which seeks empirical evidence rather than relying on the perceived unreliability of individual thinking and is opposed by empiricism on the question of the source of knowledge and the techniques for verification of knowledge.

Not all academics regard rationalism as a paradigm. Some claim that it is closer to an ideology in the sense that it represents a belief system rather than a philosophy of how knowledge is created and developed. Some argue that the ideological stance of rationalism is unrealistic in the sense that the belief that knowledge originates exclusively from reason is obviously incomplete and false. Not taking other sources of knowledge, such as experience, into consideration means that rationalism is a closed system with little chance of survival or growth.

Summary

Rationalism is based on objective, universal and necessary cognitive thinking.

Truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought.

Therefore, knowledge is gained independently of sense experience.

Sense experience is regarded as confusing and uncertain.

Rationalism substantiates the absolute reliability of the principles of science and the tenets of mathematics.

Cause and effect hold for all events.

The world is regarded as deterministic.

Reason surpasses all other forms of knowing.

Rational knowledge is timeless, objective and true.

Knowledge can be more valuable than experience for research.

Research is based on five possible theses, namely the superiority of knowledge thesis, the indispensability of reason thesis, the innate knowledge thesis, the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate concept thesis.

Rationalism is associated with critical theory, scientism and modernism, and opposed to positivism, relativism and empiricism.

Criticism against rationalism includes that it is a closed system, unrealistic and not a paradigm.

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ARTICLE 66: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Rationalism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What is more important for research – knowledge or experience?

What is more important for truth – reason or observation?

Do all events consist of a cause and an effect?

Can knowledge be gained without making use of our senses?

Are sense experiences always infallible and accurate?

I discuss how rationalism would answer these and other related questions in this video.

Rationalism took shape in modern times as an integral system of epistemological views, because of the development of mathematics and the natural sciences. Seeking to substantiate the absolute reliability of the principles of science and the tenets of mathematics and the natural sciences, rationalism attempts to explain how knowledge obtained through human cognitive activity could be objective, universal and necessary truth. Rationalism maintains that scientific knowledge can be attained through reason, which serves as the source of knowledge and a precondition for truth.

Rationalists assume that the world is deterministic in the sense that cause and effect hold for all events. There are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. They also assume that these can be understood through deep thinking. Rationalism, therefore, believes that truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought without experience.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge surpasses the information that sense experience can provide. Rationalists believe that evidence gained through the senses, i.e. seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling, is fallible, confusing and misleading. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides additional information about the world.

Rationalism adopts at least one of five claims: the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis, the innate concept thesis, the indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis. 

The intuition/deduction thesis. The intuition/deduction thesis claims that some propositions in a particular subject area are knowable to us by intuition only, while others are knowable by being deducted from intuited propositions. Intuition is regarded as a form of rational insight. Intellectually grasping a proposition, we just “know” it to be true in such a way as to form a true, defensible belief in it. Deduction is a process in which we derive conclusions from intuited premise through valid arguments, one in which the conclusion must be true if the premise is true. Intuition and deduction thus provide us with knowledge a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently of sense experience.

The innate knowledge thesis. Innate knowledge means having knowledge of some truth in a particular subject area. Like the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis also asserts the existence of knowledge gained a priori, i.e. independently of experience. The difference between the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate knowledge thesis rests in the accompanying understanding of how this a priori knowledge is gained. The intuition/deduction thesis cites intuition and subsequent deductive reasoning as the source of knowledge. Deductive logic begins with regularities that have previously been identified and that need to be explained; a theory that might offer an explanation is either borrowed or constructed, one or more hypotheses are deducted, and these are then tested by matching them against some data.

Our innate knowledge is not learned through either sense experience or intuition and deduction. It is just part of our nature. Some may even call it, together with the innate concept thesis, human instinct. Experiences may trigger a process by which we bring this knowledge to consciousness, but the experiences do not provide us with the knowledge itself. It has in some way been with us all along.

The innate concept thesis. According to the innate concept thesis some of the concepts are not gained from experience – they are part of our rational nature. While sense experiences may trigger a process by which they are brought to consciousness, experience does not provide the concepts or determine the information they contain. The content and strength of the innate concept thesis varies with the concepts claimed to be innate. The more a concept seems to be removed from experience and the mental options we can perform on experience, the more plausibly it may be claimed to be innate.

The indispensability of reason thesis. The indispensability of reason thesis claims that the knowledge that we gain by intuition and deduction, and the knowledge that is innate to us, could not have been gained through sense experience. We need to think deeply in a way that is divorced from sensual experience to gain knowledge. Deep thinking is a way in which we can use the mind to create knowledge. It requires thinking beyond sensual experience.

The superiority of reason thesis. The superiority of reason thesis claims that the knowledge we gain by intuition and deduction, or have innately, is superior to any knowledge gained by sense experience.

The intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis or the innate concept thesis are necessary for a paradigm to be rationalist. The indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis may also be adopted by rationalists, although they are not essential. Rational knowledge claims hold across time and space. This means that rational knowledge is timeless, objective and true. Rational argument implies a superior intellect and we all use it although the truth of our assertions is often open to question.

Rationalism falls back on critical theory although critical theory also uses experience to develop knowledge, which rationalism does not. It supports scientism in the sense that it is scientific knowledge that can be gained though reason. Modernism is also related to rationalism because it also collects deep rather than superficial information to develop knowledge.

Rationalism is challenged by positivism, which seeks empirical evidence rather than relying on the perceived unreliability of individual thinking and is opposed by empiricism on the question of the source of knowledge and the techniques for verification of knowledge.

Not all academics regard rationalism as a paradigm. Some claim that it is closer to an ideology in the sense that it represents a belief system rather than a philosophy of how knowledge is created and developed. Some argue that the ideological stance of rationalism is unrealistic in the sense that the belief that knowledge originates exclusively from reason is obviously incomplete and false. Not taking other sources of knowledge, such as experience, into consideration means that rationalism is a closed system with little chance of survival or growth.

Summary

Rationalism is based on objective, universal and necessary cognitive thinking.

Truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought.

Therefore, knowledge is gained independently of sense experience.

Sense experience is regarded as confusing and uncertain.

Rationalism substantiates the absolute reliability of the principles of science and the tenets of mathematics.

Cause and effect hold for all events.

The world is regarded as deterministic.

Reason surpasses all other forms of knowing.

Rational knowledge is timeless, objective and true.

Knowledge can be more valuable than experience for research.

Research is based on five possible theses, namely the superiority of knowledge thesis, the indispensability of reason thesis, the innate knowledge thesis, the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate concept thesis.

Rationalism is associated with critical theory, scientism and modernism, and opposed to positivism, relativism and empiricism.

Criticism against rationalism includes that it is a closed system, unrealistic and not a paradigm.

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ARTICLE 65: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Radicalism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Can a drive to achieve change be justified if it is radical?

Is “being radical” not an indication that the motives for the drive might be suspect?

Does it not mean that one group is trying to enforce its will on other people?

Will such a drive not lead to resistance?

Do people who become involved in a radical campaign consider the origin and merit of the drive?

Or do they just participate because it is fashionable or because they are the victims of mass hysteria?

I discuss radicalism in this article.

The increasing occurrence of radical actions, for example by university students and the communities at large campaigning for certain privileges and against corruption and other ills in many countries brought radicalism as a paradigm to the fore. Some researchers regard radicalism as a research method. Radical research focuses on understanding the need to change existing situations and practices from a transformative socio-economic perspective.

At the individual level people tend to think in terms of their own interests. According to radicalist thinking this can be managed. In addition, the way people behave is largely determined by their respective levels of academic development and financial capacity. Consequently, people in organisations treat one another according to their status, which is to some extent determined by their qualifications and income.

Research using radicalism as a paradigm mostly investigates social arrangements between people, for example nations, communities, student groups, etc. The epistemological aim of such research would be to analyse and improve the knowledge of people about emancipation and change.

Research is conducted on groups to investigate the nature and behaviour of such groups. Radical research can also be used to do research on individuals, for example to help people “fit in” with a particular group or community or to determine why individuals do or do not fit in with a particular social setting. The higher up the community hierarchy level the target group for the research is, the more difficult it becomes to institute radical change. It would, for example, be much easier to radically change the policies of a university than the policies of a country.

Key elements of radical research include covering a network of role players, continuous fieldwork, a bottom-up perspective, studying real events, a networked design process, using a prototype that is as real as possible, real world evaluation and becoming part of innovation initiatives. As many role players as possible should be included in the target group for radical research. This is necessary to gain deep insight into the relationships and interactions across the network of organisations relevant to the research topic.

Even though examples of real work provide the best research results, mock-ups and prototypes may be used to address specific issues related to the research, for example when setting up real scenarios would be too expensive, time-consuming or impractical. However, prototypes should be as close to the real item as possible to be relevant.

You should follow your research up by providing role players with feedback, and fieldwork should be spread over a period rather than just one or two short interventions. Fieldwork requires the study of real events. Simulated activities do not provide as accurate information as real work.

Real work conditions are subject to many more unexpected occurrences than simulated conditions or scenarios. Even small and routine incidents are dynamic and coloured by many complex issues that might impact on the research. Although observation while an activity takes place will provide the best information, inspections after the fact might sometimes be necessary as a second-best option.

Radical research follows a bottom-up perspective. Many of the good insights and important aspects relevant to the research can be found on grass-root levels in organisations. You can cover rich descriptions and relevant insights by focusing on people who work with issues relevant to the research daily. Although higher level managers should also form part of the target group, rich information about management can be obtained from people on lower levels in the organisation. 

A networked design process is used in radical research. A design perspective enables you to move from a descriptive to a constructive focus. Design workshops, prototyping and early evaluations and focused field work may be conducted to cover newly found aspects that are important. All target groups in the research are not necessarily linked or even aware of one another.

In radical research, you should become part of innovation initiatives. Maintaining a strong and close relationship to the target group enables you to study real world responses and events. Having the opportunity to follow an innovation project from the inside is a good way to get access to underlying assumptions and real-world challenges, organisational issues, financial aspects, etc. Radicalism cannot be applied with the same measure of success in all fields of research. The less a field of research deals with human interaction, the less applicable will a radicalist paradigmatic approach be.

Because of its focus on positive change, radicalism is associated with critical theory, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, romanticism and critical race theory.

One can perhaps argue that the technicist paradigms, namely rationalism, positivism, scientism and modernism are in opposition to radicalism because of a difference in research methods. Radicalism favours qualitative research methods, although it can also be used with quantitative research methods.

The inequalities between people in a community sometimes lead to advocacy campaigns to eliminate or at least reduce discrimination against minorities or otherwise disadvantaged members of the community. However, radical change in a short space of time is mostly difficult to achieve because of the large number of variables involved.

We increasingly witness advocacy campaigns that try to speed up the change by keeping the drive running at an intense level for as long as they possibly can.

Summary

Radicalism is a social arrangement aimed at emancipation and change.

People are treated in accordance with their status in the community or group.

Organisational structured are hierarchical and stratified.

Individual self-centredness is managed.

Radicalism studies real events.

A bottom-up perspective is followed.

Continuous fieldwork is done.

Deep and rich insight are sought.

An emic approach towards the target for the research is preferred.

Groups are mostly researched.

A network of role players is covered.

Radicalism is associated with neoliberalism, feminism, post-colonialism, romanticism, critical theory and critical race theory.

Radicalism is opposed to scientism, positivism, modernism and rationalism.

Criticism against radicalism includes:

  1. That it does not apply equally to all fields of research.
  2. That large numbers of variables are involved in change, making it difficult to achieve permanent change.
  3. And that it is difficult to institute radical change on high levels in society.
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