The Importance of Leadership in Quality Assurance of Higher Education

soldier-9Written and presented by Dr J.P. Nel


Five leadership qualities are needed in quality assurance:

  1. Visionary thinking.
  2. Professional conduct.
  3. Ethical conduct.
  4. Regular and open communication.
  5. Personal example.


Visionary thinking is the ability to foresee the implications of our actions and intentions. A leader in quality should, for example, understand that education and training should be oriented internationally. This is important to ensure that the education and training offered in South Africa is on par with, if not better than, education and training offered in countries with mature and advanced educational systems.

A leader in quality assurance should motivate and inspire quality assurance practitioners as well as role players in education and training, i.e. learning institutions.

A balanced approached to quality should be maintained. This stretches from micro issues, such as a library or training aids, to macro issues, such as infrastructure and financial planning.

As education and training, quality assurance should also be contextualised to the values and culture of learning institutions. It is a known fact that people learn better if they are familiar and comfortable with the culture, including language, in which learning content is offered.

Quality aims should be embedded in a vision, mission and strategic goals if long term growth is to be achieved.


Quality in higher education is not dependent on quality criteria only, but also on the situational context, i.e. cultural considerations as well as the nature of the learning offered.

Leaders in quality assurance should set the example and ensure that all quality assurance officials act in a professional manner. One should guard against a “one size fits all” approach to the evaluation of quality. Quality measuring instruments should be flexible enough to cater for different situational contexts, taking cultural considerations, learning content, historical issues, political issues and academic issues into consideration.


There is no room for dishonesty in quality assurance. Quality assurance should have as aims the enhancement of the learning experience, protection of the image of the educators and learning institution. However, most importantly, quality assurance should be done with the aim of protecting and promoting the interests of the students.


A leader in quality assurance will see to it that those who are on the receiving end of evaluation will not be kept in the dark. Guidance and support is a critical part of quality assurance and this should be communicated with learning institutions. Feedback should be honest, valid and properly motivated.

Establishing and sustaining a quality culture involves an on-going commitment, at all levels, to the underpinning believes, values and knowledge that drive quality in higher education.

Leadership in quality assurance means working with other people to set and achieve objectives, and to organise and co-ordinate the implementation of strategies.

It also entails delegation and control, doing evaluation and providing feedback.

It is the responsibility of the leader to establish a constructive quality culture and to replace resistance with a spirit of cooperation and trust. This requires an on-going commitment at all levels in the learning process.


Quality assurance and the development of higher education are fundamental instruments in supporting the transition to a knowledge-based society. Quality assurance is driven by values, believes and knowledge.

Negative quality assurance will lead to performitivity. How many of you have not witnessed learning institutions that generate stacks of paper because they know that the quality assuror confuses volume with quality? An emerging private provider whom we helped to build capacity once complained to me about a verifier that visited them. They did not offer much training yet, so they put all the exam papers and practical assignments in a box. The verifier came into the office, picked up the box, weighed it in his hands and said: “I cannot endorse your assessments – the box is not heavy enough” – then he left.

The same applies to huge buildings, libraries with thousands of books that are outdated or irrelevant. A professor from one of our universities did a site visit at Mentornet some five years ago. During the tea break he went outside to where a number of delegates who were attending a one-day workshop were having tea. He walked up to one of the delegates and asked him: “How often do you visit the library?” Fortunately the delegate clicked what was going on, so he replied: “At least one hour per week.” He has been one of our best facilitators ever since.

Leadership in quality assurance is strongly situational. Therefore, quality assurance always needs to be done in the right context, taking into consideration the size of the provider, the type and number of courses they offer, the profile of the students, etc. When I studies for a second doctoral degree I visited the university library three times. I could find only two books that were relevant to my studies in the entire library and I could not find more than one or two paragraphs that I could use in each of the books.


Keep in mind that, every time you evaluate a learning institution they also evaluate you.

Quality assurors and quality assurance will always be regarded with suspicion. People don’t always trust anybody who will judge them and we need to gain their trust by showing them that we are there to help them and not to persecute.

Quality assurance must always be done in a positive and supportive manner. Ruling by fear can never be acceptable. If learning institutions fear quality assurance they will resist it and perhaps even try to destroy the system.

Quality assurance should be conducted with the intention of enhancing the learning experience and to protect the image of the learning institution as well as the individuals involved in the institution. More importantly, though, is the protection and promotion of the interests of the students.

One of the primary responsibilities of a leader in quality assurance is to establish a constructive quality culture, i.e. to replace the resistance that people might have to quality assurance with a spirit of cooperation and trust.


The roles of leaders in quality assurance are crucial to improving mutual trust. Keep in mind that a leader always deals with people with their individual characteristics and capabilities, problems and individual perceptions. We cannot divorce people from leadership and leaders have a responsibility to serve.

Leadership in quality assurance requires a shared and supporting approach – it requires cooperation, the ability to manage quality, a well-structured organisation and the support of all stakeholders in higher education.

Leaders in quality assurance should always set the example. You cannot require learning institutions to maintain quality if you don’t.

Most importantly, remember that quality assurance is about protecting and promoting the interests of the students.

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Research Paradigms: Structuralism

paper-ballWritten by Dr J.P. Nel

Last week was absolutely hectic with the results that I could not post the next article on research paradigms. I wonder if anybody noticed? You might well wonder what significance research paradigms hold for doing research. The point is, you need to decide in advance with which paradigm (read ‘value system’) you will align the contents, especially your findings, of your dissertation or thesis. It is possible that you might favour elements from different paradigms. However, you need to know this, show it in the first part of your research paper and then consistently do so. Let’s discuss structuralism.

Structuralism is a form of critical research. It focuses on the systems (structures) within society and the power relations within and among the parts (subsystems) as a whole. In formalised structures, one can easily see the hierarchy of positions and levels of power. In utilising structuralism as a research method, the channels of power are laid bare as the researcher critically analyses and maps the relations and interplay among the parts. Structuralism does not emphasise the uniqueness of each of the parts, but rather seeks to reveal how some common aspects of the parts relate those parts to the larger whole. Structuralism posits that no part in a particular system has any significance in and of itself – its identity is defined in terms of its relationship between all the parts of the system.

In social 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). It is rather common practice for those in power to be unwilling to relinquish their power to others. That is how injustices are spread, as we in South Africa experience almost every day.

Within this approach 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.

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 behaviours (economics); hidden structures of the unconscious mind control behaviour (psychology; psychoanalysis).

In closing, there are numerous interesting issues in the South African social environment that can and probably should be researched by following a structuralist approach. Examples that come to mind are the lack of political leadership, the #free-education drive, corruption and many more.

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Research Paradigms: Postmodernism

I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Postmodernism.

postmodernismPostmodernism gradually became popular from the 1950s onwards. It brought with it a questioning of the premodernism and modernism. Instead of relying on one approach to knowing, postmodernists support a pluralistic epistemology which utilises multiple ways of knowing. This can include elements of premodernism and modernism along with many other ways of knowing, for example intuition, relational and spiritual. Postmodern approaches seek to deconstruct previous authority sources of power, for example the church and government. Because power is distrusted, postmodernists try to set up a less hierarchical approach in which authority sources are more diffuse.

Postmodernism is applied mainly in the artistic and social sciences. It consists of a loose alliance of intellectual perspectives which collectively pose a challenging critique of the fundamental premises on which modernism, specifically the scientific research method, is based. It is a broad term that encompasses many different approaches, most of them valuing uncertainty, disorder, indeterminacy and regression rather than progress. Even proponents of postmodernism do not always agree on what it really means. There are progressive and conservative postmodernists. Some postmodernists seek reaction while others seek resistance. Then there are those who strive for reform and others who like to disrupt the status quo.

Postmodernism is more than just a philosophical movement. Postmodernism is open to notions of discontinuity and rupture. It rejects the notion that science can be viewed as objective. Science, according to postmodernists, is not universal and will, therefore, not help us overcome conflict. Science is also, according to them, not the paradigm of all true knowledge.

Postmodernists reject the idea of a fixed, universal and eternal foundation to reality. They argue that because reality is in part culturally dependent and culture changes over time and varies from community to community, we can logically assume that reality is not the same for everybody. Knowledge is fundamentally fragmented and unstable. Narratives of truth and knowledge are deconstructed. Convention is challenged, research styles are mixed, ambiguity is tolerated, diversity is emphasised, innovation and change are embraced, and multiple realities are focused on. Postmodernism rejects the possibility that we can have objective knowledge. Postmodernism values the subjective and multiple opinions of individuals and communities rather than predetermined rules for action. It assigns value to multiple meanings rather than the single, authoritative voice of the expert researcher. This is because what we call knowledge has to be made with the linguistic and other meaning-making resources of a particular culture, and different cultures can see the world in different ways. Language is fluid and arbitrary and rooted in power or knowledge relations. Meaning is, therefore, also fluid and “messy”. Following on from this reasoning, postmodernists caution that we should be careful with generalisations, even when it comes to words such as “many”, “most” or “often”.

Postmodernism rejects the emphasis on rational discovery through the scientific method. Postmodernism replaces rational discovery through scientific research with respect for difference and a celebration of the local and at the expense of the universal. It accepts that reality is socially constructed, but claims that it does not exist objectively in the external environment, simply to be copied in our thoughts. Reality is a human creation.

Generally, postmodernism accept the basic ontological assumption of relativism and claims that there can be no “objective” or final truth as all “truth” is a socially constructed entity. This does not mean that just anything can be accepted as truth. All knowledge of reality bears the mark of human culture, personality and biology, and these cannot be separated from what a specific group of people or culture would call knowledge. In addition, it is asserted that we construct reality in accordance with our needs, interests, prejudices and cultural traditions. Although some postmodernists would like us to believe that reality is entirely a human construct, such a statement stand in contrast to the propositions put forward by other postmodernists.

Postmodernism views “facts” and “values” as interactive. If we accept that reality is in part socially constructed then we can postulate an interactive view of reality consisting of “facts” and “values” with no sharp fact-value distinction. All factual statements reflect the values they serve, and all value beliefs are conditioned by factual assumptions. What we call facts are only somewhat less value-determined, but they are not independent of values. Stated differently, our endeavour is not to find absolute truths or facts, but the best approximation of truth as it applies to a specific group in a specific situation and a specific time. To some degree this corresponds with Foucoult’s notion that knowledge and power cannot be separated, since knowledge embodies the values of those who are powerful enough to create and disseminate it.

Reason and science are seen as simply myths created by man. Postmodernism argues that what we call knowledge is a special kind of story that puts together words and images in ways that portray the perspective of a particular culture or some relatively powerful members of that culture. For this reason we have to deconstruct text to uncover the hidden or intended meanings and discourse. Universal, objective truth does not exist. All judgements of truth exist within a cultural context. This sometimes also called “cultural relativism”.

The idea of a socially constructed reality leads directly to a radical shift in the idea of method. Some postmodernists hold that a method not only discovers a part of reality, it simultaneously constructs it. No longer do we see ourselves as seeking to uncover a pre-existing reality, but rather as involved in an interactive process of knowledge creation. As researchers we are part of developing a “working understanding” of reality and life, and what we arrive at is in part autobiographical: it reflects our “personal narrative”, our particular “site and voice” in the world. The knowledge thus constructed refers more to probability than to certainty. It is constantly changing as each individual or group gives a particular interpretation to it, reflecting distinctive needs and experiences.

In closing, not all researchers support the idea of postmodernism. According to the opponents of postmodernism the approach is too tentative, too inconclusive and too frivolous.

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Research Paradigm: Modernism

prodideascogI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This article deals with Modernism.

Modernism was the dominant philosophy, at least in the Western world, between approximately 1650 and the 1950s. It manifested in a movement from the mythical to the logical. Two new approaches to knowing (the epistemology) became dominant in the modern period. The first was empiricism (knowing through the senses) which gradually evolved into scientific empiricism or modern science with the development of modernist methodology. The second epistemological approach was reason or logic. Often, science and reason were collaboratively or in conjunction with each other.

In a modernist approach reason and science is said to provide an accurate, objective, reliable foundation of knowledge. Science is regarded as the paradigm of all true knowledge. Modernism, thus, celebrates the world of science and the scientific method; the authority of the expert; the singularity of meaning; truth and objectivity. The practice of structuring learning into units of learning (subjects, modules, learning programmes, qualifications on different levels, etc.) is typical of a modernistic approach.

Modernism favours hierarchy, order and centralised control. Even so, attempts are made and supported to predict trends and future events based on reason and information that is independent of the environment. The modernist view of time is linear, with one event happening after the other, with no other purpose than to keep going in a particular direction. Deep rather than superficial information in terms of meaning, value, content are collected and used. Therefore, the description given by modernism of how the world is to be understood supports certainty, order, organisation, prediction, rationality, linearity and progress.

The discovery of empirical facts is sought. With this in mind, reason transcends and exists independently of our existential, historical and cultural contexts. Even so, prior theory plays an important role for the purpose of coming to valid conclusions based on the available information.

Acquired knowledge is regarded as universal and true. It is believed that, because knowledge is universal, reason can help us overcome all conflicts. Furthermore, it is postulated that all cultures will embrace the truth because it is universal. Mass culture, mass consumption and mass marketing forms part of the modernistic system. Even so, modernism is associated with modern societies, developed states and Western nations (as opposed to pre-modern societies). The family is seen as the central unit of social order – it serves as a model of the middle-class.

Language is transparent, meaning that a one-to-one relationship exists between what is written or said and the concept that is investigated.

Reason and human independence and freedom are inherently linked – just laws conform to the dictates of reason, leading to trust in the accuracy of the research findings. Trust, therefore, exists independent of human consciousness and can be known through the application of reason. Reason leads to a progressive movement towards civilisation, democracy, freedom and scientific advancement. All conclusions leading to better understanding develops from trust and is regarded as a means of building a better society.

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Paradigmatic Approaches: Premodernism

FEMALE STUDENTI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Premodernism.

Premodernism, modernism and postmodernism can be seen as periods of time and as philosophical systems. We will largely discuss and use them as paradigms or philosophies. Premodernism, which was the dominant philosophy approximately until 1650, was based upon revealed knowledge from authoritative sources. It was believed that ultimate truth could be known and the way to this knowledge is through direct revelation. This direct revelation was believed to come from a god with a church as the primary authority source.

Premodernists see the world as a totality with a unified purpose. The human being is seen as part of the whole, which is greater than its parts. Premodernists strive to progress away from historical developments. As part of the whole human beings also share the blame for the mistakes that the collective made through history. The rationale for this is that each individual is personally and collectively responsible to act morally correct. However, there is no distinction between individual and collective responsibility.

Premodernism, postmodernism and modernism as such are philosophical approaches to life and the manner in which people and the world in which they live interact with one another. The researcher will inevitably follow one of the paradigmatic approaches even if not intentionally. More likely, though, you will position your research at a point where elements of different paradigms are found in your approach with an emphasis towards one or two of them.

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Research Paradigms: Behaviourism

soldier 15I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Behaviourism.


The foundation of behaviourism is that all human behaviour can be understood in terms of cause and effect. Both human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learned histories and reinforcement.


Social researchers may conduct research on behavioural and social processes. In addition to this, and regardless of whether behaviour and social processes are studied, the researcher need to keep in mind that research as such can inherently pose psychological and social challenges to the target group for the research. The latter means that the researcher needs to understand behavioural and social risks and take specific steps to ensure that the research does not pose a threat to the physical or psychological health of the people or even animals included in the target group for the research.


A behavioural approach to research can lead to the reinforcement of ideas of philosophies. This would be positive reinforcement. The opposite is also true – behaviourism can actually also refute ideas, which would mean negative reinforcement. Researchers mostly express their ideas as a hypothesis that needs to be proven or refuted through research.

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Research Paradigms: Functionalism

COOPERATIONBiological organisms have systems that perform various specialist and survival functions; similarly, social institutions “function” in a systematic and coherent way through their constituent elements to ensure their survival and optimal functioning. The mental state rather than the internal constitution of the researcher is important. This implies that motivation plays an important role in what the researcher would be willing to do to achieve success, i.e. the purpose of the research project.


Role differentiation and social solidarity are key elements in the smooth functioning of any organisation. This means that functionalism interprets each part of society in terms of how it contributes to the stability of the whole society. Society is more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, the contributions of all members of a society contribute to the performance of the society as a whole. Each individual plays an important part and the absence, or inability of each individual to contribute, detrimentally affects the performance of the community as a whole.


According to functionalism, an institution only exists because it serves an important role in the community. An individual or organisation that does not play a role in the community will not survive. This applies to individuals and groupings on all levels in society. The individual, families, clubs, schools, suburbs, cities, countries, etc. all will only survive if they add value to the community.


Organisations and societies evolve and adjust to changing conditions in order to ensure the continued, smooth, integrated functioning of all elements of the organisation or society. When new needs evolve or emerge, new organisations will be created to satisfy the new needs. When any part of the society is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the society as a whole, which leads to social change.

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Who took the cookie from the cookie pot?

ethicsWritten by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

They are at it again – students threatening to riot if they don’t get their way.

Everybody (well almost…) understands that university studies are expensive. However, claiming that government should pay for the studies is a terrible misconception. Government does not have money to pay tuition fees – taxpayers are the ones who pay. If tuition fees are increased government will simply increase taxes. If students are allowed to study for free – taxpayers will pay, not government. Students’ parents will pay more taxes and so will every other taxpayer. The end-result will be that tuition fees are spread more evenly in the sense that people who do not have children at university will now sponsor those who do. Those who can, for example most businesses, will simply increase the prices of the products or services that they sell. In the end the impact on the economy will be devastating. Ultimately it will be the most vulnerable and poor who will suffer the most because they cannot recuperate the added financial burden.

There are indications that the Minister of Higher Education and Training is already siphoning money from the National Skills Fund to universities. No doubt he will increasingly do so. The National Skills Fund is supposed to be used to pay for education and training in scarce and critical skills needs, i.e. occupational learning. After all, it is the industry that pays skills levies and it is they who should benefit from the levies. In the process private leaning institutions will suffer the most because few public learning institutions are willing and able to offer workplace related learning.  More importantly, workplace related learning, which the country needs the most, might collapse.

In closing, South Africa needs people who are trained to do specific jobs. We cannot afford to spend all the available money on academic education, especially not in fields that add little value to the workplace. Of course it would have been ideal if we could also cater for higher order knowledge and skills, but at the moment we need to focus on scarce and critical skills needs, which most university education is not.

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Research Paradigms: Interpretivism

EDU 10 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Interpretivism.


Interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics, the study of the theory and practice of interpretation. In hermeneutics the text is the expression of the thoughts of its author, and interpreters must attempt to put themselves within the perception or thinking pattern of the author in order to reconstruct the intended meaning of the text.


Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective way in which to interpret data. Interpretivism relates to the constructivist epistemology. This perspective holds that individuals, in their reasoning, do not have access to the real world, suggesting that their knowledge of the perceived world is meaningful in its own terms and can be understood through careful use of interpretivist procedures.


Interpretivism is marked by three schools of thought in the social science research. They are phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism. All three schools of thought emphasise human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives, and suggest qualitative rather than quantitative approach to social research.

‘Phenomenology’ is a theoretical view point which believes that individual behaviour is determined by the experience gained out of one’s direct interaction with the phenomena. It rules out any kind of objective external reality. During interaction with various phenomena, human beings interpret them and attach meanings to different actions and or ideas and thereby construct new experiences. Therefore, the researcher has to develop empathic understanding to know the process of interpretation by individuals so that she or he can experience feelings, motives and thoughts that are behind the action of others.

‘Etnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre around the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction. This approach studies the process by which people invoke certain ‘take-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation and make it meaningful. They are mainly interested in the interpretation people use to make sense of social settings.

‘Symbolic interactionism’ emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions that take place between human beings. 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. Human interaction in the social world is mediated by the use of symbols like language, which helps human beings to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only concentrating 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 human beings change themselves through interaction, but also introduce change to societies.


The interpretive perspective is based on the following assumptions:

  • Interpretivism leans towards qualitative research. Precise, systematic and theoretical answers to complex human problems are not possible. They assert that every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analyses of the uniquely defined, particular contexts in which it is embedded. Because of the specific social, political, economic and cultural experiences underpinning each study, the findings cannot be generalised; they do, however, provide greater clarity on how people make meaning of phenomena in a specific context, thus aiding greater understanding of the human condition.
  • Human life can only be understood from within. Human activities cannot be observed from some external reality. Interpretivism therefore focuses on people’s subjective experiences, on how people “construct” the social world by sharing meanings, and how they interact with or relate to each other. Social constructions such as language (including text and symbols), consciousness and shared meanings are used to gain access to and understanding of reality.

Interpretivism emphasises that social reality is viewed and interpreted by the individual according to the ideological positions that she or he holds. Therefore, knowledge is personally experienced rather than acquired from or imposed from outside. The interpretivist paradigm believes that reality is multi-layered and complex and a single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations.

In studying a phenomenon, research techniques are used that will help us understand how people interpret and interact within their social environment. The social context, conventions, norms and standards of the particular person or community are crucial elements in assessing and understanding human behaviour (the truth is relevant and subject to these subjective elements); therefore are parallels with hermeneutics and phenomenology.

  • Social life is a distinctively human product. Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed. The underlying assumption is that by placing people in their social contexts, there is a greater opportunity to understand the perceptions they have of their own activities. The uniqueness of a particular situation is important to understand and interpret the meanings constructed.

Interpretivism pays attention to and value what people say, do and feel, and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched. Interpretivism foregrounds the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences. Patterns, trends and themes should therefore emerge from the research process, and the role the researcher should be to understand real-life situations from the point of view of the insider (the members of the target group for the research).

  • The human mind is the purposive source of meaning. Interpretive research search for meaning in the activities of human beings. It is a form of qualitative research. In fact, all qualitative research should be interpretive in nature. Even so, interpretive research is distinguished from qualitative research in general by being distinctive in its approach to research design, concept formation, data analysis and standards of assessment. It can also be claimed to be radical in nature because it investigates real-life occurrences or phenomena.

By exploring the richness, depth and complexity of phenomena we can begin to develop a sense of understanding of the meanings given by people to phenomena and their social context. Through uncovering how meanings are constructed, we can gain insights into the meanings imparted and thereby improve our understanding of the whole.

  • Human behaviour is affected by knowledge of the social world. Interpretivism proposes that there are multiple and not single realities of phenomena and that these realities can differ across time and place. As our knowledge of the social world and the realities being constructed increase, it enriches our theoretical and conceptual framework. There is thus a two-way relationship between theory and research. Social theory informs our understanding of issues which, in turn, assists us in making research decisions and making sense of the world. The experience of doing research and its findings also influence our theorising. Inevitably, as theory will be abstract, as it gives a partial account of the multifaceted social world. Such a theory allows researchers to link the abstract with the concrete, the theoretical and the empirical.
  • The social world does not “exist” independently of human knowledge. Our own understanding of phenomena constantly influence us in terms of the types of questions we ask and in the way we conduct our research. Our knowledge and understanding are always limited to the things to which we have been exposed, our own unique experiences and the meanings we have imparted. As we proceed through the research process, our humanness and knowledge inform us and often direct us, and often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation. To conceive the world therefore as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our own endeavours.


In closing, the ultimate aim of intepretivist research is to offer a perspective of a situation and to analyse the situation under study to provide insight into the way in which a particular group of people make sense of their situation or the phenomena they encounter.


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Research Paradigms: Critical Theory

EDU IMAGE 15I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This article deals with Critical Theory.

The term ‘critical’ refers to the capacity to inquire ‘against the grain’: to question the conceptual and theoretical bases of knowledge and method, to ask questions that go beyond prevailing assumptions and understandings, and to acknowledge the role of power and social position in phenomena.

Critical theory is any research that challenges those conventional knowledge bases and methodologies whether quantitative or qualitative, that makes claim to scientific objectivity. Critical research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledges reproduce structural relations of inequality and oppression. Critical theory is concerned with the critical meanings of experiences as they relate to gender, race, class and other kinds of social oppression.

Researchers following critical theory methods assume that social reality is historically created and that it is produced and reproduced by people. Although people can consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, critical researchers recognise that their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. The main task of critical research is seen as being one of social critique, whereby the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo are brought to light. Critical research focuses on the contest, conflict and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to be emancipatory, that is, it should help to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination.

Consciousness and identity are formed within the political field of knowledge. Critical theorists argue that the attempt to dispense with values, historical circumstance and political considerations in research is misguided. Our understanding of the educational situation depends on the context within which we encounter it, and our own theoretical knowledge and assumptions influence our observation. These factors create our ideological frames of reference that act as the lenses through which we see the world. The lenses that researchers use to critically analyse a system are regarded as subjective and the observations made through such are not subject to empirical verification in the positivist sense.

Every historical period produces particular rules that dictate what counts as scientific fact. Society reproduces inequalities from one generation to the next, called “reproduction theory”, and resistance becomes an important part of the response to injustices of this kind. This is called “resistance theory”. The implicit rules that guide our generation of facts about education are formed by particular world-views, values, political perspectives, conceptions of race, class, and gender relations, definitions of intelligence and many more. It is therefore the task of the critical researcher to disclose the needs and struggles of the people regardless of whether or not they are conscious of them.

Researchers using critical theory assert that what counts as valid social science knowledge arises from the critique of the social structure and systems as revealed through the analysis of the discourse in society. The critical researcher lays bare the current discourses in society and analyses them in terms of the system within which they operate with the aim of disclosing the power relationships within the system and its structures so that the oppressive nature of the system can be revealed. Conflict (for example racial, class, religious or gender conflict) and inequality are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human relations.

Critical theory postulates three types of knowledge: technical interest, practical interest and emancipating interest. Technical interest is concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge. A practical interest concerned with understanding the meaning of situation, which generates hermeneutic[1] and historical knowledge. An emancipating interest concerned with the provision of growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraints and domination.


[1] Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. Originally hermeneutics referred to the study of the interpretation of written text, but now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication, including verbal, artistic, geo-political, physiological, sociological, etc.

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