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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The Research Paradigms: Social Constructivism

EDU IMAGE 14I 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 the social constructivism.

Social constructivism is based on the principles of constructivism. Like positivism, social constructivism also uses observation to gather information. Different from positivism, the researcher is part of what is being observed in social constructivism.

Positivism and constructivism are not the same. Both are epistemologies that present a different idea of what constitutes knowledge. However, positivism is a philosophical stance that emphasises that knowledge should be gained through observable and measurable facts, whereas constructivism states that reality is a social construct.

In social constructivism human interests are important for research purposes and knowledge is constructed through social interaction. Such knowledge is shared rather than an individual experience. According to constructivists, the reality is a subjective creation. There is no single reality. Race, for example, is a social construct. Claiming that people are different based on the skin of their colour is a (subjective) social construct.

Constructivism implies that reality is constructed through human interaction. Knowledge is a human product and is socially and culturally constructed. Individuals create meaning through their interactions with each other and with the environment in which they live. Social constructivism emphasises the importance of culture and context in the process of knowledge construction and accumulation.

The aim of constructivist research is to understand particular situations or phenomena. Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed. The interaction of a number of people is researched, mostly to solve social problems of the target group.

Social constructivism impacts strongly on the way in which people learn. It is, therefore, not a research paradigm in the true sense of the word. Learners add to and reshape their mental models of reality through social collaboration, building new understandings as they actively engage in learning experiences. Scaffolding, i.e. guidance and support, plays an important role in the learning process. Research is, of course, largely a learning process and researchers on any level can use it to gain knowledge and to structure their research.

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