Research Article 10: Functionalism

Written by Dr Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil

Biological 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.

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 because the contributions of all members of a community facilitate the performance of the community as a whole. Each individual plays an important part and the absence, or inability of an 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 community is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the community as a whole, which leads to social change.

The mental state rather than the internal constitution of the researcher is important. This implies that motivation plays an important role in what you would be willing to do to achieve success, i.e. the purpose of the research project.

Functionalism includes structuralism because both paradigms investigate the functioning of social phenomena. Like structuralism, functionalism also reacts against post-structuralism because of the disruptive nature of the latter.

In closing, functionalism is criticised for the following:

  1. Some researchers feel that functionalism focuses too much on the positive functions of societies while neglecting the impact of negative events.
  2. The current nature of functionalism is no longer in line with the original spirit and purpose of the paradigm. Researchers sometimes try to gain conclusions and findings from the ontology of a society when it might not even be relevant to the current phenomena any longer.
  3. Findings gained from a functionalist philosophical stance are not always generalizable because organisations and societies often differ in terms of their structure and purpose.
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Research Article 9: Feminism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil

Feminism is grounded in feminist values and beliefs. Philosophically speaking feminism is the movement for the political, social, and educational equality of women with men.

The ontology of feminism is that there is a ‘reality’ that has been created and shaped by social, political, cultural, economic, ethnic and gender-based forces that have evolved over time into social structures that are accepted as natural, cultural or in different other ways justified.

Feminist issues range from access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, redress, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the need for equal political representation.[1]

The basic epistemological principles of feminism include the taking of women and gender as the focus of analysis; the importance of consciousness-raising; the rejection of subject and object (valuing the knowledge held by the participants as being expert knowledge and acknowledging how research valued as ‘objective’ always reflects a specific social and historical standpoint); a concern with ethics and an intention to empower women and change power relations and inequality.

With the above philosophy as a basis, research in support of the interests of women aims to emancipate women and improve their lives. The aim of research on women is to clarify bias and inequity in the way that women are treated in various social settings, such as the workplace, universities, sport, etc. and to fill the gaps in our knowledge about women. Even though feminism is mostly directed at achieving equality between women and men, it also argues that women think and express themselves differently from men.

Feminism is characterised by its double dimension and diversity. As opposed to traditional research, its objectives include both the construction of new knowledge and the production of social change. It assumes that woman are oppressed in society, therefore research is used to help reduce such discrimination.

In terms of diversity, feminism can be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary; it uses different methodologies and it is constantly being redefined by the concerns of women coming from different perspectives. In terms of being multidisciplinary feminism can utilise knowledge borrowed from any other discipline that is relevant to the topic and purpose of the research. In terms of being interdisciplinary feminism can analyse, synthesise, harmonise and ultimately link the knowledge borrowed from other disciplines to integrate and systematise findings into a coherent whole. Transdisciplinary refers to feminist research contributing to and sharing knowledge with other disciplines.[2] Feminism, therefore, requires that issues such as antiracism, diversity, democratic decision making and the empowerment of women are addressed in any field of study where a gender-related issue calls for research.

In terms of research methodology feminism actively seeks to remove the power imbalance between research and subject; it is politically motivated in that it seeks to change social inequality and it begins with the standpoint and experiences of women. Feminism uses a wide variety of research methods, including methods belonging with the qualitative research approach, methods belonging with the quantitative approach and mixed methods. A qualitative approach is mostly favoured because it lends itself better to reflect the measure of human experience without focusing too strongly on males while neglecting the role of women in a particular social, economic, political or technological setting.

Feminism shares an academic as well as an affective link with neoliberalism, post-colonialism, critical theory, critical race theory, romanticism and post-structuralism, seeing that all of them deal with issues of inequality and discrimination. 

Although both feminism and structuralism deal with power relations between people, feminism seldom uses the rigorous approach to research that is typical of structuralism. Ironically the unemotional and clinical approach that is typical of structuralism might be what is needed to elevate feminism to a more generally accepted research paradigm.

The main objection to feminism as a research paradigm is not that it is invalid or irrelevant, as some might claim, but rather that the very supporters of the philosophy are causing damage by the emotional manner in which it is put forward. The way in which it is applied and the spirit in which people write about feminism is often overly emotional and devoid of academic substance. In feminist research, arguments are not always supported by corroborating evidence, and findings are superficial and subjective. Feminism is often used as the grounds for advocacy campaigns rather than academic research. The development of knowledge and theory is overshadowed by subjective philosophical points of view. These points of criticism, however, probably refer more to the attitude and motivation of some individual researchers and should not be seen as general characteristics of feminism.

Related to the above argument is the fact that by emphasising the equality of genders we might well be denying both men and women certain privileges and rights that go with such differences. Men and women are different in ways that, if not respected and taken into consideration, can also lead to unfairness. Pregnancy, for example, dictates that women should have certain rights that men might not be entitled to or need, although even this is a contentious argument for some.

In closing, feminism is research done by, for and about women. In research feminism seeks to include women in the research process, to focus on the meanings women give to their world while recognising that research must often be conducted within universities that are still patriarchal.

[1] Accessed on 04/04/2017.

[2] Adapted from and… Accessed on 07/02/2019.

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Research Article 8: Ethnomethodology

Written by Dr Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil

‘Ethnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life and issues related to social order by combining experiencing phenomena with sense experience. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre on the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction.

Ethnomethodology studies the process by which people (subconsciously) formulate and apply certain ‘taken-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation to make it meaningful.

Ethnomethodology does not focus on individuals. Its field is the dynamics of social life. The individual is seen and researched as part of a social unit, for example, a community or a group of people who in some way form a coherent unit. Students who study together at a particular university at a certain point in time can be such a coherent unit. Internal processes, emotions, values, beliefs and other psychological phenomena typical of the thought processes of an individual do not form part of ethnomethodology.

Because ethnomethodologists are mainly interested in social settings, data collected through interviewing is less valid than data collected through observation in the workplace; and why old newspapers might provide less valid data than observation of a recent event. Data collected by means of interviewing is regarded as artificial, focusing on your research needs instead of the problem being investigated. Interviewing is data collection where you have control over those being interviewed, when what is needed is the observation of the actions of people under natural circumstances, for example, while doing routine work. Observation of everyday life is said to improve the validity of data that is collected.

Ethnomethodology does not formulate rules, laws or descriptions of practices of social groups that generally apply. Knowledge is seen as relevant to a specific context and time.

Ethnomethodology can be associated with constructivism and, indirectly also with hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology, the common denominator is that they all study social phenomena in one way or another.

Ethnomethodology does not fit in well with transformative research, which shows characteristics of and is regarded by some as yet another paradigm. The reason for this is that transformative research uses intangibles such as intuition, serendipity and unpredictable events whereas ethnomethodology deals with everyday life and real observations.

A deficiency of ethnomethodology, at least in the opinions of some academics, is that the investigation of everyday life is too narrow and limited to provide valid and generally applicable knowledge about social interaction, and hardly any theories about the wider interaction between human beings.

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Research Article 7: Empiricism

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. As the name and philosophy imply, empiricism means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or empirically based. Evidence should be observable by the senses or extensions of the senses.

According to empiricism, a person is born with an empty brain, like a clean slate, which is then filled by what he or she learns by experiencing things. Two learning processes take place – the individual experiences a sensation, after which she or he reflects on it. Reflection, in turn, leads to new or improved knowledge.

The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from the experience and that the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience. Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated, things that happened to them and observations that they made. Experience can also be simulated through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements. Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complementary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. The knowledge that we have, however, was obtained through previous experiences that we had. Secondly, we can “create” experiences by doing experiments and building models, which can be simulations of reality and in that manner gain knowledge through self-created experiences.

Empiricism favours quantitative research methods, although it can be used with quantitative or qualitative research or a mixture of the two approaches. Its leaning towards quantitative research is demonstrated by the fact that it can be associated with positivism. A clear distinction is made between facts (objective) and values (subjective). Sense data is the ultimate objectivity, uncontaminated by value or theory. This ties in closely with the positivist paradigm.

Empiricism, however, is sometimes used together with critical theory or any of the paradigms associated with critical theory.

Empiricists will at times opt for scepticism[1] as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them. David Hume,[2] for example, argued that our beliefs are a result of accumulated habits, developed in response to accumulated sense experiences.

Empiricism is in opposition to structuralism because empiricism believes that learning is derived from gaining experience while structuralism focuses on interrelationships between objects, concepts, and ideas. More importantly, however, is the fact that structuralism is used in research on events and phenomena that already exist, which means that knowledge also already exists. This implies that people can learn in an empiricist manner and, based on such knowledge continue further learning in a structuralist manner, i.e. not starting off with a “clean slate”.

Then again, empiricism does provide for accumulating further knowledge after having gained knowledge through earlier experiences. Not accepting that learning is a continuous process would have rendered empiricism invalid and illogical. Accumulating facts and knowledge is the second goal of empiricism. This is popularly called “naive empiricism”.[3]

In summary, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is the source of concepts or knowledge. Empiricists are of the opinion that knowledge must be deduced or inferred from actual events that people can experience through their senses. The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition is rejected. Stated differently, knowledge can only be derived a posteriori, i.e. through sensory experience. Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

[1] Scepticism, sometimes also spelled “skepticism”, questions the validity of some or all human knowledge. It does not refer to any one school of philosophy, which is why it is not discussed separately as a paradigm in this book.

[2] Accessed on 11/07/2016.

[3] A. Bryman, E. Bell, P. Hirschsohn, A. dos Santos, J. du Toit, A. Masenge, I. van Aard, C. Wagner, 2017: 8.

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