Research Article 15: Neoliberalism

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

Neoliberalism is a description of the dominant mode of conducting political and economic organisation in a global world, which obviously would also be the field in which research is conducted. It also has an impact on other elements of the human environment, for example, education, jurisdiction, and science.

Whereas classical liberalism signalled a negative view of the state, neoliberalism conceives of a positive role for a state that creates the optimal conditions for capitalist expansion, control, and exploitation. The state has a definite function and responsibility towards the community, including the protection of private property rights, guaranteeing the quality and integrity of money, military defence and police protection of the community, the proper functioning of the economy and markets, and the protection of the environment.[1] Governments that support neoliberalism would typically follow policies that encourage privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade and the reduction in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy. A neoliberalist economic approach would promote entrepreneurship, creativity, participative leadership and democracy.

Neoliberalism is associated with a form of state that seeks a reduction in public spending; it is obsessed with efficiency and effectiveness and elevates the market as the primary instrument for determining the distribution of social goods. An important basis of liberal thought is that all individuals are equal in terms of being legal citizens of a country. 

In terms of the academic focus, knowledge is regarded and promoted as an investment for the future and as a global commodity. Traditional, legacy approaches to education and training are challenged by focusing more on the skills needs of industry, rather than philosophy and theory.

In neoliberalist research, the relationships between researchers and communities have changed from “research on” to “research with” communities. This means that research based on a neoliberalist paradigm would include the researcher as part of the community while conducting research in liberalisation, i.e. an emic approach.

Action research became more prominent than in the past because of the emic approach and the focus on politics and the economy. In this respect, the purpose of the research is not just to contribute to the available knowledge in a field, or to develop emancipatory theory, but rather to forge a more direct link between thought and action that underlies the pure-applied distinction that has traditionally characterised management and social research.[2]

Private institutions are important role players in the preparation of students for future careers. Research, consequently, focuses more on the needs of industry, governments, and markets rather than on knowledge for the sake of academic status. Action research is conducted with the primary intention of solving a specific immediate and concrete problem in a local setting.

Even though neoliberalism clashes with liberalism in some respects, it also supports liberal values such as equality and freedom in relation to imperialism, gender, race, and austerity.[3] Neoliberalism is associated with critical theory, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism, and critical race theory with the result that researchers making use of a neoliberalist paradigm would probably make use of a qualitative research approach.

The technicist paradigms, notably scientism, positivism, and modernism can be said to be in opposition to neoliberalism. Some academics claim that the lack of scientific consistency should be blamed for the failure of neoliberalist government and economic policies, while others feel that it is rather unethical and irresponsible government and business practices that resulted in increased unemployment, higher inflation, social unrest, environmental disasters, etc. in many countries.[4]

[1] Accessed on 02/05/2018.

[2] A.B. Asiko, 2016: 38.

[3] . Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 7.

[4]… and Accessed on 24/04/2018.

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Research Article 14: Modernism

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

Modernism evolved over a period of approximately 400 years from a philosophy based on the interpretation of the mythical to a paradigm based on logic. Generally speaking, it is a movement towards articulating traditional beliefs and practices with modern ideas and needs.

Initially, modernism was associated with the church and art. However, the concept developed into a full-fledged paradigm through a process of logical growth. Currently, science and reason are said to be critical considerations for achieving accuracy, objectivity, and reliability in the process of knowledge creation. Reason is said to transcend and exist independently of our existential, historical and cultural environments. Some researchers regard modernism as the paradigm of all true knowledge.

Modernism favours structure, hierarchy, order and centralised control. It is believed that planning leads to order, authority is vested in a superior, centralised control is an effective management approach and planning should be done vertically from top to bottom. Consequently, modernist management is largely bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured.

In terms of research, modernism would imply investigating stages of development. Modernism belongs to the group of technicist paradigms, which favour quantitative research approaches. Important values, therefore, include the scientific method; the authority of the expert; the singularity of meaning; truth and objectivity.

Modernism is used when prediction is hoped to be achieved by analysing reasoning about information that is independent of the environment. The modernist view of time is linear, with events happening one after the other, with no other purpose than to keep progressing in a particular direction. Consequently, statistical analysis and graphical representation of trends are regarded as valuable tools for analysing data.

Modernism follows a realist ontology by accepting facts independent of the human mind. To achieve this the information that is collected and analysed needs to be objective, accurate, valid and authentic in terms of academic meaning, value, and content. The fact that knowledge increases over time supports certainty, order, organisation, prediction, rationality, linearity and progress. Even though a realist ontology, modernism is mostly optimistic about the future.

Research making use of modernism always has as an objective proving facts by making use of accurate statistics, homogeneous epistemological and moral principles and unyielding norms.


Existing theory is considered in the search for truth and coming to valid conclusions based on the available information about a phenomenon or event. Acquired knowledge is regarded as universal and true so that reason can help us overcome all conflicts and challenges.

Modernism mostly relates to research on human beings; consequently, social research methods are often used even if in combination with a quantitative research approach. Modernism can also be associated with modern societies and developed states (as opposed to pre-modern societies). It often includes campaigns to promote human emancipation, equality, redress and social progress. The family is seen as the central unit of social order and is therefore also often the focus of research using a modernistic philosophy.

During the past approximately seventy years a series of epistemological developments followed from modernism, starting with empiricism, which claims that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Empiricism further evolved into scientific empiricism or modern science with the development of modernist methodology.

Feminism, like most other paradigms, can be approached in a modernistic manner. It is believed that women who are oppressed by patriarchy can achieve independence and regain their “authentic selves” through reason.

Ethnography, critical theory and critical race theory can also be associated with modernism if quantitative research methods are used or a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods.

In modernistic terms language is transparent, meaning that a one-to-one relationship exists between what is written or said, and the concept that is investigated. This differs from, actually opposes, the post-modern ontology that meaning in language cannot transport meaning from one person to another without being interpreted first.[1]

It is also in opposition with the interpretive paradigms (constructivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology) because they are regarded as anti-realist, meaning that they use subjective data and research methods.

A belief of modernism that clashes with critical race theory and colonialism is that all cultures will embrace the truth because it is universal. Mass culture, mass consumption and mass marketing form part of the modernistic system. Homogeneity is regarded as a strength.

[1] N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln, 2018: 827.

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Research Article 13: Liberalism

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

In our current day and age neoliberalism largely rendered liberalism obsolete. Even so, liberalism is still a relevant paradigm.

Liberalism advocates tolerance, progress, humanitarianism, objectivity, reason, democracy, and human rights. To this can be added a host of other positive attributes dealing with human rights, social interaction and freedom. This, amongst other things, implies that all individuals in a country possess an equal status as legal subjects, regardless of other inequalities and differences that might divide them.[1]

Liberalism, thus, is a philosophical approach to human interaction and also a social force.[2] The basic premise of liberalism is the equality of individuals before the law.[3] In this respect, liberalism links up with critical race theory, critical theory and feminism.

All the elements of liberalism offer valuable fields for research. In a constructivist spirit, research should utilise observation and experiences to reflect on and evaluate previous perceptions in the hope of understanding the situations and phenomena being investigated. Understanding should lead to change and reform.

Constructivism is a variant of liberal theory if issues like human rights, freedom of social interaction, etc. are investigated.

Neoliberalism also supports or extends some elements of liberalism, for example, private property rights, a classically minimal liberal state, and the efficiency of the free market system. In other respects, neoliberalism is in opposition with liberalism, although neoliberalism is gradually adopting more and more liberalist values. The four central areas in which liberalism and neoliberalism overlap are human rights, non-discrimination (ethnicity and gender), education and the media.

Liberalism is associated with relativism through its relativist conception of rights – it accuses other paradigms of being relativist in order to have its own relativism accepted as universalism.[4] For example, liberal relativism is sometimes rather a neo-colonial tactic designed to maintain the exploitation of developing countries by developed former colonial powers, or new powers taking over the role of colonial power under the guise that they are helping the needy country to grow.

Liberalism is associated with radicalism because they both support the struggle for democracy, specifically campaigning for the right to vote, welfare reform, and public services, with radicalism adopting a more aggressive stance than liberalism.

Liberalism is in opposition with some values of critical race theory and colonialism because of its favouritism toward the elite, the rich and the noble.

Some academics still associate ‘liberal’ with unrestrained and undisciplined attitudes and behaviour.[5] The strength of liberalism, namely its commitment to emancipation, is said to also be its most serious weakness. Throughout history, liberalists claimed their love for liberty while demonstrating contempt for people of the colonies and for women. Liberalists are of the opinion that they are entitled to enforce ‘democracy’ upon the ‘less enlightened’.[6] Because of its authoritarian stance, liberalism cannot be equated with democracy, and liberty is not the same as equality.

The second weakness of liberalism is that there is hardly any consensus of exactly what it means. People’s thoughts about and understanding of liberal concepts such as human rights largely depend on who is in charge, whose side you are on, what you stand to gain or lose because of your point of view, if your point of view is legal and politically correct, and your position in a social group or community. Most citizens of the USA probably felt that they were protecting human rights when they invaded Iraq in 2003, whereas most Iraqi citizens probably felt that they were robbed of their human rights.

A negative consequence of liberalism claiming to favour the needy while discriminating between the informed, rich and educated on the one side and the uninformed, poor and uneducated on the other side, is that research on the former often follows an emic approach while research on the latter follows an etic approach. The informed, rich and educated are regarded and treated as participants in the research while the uninformed, poor and uneducated are regarded as subjects upon whom research is done. 

[1] W. Davies in A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 15.

[2] A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 11.

[3] Ibid: 2.

[4] A. An-Na’im in A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 55.

[5] A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 1.

[6] Ibid: 4.

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Research Article 12: Interpretivism

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

Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective way than hermeneutics in which to interpret data. We can also talk about the interpretivist group of paradigms, including hermeneutics and some others that we will summarise at the end of this chapter. Here, however, we discuss interpretivism as a specific paradigm. All interpretivist paradigms claim that there is a clear and significant difference between the natural and social sciences, with the technicist group of paradigms favouring natural research (quantitative) while interpretivist paradigms favour social (qualitative) research.

According to intepretivists, precise, systematic and theoretical answers to complex human problems do not exist. Every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analysis of the uniquely defined, particular contexts in which it is embedded. Social issues, therefore, should be analysed by means of scientific, quantitative research methods. Social laws, if they exist, should be uncovered through qualitative analysis and interpretation. 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.

Interpretivists are of the opinion that human life can only be understood from within because norms and values cannot be divorced from individuals. Human activities cannot be observed as some external reality. 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.

Reality is multi-layered and complex and a single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations. 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. Meaning is, thus, constructed and developed through interaction between people.

In interpretivism, social life is regarded as a distinctively human product. Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed in terms of language, consciousness and shared meanings. 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 it generally attempts to understand phenomena through the meanings that people assign to them.

Human behaviour is believed to be affected by knowledge of the social world. Interpretivism proposes that the realities of phenomena can differ across time and space. 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, 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.

For interpretivists the social world depends on human knowledge. They believe that our own understanding of phenomena constantly influences 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.

Often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation. Therefore, to conceive the world as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our own endeavours.

Interpretivism pays attention to and values what people say, do and feel, and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched. Interpretivism pays special attention to the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences. Patterns, trends and themes should, therefore, emerge from the research process, and your role 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 regarded as a purposive source of meaning. Interpretive investigation searches for meaning in the activities of human beings, which can best be researched by making use of qualitative research. In fact, interpretivists believe that 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.

A concept in especially qualitative research that shares a number of perspectives with the interpretive paradigm, is the notion of praxis. Some regard praxis as a separate paradigm while others regard it as a research method. Praxis means acting upon the conditions that you face in order to change them. It deals with the disciplines and activities predominant in the ethical and political lives of people.

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 such phenomena and their social context. Through uncovering how meanings are constructed, we can gain insight into the meanings imparted and thereby improve our understanding of the whole.

Interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics, which, as you already know, is 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.

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.

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). This also applies to hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism. It also applies to radicalism although radicalism belongs more to the critical group of paradigms. All these paradigms pay attention to human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives, and suggest qualitative rather than quantitative approaches for the study of human activities and relationships.

Even though both interpretivism and positivism support social science, interpretivism opposes positivism because of its leaning towards physical science. However, keep in mind that the differentiation between paradigms in terms of being interpretive, critical or technicist is not clear cut. Most paradigms, if not all, can adopt any of the leanings depending on the research approach and method being used.

Because of its acceptance of such a large variety of rather subjective and intuitive sources of knowledge and meaning, some researchers feel that interpretivism is largely based on assumptions rather than accurate and authentic data, with the result that conclusions and findings based on it will lack scientific consistency.

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Is the NQF modernist, constructivist or post-modernist?

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I came across this interesting question in an article written by Samuel BA Isaacs, previous CEO of SAQA, and published in the SAQA Bulletin Volume 12, Number 2 of February 2012. The Bulletin is rather outdated, but the question is not. Here is my attempt at answering the question.

The NQF does show some characteristics of modernism in the sense that its objectives are logical and aimed at supporting quality in education and training, lifelong learning. It is contemporary while keeping pace with changes in technological and social environments. The objectives of the NQF supports the modernist notion that science and reason can be used to achieve accuracy, objectivity and reliability in the process of knowledge creation.

Through the years, since the inception of the NQF, learning institutions and quality assurance bodies experienced it as a system that is bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured, which are elements of a modernist paradigm. Although some of them might deny this, all quality assurance bodies follow evaluation procedures based on specific criteria, procedures and timeframes from which they do not deviate. 

The elements of modernism that can be linked to a constructivist philosophy are that the NQF is formulated in a structured, hierarchical (three sub-frameworks) manner while being implemented and managed in an orderly manner through centralised control.

Constructivism can be regarded as the conscience of the NQF. All stakeholders are given an opportunity to participate in the development and review of the NQF, so that learning institutions and quality assurance bodies can contribute through their own understanding and experience, i.e. prior knowledge. In a constructivist approach, all stakeholders should be allowed to ask questions and to participate in the exploration, research and development processes. Sadly, such flexibility was neglected in the development of the NQF. The intelligence and prior knowledge of experts were utilized selectively and subjectively in the formulation of the NQF. I need to add, though, that Dr. James Keevy, who is probably the best-informed South African authority on NQF systems worldwide, played a valuable and pivotal role in the initial development process, but that is not typical of a constructivist approach.

Post-modernism supports a pluralistic epistemology which utilizes multiple ways of knowing. This means that the NQF, to meet the requirements of post-modernist philosophy, should have been much more flexible in its approach to quality assurance of learning institutions and learning content. Post-modernism values the multiple opinions of individuals and communities. In his article, Isaacs mentions that many stakeholders were consulted in the development process. This would be typical of a post-modernist approach.

Modernism and post-modernism have certain elements that fit together, for example, modernism articulates traditional beliefs and practices with modern ideas and needs while post-modernism links opinions, value-systems, and knowledge to specific cultures. This is largely achieved through the use of language.

Both modernism and post-modernism are technicist, meaning that they adopt a critical and interpretive approach to the achievement of quality education and training. The NQF meets these characteristics. However, this is not necessarily a good thing.

In closing, the NQF needs not be exclusively modernist, constructivist or post-modernist. It can, and probably do, show characteristics of all three and some other paradigms.  For example, there are elements of critical theory in the NQF. The NQF questions knowledge and learning methods, it acknowledges the role of power and social position on education and training and it goes beyond prevailing assumptions of understanding. It also shows characteristics of feminism by promoting the role of women in the education and training system. It also shows characteristics of positivism – quality assurance of education and training as well as the learning process as such follows a cycle of control which includes observation, experimenting, and measurement. Judging from the manner in which the NQF is implemented I would think that it is largely based on a modernist philosophy.  

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Research Article 11: Hermeneutics

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

Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. Originally, hermeneutics referred to the study of the interpretation of written biblical text, but now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication, including verbal, artistic, geo-political, physiological, sociological, etc. In terms of communication, hermeneutics views inquiry as conversation and conversation as a source of data that can and should be used for research. Hermeneutics is now applied in all the human sciences to clarify or interpret, conditions in which understanding takes place.[1]

With the above in mind, hermeneutics can be defined as the aspect of a study that involves interpreting the event or events being studied, to deepen the understanding of the political, historical, sociocultural, and other real-world contexts within which they occur. Language and history play an important role in the interpretation of events and phenomena.

Hermeneutics represents a specific perspective on data analysis. In hermeneutics theories are developed or borrowed and continually tested, looking for discrepant data and alternative ways of making sense of the data.[2] It is not the purpose of hermeneutics to offer explanations or to provide authoritative rules or conceptual analysis, but rather to seek and deepen understanding. As a mode of analysis, it suggests a way of understanding or making meaning of, textual data. Objectivity is sought by analysing our prejudices and perceptions. Even so, ambiguity is not regarded as an obstacle to qualitative research and it is accepted that interpretation will sometimes be typical and perhaps even unique to a particular situation and context.

A hermeneutic approach, thus, is open to the ambiguous nature of textual analysis and resists the urge to offer authoritative readings and neat reconciliations. Rather, it recognises the uniquely situated nature, historically and linguistically influenced, and the ambiguous nature of interpretation, and offers such for readers to engage with, or not, as they wish.[3]

In the process of interpretation you, as the researcher, will inevitably add your own interpretation to text and, perhaps, review historical text if you regard it as necessary for whatever reason. In the process, you will also learn while contributing to the available knowledge in a particular field of study. Understanding occurs when you recognise the significance of the data that you are interpreting and when you recognise the interrelatedness of the different elements of the phenomenon.

A rather impressive number of human, religious and philosophical scientists elaborated on and added to the nature of hermeneutics. Two useful elaborations are, firstly, that experience, expression and comprehension are elements of hermeneutics and, secondly that hermeneutical analysis is a circular process, popularly called the hermeneutic circle.

The hermeneutic circle signifies a methodological process or condition of understanding, namely that coming to understand the meaning of the whole of a text and coming to understand its parts are independent activities. In this regard, “understanding the meaning of the whole” means making sense of the parts, and grasping the meaning of the parts depends on having some sense of the whole. The parts, once integrated, define the whole. Each part is what it is by virtue of its location and function with respect to the whole. In a process of contextualisation, each of the parts is illuminated, which clarifies the whole.[4] The hermeneutic circle takes place when this meaning-making quest involves continual shifts from the parts to the whole and back again.[5]

Hermeneutics focuses on interaction and language. It seeks to understand situations through the eyes of the participants. It involves recapturing the meanings of interacting with others, recovering and reconstructing the intentions of the other role players in a situation. Such research involves the analysis of meaning in a social context.

The hermeneutic data analysis process is aimed at deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning and therefore, in analysing the data you are searching for and unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning of the text. As a consequence, in designing your research you will deliberately plan to collect data that is textually rich and analyse it to make sense of the bigger picture or whole.[6]

Hermeneutics provides the philosophical grounding for the interpretive paradigms, including interpretivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, constructivism and phenomenology. It is also possible to associate and integrate hermeneutics with the critical research paradigms.

Hermeneutics opposes rationalism, positivism, scientism and modernism and, consequently, is more suited to a qualitative rather than a quantitative research approach.

The second criticism of hermeneutics is that viewing inquiry as conversation might damage the validity of your research conclusions and findings.

In summary, hermeneutics seeks understanding rather than to explain; acknowledges the situated location of interpretation; recognises the role of language and history in interpretation; views conversation as inquiry, and is comfortable with ambiguity.[7] Understanding requires the interpretation of words, signs, events, body language, artefacts and any other objects or behaviour from which a message can be deduced. It is, therefore, not a paradigm based on theoretical knowledge only, but also practical actions or omissions.

In closing, the circular nature of hermeneutic investigation is questioned by some researchers because setting understanding as a prerequisite for understanding the parts and understanding the parts as a prerequisite for understanding the whole, is a catch twenty-two situation.

[1]… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[2] J.A. Maxwell, 2013: 53.

[3]… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[4]… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[5] R.K. Yin, 2016: 336.

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Loc. cit.

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