ARTICLE 34: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Sampling Part 2 of 6

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I discussed an introduction to sampling in my previous post.

I also discussed the first two types of sampling, namely boosted sampling and case study sampling.

To refresh your memory, boosted sampling is a type of sampling where you take specific steps to ensure that individuals who might otherwise have been omitted from the sample, are included.

Case study sampling is an investigation into a specific instance or phenomenon in its real context.

I will discuss cluster sampling, convenience sampling, critical-case sampling and dimensional sampling in this post.

Cluster sampling

A large and widely dispersed population brings with it, administrative problems.

Let’s say you want to investigate the impact of video games on teenagers.

It would be difficult to select and investigate a sample of, say, 1000 teenagers across the entire country.

You can reduce the time and work by selecting a smaller geographical area within the country.

This might have a negative effect on the generalizability of your findings.

It depends on your purpose with your research if this would be a problem or not.

But at least your research topic will now be viable.

This is an example of cluster sampling.

You can go one or more steps further by subdividing the geographical region into towns and towns into suburbs.

This is called ‘multi-stage cluster sampling’.

Limitations can be:

  • Younger teenagers will probably not be affected the same as older ones.
  • Teenagers in rural areas will not be affected the same as children living in urban areas.
  • There are many other possible variables that can have an impact on the results of the research.
  • For example, single-parent versus both parents in the family, personality traits, home conditions, etc.

The obvious risk with cluster sampling is that you can build in bias by excluding some possibilities.

The type and purpose of the research will determine if cluster sampling should be used or not.

Convenience sampling

Convenience sampling means selecting inputs and data from whoever happens to be available.

It is, thus, a rather opportunistic type of sampling.

It can also be accidental in nature, although there is a subtle difference between convenience sampling and opportunistic or accidental sampling.

Convenience sampling means making use of sources of information that you know of and that are easy to obtain.

Opportunistic or accidental samples are sources of information that you are not aware of in advance and that ‘falls into your lap’.

Convenience sampling is not a scientific way in which to collect data or to compose a sample.

It involves choosing the nearest individuals to serve as respondents.

It also means continuing the process until the required sample size has been reached.

Captive audiences such as students in a class are sometimes asked to discuss issues or complete questionnaires.

Convenience sampling is unlikely to deliver generally applicable findings.

Therefore, you will only use convenience sampling if achieving generalizable findings is not important to you and your research.

You must acknowledge that your findings are not applicable to a larger population than the small sample that you selected for your research.

It is even possible that your findings apply to your sample only.

Critical-case sampling

Critical-case sampling is sampling where it is important to obtain maximum applicability.

If the information and findings hold true for a critical case, it is likely to hold true for other cases and communities as well.

Critical cases are those that are likely to yield the most or most important information that will prove a hypothesis or solve a problem and that will have the greatest impact on the development of knowledge.

When selecting a critical-case sample, you would be looking for a ‘decisive’ case that would help you decide about which of several different explanations for a phenomenon, event or behavior is most plausible or most widely regarded as representing the general profile of a community.

For example, if one or a small number of people living in a jungle somewhere proves to have an immunity to the venom of a snake that can be found in that part of the world, one can probably deduce that there are people who have developed an immunity to the venom of that snake.

It does not necessarily mean that the tribe from which the sample was taken is immune to the venom of the snake.

This is a rather dramatic example and one will probably need to do more research and tests before you can claim with certainty that all people belonging to that tribe are immune to the venom.

It would also be interesting to do additional research on why the people are immune to the venom.

But please keep in mind that this example is a figment of my imagination – I don’t think there is such a tribe or snake.

Critical-case sampling is an efficient way in which to conduct research.

It need not be expensive because only one or a few items should be enough to prove your hypothesis or solve your research problem statement or question.

Dimensional sampling

Dimensional sampling is a refinement of quota sampling.

It can be used to reduce the sample size.

Dimensional sampling means selecting participants in the sample group in terms of a combination of criteria that you feel they should meet.

For example, when doing research on the correlation between perseverance and cognitive thinking ability, you can draw up a table with criteria for perseverance at the top (as column headings) and cognitive thinking ability down the side (as row headings).

A table like the one in the example can easily be converted into graphs of different types.


Cluster sampling is mostly used where the population is widely dispersed.

You will need to choose a cluster in the population that is representative of the population and that can realistically be investigated.

Convenience sampling means accepting any relevant data sources that you can easily find for your sample.

Convenience samples can be found by accident or coincidently.

Critical-case sampling focuses strongly on the purpose of your research.

The sample will often be too small to deliver generalizable findings.

Dimensional sampling is sampling where different characteristics of the sample are compared in the hope that the intersections of comparative data will deliver significant findings.

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ARTICLE 33: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Sampling Part 1 of 6

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel


I will discuss sampling in this and the five postings following on this one.

How large should your sample be if you were to do research on factors that make some people more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus than others?

Would you even use a sample, or would that be irresponsible for a topic that threatens human life as we know it?

Should one entrust an individual with such a critically important issue, or would it be something that should be done by a large team of researchers in as many countries as possible?

The three questions that I just asked should already show that sampling is not suitable for all research topics.

It is valuable for academic purposes and can be used if the main purpose is to broaden our knowledge.

As we all know, sampling is used to study the social and medical impact of the COVID-19 virus.

We also know that the findings of such research are sometimes questioned.

And we know that findings are sometimes proven wrong.

Sampling is largely about data collection.

However, it also includes the analysis of data.

That is why I am discussing it as a research method rather than a data collection method.

Obviously, sampling cannot be a stand-alone research method.

It must always be linked to other research methods.

The type and size of sample that you choose for your research can determine if your research will succeed or not.

You should choose the size and type of sample after you have chosen the target group for your research.

In quantitative research, you might need to calculate the size of the sample based on what percentage probability of accuracy you will need.

Dedicated computer programmes can often work out the sample size for you.

In qualitative research factors like expense, time available and where your target group is will determine the size of your sample.

Where the target group is, impacts on distance and accessibility, which will determine what size sample you will be able to reach and deal with.

The data collection method or methods that you will use will also have an impact on the size of your sample.

Although a sample should be large enough to provide valid and generally applicable information for a community, it should be small enough for you to manage.

Sampling in qualitative studies focuses on the quality of the information collected and not on the number of participants.

A sample of ten to twelve people in a community of 100 people is often acceptable.

Researchers in natural sciences will probably frown upon such a small sample or the unscientific way the sample size is decided upon.

Keep in mind that the response rate to questionnaires is often low.

You will do well if you achieve a 10% or more response rate.

If you need to receive at least 100 completed questionnaires back, you will need to send out at least 1,000 questionnaires.

To play safe I would send out double that number, i.e. 2,000 questionnaires.

Because if you don’t receive enough completed questionnaires you might need to send out more later.

You will not be able to receive as many responses through interviewing as you would through sending out questionnaires via the internet or the postal system.

Then again, you will not need to hold as many interviews as you would send out questionnaires.

Your sample must be representative of the population forming your target group.

Representativeness is determined by the size and composition of your sample.

A too-large sample is better than a too-small one.

You should, for example, not send your questionnaires only to people living in an old age home if you are doing research on people of all ages.

A random sample in terms of gender, age group, population group, intellectual capacity, interests and many more are often needed.

I will share 26 different types of sampling with you in this and five future articles.

Obviously, it would not be a good idea to discuss all of them in one post.

Therefore, I will spread them over six posts as shown on the slides.

Here, I will start with boosted sampling and case study sampling.

This article:

  1. Introduction to sampling.
  2. Boosted sampling.
  3. Case study sampling.

Article 2:

  • Cluster sampling.
  • Convenience sampling.
  • Critical case sampling.
  • Dimensional sampling.

Article 3:

  • Event sampling.
  • Extreme case sampling.
  • Matched sampling.
  • Multi-purpose sampling.
  • Non-probability sampling.
  • Opportunistic sampling.

Article 4:

  1. Probability sampling.
  2. Purposive sampling.
  3. Quota sampling.
  4. Random sampling.
  5. Reputational-case sampling.
  6. Snowball sampling.
  7. Stage sampling.

Article 5:

  • Stratified sampling.
  • Systematic sampling.
  • Theoretical sampling.
  • Time sampling.

Article 6:

  • Typical-case sampling.
  • Unique-case sampling.
  • Volunteer sampling.
  • Closing remarks.

Boosted sampling

Boosted sampling is a variant of purposive sampling.

It is a type of sampling where you take specific steps to ensure that certain individuals or types of individuals, who might otherwise have been omitted or underrepresented in the sample, are included.

People with special needs are often not included in samples because there are so few of them.

You can, for example, “boost” the sample by intentionally including people with special needs.

It is important to ensure that all relevant people are represented in the sample if you intend to do statistical analysis and quantitative research.

You might need the responses of specific people even if you are doing qualitative research.

Case study sampling

A case study is an investigation into a specific instance or phenomenon in its real context.

It is used to illustrate a general principle, pattern behavior, etc.

Case studies can establish cause and effect in a real context.

The value of a case study is largely dependent on the size and composition of the sample.

The advantage of a case study is that it serves as a small sample of a large whole, which makes it much more manageable.

This, of course, will only be so if the case being investigated is representative of the entire population being investigated.

It is important to allow case study events to speak for themselves rather than to depend too much on your interpretation, evaluation and judgement.

Data should be collected systematically and rigorously.

This means that you need to prepare well for case study research.

You should never manipulate a case because that will lead to false information and conclusions.

It is, however, not wrong to select a case as your sample to fit the purpose of your research.

For example, it would not be wrong to select tramps in an area frequented by them if you are doing research on factors that make people decide to turn their backs on society.


Sampling includes data collection and analysis.

It is always used in combination with other research methods.

The size of the sample will be statistically calculated in quantitative research.

Factors like time, funds, data collection methods, the purpose and topic of the research will decide the size of the sample in qualitative research.

The sample must be representative of the population for your research.

In boosted sampling you will take deliberate steps to ensure that certain elements in the population are included in the sample.

A case study sample will focus on a specific group or phenomenon.

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ARTICLE 32: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Literature Study

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


People who do not like reading will probably shy away from making use of literature study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

I can understand such an attitude, especially if you don’t have any specific questions that you need answers to.

Or an academic problem to solve.

For some, there are many more exciting things to do rather than to read a book.

I guess studying late at night, over weekends, public holidays and university holidays is not something to look forward to.

Perhaps it takes a special kind of person, or some alien external force to motivate “normal” people to spend what they regard as leisure time engrossed in books.

However, if you embark on Ph. D. or master’s degree studies you will need to sacrifice some of your social freedom.

That does not mean that you will need to live like a recluse.

It only means that you will need to read a lot.

The point is this – as an adult, you are the captain of your ship.

Only you can decide what you should do with your life.

You need to be absolutely motivated to study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

So, let’s discuss literature study.

Literature study

Literature study will form part of most research work, regardless of what main research methods are used.

With the expansion of online data sources, it is becoming progressively more possible to undertake research without leaving your study or office.

You can even do research while having something to eat and drink in a restaurant or a bar.

Texts and records can be researched in four distinct ways:

  1. The study of content.
  2. The social construction of documents and records.
  3. Documents ‘in the field’
  4. Documents in action and documents in networks.

However, doing all your research by studying documents is deskwork rather than fieldwork.

When documents are included in the dataset, they tend to serve as ‘background material’ for many research projects.

Literature is often used to crosscheck oral accounts.

The empirical opportunities to analyze documents are endless: newspaper articles, advertisements, policy documents, government reports, blogs and web sites, schedules, letters, posters, pamphlets, brochures, campaign material, etc.

Everyday life offers a range of situations that involve forms and documents.

Particularly regarding interpersonal encounters within various institutions.

Even so, researchers interested in identifying practical examples may find it hard to recognize relevant events in a pile of documents.

The majority view of documentary data in qualitative research is that documents are detached from social action.

In contrast to an interview, the document appears more stable and fixed, whereas the content of an interview seems more dynamic and alive.

Documents can be quite lively agents in their own right rather than merely containers of text.

They can tell people what to do.

They can stir up conflicts.

They can evoke emotions such as anger, relief, envy, pride and despair.

Additionally, people do things with documents.

They can use them for various purposes, both intended or unintended.

They exchange documents.

They hide documents.

They write books and make movies about documents.

To recognize the aspects of documentary data, fieldwork rather than deskwork is required.


All researchers must do some literature study, regardless of which research approach or method they mainly use.

Texts and records are studied for the content, social construction, corroboration of other research methods and to support action research.

Literature study mostly means reading and analyzing books and other documents.

It can also include doing research on the internet.

Documents often trigger chains of interaction far beyond the original piece of paper.

Literature is often used to confirm research through other research methods.

Some researchers would rather do without literature study.

They prefer practical fieldwork or research in a laboratory that is not contaminated by old data.

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ARTICLE 31: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Historical Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Historical research can be conducted with the aim of answering a wide range of social research questions.

It is a systematic process of describing; analyzing and interpreting; and comparing the past.

The past can, of course, also be compared to the present.

It is based on information from selected sources as they relate to the topic under study.

Descriptive research

When conducted with a description in mind, historical research attempts to construct a map of the past.

It can also describe a developmental trajectory of events, for example, an educational system, political developments, community growth or deterioration, etc.

It involves locating events in time and place and requires sensitivity towards understanding the context within which an event took place or developed over time. Trajectories of development are plotted, and it may or may not try to explain how or why events occurred.

Historical research used for descriptive purposes also establishes background information about events.

Analytical and critical research

In analytical research, relationships between factors or events are critically interrogated within the context in which they occurred with the aim of exploring the possible causes and impact of the factors or events.

It requires critical, analytical scrutiny of documents and a process of cross-checking records and reports about incidents.

It aims to impact decision-making and policy formulation.

When conducting historical research, you might need to search for successes or mistakes from the past in order for a society or even an individual to avoid repeating mistakes made by others and to capitalize on the successes of the more fortunate or wiser.

The process of analytical research is complicated by the fact that there is seldom just one cause of an event.

You can never be certain if you did not omit the consideration of other important factors or events.

All sources of information should, therefore, be subjected to evaluation through processes known as external and internal criticism.

External criticism refers to the authenticity of the information.

For example, is the document that you are evaluating real or fake?

Internal criticism refers to whether the information is credible.

You need to determine if the information is consistent and accurate.

Rigour and sound analytical critique of sources lend considerable validity and reliability to the findings and conclusions reached.

Inferences about intent, motive and character are common, with the understanding of appropriateness to the context of the period.

Comparative research

Comparative historical research is much wider in scope than other historical research designs because the units of analysis are often whole societies or systems within societies.

It implies systematic research for similarities and differences between the cases under consideration.

Comparative researchers usually base their research on secondary sources, such as policy papers, historical documents, official statistics, etc.

Some degree of interviewing and observation can also be involved.

Historical comparative researchers generally prefer first-hand accounts, written by people who witnessed something personally, rather than documents derived from other secondary sources.

These researchers need to verify two important aspects regarding documents:

The validity of the documents’ content and its authenticity.

The content of a document is valid when it is not distorted, exaggerated or false.

Validity can be checked by making use of triangulation or any other form of corroboration.

Additional sources of information can be other, similar books, alternative documents, certification, living witnesses, demonstrations by the individual who claims authenticity, traces of validating substances, etc.

Authenticity refers to whether a document is a forgery.

Historical research can adopt paradigmatic approaches such as constructivism, critical race theory, empiricism and post-colonialism.

Sources of data

Broadly speaking there are four types of historical evidence that you can use – primary sources, secondary sources, running records and recollections.

Customarily, researchers rely on primary sources.

That is, the original source texts also called archival data.

Archival data are mostly kept in museums, archives, libraries or private collections.

Emphasis is given to the written word on paper, although modern histiography can involve any medium.

Substantial historical data is already captured electronically.

The internet is already a popular source of information, even though authenticity and accuracy are difficult to confirm.

Secondary sources are the work of other researchers writing about the issue being studied.

In its widest sense, a document simply means anything that contains text.

Official reports, records from schools, hospitals and courts of law, films, photographs, reports from journals, magazines, newspapers, letters, diaries, emails, and even graffiti scrawled on a wall are all examples of documents.

Running records are documentaries maintained by organizations.

For example, minutes of meetings, records of events, commentaries about events, war diaries, etc.

Recollections include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral relay of historical information.


Historical research answers a wide range of social questions.

It can be used to describe, analyse or interpret the past.

People can learn from historical events if it is accurately and objectively communicated.

Both mistakes and successes from the past can provide lessons to learn.

Analytical research attempts to provide the basis for understanding the past by exploring past events and trends and applying these to current events and trends.

Analytical research is complicated by the fact that successes and mistakes are mostly attributable to many variables.

Accuracy, authenticity and validity of data can be achieved through external and internal criticism.

Historical research makes use of four types of evidence – primary sources, secondary sources, running records and recollections.

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ARTICLE 30: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Grounded Theory

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Hello, I am Hannes Nel and I will discuss Grounded Theory in this post.

What is grounded theory?

Grounded theory is a type of inductive thematic analysis (ITA).

It was developed by Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s.

Glaser and Strauss supported symbolic interactionism as a philosophical perspective.

How is grounded theory used?

Grounded theory uses inductive reasoning to generate the theoretical understandings, of research by grounding the theory in the data that the researcher collected.

It is a highly systematic method for mostly studying social experiences, interactions and structures.

Grounded theory discovers, develops and provisionally verifies phenomena.

This means that the data originate in the framework for the study and should deliver logical and relevant conclusions.

Integrating grounded theory with other research and data collection methods

It is almost always necessary to use grounded theory in conjunction with one or more other research methods.

Any data collection method may be used in conjunction with grounded theory methods, bearing in mind that data collection should build on a naturalistic, interpretive philosophy.

Grounded theory methods specify analytical strategies, not data collection methods.

Grounded theory:

  1. Is a qualitative research approach.
  2. Requires an open mind, objectivity and ethical and responsible analysis of data.
  3. Is especially popular amongst those who study humanistic sciences.
  4. Can also be used for the study of non-human phenomena.

The purpose of grounded theory

The primary purpose of grounded theory is to generate theory from observations of real life.

Grounded theory aims at the discovery of regularities, the identification of categories or elements and the establishment of their connections.

Theoretical models and new theoretical concepts and arguments should be created and continuously revised as you collect and analyse data.

Grounded theory holds as a basic view that qualitative researchers do not go around testing an existing body of knowledge, but rather that they build new theory by allowing their data collection to steer their thoughts and conclusions into the unknown.

The grounded theory process

Grounded theory research should be done in a specific and well-defined context.

The research should be grounded in social reality and not be just an exercise in theorizing.

It uses a typical research process of data collection, data analysis, coming to conclusions, and formulating findings.

Findings should be transformable into formal theoretical models.

The process of collecting data is a prerequisite for analysis, while theory development should result from the analysis.

Researchers sometimes think that grounded theory is about the research process, especially data collection and analyses.

Although data collection and analysis are important research activities, the essence of grounded theory does not lie in the research process but rather in the attitude of the researcher towards the data and the purpose of the research.

It requires that each piece of the data is systematically compared with other data on the same or related issue or topic.

You should not ignore small units of text.

It just might have the potential to improve current theory and practice.

At the same time, you should not waste time with data that is clearly of no significance, because analysis is a time-consuming activity.

You can compare existing data with other existing data or with new data.

Grounded theory is based on the subjective experiences of humans.

You may also use your own experiences to understand the experiences of others.

Guard against just adopting the ideas, perceptions or models of others.

If you do this, you run the risk of just packaging old, existing knowledge differently.

Verification is a natural element of any scientific research because it strengthens the authenticity and validity of the findings and provides you with a measure of security.

Data collected should not be over-verified, because grounded theory epistemology leans strongly towards the generation of new theory rather than the analysis of existing theory.

Deconstruction can be used to lend a good measure of authenticity to the data.

Do not neglect to acknowledge the work of other researchers that you consulted and quoted.

Computer software

You can use dedicated computer programmes to arrange, compare and analyse the data that you collected.

ATLAS.Ti is an example of software that you can use.

There are a good number of others. I am just mentioning ATLAS.Ti because it is the one that I used and am familiar with.

You can easily find suitable software by just Googling for them.

Most dedicated computer programmes make use of coding.

Coding can be described as a sophisticated form of notecards like the ones that we used many decades ago.

You will create codes for salient data with most of the available relevant software.

You can also write explanatory notes in the form of memorandums.

The programme groups related codes and memorandums together.

This enables you to get a clear and holistic picture of concepts and arguments so that you can more easily come to conclusions and findings.

Your findings should be or lead to new knowledge, theories and models.

From the codes and memorandums, new theory and new theoretical models can be discovered through inductive reasoning.

You will, of course, not be required to develop new knowledge or theories on master’s degree level, but you will need to show that you understand and can apply existing knowledge and theories.

Inductive reasoning entails systematic data collection and analysis which leads to discovery, development and verification.

Most importantly, dedicated programmes substantially simplify the process of writing your research report.

Grounded theory methodology needs not to be limited to computer analysis only.

You can, for example, still use the old notecard system or you can develop your own system on a computer.

The value of grounded theory

Grounded theory enables you:

  1. To step back and critically analyse situations.
  2. To recognise the tendency towards bias.
  3. To think abstractly.
  4. To be flexible and open to helpful criticism.
  5. To be sensitive to the words and actions of respondents.
  6. To adopt a sense of absorption and devotion to the work process.

Utilizing grounded theory for research should enable you to see beyond the ordinary and to arrive at new understandings of social life.

The most important value of grounded theory is that it enables you to generate theory and to ground that theory in data.

Paradigms that can be used with grounded theory

Before we look at paradigms that can be used with grounded theory – don’t be too concerned if at this stage you do not know the paradigms.

I will discuss 29 such paradigms in later posts.

I suggest that you then return to my earlier posts on research methods to get the bigger picture.

Any paradigmatic approach can be used with grounded theory.

Mostly, however, grounded theory displays elements of post-modernism as well as symbolic interactionism.

Post-modernism lends itself to the achievement of formal theory while symbolic interactionism implies that the study is grounded in a specific empirical world.

As already mentioned, grounded theory requires elements of interpretivism as well.

There are two versions of grounded theory, namely objectivist and constructivist grounded theory.

Objectivist grounded theory is rooted in a positivist paradigmatic approach.

The objectivist viewpoint claims that it is possible to discover objective truth.

The data already exists, and you will need to discover theory from them.

Constructivist grounded theory has its roots in an interpretivist paradigmatic approach.

The constructivist viewpoint rejects the objectivist viewpoint, contending that there is no objective truth waiting to be discovered.

Constructivist grounded theory assumes that truth exists only through interaction with the realities of the world.

Meaning is, therefore, constructed rather than discovered.


The following are the elements of grounded theory:

  1. The purpose of grounded theory is to build new theory.
  2. Current theory or observation can serve as the basis for new theory.
  3. Grounded theory deals with how data and phenomena are interpreted and used rather than how they are collected.
  4. You should systematically review units of data as they become available.
  5. Any research method should utilize the philosophy behind grounded theory, meaning that any researcher should be open-minded and objective.
  6. Building new theory requires analytical induction, meaning that new theory emerges from collected data inductively through a series of steps.
  7. Grounded theory requires the development of five interrelated properties.
    • The theory must closely fit the relevant field of study in which the new theory will be used.
    • The new theory must be readily understandable to laymen concerned with the field of study.
    • The new theory must be relevant to a multitude of diverse daily situations within the focus area of the field of study.
    • New knowledge should be generalizable as widely as possible.
    • The new knowledge must allow those who use it to have enough trust in the validity and accuracy of the new knowledge, theories and models.
  8. Dedicated computer programmes enable you to discover regularities in data, to identify categories or elements and to establish their connections.
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ARTICLE 29: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Masters Degree Studies: Field Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Once when I sent out questionnaires for a research project, the CEO of a manufacturing plant collected and worked through the questionnaires completed by his employees.

There were probably 100 to 200 completed questionnaires. He removed all the questionnaires that he felt could put him in a bad spot and sent me the rest.

Of course, I did not use any of them.

I was fortunate that one of his employees phoned and told me what he did.

Field Research

For many researchers, the collection of data involves or at least includes fieldwork.

Not all field research deals with people.

Also, fieldwork is not limited to research in nature only.

Field research can require the use of quantitative or qualitative analysis.

Preparing for field research

You should first refine your research project and develop your data collection instruments before you embark on fieldwork.

This is because your topic and the context in which your research will be done will determine if you should do fieldwork or not.

Where field research will take place

Field research, or fieldwork, means conducting empirical research in real-world settings.

You can do fieldwork in a classroom, observing students or lecturers, in factories, on ships, in aircraft and many more.

Doing fieldwork is not a must for all research.

You will use fieldwork if your research topic demands it if you feel that it will enable you to do accurate and valid research, if your study leader expects it from you, if you can afford it, and if it is something that you will enjoy doing.

The research process

In the spirit of grounded theory, you should be open-minded about the realities that you encounter.

Let the data that you collect lead your thinking processes.

Don’t try to bend what you see and experience to fit your preconceived ideas.

Preconceptions that you should get rid of include personal beliefs and initial theoretical propositions.

It might be necessary to divide your observations into different categories.

Don’t categorize your observations and events prematurely, though.

The first days in the field are often seen as the most challenging and emotionally rewarding.

Meeting a new group of people in their environment, about which you might not know much, can be uncomfortable, perhaps even intimidating.

Remember that such people might not trust you in the beginning.

People are suspicious of the unknown and they may resist you and your research.

Your research will be as intimidating to them as their environment to you.

If your doctoral or master’s degree studies are an extension of your previous studies, you might feel more comfortable with the environment in which you will do research.

Even so, you will probably encounter some new experiences and observations.

Doing site visits is a formally recognized way of doing fieldwork.

Site visits can be the only data collection method that you may use.

However, it is mostly necessary to collect other data as well.

You should be able to develop categories, propositions and eventually meaning based on what you experience and observe in the field.

Participant observation takes place during a site visit and a site visit may include other data collection activities.

Can you see how you can integrate different research methods?

Experimental methods, for example, can fit in well with fieldwork.

An advantage of site visits is that they enable data to be collected from many field settings as part of the same study.

The data from any single setting or site may be limited in terms of quantity, quality and variety.

Studying cross-site patterns might be necessary for comparison, to identify trends or patterns in phenomena or behavior and for corroboration of data.

Not just any field setting will be suitable for research and data collection.

Difference In functions, context, time and size can render some sites irrelevant to your research topic.

It might sometimes be necessary to visit the same site at different times and more than once.

An example of this is where you do research on the effect over time of global warming on glaciers, rivers, vegetation, etc.

Site visits are likely to be more rigid than participant observation.

Site visits usually follow a pre-established schedule, as well as an agenda while you are in the field.

Site visits can be time-consuming and require substantial preparation.

It can also require good timing, for example, if you were to do research on the migration of salmon up rivers to spawn.

Interviewing, conversing with participants, and observing them while they do something that you do research on will also require good planning and timing.

Members of a field setting for interviewing may have helped you to arrange the schedule.

They will probably use the opportunity to schedule the interviews so that it will suit them.

The disadvantage of this is that they can also prepare their responses to your questions in advance, thereby making it artificial and probably not valid.

Their responses may be idealized and what they think you would like to hear.

This is an example of reflexivity.

Reflexivity in this context means that the presence of the researcher affects the people being studied.

The same kind of situation can happen in the case of participant observation.

A further complication arises when you are accompanied by your host during the site visit.

The host may wish to monitor you and see and hear what you learn from his employees.  

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with field research include behaviorism, constructivist, critical race theory, critical theory, functionalism, neoliberalism, positivism, pragmatism, radicalism and scientism.


Field research can deal with people, phenomena in nature or even history.

It may require qualitative and/or quantitative research.

You will need to do a literature study and decide how you will collect further data first before you will know what kind of field research you should do.

Fieldwork can be done almost anywhere.

You need to be open-minded and objective about the data that you collect through fieldwork.

Also, be prepared to go through a process of mental adjustment. You will need time to grow accustomed to strange people and an unknown environment.

The contextual conditions between participant observation and interviewing are not the same, but both can be damaged by reflexivity.

You can integrate fieldwork with most other research methods.

Fieldwork is not always necessary for all research on especially the doctoral level.

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ARTICLE 28: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Experimental Methods

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Can lessons from events be gained in a laboratory?

Lessons that will apply to every place and all people?

You be the judge of that after reading this article.

Quantitative experimental methods

The essential feature or experimental methods is that you deliberately control and manipulate the conditions which determine the results in which you are interested.

To achieve this, you will need to introduce an intervention and measure the difference that it makes.

It is mostly used by people doing quantitative research and in natural sciences.

The precondition for research to be experimental is that it should meet the requirements for scientific research.

The requirements for scientific research are that the researcher must have control over the variables, careful measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.

An experiment involves making a change in the value of one variable – called the independent variable – and observing the effect of that change on another variable – called the dependent variable.

Using a fixed design, experimental methods can be confirmatory, seeking to prove or disprove a hypothesis, or explanatory, which would be discovering the effect of certain variables.

The variability and validity of experimental methods often depend on the ability to replicate the results from an experiment in similar situations and generalizing the findings to other similar situations.

You can, for example, test the psychological effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on people by asking them relevant questions during an interview.

You can also ask people to complete a questionnaire.

Responses to the questions can be measured in different ways, depending on the type and context of the experiment.

In the experimental methodology, generalization is referred to as “external validity”.

External validity means that the same results will be obtained with different groups and in different places.

You can imagine that external validity will not be easy to achieve.

This is mostly because of the number of different external variables that can influence your experiment.

The less external variables there are, the better will the chances be that you will achieve external validity.

Experiments can be experiments in a laboratory, field experiments or natural experiments.

Regardless of where the experiments are done, they require quite some planning and preparation.

Most, if not all, tests that are done in a laboratory are examples of experimental research.

Experiments in a laboratory

A laboratory experiment would be an experiment that is conducted under highly controlled conditions where accurate measurements are possible.

Laboratory experiments are mostly easy to replicate.

That is because standardized procedures and measurements of variables are used.

There are not many external variables over which you have no or little control.

Laboratory tests, however, do not always replicate real life, with the result that findings will probably not be generalizable outside the laboratory.

Field experiments

Field experiments are done in real-life environments.

The researcher still manipulates the independent variable but in a real-life setting.

Findings in field experiments should be generalizable to real-life settings.

A limitation of field experiments is that there will probably be many external variables that might bias the results.

Consequently, it would be difficult for other researchers to replicate the results.

Natural experiments

Natural experiments are also conducted in real-life environments.

They differ from field experiments in that the researcher cannot manipulate the independent variables – events occur as they would in real life.

Behavior in a natural experiment is more likely to reflect real life because of its natural setting.

It might be necessary for covert observation.

That is, the target group for the research does not know that they are being observed.

The reason for this is that people often behave differently when they know that they are being watched than they would normally behave.

This is even worse if they know that video footage is being taken of them.

Covert research can have ethical consequences which you should consider and remove in advance.

The researcher has no control over external variables that might bias the results.

Experiments in qualitative research

The parallel in qualitative research is when a part or the whole qualitative research study is the subject of attempted replication of a phenomenon or event.

For example, within a single qualitative research study, replication can sometimes be achieved by conducting more than one of the same or at least similar case studies.

The more similar the findings from the cases, the more a replication might be claimed.

However, replication is not always possible because of the dynamic nature of human phenomena.

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with experimental methods include behaviourism, empiricism, modernism, phenomenology, scientism and symbolic interactionism.


In experimental research:

  1. You, as the researcher, manipulate the conditions for the research.
  2. You must have control over the variables.
  3. Careful measurement of phenomena or behavior will be necessary.
  4. You will need to establish a cause and effect relationship.
  5. External validity will not be easy to achieve.

Experimental methods can be confirmatory or explanatory.

An independent variable is the input variable, whereas the dependent variable is the outcome variable – the result.

It is not easy to achieve external validity with any of the experimental research types.

That is because of differences in variables between the place where the experiment is done and real-life conditions.

Experiments can be experiments in a laboratory, field experiments or natural experiments.

The conclusions of experimental methods can be achieved through qualitative research.


In closing,

I used one additional source of information for this article. That is McLeod, S.A. (2012, Jan 14) Experimental method. Simply psychology: https://www.simplypsychology/org/experimental-method.html. I accessed the source on 10 March 2020.

The main source of information that I use for all my articles and videos on Ph. D. and master’s degree research is my book entitled Preparing Qualitative Research Reports.

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ARTICLE 27: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Ethnography

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Why would academics do research about people that they probably regard as inferior?

In a positive vein, probably because they want to help those who are less fortunate than them.

Did the researchers ask the people if they needed or wanted help?

I would think yes, at least most of the time. But not always.

And if the researchers try to help, will they do the right thing?

Unfortunately, not always.

I think it can be humiliating and frustrating to have outsiders dissect your value system and the way you have lived for centuries.

And then they tell you how you should live and what you should do.

Remember, these people know their culture and way of life and they are watching you while you observe them.

Sometimes it can be funny, but it can also be embarrassing and lead to serious damage and harm to both the people being researched and the researcher.

It is not easy for an outsider to understand the culture and being of another population group.

People with a populist orientation will probably feel that such differences are not important and that it should be eliminated.

That, however, is not the reality for many nations.

For an outsider ethnography as a research method is much more difficult than we think. That is also why many researchers embarrassed themselves when they tried to tell the world how people from other cultures think, live and do things.

What is ethnography?

Some may regard ethnography and ethnomethodology as the same thing.

They are not entirely wrong.

Ethnomethodology is the philosophy behind ethnic research.

Ethnomethodology claims that research deals with everyday life amongst people in a social setting; where currently observed behavior and interaction provides the most accurate and valid data.

For the purposes of this post, ethnomethodology is regarded as a paradigm that can be used with ethnography, which is a research method.

Ethnography, therefore, is the method by which ethnic research is conducted.

I will discuss ethnomethodology as a paradigm in a future post.

How did ethnography begin?

Ethnography mostly has colonialism as its foundation.

It relates to distant cultures that were occupied by the seafaring nations, largely between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Colonialism came to an end in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The influence of colonization can still be seen in what used to be colonies and is popular as a topic of research.

Unfortunately, some researchers call any kind of quantitative research ethnography.

Ethnography has traditionally been associated with social and cultural anthropology.

Sources consulted in ethnography

Ethnographic research sometimes needs to be done through semi-structured interviews or literature study that will include official documents.

This can include historical data and not just current observations.

The process of ethnographic study

Ethnography encompasses forms of research that are extremely diverse from a methodological point of view.

Ethnography can have a contemporary or historical focus.

It is the aim of ethnography to establish the hidden inferences that distinguish, for example, different eating habits.

Such a phenomenon is then placed in its social and cultural context.

Ethnography, therefore, is oriented toward studying shared meanings and practices, or culture.

As a researcher, you might need to study a community for a long period, perhaps years to gain some understanding of their culture and value system.

Although ethnography is traditionally associated with long-term fieldwork, some aspects are employed in applied settings.

Applied, or current settings require a naturalistic research approach.

Observing individual and group behavior in its natural context and participating in that context can generate insights that might otherwise have eluded you.

Ethnography follows a holistic perspective, based on the premise that human behavior and culture are complicated phenomena and are composed of, and influenced by, a multitude of factors.

These might include historical precedents, the physical context in which people live and work, the social structures in which individuals are embedded and the symbolic environment in which they act.

Ethnography assumes that all human behavior is intentional and observable.

Research should, therefore, be oriented towards understanding the reasoning behind people’s actions.

This means that you, as the researcher, and often not a member of the community, will probably spend time living in the community observing and doing in-depth interviews, reading and researching primary source material and observing the lives of the people that you wish to study.

Eventually, you will compile all this data and analysis to create a full picture of the group you are studying.

The picture includes not only reporting what people do or say but also some analysis that tells us about the social structure and worldview of the community.

You should not disrupt the environment or routine of the target for your research.

This means that you, as the researcher, might need to be “invisible” and involve yourself in unobtrusive observation.

In this instance, an etic approach will probably be more effective than an emic approach.

You will need to establish trust and rapport between you and those whom you do research on.

Also, you should guard against becoming emotionally involved with the target group for your research because it might cloud your judgement.

Research reports are in the form of a narrative, with key evidence, such as detailed descriptions of episodes, being reproduced to illustrate your findings and recommendations.

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with ethnography include relativism, behaviorism, constructivism, critical race theory, critical theory, ethnomethodology and post-colonialism.


Ethnography literary means “to write about a group of people”.

Research topics and problem statements or questions require the study of social and cultural processes and shared meanings within a group of people.

Participant observation is the method most used in ethnographic research.

Normally ethnographers will spend lots of time in the field to study the lives of people from within their naturalistic setting.

The “thick” detail of the data that you can obtain through participant observation usually fulfils the key criterion of validity far better than data obtained by other methods.

Ethnographic research can also consult data sources such as interviews and literature studies.

It also offers flexibility and can provide the basis for inductively generating new theoretical explanations.

Ethnographic research can:

  • follow a qualitative or quantitative approach,
  • will probably follow an etic approach, although an emic approach would also be possible, and
  • can be done by one or a group of researchers.
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ARTICLE 26: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Conceptual studies

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Is prostitution all bad?

Are all prostitutes bad people?

When is a person a prostitute?

In laymen’s terms, one would probably call subjective answers to questions like these “labelling the individual”.

The label can easily become a concept for academic research.

Concepts are the elements of which theories are composed.

Also, concepts are symbolic and abstract elements that represent objects, or features of objects, processes, or phenomena.

If prostitution is the topic of your research, you might need to identify characteristics that will define such a person.

Concepts may introduce new ideas or perspectives.

They may also be a means of explaining a broad generalization.

You might, for example, discover through your studies that prostitutes are not all bad, which might question the rather general perception that a prostitute can only be defined in terms of bad characteristics.

In terms of ideas, concepts are important because they are the foundation of communication and thought.

Concepts provide a means for people to let others know what they are thinking and allow information to be shared.

By conceptualizing a set of behaviors or ideas as part of a coherent package, we can describe a range of possible ideas, relations and outcomes with a single term.

Examples of such terms are sociopaths, delinquents, criminals, rapists, altruists, serial murderers, etc.

Conceptual studies are largely based on secondary sources that you, as a researcher, may consult to gain an understanding of concepts.

They aim to add to your existing knowledge and understanding.

An in-depth critical analysis of the literature is intrinsic to concept analysis.

Apart from books and documents, maps and air photos can also be sources of data for concept analysis.

Conceptual cartography takes the process of critical analysis further because maps are both analytical tools and products of concept analysis.

Conceptual studies can comfortably use the interpretivist paradigms, for example, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, interpretivism.

Some critical paradigms, for example, feminism, can also be used.  

The classical concepts analysis-type studies follow a step-by-step procedure.

The following are possible steps:

Step 1: Select the concept.

The concept may be prostitutes, whom you would describe in terms of certain characteristics.

Step 2: Identify the purpose of the analysis.

The purpose of your analysis might, for example, be to determine real and objective characteristics of what defines a person as a prostitute.

Step 3: Analyze the concept’s range of meanings.

You will need to keep an open mind when doing research through conceptual studies.

Kill your preconceived perceptions.

Do not be judgmental.

Let your research discover the range of meanings for you.

Step 4: Determine the critical attributes of the concept.

Critical attributes can also be subjective if you do not wipe out your perceptions and believe the data that you collected.

You will need to consult unbiased sources of information.

Step 5: Select a paradigmatic approach.

Interpretivist paradigms are mostly best for conceptual studies because they accept conversation and personal opinions as data.

Step 6: Construct additional cases.

It would not be a good idea to study just one prostitute, although this is also possible, depending on the purpose of your research.

However, corroboration can be found best by comparing case studies and consulting a variety of data sources.

Step 7: Identify antecedents and consequences.

Real-life experiences can often be the best evidence in social research.

Even natural scientists look for actual cause and effect occurrences in their research.


Conceptual studies:

  1. Tend to be abstract, philosophical and rich in theoretical underpinnings.
  2. Are the foundation of communication and thought.
  3. Are largely based on secondary sources of data.
  4. Follow a step-by-step research procedure.

Concepts are the building blocks from which theories are constructed.

They can also be the symbolic and abstract elements of theories.

Conceptual studies aim to:

  1. Add to existing knowledge and understanding.
  2. Introduce new ideas and perspectives.
  3. Explain broad generalizations.
  4. Describe a range of ideas in a single term.
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ARTICLE 44: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Constructivism

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


One certainty about post-graduate research is that there is no guarantee that you will succeed.

Many students do not even start because they are afraid that they might fail.

And the uncertainty coupled with the fear of failure after you have done a lot of work causes many students to not even start.

Constructivism is a simple paradigm with lots of promise of success.

Although there is still no guarantee, you can at least embark on your studies in the knowledge that you will have a fair chance to show what you are capable of.

What is more attractive to an intelligent and creative researcher than the opportunity to use his or her mind to develop new knowledge and understanding?

The work will still be a challenge, but thanks to constructivism, not an insurmountable one.


Constructivism is a rather liberal paradigm, that allows the researcher to create new knowledge and understanding through cognitive reasoning.

It claims that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

We reconcile new observations and experiences with our previous ideas and experiences.

This might change our perceptions, or the new information and experiences might be discarded.

How we respond to new information and experiences depends on how we process the data in our minds.

This means that we create our own knowledge by asking questions and exploring things.

To compensate for the subjectivity of constructivism, you need to pay special attention to ethics.

The way in which you collect, and construct, data are prerequisites for the validity and accuracy of your analysis.

Also, the quality of data and the way in which it is analyzed determine how reality is interpreted.

Constructivism is mostly used with grounded theory methodology.

Human interests are important for research purposes.

Therefore, constructivism can also be used with several other research methods.

For example, action research, case study research, ethnography, etc.

A multitude of data collection methods can be used.

For example, interviews, participant observation, artifacts and almost any documents that are relevant to the field of study can be consulted.

The aim of research using constructivism is often to understand situations or phenomena, not only to create new knowledge.

Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed.

It involves a researcher collaborating with participants.

That is an emic approach.

For those who might not be familiar with the etic and emic approaches to research – an emic approach is where the researcher works with the target group for the research.

She or he can even become part of the target group.

In an etic approach, the researcher observes the target group from the outside.

The interaction of several people is researched in their context or setting.

It mostly involves the social problems of the target group for the research.

The accuracy of research findings is validated and creates an agenda for change or reform.

This entails a rather well-known sequence of steps that are followed in most qualitative research methodologies.

The following are typical steps:

  • Identify human interests.
  • Formulate the aim of the research.
  • Gather rich data.
  • Collaborate with participants.
  • Research target group interaction.
  • Validate the accuracy of the findings.
  • Create an agenda for change or reform.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

For example, like positivism constructivism also uses observation to gather information.

Different from positivism, which argues that knowledge is generated in a scientific method, constructivism generates knowledge in an interpretive manner.

There are other differences between constructivism and positivism.

Constructivism prefers an emic approach while positivism is equally comfortable with an emic and an etic approach.

Constructivism prefers qualitative research while positivism prefers quantitative research.

Although some academics claim that constructivism can be positively associated with behaviorism, the link is rather weak and unconvincing.

Very well, behaviorism also uses observation to collect data, but behaviorism does not make use of reflection while constructivism does.

Then again, radical behaviorism makes use of reflection.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism, also because of the lack of reflection.

Constructivism is widely criticized for its lack of value in education and its lack of balance when used as a philosophy in research.

In education, it can lead to group thinking when one or a few prominent educators propagate a process or concept as “the only truth”.

Constructivists sometimes place too much emphasis on sensory experience at the expense of reflection.

This means that constructivists sometimes focus strongly on the ontology, that is “what is” and neglect the epistemology, that is the “why” and the “how” of a phenomenon.

Because of this, knowledge is sometimes not sufficiently proven to be valid and accurate.

Some academics integrate constructivism with other paradigms.

Others regard such integration as robbing constructivism of its identity.

The third group of academics feels that integrating constructivism with other paradigms enhances the philosophical strength of the research process.


Constructivism requires intelligent cognitive reasoning.

People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection.

The aim of constructivism is to understand situations and phenomena.

Research often involves creating change or reform.

Ethics and human interests are important in constructivism.

Constructivism makes use of many data collection methods.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism.

Constructivism is criticized for:

  • Not having much value in education.
  • Lack of balance.
  • Too much emphasis on sensory experiences.
  • New knowledge not always been proven as valid and accurate.
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