ARTICLE 52: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Humanism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

No other paradigm demonstrates as vividly as humanism how radically context, time and motives can impact om the nature of truth.

Under the guise of the promotion and protection of human rights, humanism can be used to promote selfish, often political motives.

Humanism can claim human right in an aggressive and racist manner.

Even so, humanism can also be used for constructive, ethical and honest purposes.

Such is the power of this paradigm.

I discuss the nature and elements of humanism in this post.


Humanism is a set of subject matter and arguments on social relationships emerging from ‘enlightenment’.

It is a socio-political doctrine that is not restricted to the boundaries of one society.

It is, furthermore, a cross-cultural concept with internal issues that cover and include all of humankind.

Essentially, it deals with issues concerning human beings.

Like all other paradigms, humanism developed and evolved over time.

We can now define it as an ethical and democratic attitude towards life through which human beings give meaning to life.

It supports the building of a humane society based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry.

Humanism relies to a large extent on reason and logic.

Except for African humanism, it rejects concepts such as superstition and the supernatural.

It is not a concept that drives humankind’s lifestyle as, for example, rationalism does.

Even so, it is a guiding principle for life.

Humanism belongs to the group of interpretivist paradigms.

Different from technicist paradigms, that mostly identify and describe the causes for events and phenomena, humanism seeks to find the reasons for events and phenomena.

Theory consists of explanation and understanding.

Explanation seeks to make event and phenomena “predictable” through knowledge of their causes.

Understanding seeks to make events and phenomena intelligible through knowledge of their causes, intentions, purpose and meaning.

That is, its epistemology.

The inclusion of understanding expands the boundaries of theory and research to include not only the search for causes of behaviour, but also the task of seeking to grasp its underlying rationale.

The process of conducting research involves developing theory rather than discovering, creating or uncovering meaning.

The researcher needs to utilize observations and experiences to uplift the experiences of the community into academic theory.

It is not always easy to articulate the goals, assumptions, intentions and values of the community to the academic validity, authenticity and accuracy that the researcher is looking for.

Theory is often presented in the form of narratives.

A narrative is an integral way in which human intelligence organizes experience to grasp its meaning.

It usually takes the form of a descriptive diagnosis of a situation.

The value and validity of this type of theorizing is frequently experienced as revelation, the so-called ‘Ah-Ha’ experience.

Sense-making is regarded as a process of creation.

The sense-making function of theory introduces the notion of the construction of social reality.

This implies that the principles and values by which people live are corrigible products of the human mind.

This means that it is subject to constant re-thinking and review.

From a humanistic perspective, the search for independent, antecedent cause will never be enough to explain behaviour because a more complete understanding depends on comprehending the aims, purposes and intentions of the individual.

Intentions are influenced by historical events.

However, intentions are mostly deduced from observation of the evolvement of events and phenomena.

People are not bound by the past.

They adapt and grow as they gain knowledge and experience.

Humanistic views make a distinction between how humanity reacts to themselves within a historical context, whilst affected by a philosophical concept.

People are free to do things the way they want to and to make their own decisions.

Consequently, it is difficult to predict how people will behave and respond to external stimuli.

Although not always predictable, people’s behaviour is often intelligible and decipherable.

To understand the meaning of behaviour, you, as the researcher, will need to look beyond prior causes to search for the research target’s purposes and motives.

Although humanism starts from assumptions, findings still need to be corroborated.

Accuracy, validity and authenticity are important if it is to be accepted as scientific research.

Humanism does not seek generalizability.

Theory and research are used to sharpen, highlight and bring to the foreground as many aspects as possible that make the situation being investigated unique, distinct and different from other situations.

In this respect humanism can be associated with action research.

The sensitizing aspect of humanistic research can also be found in ethnomethodology.

Like interpretivism and hermeneutics, humanism accept assumptions as data and deliberately make such assumptions explicit by developing them into theory through observation and experience.

Humanism can also be associated with critical theory because it seeks to call attention to the problems and deformations of the status quo in communities.

The status quo is challenged by pointing out the gap between it and a preferred state.

Especially academics who support technicist paradigmatic approaches criticize humanism for being ‘essentially contestable’.

Consequently, positivism, scientism and modernism are opposed to humanism.

Different forms of humanism have developed through time.

The following are such forms:

  1. Literary humanism.

Literary humanism is a devotion to the humanities of literature culture.

  • Rennaissance humanism.

Renaissance humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of classical letters and the renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.

  • Cultural humanism.

Cultural humanism is the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome.

It evolved through European history, and now constitutes a basic part of the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics and law.

  • Philosophical humanism.

Philosophical humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human needs and interests.

  • Christian humanism.

Christian humanism is a philosophy advocating the self-fulfillment of the human being within the framework of Christian principles.

  • Modern humanism.

Modern humanism is also called Naturalistic humanism, Scientific humanism, Ethical humanism and Democratic humanism.

It is a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.

Modern humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories.

Christian humanism and Modern humanism are sub-categories of Philosophical humanism.

  • Secular humanism.

Secular humanism is an outgrowth of the eighteenth-century enlightenment rationalism and nineteenth-century freethought.

  • Religious humanism.

Religious humanism emerged out of ethical culture, unitarianism, and universalism.

  • Civic humanism.

Civic humanism is a historiographical construct.

A multitude of academics and philosophers played a role in the development of the sub-paradigm.

Civic humanism places a great emphasis on the human beings as actively engaged in the world as the center of power.

It considers the human beings as the greatest living beings on earth.

They should rule the world and all other living beings on it.

Human beings display moral and intellectual commitment to maintain examined control through thoughts, intentions and actions.

They are responsible for the stability of nature and the relationships between human beings.

This entails a commitment to an examined life of reasoned consistency in intellectual, practical and moral life.

It generates a common style in the mastery of self, or nature by the rational anticipation of effects.

  1. African humanism.

Research based on an appreciation of African tradition is concerned with human values that are broadly recognized as part of African culture, such as a sense of identity as inseparable from one’s community and a strong sense of collective being and consciousness.

In this context, a person’s merit is judged in terms of his or her kindness and good character, generosity, hard work, discipline, honour and respect, and living in harmony.

South Africans know this philosophy as Batho Pele.

African humanism disagrees with ‘scientific objectivity’ and determinism.

For example, understanding causal relations and the prediction of behaviour are not necessarily primary objectives of research.

Causality may be understood in everyday terms or in the light of African cosmology (belief systems) and does not demand laboratory proof.

The methodology of scientific experimentation is viewed as overlooking levels of human experience which may facilitate transcending forms of existence, such as spiritual and ritualistic dimensions of human life.

African humanism is criticized as being a value system rather than a research paradigm because it cannot be widely generalized, its obsession with an African identity and empowerment, its subjectivity and lack of academic consistency.

Summary of Humanism

Humanism deals with issues concerning human beings. It is:

  1. A set of subject matter and arguments.
  2. A socio-political doctrine.
  3. A cross-cultural concept.
  4. A guiding principle for life.


  1. Stands for building a more humane society.
  2. Relies to a large extent on reason and logic.
  3. Mostly rejects abstract concepts like superstition and the supernatural.
  4. Seeks reasons for events and phenomena.
  5. Seeks to make events and phenomena intelligible through epistemology.
  6. Takes history and assumptions into consideration.
  7. Is associated with interpretivism, hermeneutics, action research, ethnomethodology and critical theory.
  8. Is opposed to positivism, scientism and modernism.
  9. Deduces intentions from observation, experience and development.
  10. Presents theory in the form of narratives.
  11. Values sense-making and a process of creation.
  12. Constantly rethinks and reviews human behaviour.
  13. Strives for accuracy, validity and authenticity through corroboration.
  14. Develops rather than to discover, create or uncover meaning.
  15. Do not seek generalizability.

Different forms of humanism have developed through time. The following are such forms:

  1. Literary humanism.
  2. Rennaissance humanism.
  3. Cultural humanism.
  4. Philosophical humanism.
  5. Christian humanism.
  6. Modern humanism.
  7. Secular humanism.
  8. Religious humanism.
  9. Civic humanism.
  10. African humanism.

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