ARTICLE 65: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Radicalism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Can a drive to achieve change be justified if it is radical?

Is “being radical” not an indication that the motives for the drive might be suspect?

Does it not mean that one group is trying to enforce its will on other people?

Will such a drive not lead to resistance?

Do people who become involved in a radical campaign consider the origin and merit of the drive?

Or do they just participate because it is fashionable or because they are the victims of mass hysteria?

I discuss radicalism in this article.

The increasing occurrence of radical actions, for example by university students and the communities at large campaigning for certain privileges and against corruption and other ills in many countries brought radicalism as a paradigm to the fore. Some researchers regard radicalism as a research method. Radical research focuses on understanding the need to change existing situations and practices from a transformative socio-economic perspective.

At the individual level people tend to think in terms of their own interests. According to radicalist thinking this can be managed. In addition, the way people behave is largely determined by their respective levels of academic development and financial capacity. Consequently, people in organisations treat one another according to their status, which is to some extent determined by their qualifications and income.

Research using radicalism as a paradigm mostly investigates social arrangements between people, for example nations, communities, student groups, etc. The epistemological aim of such research would be to analyse and improve the knowledge of people about emancipation and change.

Research is conducted on groups to investigate the nature and behaviour of such groups. Radical research can also be used to do research on individuals, for example to help people “fit in” with a particular group or community or to determine why individuals do or do not fit in with a particular social setting. The higher up the community hierarchy level the target group for the research is, the more difficult it becomes to institute radical change. It would, for example, be much easier to radically change the policies of a university than the policies of a country.

Key elements of radical research include covering a network of role players, continuous fieldwork, a bottom-up perspective, studying real events, a networked design process, using a prototype that is as real as possible, real world evaluation and becoming part of innovation initiatives. As many role players as possible should be included in the target group for radical research. This is necessary to gain deep insight into the relationships and interactions across the network of organisations relevant to the research topic.

Even though examples of real work provide the best research results, mock-ups and prototypes may be used to address specific issues related to the research, for example when setting up real scenarios would be too expensive, time-consuming or impractical. However, prototypes should be as close to the real item as possible to be relevant.

You should follow your research up by providing role players with feedback, and fieldwork should be spread over a period rather than just one or two short interventions. Fieldwork requires the study of real events. Simulated activities do not provide as accurate information as real work.

Real work conditions are subject to many more unexpected occurrences than simulated conditions or scenarios. Even small and routine incidents are dynamic and coloured by many complex issues that might impact on the research. Although observation while an activity takes place will provide the best information, inspections after the fact might sometimes be necessary as a second-best option.

Radical research follows a bottom-up perspective. Many of the good insights and important aspects relevant to the research can be found on grass-root levels in organisations. You can cover rich descriptions and relevant insights by focusing on people who work with issues relevant to the research daily. Although higher level managers should also form part of the target group, rich information about management can be obtained from people on lower levels in the organisation. 

A networked design process is used in radical research. A design perspective enables you to move from a descriptive to a constructive focus. Design workshops, prototyping and early evaluations and focused field work may be conducted to cover newly found aspects that are important. All target groups in the research are not necessarily linked or even aware of one another.

In radical research, you should become part of innovation initiatives. Maintaining a strong and close relationship to the target group enables you to study real world responses and events. Having the opportunity to follow an innovation project from the inside is a good way to get access to underlying assumptions and real-world challenges, organisational issues, financial aspects, etc. Radicalism cannot be applied with the same measure of success in all fields of research. The less a field of research deals with human interaction, the less applicable will a radicalist paradigmatic approach be.

Because of its focus on positive change, radicalism is associated with critical theory, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, romanticism and critical race theory.

One can perhaps argue that the technicist paradigms, namely rationalism, positivism, scientism and modernism are in opposition to radicalism because of a difference in research methods. Radicalism favours qualitative research methods, although it can also be used with quantitative research methods.

The inequalities between people in a community sometimes lead to advocacy campaigns to eliminate or at least reduce discrimination against minorities or otherwise disadvantaged members of the community. However, radical change in a short space of time is mostly difficult to achieve because of the large number of variables involved.

We increasingly witness advocacy campaigns that try to speed up the change by keeping the drive running at an intense level for as long as they possibly can.


Radicalism is a social arrangement aimed at emancipation and change.

People are treated in accordance with their status in the community or group.

Organisational structured are hierarchical and stratified.

Individual self-centredness is managed.

Radicalism studies real events.

A bottom-up perspective is followed.

Continuous fieldwork is done.

Deep and rich insight are sought.

An emic approach towards the target for the research is preferred.

Groups are mostly researched.

A network of role players is covered.

Radicalism is associated with neoliberalism, feminism, post-colonialism, romanticism, critical theory and critical race theory.

Radicalism is opposed to scientism, positivism, modernism and rationalism.

Criticism against radicalism includes:

  1. That it does not apply equally to all fields of research.
  2. That large numbers of variables are involved in change, making it difficult to achieve permanent change.
  3. And that it is difficult to institute radical change on high levels in society.

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