ARTICLE 73: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Contextualising your Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Let’s say you plan on conducting research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the social interaction between people.

Do you think your findings will be the same if you were to do the research in a large city compared to a jungle village in central Africa?

Do you think your findings will be the same for any one population for different seasons?

Do you think your findings will be the same ten years from now as they are now?

I will discuss contextualising your research in this article.

Research is always done in a context.

The context can be expressed as the scope or limits of the research. Teaching and learning, for example, are managed and administered on local, regional and national level so that we can also do research on one or more of these levels.

Context can also be a geographical area, for example a suburb, a city, a country or perhaps even the whole world. Choosing a context for your research can be compared to weightlifting. If you put too little weight on the bar, your performance will be insignificant. If you try to lift too much you might fail and can even injure yourself.

Therefore, keep in mind that, the wider the context for your research, the more likely will your research topic not be viable.

Natural scientists often claim that their findings are valid regardless of time or context. This would mean that the knowledge, principles, tenets, laws, etc. that they develop are not dependent on context. It does not mean that context does not exist but rather that their findings apply to all, or at least most, contexts.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of a context that has an impact on almost all fields of study. Phenomena and events are in many ways different in terms of social, economic, financial, legislative, political, environmental and many other conditions than when the virus was not present.   

Depending on the level of your research, you can narrow down the limits even further by deciding on and describing the appropriate structures, stakeholders and social groups involved in the topic being researched as well as related services that will be included in the research. You can go even further by deciding if the research will be done on a micro (going into much detail) or macro (addressing only some broader issues) level.

Once you have decided on the scope and limits of your research, it will be easier to also decide who and what you will include in your data collection efforts. Unless you already know your participants well, for example if they all come from the organisation in which you work, you will need to collect and record relevant information from appropriate groups. The target group for your research will probably be stakeholders in the project.

This information must be properly structured and updated to ensure that you do not get some unpleasant surprises when you start collecting data on your research topic. It can, for example, happen that you have in mind interviewing miners at a particular mine only to find that the mine ceased operating since you last had contact with the people working there.

You also need to contextualise your research in terms of time. It serves no purpose conducting research on historical events and trends if it is something for which there is no further need. Your conclusions might not apply to the current situation if the situation or people’s needs changed. You need to base your research on current developments and how it impacts on the members of the target group, unless your research is historical.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also a good example of a situation that exists during a particular period. The world did not have the pandemic before 2020 and everybody is hoping that it will disappear at some stage. Research can also now already be done about what to expect after the current pandemic.

Research always needs to be followed up. This means that your research findings need to be communicated to other stakeholders if it is to be of any value to the community. Remember that the community in which the research is done forms an integral and important part of the context of your research, so that you need to explain your research findings to the members of the target group or whoever else were participants in your research.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economies of different countries or different business sectors might not be the same, in the event of which findings will be inconsistent in terms of the context. If your findings apply to the entire world, they will be consistent in terms of the context. If the pandemic dissipates, or is replaced by an even more severe virus, findings that apply now might not apply any longer, say three months from now. Your findings will then be inconsistent over time. If the virus stays with us and becomes the so-called “new reality” then your findings will be consistent over time.


Research always applies to a specific context.

The impact of context is often more dynamic and inconsistent on qualitative research than on quantitative research.

The more narrowly the limits for your research are defined, the less generalisable will your findings probably be and the other way around.

The scope for your research represents the context in terms of the purpose of your research.

The limits of your research refer to the boundaries, or target for your research.

The data that you collect must be valid.

You need to specify the period on which you will conduct research.

You must point out in your thesis or dissertation if your findings are timeless or valid for only a certain period.

Your research findings will be worthless if you do not share your findings with stakeholders.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time.

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