Learning and Development Ethics: Article 5 of 9

Written by Hannes Nel

Introduction. This article deals with:

  • Blaming others when things go wrong.
  • Being truthful.

Stop blaming others for things that go wrong. Assigning blame is a destructive action that causes defensiveness and shapes an environment in which learners and staff members become afraid to try innovation, creativity and risk taking. The instinctive reaction when someone in the learning institution makes a mistake that costs the organization money or perhaps even customers is to put the blame on the person who is regarded as being responsible for the damage. Often this person is just a scapegoat, and often it is the “real culprit” who points the finger first.

You need to keep in mind that all human beings make mistakes from time to time and you might well lose a staff member who could have done great work if you dealt with the incident in a more objective and mature manner. Mistakes need to be investigated and honest mistakes need to be treated differently from mistakes made with intent to do damage to the organisation or an individual. You need to show that you trust the unlucky staff member, unless intent can be proven.

Others can always learn from the mistakes made by an individual or even a group. Lessons learned should therefore be shared, keeping in mind that the person or persons who made the mistake are entitled to fair and respectful treatment. You can speak to the individual or group who made the mistake privately if necessary. Show empathy to help diffuse the tension and let the person know that you understand when the mistake was just an honest one. Also keep in mind that you should give credit for work well done. 

Be truthful. Lying is often the gut-level defensive reaction to a perceived threat. When you feel the desire to hide the truth, take time to jot down what you will get out of a trusting relationship versus the short-term gain you might get by evading the truth. Lying begins a risky cycle that breaks down trust and encourages more lying. The long-term impact on you and the learning institution is never worth the perceived short-term escape.

The internal ability to distinguish between right and wrong develops from an early age. Your conscience recognizes certain principles that lead to feelings of guilt if you violate them.

Close. In closing, you can easily act objectively and ethically by just focusing more on serving others than just satisfying your own needs. Life is often “wired” in such a way that the opposite of what you expect happens. By serving others you stand to benefit the most and by being selfish you actually do yourself serious damage on many different levels.

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Research Paradigms: Postmodernism

I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Postmodernism.

postmodernismPostmodernism gradually became popular from the 1950s onwards. It brought with it a questioning of the premodernism and modernism. Instead of relying on one approach to knowing, postmodernists support a pluralistic epistemology which utilises multiple ways of knowing. This can include elements of premodernism and modernism along with many other ways of knowing, for example intuition, relational and spiritual. Postmodern approaches seek to deconstruct previous authority sources of power, for example the church and government. Because power is distrusted, postmodernists try to set up a less hierarchical approach in which authority sources are more diffuse.

Postmodernism is applied mainly in the artistic and social sciences. It consists of a loose alliance of intellectual perspectives which collectively pose a challenging critique of the fundamental premises on which modernism, specifically the scientific research method, is based. It is a broad term that encompasses many different approaches, most of them valuing uncertainty, disorder, indeterminacy and regression rather than progress. Even proponents of postmodernism do not always agree on what it really means. There are progressive and conservative postmodernists. Some postmodernists seek reaction while others seek resistance. Then there are those who strive for reform and others who like to disrupt the status quo.

Postmodernism is more than just a philosophical movement. Postmodernism is open to notions of discontinuity and rupture. It rejects the notion that science can be viewed as objective. Science, according to postmodernists, is not universal and will, therefore, not help us overcome conflict. Science is also, according to them, not the paradigm of all true knowledge.

Postmodernists reject the idea of a fixed, universal and eternal foundation to reality. They argue that because reality is in part culturally dependent and culture changes over time and varies from community to community, we can logically assume that reality is not the same for everybody. Knowledge is fundamentally fragmented and unstable. Narratives of truth and knowledge are deconstructed. Convention is challenged, research styles are mixed, ambiguity is tolerated, diversity is emphasised, innovation and change are embraced, and multiple realities are focused on. Postmodernism rejects the possibility that we can have objective knowledge. Postmodernism values the subjective and multiple opinions of individuals and communities rather than predetermined rules for action. It assigns value to multiple meanings rather than the single, authoritative voice of the expert researcher. This is because what we call knowledge has to be made with the linguistic and other meaning-making resources of a particular culture, and different cultures can see the world in different ways. Language is fluid and arbitrary and rooted in power or knowledge relations. Meaning is, therefore, also fluid and “messy”. Following on from this reasoning, postmodernists caution that we should be careful with generalisations, even when it comes to words such as “many”, “most” or “often”.

Postmodernism rejects the emphasis on rational discovery through the scientific method. Postmodernism replaces rational discovery through scientific research with respect for difference and a celebration of the local and at the expense of the universal. It accepts that reality is socially constructed, but claims that it does not exist objectively in the external environment, simply to be copied in our thoughts. Reality is a human creation.

Generally, postmodernism accept the basic ontological assumption of relativism and claims that there can be no “objective” or final truth as all “truth” is a socially constructed entity. This does not mean that just anything can be accepted as truth. All knowledge of reality bears the mark of human culture, personality and biology, and these cannot be separated from what a specific group of people or culture would call knowledge. In addition, it is asserted that we construct reality in accordance with our needs, interests, prejudices and cultural traditions. Although some postmodernists would like us to believe that reality is entirely a human construct, such a statement stand in contrast to the propositions put forward by other postmodernists.

Postmodernism views “facts” and “values” as interactive. If we accept that reality is in part socially constructed then we can postulate an interactive view of reality consisting of “facts” and “values” with no sharp fact-value distinction. All factual statements reflect the values they serve, and all value beliefs are conditioned by factual assumptions. What we call facts are only somewhat less value-determined, but they are not independent of values. Stated differently, our endeavour is not to find absolute truths or facts, but the best approximation of truth as it applies to a specific group in a specific situation and a specific time. To some degree this corresponds with Foucoult’s notion that knowledge and power cannot be separated, since knowledge embodies the values of those who are powerful enough to create and disseminate it.

Reason and science are seen as simply myths created by man. Postmodernism argues that what we call knowledge is a special kind of story that puts together words and images in ways that portray the perspective of a particular culture or some relatively powerful members of that culture. For this reason we have to deconstruct text to uncover the hidden or intended meanings and discourse. Universal, objective truth does not exist. All judgements of truth exist within a cultural context. This sometimes also called “cultural relativism”.

The idea of a socially constructed reality leads directly to a radical shift in the idea of method. Some postmodernists hold that a method not only discovers a part of reality, it simultaneously constructs it. No longer do we see ourselves as seeking to uncover a pre-existing reality, but rather as involved in an interactive process of knowledge creation. As researchers we are part of developing a “working understanding” of reality and life, and what we arrive at is in part autobiographical: it reflects our “personal narrative”, our particular “site and voice” in the world. The knowledge thus constructed refers more to probability than to certainty. It is constantly changing as each individual or group gives a particular interpretation to it, reflecting distinctive needs and experiences.

In closing, not all researchers support the idea of postmodernism. According to the opponents of postmodernism the approach is too tentative, too inconclusive and too frivolous.

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Paradigmatic Approaches: Premodernism

FEMALE STUDENTI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Premodernism.

Premodernism, modernism and postmodernism can be seen as periods of time and as philosophical systems. We will largely discuss and use them as paradigms or philosophies. Premodernism, which was the dominant philosophy approximately until 1650, was based upon revealed knowledge from authoritative sources. It was believed that ultimate truth could be known and the way to this knowledge is through direct revelation. This direct revelation was believed to come from a god with a church as the primary authority source.

Premodernists see the world as a totality with a unified purpose. The human being is seen as part of the whole, which is greater than its parts. Premodernists strive to progress away from historical developments. As part of the whole human beings also share the blame for the mistakes that the collective made through history. The rationale for this is that each individual is personally and collectively responsible to act morally correct. However, there is no distinction between individual and collective responsibility.

Premodernism, postmodernism and modernism as such are philosophical approaches to life and the manner in which people and the world in which they live interact with one another. The researcher will inevitably follow one of the paradigmatic approaches even if not intentionally. More likely, though, you will position your research at a point where elements of different paradigms are found in your approach with an emphasis towards one or two of them.

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Research Paradigms: Behaviourism

soldier 15I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Behaviourism.


The foundation of behaviourism is that all human behaviour can be understood in terms of cause and effect. Both human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learned histories and reinforcement.


Social researchers may conduct research on behavioural and social processes. In addition to this, and regardless of whether behaviour and social processes are studied, the researcher need to keep in mind that research as such can inherently pose psychological and social challenges to the target group for the research. The latter means that the researcher needs to understand behavioural and social risks and take specific steps to ensure that the research does not pose a threat to the physical or psychological health of the people or even animals included in the target group for the research.


A behavioural approach to research can lead to the reinforcement of ideas of philosophies. This would be positive reinforcement. The opposite is also true – behaviourism can actually also refute ideas, which would mean negative reinforcement. Researchers mostly express their ideas as a hypothesis that needs to be proven or refuted through research.

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Research Paradigms: Functionalism

COOPERATIONBiological organisms have systems that perform various specialist and survival functions; similarly, social institutions “function” in a systematic and coherent way through their constituent elements to ensure their survival and optimal functioning. The mental state rather than the internal constitution of the researcher is important. This implies that motivation plays an important role in what the researcher would be willing to do to achieve success, i.e. the purpose of the research project.


Role differentiation and social solidarity are key elements in the smooth functioning of any organisation. This means that functionalism interprets each part of society in terms of how it contributes to the stability of the whole society. Society is more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, the contributions of all members of a society contribute to the performance of the society as a whole. Each individual plays an important part and the absence, or inability of each individual to contribute, detrimentally affects the performance of the community as a whole.


According to functionalism, an institution only exists because it serves an important role in the community. An individual or organisation that does not play a role in the community will not survive. This applies to individuals and groupings on all levels in society. The individual, families, clubs, schools, suburbs, cities, countries, etc. all will only survive if they add value to the community.


Organisations and societies evolve and adjust to changing conditions in order to ensure the continued, smooth, integrated functioning of all elements of the organisation or society. When new needs evolve or emerge, new organisations will be created to satisfy the new needs. When any part of the society is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the society as a whole, which leads to social change.

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Who took the cookie from the cookie pot?

ethicsWritten by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

They are at it again – students threatening to riot if they don’t get their way.

Everybody (well almost…) understands that university studies are expensive. However, claiming that government should pay for the studies is a terrible misconception. Government does not have money to pay tuition fees – taxpayers are the ones who pay. If tuition fees are increased government will simply increase taxes. If students are allowed to study for free – taxpayers will pay, not government. Students’ parents will pay more taxes and so will every other taxpayer. The end-result will be that tuition fees are spread more evenly in the sense that people who do not have children at university will now sponsor those who do. Those who can, for example most businesses, will simply increase the prices of the products or services that they sell. In the end the impact on the economy will be devastating. Ultimately it will be the most vulnerable and poor who will suffer the most because they cannot recuperate the added financial burden.

There are indications that the Minister of Higher Education and Training is already siphoning money from the National Skills Fund to universities. No doubt he will increasingly do so. The National Skills Fund is supposed to be used to pay for education and training in scarce and critical skills needs, i.e. occupational learning. After all, it is the industry that pays skills levies and it is they who should benefit from the levies. In the process private leaning institutions will suffer the most because few public learning institutions are willing and able to offer workplace related learning.  More importantly, workplace related learning, which the country needs the most, might collapse.

In closing, South Africa needs people who are trained to do specific jobs. We cannot afford to spend all the available money on academic education, especially not in fields that add little value to the workplace. Of course it would have been ideal if we could also cater for higher order knowledge and skills, but at the moment we need to focus on scarce and critical skills needs, which most university education is not.

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Research Paradigms: Interpretivism

EDU 10 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Interpretivism.


Interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics, 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.


Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective way in which to interpret data. 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.


Interpretivism is marked by three schools of thought in the social science research. They are phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism. All three schools of thought emphasise human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives, and suggest qualitative rather than quantitative approach to social research.

‘Phenomenology’ is a theoretical view point which believes that individual behaviour is determined by the experience gained out of one’s direct interaction with the phenomena. It rules out any kind of objective external reality. During interaction with various phenomena, human beings interpret them and attach meanings to different actions and or ideas and thereby construct new experiences. Therefore, the researcher has to develop empathic understanding to know the process of interpretation by individuals so that she or he can experience feelings, motives and thoughts that are behind the action of others.

‘Etnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre around the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction. This approach studies the process by which people invoke certain ‘take-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation and make it meaningful. They are mainly interested in the interpretation people use to make sense of social settings.

‘Symbolic interactionism’ emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions that take place between human beings. The peculiarity of this approach is that human beings interpret and define each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Human interaction in the social world is mediated by the use of symbols like language, which helps human beings to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only concentrating attention on individuals’ capacity to create symbolically meaningful objects in the world, human interaction and resulting patterns of social organisations can be understood. As a result, not only human beings change themselves through interaction, but also introduce change to societies.


The interpretive perspective is based on the following assumptions:

  • Interpretivism leans towards qualitative research. Precise, systematic and theoretical answers to complex human problems are not possible. They assert that every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analyses of the uniquely defined, particular contexts in which it is embedded. 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.
  • Human life can only be understood from within. Human activities cannot be observed from some external reality. 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. Social constructions such as language (including text and symbols), consciousness and shared meanings are used to gain access to and understanding of reality.

Interpretivism emphasises that 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. The interpretivist paradigm believes that reality is multi-layered and complex and a single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations.

In studying a phenomenon, research techniques are used that will help us understand how people interpret and interact within their social environment. 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); therefore are parallels with hermeneutics and phenomenology.

  • Social life is a distinctively human product. Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed. 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 interpret the meanings constructed.

Interpretivism pays attention to and value what people say, do and feel, and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched. Interpretivism foregrounds the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences. Patterns, trends and themes should therefore emerge from the research process, and the role the researcher 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 the purposive source of meaning. Interpretive research search for meaning in the activities of human beings. It is a form of qualitative research. In fact, 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.

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

  • Human behaviour is affected by knowledge of the social world. Interpretivism proposes that there are multiple and not single realities of phenomena and that these realities can differ across time and place. 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, as 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.
  • The social world does not “exist” independently of human knowledge. Our own understanding of phenomena constantly influence 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, and often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation. To conceive the world therefore as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our own endeavours.


In closing, the ultimate aim of intepretivist research is to offer a perspective of a situation and to analyse the situation under study to provide insight into the way in which a particular group of people make sense of their situation or the phenomena they encounter.


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Research Paradigms: Critical Theory

EDU IMAGE 15I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This article deals with Critical Theory.

The term ‘critical’ refers to the capacity to inquire ‘against the grain’: to question the conceptual and theoretical bases of knowledge and method, to ask questions that go beyond prevailing assumptions and understandings, and to acknowledge the role of power and social position in phenomena.

Critical theory is any research that challenges those conventional knowledge bases and methodologies whether quantitative or qualitative, that makes claim to scientific objectivity. Critical research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledges reproduce structural relations of inequality and oppression. Critical theory is concerned with the critical meanings of experiences as they relate to gender, race, class and other kinds of social oppression.

Researchers following critical theory methods assume that social reality is historically created and that it is produced and reproduced by people. Although people can consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, critical researchers recognise that their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. The main task of critical research is seen as being one of social critique, whereby the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo are brought to light. Critical research focuses on the contest, conflict and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to be emancipatory, that is, it should help to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination.

Consciousness and identity are formed within the political field of knowledge. Critical theorists argue that the attempt to dispense with values, historical circumstance and political considerations in research is misguided. Our understanding of the educational situation depends on the context within which we encounter it, and our own theoretical knowledge and assumptions influence our observation. These factors create our ideological frames of reference that act as the lenses through which we see the world. The lenses that researchers use to critically analyse a system are regarded as subjective and the observations made through such are not subject to empirical verification in the positivist sense.

Every historical period produces particular rules that dictate what counts as scientific fact. Society reproduces inequalities from one generation to the next, called “reproduction theory”, and resistance becomes an important part of the response to injustices of this kind. This is called “resistance theory”. The implicit rules that guide our generation of facts about education are formed by particular world-views, values, political perspectives, conceptions of race, class, and gender relations, definitions of intelligence and many more. It is therefore the task of the critical researcher to disclose the needs and struggles of the people regardless of whether or not they are conscious of them.

Researchers using critical theory assert that what counts as valid social science knowledge arises from the critique of the social structure and systems as revealed through the analysis of the discourse in society. The critical researcher lays bare the current discourses in society and analyses them in terms of the system within which they operate with the aim of disclosing the power relationships within the system and its structures so that the oppressive nature of the system can be revealed. Conflict (for example racial, class, religious or gender conflict) and inequality are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human relations.

Critical theory postulates three types of knowledge: technical interest, practical interest and emancipating interest. Technical interest is concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge. A practical interest concerned with understanding the meaning of situation, which generates hermeneutic[1] and historical knowledge. An emancipating interest concerned with the provision of growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraints and domination.


[1] Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. Originally hermeneutics referred to the study of the interpretation of written text, but now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication, including verbal, artistic, geo-political, physiological, sociological, etc.

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The research paradigms: Positivism

EDU 5 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the third paradigm, namely Positivism.

The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the idea that one can best gain an understanding of human behaviour through observation and reason. Stated differently, only objective, observable facts can be the basis for science. According to the positivist paradigm true knowledge is based on experience of senses and can be obtained by observation and experiment. Positivist thinkers lean strongly on determinism, empiricism, parsimony and generality.

‘Determinism’ means that events are caused by other circumstances; and hence, understanding such causal links is necessary for prediction and control. ‘Empiricism’ means collection of verifiable empirical evidences in support of theories or hypotheses. Knowledge stems from human experience. Furthermore, the researcher is seen as being independent from the study and follows a deductive approach. The researcher concentrates on facts rather than human interests, making this approach a deductive one. ‘Parsimony’ refers to the explanation of the phenomena in the most efficient way possible. ‘Generality’ is the process of generalising the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large.

With these assumptions of science, the ultimate goal is to integrate and systematise findings into a meaningful pattern or theory which is regarded as tentative and not the ultimate truth. Theory is subject to revision or modification as new evidence is found.

Positivist paradigm thus systematises the knowledge generation process with the help of quantification, which is essential to enhance precision in the description of parameters and the discernment of the relationship among them.

An interesting feature of positivism is that it accepts the supernatural and abstract as data for research purposes. However, theological (the supernatural) or metaphysical (the abstract) claims must yield to the positive – that which can be explained in terms of scientific laws.

A positivist approach to knowledge is based on a real and objective interpretation of the data at our disposal. Such knowledge can be transmitted in tangible form – knowledge is often derived from observation. Positivism is a philosophy of knowing, also called epistemology, which believes that only knowledge gained through direct observation is factual and trustworthy. Factual information gathering, for example watching people work, measuring manufactured items, measuring time in athletics, is regarded as objective and therefore also valid.

Observations should be quantifiable so that statistical analysis can be done. Researchers following a positivist approach postulate that there is one objective reality that is observable by a researcher who has little, if any, impact on the object being observed. Positivism implies that there are objective, independent laws of nature to which human life is subjected. It is the purpose of research to discover and describe these objective laws. This view describes society as being made up of structures, concepts, labels and relationships. Proving the existence and impact of such laws require discovery through scientific means.

Positivists believe that knowledge can be “revealed” or “discovered” through the use of the scientific method. The “discovered” knowledge enables us to provide possible explanations of the causes of things that happen in the world. A positivist approach emphasises experimentation, observation, control, measurement, reliability and validity in the processes of research. This implies a quantitative approach.

Positivists argue that the scientific research method produces precise, verifiable, systematic and theoretical answers to the research question or hypothesis. They also suggest that the use of the scientific method provides answers that are neutral and technical and can thus be universalised and generalised to all historical and cultural contexts.

To explain the concept of doing research independent of other people, notably your target group for the research – a researcher following a positivist approach can receive and analyse completed questionnaires from people whom he or she has never met and don’t intend meeting either. All they are interested in are the responses from which objective conclusions can be made.

The advantage of a positivist approach to research is that the researcher can cover a wide range of situations in a short period of time. However, the following disadvantages of positivism should also be borne in mind:

  • Positivism relies on experience as a valid source of knowledge. However, a wide range of basic and important concepts such as cause, time and space are not based on experience.
  • Positivism assumes that all types of processes can be perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or relationships between individuals.
  • Adoption of positivism can be criticised for reliance on the status quo. In other words, research findings are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.

Note: Sources for all the articles on research paradigms will be acknowledged in the book that the writer is writing on Social Science Research. Posted by Dr J.P. Nel

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The research paradigms: Empiricism

EDU 8 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the second paradigm, namely Empiricism.

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from the experience and that the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience. Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated, things that happened to them and observations that they made. Experience can also be “staged” through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements. Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complimentary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. As the name and philosophy implies, empiricism means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or empirically based. Evidence should be observable by the senses or extensions of the senses.

Empiricists will at times opt for scepticism as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them. David Hume,[1] for example, argued that our beliefs are a result of accumulated habits, developed in response to accumulated sense experiences. In his book entitled “Black Brain, White Brain”, Gavin Evans claims that religion is immune to logic. This is a typical empiricist argument. Evans does not understand, or conveniently ignores the value of abstract reasoning as a foundation of deductive reasoning. One wonders if Evans would also deny the possibility that there might be life in other corners of the universe as easily as he dispels the possible existence of a creator of the universe.

Second, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is the source of concepts or knowledge. Empiricists are of the opinion that knowledge must be deducted or inferred from actual events that people can experience through their senses. The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition are rejected. Stated differently, knowledge can only be derived a posteriori, i.e. through sensory experience. Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge does not exist.

A strong distinction is made between fact (objective) and values (subjective). Sense data is the ultimate objectivity, uncontaminated by value or theory. According to empiricism a person is born with an empty brain, like a clean slate, which is then filled by what he or she learns by experiencing things. Two learning processes take place – the individual experiences a sensation after which she or he reflects on it.

[1] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Empiricism. Accessed on 11/07/2016.

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