How to Structure Your Research Proposal

Introduction

In my previous post I shared with you some hints on how to write your research proposal and how to present it orally. I also discussed the purposes of the research proposal.

Here is a summary of purposes that I discussed:

  1. To convince the university that your study is viable.
  2. To serve as a structure for your thesis or dissertation.
  3. To clarify your mind.
  4. To show how you will approach the problem.
  5. To help you choose a research method.
  6. To decide what sources of information you should use.

In this post I will share with you some ideas on how to structure your research proposal so that the Research Committee will be convinced that your idea is a good one.

The structure of your research proposal

Most universities will require of you to cover the following in your research proposal (show the list on the screen):

  1. A title for your research report.
  2. Table of contents.
  3. The context of the research.
  4. The goals of your study.
  5. Research approaches and methods.
  6. The table of content for your research report.
  7. Bibliography.
  8. Endnotes and footnotes.

What you write and discuss under each of these eight points will determine if your application to study for a PhD will succeed or not.

Let’s look at the eight points.

A title for your research report

  1. The title should be brief and descriptive.
  2. Professors might suggest a different title.
  3. Can change at any time during your studies – check with your study leader.

Table of contents for your proposal. The table of contents should give an overview of all the topics that you will cover in your research proposal.

The context of the research

  1. The context can also serve as the scope or limits of your research.
  2. This will largely determine if your proposed study is viable.

The goals of your study

  1. This section should start with the purpose of your research followed by the goals that you hope to achieve.
  2. The goals and purpose of your study will determine the value of your study.

Research approaches and methods

  1. Your research approach can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed.
  2. Your choice will depend on your personal preference, research skills and the topic of your research.
  3. You will probably also indicate which paradigmatic approach or approaches you will follow here.

The table of contents for your research report

  1. The table of contents should provide an outline of your chapters.
  2. It can also serve as the scope for your research.

Bibliography

  1. Your bibliography cannot possibly be complete and final yet.
  2. List the sources that you already consulted or plan on consulting.
  3. You will probably need to consult more sources, most of which you are not aware of yet.

Endnotes and footnotes

  1. You will not have a heading for endnotes and footnotes.
  2. They are used to explain terminology, to make incidental comments or to amplify or corroborate a point of argument.

Close and summary

In summary, do not underestimate the importance of preparing for the oral presentation of your study proposal. What you write and present will determine if the university will allow you to study for a PhD.

You need to know what you should discuss, and you need to do it well. That is why I will share with you in future posts hints on how to write and present every issue that you need to cover in your study proposal.

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The Research Proposal

Introduction

You will notice that the structure of a research proposal is pretty much the same regardless of which approach, quantitative, qualitative or mixed, you will follow.

The main difference between a quantitative and qualitative approach is vested in the content rather than the structure of the research report. It is not that simple, though. We will discuss the difference between a quantitative and qualitative research approach in a future article.

The purpose of a research proposal

I am not aware of a university that does not require of prospective PhD students to submit a research proposal. And, furthermore, all of them will require of you to submit your proposal in writing or online as well as to do an oral presentation of your proposal.

  1. The main purpose of the research proposal is to convince the Postgraduate Committee that your research project is viable, that it has not been researched before, and that it will add value to the academic knowledge currently available.
    1. Viable – will it be possible for you to cover the topic in the time and with the funds at your disposal.
    1. Not researched before – this will probably not be possible. There are just too many people doing research all the time and you will not know who is studying what.
    1. Add value – this is important, but keep in mind that the PhD is often just the beginning of the student’s research in a particular field.
  2. To show that you have some knowledge of the topic of your research.
  3. To show that you have the potential to successfully complete your studies.
  4. To clarify your own thinking about your research topic.
  5. To form a point of reference for your research project. That is why it is a good idea to decide in advance what paradigmatic approach you will follow. (Remember, you will need to maintain consistency in your arguments and to focus on the topic of your study.)
  6. Your research proposal is also your plan of action for your further research.

Hints on preparing your research proposal

  1. Different universities have different requirements for the format and layout of a study proposal. What I suggest is a generic format, but you will need to check it with the university where you plan to study.
    1. Word count: mostly 2,000 to 3,000 words, excluding the bibliography (6 to 10 A4 pages).
    1. Font type – Popular and legible types, for example Times New Roman or Ariel.
    1. Font size: mostly 11 or 12.
    1. The university might also specify the indents, use of capital letters, language, numbering of chapters, pages, paragraphs, etc.
    1. Layout and wording of the title page.
  2. Ask your study leader for a copy or copies of other research proposals that he or she considers to be good. Learn from them.
  3. You must have a clear idea of what the problem statement, problem question or hypothesis for your study is.
  4. Academic research is not a linear process. It is a spiral. Therefore, your research proposal is not cast in concrete.
  5. I will discuss the structure of your research proposal with you in a future article. For the time being, just remember that you will need to cover the following:
    1. The reason why your think that your research topic is important.
    1. The purpose of your research.
    1. What you intend to achieve or prove.
    1. The methodology that you will use.
    1. Your paradigmatic approach.
    1. How you will collect and process data.
    1. Evidence that you have already done some prior research. (You must at least have done some literature study.)

Hints on presenting your study proposal

  1. Keep in mind that some of the members of the Postgraduate Committee might not want to be there.
    1. They often have lots of other work.
    1. They might be studying themselves.
    1. They probably will have other post-graduate students who are already studying whom they need to help.
    1. They might be tired.
    1. They might not be interested in your proposed topic.
    1. They might have a golf appointment.
  2. Know your topic and show that you have some knowledge and, perhaps experience in the field.
  3. Know the meaning of the terminology that you use. (I did not, and I often wondered afterwards if I really got away with it or not. The professors were probably just being kind.)
  4. Start with your research as far as possible in advance (all will probably not agree with this).
  5. Your proposal is not a concept thesis or dissertation. It is just the scope – the parameters of the problem or topic that you intend to explore.
  6. You can’t come to conclusions about your research problem or hypothesis now already, so don’t.

Summary and close

  1. Remember – Your research proposal is the tool with which you can gain access to PhD studies.
  2. You need to prepare well. This will require some research in advance, preparing presentation tools and notes and rehearsing your presentation.
  3. Keep in mind that the Postgraduate Committee are people with their own perceptions and needs. They will be experts in postgraduate research, but it is up to you to convince them that your research will be viable and valuable.
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Why would you embark on PhD studies?

It is always a good idea to establish a healthy relationship with your study leader, and you should approach him or her for assistance as often as you possibly can. However, they always have lots of work and limited time. That is where I am hoping to save you and your study leader time and energy through this series of articles on research methodology.

I don’t think you would have even searched for a topic on PhD studies if you were not the inquisitive type.

You don’t need to be a nerd to be a good academic researcher. All you need is the “right” reason for embarking on post-graduate studies. I guess what I am saying is that you need to be motivated to study.

Here are some reasons why one would study towards a PhD:

  1. To add value. In my opinion, the most important reason why you would embark on post-graduate studies should be to contribute. On PhD level, you will need to create something from which society or at least a section of society will benefit.

You might develop new knowledge, new procedures to do a job, new medicine, new ways in which to solve problems, a new philosophy, etc.

  • To pursue your interests. Don’t try to do research on something that you know nothing or little about and in which you are not interested.

It will be so much easier and so much more fun to study something about what you already have expert knowledge and with which you already have ample experience.

Without knowing it you will have done a lot of research already and you will probably already be an expert on the topic of your research if it is something that you are interested in.

Then again, most academic wizards have a way of developing an interest in a problem or a topic once they have decided to study it. Besides, after a year or two of intensive research, you might well know more about the topic of your research than your study leader.

  • Status value. Regardless of whether you are interested in the topic of your research or not, you will probably wish to obtain a PhD because of its status value.
  • For the sake of others. You might wish to make your parents happy, impress your children or spouse.
  • To improve your self-image. Regardless of whether it was your intention, obtaining a PhD will probably improve your self-image.
  • To improve your job situation. A PhD can help you find the job of your dreams, to be promoted, to earn a higher salary.
  • For the piece of paper? Here is a word of caution – never embark on post-graduate studies for the sake of the piece of paper. Studying on any level should first and foremost be about gaining additional knowledge and skills, not about getting a certificate that you can frame and hang on your office wall.

If it is just the certificate that you are interested in, you can just as well buy your PhD on the internet.

Focusing on the piece of paper rather than on the improvement of your knowledge and skills can lead to serious humiliation, embarrassment for you and your loved ones.

Your employer and colleagues at work will expect you to perform better once you have obtained your PhD. If you can’t they will catch you out.

You might be demoted or lose your job. If you obtained your PhD illegally you might even end up in jail.

It will not help to apply psychological pressure on your study leader, for example by accusing him or her of discrimination if they do not accept the work that you submit.

  • I’ve heard a professor say that people of a certain profile will never pass his course.
  • I’ve also witnessed a professor who was really upset because a student accused her of discrimination because she would not accept his submission, even though the submission was clearly not up to standard.

Study leaders who discriminate are the exception and you should get rid of them as early as possible during your studies or perhaps even before starting your studies if you can.

Here you will need to be absolutely objective and fair, because if you lose a good study leader who gives you quality feedback you might destroy your chances of successfully completing your studies.

In summary, you should do research on a topic that you are familiar with and you will need to focus on creating new knowledge, procedures, philosophy, etc. There is, however, nothing wrong with improving your marketability, your image, your status and so on.

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Looking at the truth from different angles – Paradigmatic approaches

Even though some still deny that the truth cannot be the same for everybody, academic researchers know that the notions of phenomena and events in life are never just black or white, true or false, correct or wrong. Life is much more complicated that that and what is true for one person at a particular point in time, place, and context is seldom still true under different circumstances.

To show how differently we interpret issues and phenomena, I used a one-sentence statement, expressed by means of different paradigms, of how people can interpret and experience the South African tax system.

Behaviourism: The tax burden is heavy on everybody because people do not openly show that they are willing to declare their taxable income and to pay their taxes.

Constructivism: People are unwilling to declare their income and pay their taxes because government does not spend the revenue that they receive responsibly and efficiently.

Critical race theory: People resist paying taxes because the burden is much higher on the minority group than on the majority group.

Critical theory: People resist paying taxes because government, who should manage the process, are often the perpetrators of malpractices.

Empiricism: Only those who pay taxes can judge and improve the tax system.

Ethnomethodology: The economy, education, security, health and legislation of the country is affected by the quality of the tax system.

Feminism: Women should not be subject to the same tax burden as men if they are not given equal social, political, cultural and economic rights.

Functionalism: South Africa will not survive if the tax system is corrupt and poorly managed.

Hermeneutics: A survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults show that the majority of South Africans feel that they pay too much taxes.

Interpretivism: It is assumed that taxes are collected and utilized efficiently because the majority voted for the current government.

Liberalism: Tax collection will be efficient and fair if people are more tolerant towards government.

Modernism: The tax system will be efficient and fair if it is founded on an African culture that will facilitate growth, development and strong leadership.

Neoliberalism: The tax system will be efficient and fair if the state and private sector cooperate and promotes economic liberalization.

Phenomenology: How people feel about paying taxes is largely determined by how they see their tax money being spent and how they feel about their observations.

Positivism: The Receiver of Revenue needs to earn the trust and support of the taxpayers.

Post-colonialism: The poor tax system is the result of colonial rule that denied people an opportunity to develop their own value system and culture.

Post-modernism: People who claim that the tax system if flawed consider only their preconceived ideas of what an efficient and fair tax system is.

Post-positivism: We cannot judge if the current tax system is efficient and fair because there are too many factors impacting on the country and government.

Post-structuralism: What do people mean and from whose perspective are they judging if the tax system if efficient and fair?

Pragmatism: Everybody is dissatisfied with the tax system, but nobody does anything to solve the problem.

Pre-modernism: All we can do to solve the flaws in our tax system is to pray.

Radicalism: Our tax system will be efficient and fair once we stop listening to colonists and old people.

Rationalism: Poor leadership leads to corruption; corruption leads to people not paying taxes; people not paying taxes leads to government levying more taxes; more taxes leads to more corruption.

Relativism: Everybody is entitled to their own opinions about the tax system.

Romanticism: Perhaps the tax system is not perfect, but who are we to judge?

Scientism: I will believe that the tax systems is flawed if it can be statistically proven with a more than 90% probability that it is the case.

Structuralism: The tax system cannot function properly if the economic, social, legislative and political structures do not support it.

Symbolic interactionism: The what and the how of the tax systems need to be communicated as widely as possible before people can judge if the system is efficient and fair.

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Research Article 19: Post-modernism

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

Post-modernism gradually became popular from the 1950s onwards. Instead of relying on one approach to knowing, post-modernists support a pluralistic epistemology which utilises multiple ways of knowing. Post-modernism is more than just a philosophical movement or school of thought based on a definite point of view, value system or goal. It is applied mainly in the artistic and social sciences, although it has also gained acceptance in other fields of learning, for example, economics, architecture, etc. Different from modernism, which is technicist in nature, post-modernism is critical but also interpretive.

Post-modernism regards knowledge as fundamentally fragmented and unstable. It rejects the possibility that we can have objective knowledge. Any research should question the validity and accuracy of current knowledge, and the paradigms that are used with research methods should be articulated to the manner in which this is achieved.

Post-modernism questions the existing knowledge upon which we base our thinking and deconstructs this to convey a different way of interpretation and reality. Narratives of truth and knowledge, text or written content, previous authority sources of power, for example, the church and government are deconstructed. Language is fluid and arbitrary and rooted in power or knowledge relations. Meaning is, therefore, vague and the result of deconstruction without scientific proof. Following on from this reasoning, post-modernists caution that we should be careful with generalisations, seeing that events and phenomena are mostly only true in a particular context or point in time or both.

Post-modernism 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.

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 or truth. Post-modernism 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.

According to post-modernists universal, objective truth does not exist. All judgements of truth exist within a cultural context. This is sometimes also called “cultural relativism”. Stated differently, our endeavour is not to find absolute truth or facts, but the best approximation of truth as it applies to a specific group in a specific situation and a specific time. This does not mean that just anything can be accepted as truth.

Post-modernists 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. In addition, it is asserted that we construct reality in accordance with our needs, interests, prejudices and cultural traditions.

Because power is distrusted, post-modernists try to set up a less hierarchical approach in which authority sources are more diffuse. The knowledge that we construct 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. For this reason, we have to deconstruct previous authority sources of power and text to uncover the hidden or intended meanings and discourse.

Facts are seen as temporary and volatile, with the result that they should not be regarded as an only truth. Reality is in part socially constructed with the result that reality is the product of subjective human interpretation 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 is only somewhat less value-determined, but they are not independent of values.

The idea of a socially constructed reality leads directly to a radical shift in the idea of method. Some post-modernists hold that a research 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 an explanation and understanding of reality and life. What we arrive at is in part autobiographical: it reflects our personal life-story and our interpretation of the meaning of life.

In terms of research, convention is challenged, research approaches are mixed, ambiguity is tolerated, diversity is emphasised, innovation and change are embraced, and multiple realities are focused on. It is a broad term that encompasses many different research methods, most of them valuing uncertainty, disorder, indeterminacy and regression rather than progress.

Post-modernism rejects the emphasis on rational discovery through the scientific method. It replaces rational discovery through scientific research with respect for difference and a celebration of the local at the expense of the universal.

Post-modernism is often associated with post-structuralism. It can include elements of pre-modernism and modernism along with many other ways of knowing, for example, intuition, relational and spiritual. Generally, post-modernism accepts 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. Although post-modernism accepts some elements of modernism, the issue of objective truth is not shared by them.

Reason and science are seen by some as simply myths created by people. It, therefore, rejects the notion that science can be viewed as objective. It consists of a loose alliance of intellectual perspectives which collectively pose a challenging critique of the fundamental premise on which modernism, specifically the scientific research method, is based. Therefore the notion that science, or scientism, is the paradigm of all true knowledge is rejected.

Technicist researchers, favouring paradigms such as scientism and positivism, claim that post-modernism questions existing knowledge on account of opinions, perceptions and presuppositions that are not corroborated by substantial and authoritative evidence. This, they feel, renders research, making use of the post-modernist paradigm, unscientific. Post-modernism, they feel, is based on an anti-realist, subjective ontology, because the formulation of facts is based on human interpretation.

Even proponents of post-modernism do not always agree on what scientific research really means. There are progressive and conservative post-modernists. Some post-modernists seek reaction while others seek resistance. Then there are those who strive for reform and others who like to disrupt the status quo. All post-modernists do not agree to the claim that reality is a human construct.

Not all researchers support the idea of post-modernism. According to the opponents of post-modernism, the approach is too tentative, too inconclusive and too frivolous. Some academics feel that post-modernism adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge because it is not based on any principles and supports no consistent and new theories. While some regard post-modernism as not sufficiently objective, there are also those who feel that it is not sufficiently flexible.

The ability of post-modernism to generate truth is questioned because, like any research, findings need to be reported. Post-modernists are of the opinion that the use of language (to write research reports) damages the accuracy of what is shared because language cannot relate reality accurately.

This is the last article on research paradigms that I will post because for the remainder of the year I will be occupied elsewhere. My book, entitled “Preparing Qualitative Research Reports” has now been published. The chapter on research paradigms discusses the nineteen articles that I posted to date as well as nine others. Together they constitute one of eleven chapters. The book is structured in such a manner that post-graduate students studying towards a master’s or doctoral degree can save themselves lots of time and effort by following the sequence of the book while writing their research reports. Additional information on how to order copies can be found at www.mentornet.co.za or www.intgrty.co.za.

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Research Article 18: Post-colonialism

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

Post-colonialism is the study of the impact of colonial rule on colonised people and how it impacted on their culture, economy, religion, government, etc. The key to post-colonialism, as to colonialism, can be found in the presence of any form of oppression. It is often a reaction to what especially the victims of colonial rule would regard as a variety of different injustices.

Post-colonialism is mostly based on a description of the colonial past, often by writers from the colonies; a tradition of gaining insight and knowledge by learning from the past. Ironically it was academics from colonial powers that mostly studied and wrote about the social and political power relationships between the colonial powers and their colonies. This, however, gradually changed as colonies regained their freedom and started delivering their own academics, writers and researchers.

Post-colonialism is a set of approaches to the interpretation and understanding of colonialism that draws both continuities with, and challenges, the grand narratives of colonial rule.

Political power, cultural identity and culture are often the focus of post-colonial studies. The purpose of such studies is often the redress of injustices of the past and regaining cultural, intellectual, political, national and judicial independence and autonomous status. 

Both qualitative and quantitative research methods can be used to do research in post-colonialism.

Feminism, critical race theory, ethnomethodology and post-modernism are closely associated with post-colonialism in the sense that all these paradigms can be used to investigate oppression.

In a feministic vein, post-colonialism is seen as an effort to subjugate women. In a critical race-theory vein, an attitude of superiority towards people of a different culture, gender, language, or colour are often indications of post-colonialism that can, and often should be researched with the aim of achieving equity and growth.

In an ethnomethodological vein, post-colonialism focuses on common-sense reality as it plays out in interaction between people, i.e. social life.

In a post-modernistic vein, it is believed that independence and freedom are Western ideologies used to colonise foreign cultures.

Post-colonialism is a good example of a paradigm that exposes discussions and arguments about paradigms in books, to some extent, and magazine articles, to a much larger extent, a rather unsettling disagreement amongst academics about the true meanings of concepts, in this instance, paradigms. Different writers discuss paradigms from different perspectives and in different contexts, making it difficult to generalise about which paradigms are in opposition to which others and in terms of what criteria they differ. The disruptive nature of post-colonialism is yet another characteristic that it shares with post-modernism.

Post-colonialism, for example, differs from colonialism in the sense that it focuses more on the results of colonialism rather than the nature of colonialism as a philosophical point of view. It, furthermore, can be said to be in opposition to any of the scientific paradigms in the sense that it focuses more on the study of and subjective interpretation of social interaction, whereas scientific paradigms, such as positivism, focus more on statistical analysis. Both, however, explore social reality. That is why claims to opposition or association between paradigms should be qualified, or at least understood as being true in a specific context and in terms of specific criteria. This means that the same paradigm can be associated with and opposed a second paradigm. Even this, however, is not perfectly accurate because every opposition or association should be qualified.

Some writers focus on the disappointing results of colonialisation, for example, inequalities, cultural conflicts, fragmentation and refugee problems, while others emphasise the benefits of colonialism, for example, educational systems, infrastructure and technology as elements of post-colonialism. These, however, are often sensitive issues that lead to conflict and heated arguments.

Because of its historical nature (colonies belong in the past) research in post-colonialism leans heavily on written documents when fieldwork might have delivered more accurate and authentic findings. Written documents invariably require a measure of deconstruction, which should not be a problem seeing that it is typical of virtually all qualitative research.

Some academics feel that most literature on colonialism is written by countries that were colonial powers. This, however, is rapidly changing as academics in colonies of the past increasingly write about topics such as colonialism, racism, discrimination, equity and justice.

Post-colonialism is also criticised for its obsession with national identity. Some researchers feel that national identity is a rather fluid concept that changes over time and, therefore, does not justify any claims to what could have been, or what could not have been, if a country was not colonised.

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Book Published: Preparing a Qualitative Research Report

In spite of the fact that all learning institutions offering post-graduate studies have policies and procedures for the conduct of academic research, students often find it difficult to figure out how the elements of the qualitative research report fit together. This book explains most, if not all, the intricacies of writing a qualitative research report on master’s and doctoral level. The following topics are discussed and explained:

  • The Foundation of Qualitative Research.
  • The Research Proposal.
  • Planning a Research Report.
  • The Research Paradigms.
  • The Elements of Qualitative Research – Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology.
  • Qualitative Data Collection.
  • Data Analysis.
  • Reviewing the Research Report.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr J.P. Nel, MBL, D. Com (HRM), D. Phil (LPC). Dr J.P. Nel is the owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd and Managing Director of Intgrty Publishing (Pty) Ltd. He completed his first doctoral degree in 1993 and his second in 2008. His first thesis dealt with Strategic HR Management of Change and his second with A Strategic Approach to Quality Assurance in Occupationally-directed Education, Training and Development in South Africa. Both degrees were obtained from the University of Johannesburg.

Dr Nel is passionate about strategic management and education and training. To date he has written and published twelve books on topics such as assessment, educational research, quality assurance in education, training and development, learning programme design and development, project management, entrepreneurship and leadership.

Author: Dr. J.P. Nel

Date Published: 2019-08-23

ISBN: 978-0-6399589-4-1 (print)
ISBN: 978-0-6399589-5-8 (e-book)

Published By: iNtgrty

Number of Pages: 589

R890.70

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Research Article 17: Positivism

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

According to the positivist paradigm, true knowledge is based on experience of the senses and can be obtained by observation, and by conducting experiments, control, measurement, to achieve reliability and validity. Positivism, therefore, strives for objectivity, measurability, predictability, controllability, patterning, the construction of laws and rules of behaviour, and the ascription of causality.[1]

The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the idea that you can best gain an understanding of human behaviour through observation and reason. Stated differently, only objective, observable facts can be the basis for science.

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 (epistemology) which believes that only knowledge gained through direct observation is factual and trustworthy. Factual information collection, 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 believe 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 the 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 requires discovery through scientific means.

The researcher observes the community from the outside (an ‘etic’ approach). This means that you are seen as being independent of the study and follows a deductive approach. As the researcher, you should concentrate on facts rather than human interests, making this approach a deductive one.

To explain the concept of doing research independently 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 does not intend meeting either. All they are interested in are the responses from which objective conclusions can be made.

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.

The positivist paradigm is mostly used with quantitative research. A systems approach is followed to generate knowledge, and quantification 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.

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.

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.

The advantage of a positivist approach to research is that you 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. We know that this is not always the case.
  • 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.

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 the collection of verifiable empirical evidence in support of theories or hypotheses and knowledge stems from human experience. Knowledge stems from human experience. The approach is deductive in nature because you are seen as being independent of the study while concentrating on facts rather than human interests. Parsimony means that phenomena are explained in the most efficient way possible. Generality is the process of generalising the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large.

Although some researchers feel that positivism is also associated with rationalism, others disagree, claiming that the two actually challenge one another. Constructivism and Post-positivism reject positivism.

Not all natural scientists and certainly not many social scientists support the positivist paradigm. Furthermore, natural scientists do not always reveal their research practices accurately in their research reports. Thirdly, the term “positivist” is not always interpreted as meaning a quantitative approach to research.[2]


[1] L. Cohen, L. Manion and K. Morisson, 2007: 26.

[2] A. Bryman, E. Bell, P. Hirschsohn, A. dos Santos, J. du Toit, A. Masenge, I. van Aard, C. Wagner, 2017: 57.

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Research Article 16: Phenomenology

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

Phenomenology is a philosophy that believes that individual behaviour is the product of a person’s experience through direct interaction with phenomena. An objective external reality is believed not to have any effect on behaviour.

Social reality is believed to have meaning; therefore it should be taken into consideration when developing knowledge. Social reality is important for the way in which people behave as well as the factors that determine behaviour. This implies that research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals.[1] Actual experience is the essence of data used in phenomenology. Opinions, point of view, beliefs, superstitions, etc. are not taken into consideration.

Phenomenology deals with how people make sense of the world around them and how this can be used to understand phenomena and human behaviour. Phenomenologists realise that they should take their own perceptions into consideration when investigating those of other people. Their perceptions, however, should be based on experiences.

The data, research approaches and methods used in the natural sciences differ markedly from the data, research approaches and methods used in the social sciences, notably phenomenology. Data is analysed by reflecting on how we experienced events and phenomena and gathering meaning from our reflections and consciousness.

Research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals because of the importance of social reality. The objective of phenomenology is to investigate and describe an event or phenomenon as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanations or objective reality. The description needs to describe as accurately as possible the phenomenon, without judging, in order to remain true to the facts. Phenomenological research, thus, studies people’s perceptions, perspectives and understanding of a particular situation, event or phenomenon to construct meaning.

Human beings interpret interaction with phenomena and attach meanings to different actions and/or ideas to construct new experiences. You, as the researcher, need to develop an empathic understanding of phenomena to know how individuals interpret what they observe or experience, to understand the feelings, motives and thoughts that determine the behaviour of others.

Research based on a phenomenological paradigm strongly focuses on capturing the uniqueness of events or phenomena. For example, as part of research in human behaviour you may immerse yourself in the lives of convicted criminals. In carrying out such an inquiry, you might observe convicts in a correctional facility, share their particular struggles, conflicts and fears in an attempt to derive a deeper understanding of what it has been like for them to serve time in the facility.

Phenomenological studies attend not only to the events being studied but also their political, historical, and sociocultural contexts. The studies strive to be as faithful as possible to the actual experiences, especially as it might be described in the participants’ own words. In the example of research in a correctional facility, you would, for example, ask convicts to describe situations where they felt that their lives were threatened.

In such inquiries, phenomenological studies resist any use of concepts, categories, taxonomies, or reflections about the experiences. This implies that generalisations should be avoided because they may distort the desired focus on the uniqueness of the events. You would also avoid any research methods having a tendency to construct a predetermined set of fixed procedures and techniques that would govern the research project.[2]

An alternative to seeking assertions of enduring value or considering all human experiences as unique can be to aim for a limited form of generalisability. Such a limited form recognises the uniqueness of local situations but accepts that, depending on the degree of similarity of the sending and receiving contexts, some transferability of findings is possible.   

Phenomenological research embraces participants as stakeholders and participants in the research process. Even if limited, you and the participants can make some generalisations of what a phenomenon is like as an experience from the ‘insider’s’ perspective by analysing multiple perspectives of the same situation. This is yet another example of ‘emic’, the insider’s point of view, as opposed to ‘etic’ which would be the outsider’s point of view.

Phenomenologists are reluctant to follow a structured step-by-step research procedure. They argue that this would erode the integrity of the observed phenomenon. Research guidelines might be necessary just as long as it does not become a rigid procedure.        Almost any qualitative research method can be used, including interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, etc. The only precondition is that the data should be a full description of actual experiences.

The data collection method used will largely decide how the data will be analysed. Keep in mind that data can be gathered as and when an event takes place, which would mean that the data can change in unexpected ways and directions. You should focus on a deep understanding of the data through analysis. The data and its analysis should contribute to the achievement of the purpose of your research. Reflection is needed to extract meaning from data, and you will need to carefully analyse the data in order to achieve this.

Phenomenological studies emphasise hermeneutic or interpretive analysis of actual experiences. It is also associated with symbolic interactionism, which argues that the individual is continually interpreting and analysing the symbolic meaning of his or her environment, with symbolism often being the spoken or written word. Phenomenology tries to interpret and describe experiences in a way that others will also be able to understand.

Phenomenology is opposed to the positivist paradigm and most other technicist paradigms. The reason for this is that phenomenology requires collecting and reflecting on actual experiences which will seldom include quantitative analysis. Data gathered phenomenologically would mostly be subjective whereas the positivist paradigm requires objective data.

Researchers criticise phenomenology for many different reasons.[3] The paradigm is interpreted and used in a variety of ways by different researchers, with the result that the meaning of the philosophy has been eroded. Secondly, there is little, if any consistency in the examples given in many different fields of research, all claiming to be case studies of phenomenology. Thirdly, phenomenological observations are not always useful for research purposes because of the lack of cognitive thinking and reflection. Fourthly, the limited provision for the development of generalizable knowledge is contrary to the purpose of especially doctoral studies.


[1] A. Bryman, E. Bell, P. Hirschsohn, A. dos Santos, J. du Toit, A. Masenge, I. van Aard, C. Wagner, 2017: 15.

[2] R.K. Yin, 2016: 20.

[3]  https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-limitations-of-phenomenology. Accessed on 24/04/2018.

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Research Article 15: Neoliberalism

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

Neoliberalism is a description of the dominant mode of conducting political and economic organisation in a global world, which obviously would also be the field in which research is conducted. It also has an impact on other elements of the human environment, for example, education, jurisdiction, and science.

Whereas classical liberalism signalled a negative view of the state, neoliberalism conceives of a positive role for a state that creates the optimal conditions for capitalist expansion, control, and exploitation. The state has a definite function and responsibility towards the community, including the protection of private property rights, guaranteeing the quality and integrity of money, military defence and police protection of the community, the proper functioning of the economy and markets, and the protection of the environment.[1] Governments that support neoliberalism would typically follow policies that encourage privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade and the reduction in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy. A neoliberalist economic approach would promote entrepreneurship, creativity, participative leadership and democracy.

Neoliberalism is associated with a form of state that seeks a reduction in public spending; it is obsessed with efficiency and effectiveness and elevates the market as the primary instrument for determining the distribution of social goods. An important basis of liberal thought is that all individuals are equal in terms of being legal citizens of a country. 

In terms of the academic focus, knowledge is regarded and promoted as an investment for the future and as a global commodity. Traditional, legacy approaches to education and training are challenged by focusing more on the skills needs of industry, rather than philosophy and theory.

In neoliberalist research, the relationships between researchers and communities have changed from “research on” to “research with” communities. This means that research based on a neoliberalist paradigm would include the researcher as part of the community while conducting research in liberalisation, i.e. an emic approach.

Action research became more prominent than in the past because of the emic approach and the focus on politics and the economy. In this respect, the purpose of the research is not just to contribute to the available knowledge in a field, or to develop emancipatory theory, but rather to forge a more direct link between thought and action that underlies the pure-applied distinction that has traditionally characterised management and social research.[2]

Private institutions are important role players in the preparation of students for future careers. Research, consequently, focuses more on the needs of industry, governments, and markets rather than on knowledge for the sake of academic status. Action research is conducted with the primary intention of solving a specific immediate and concrete problem in a local setting.

Even though neoliberalism clashes with liberalism in some respects, it also supports liberal values such as equality and freedom in relation to imperialism, gender, race, and austerity.[3] Neoliberalism is associated with critical theory, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism, and critical race theory with the result that researchers making use of a neoliberalist paradigm would probably make use of a qualitative research approach.

The technicist paradigms, notably scientism, positivism, and modernism can be said to be in opposition to neoliberalism. Some academics claim that the lack of scientific consistency should be blamed for the failure of neoliberalist government and economic policies, while others feel that it is rather unethical and irresponsible government and business practices that resulted in increased unemployment, higher inflation, social unrest, environmental disasters, etc. in many countries.[4]


[1] https://folk.uio.no/daget/neoliberalism.pdf. Accessed on 02/05/2018.

[2] A.B. Asiko, 2016: 38.

[3] . Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 7.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-idcol… and https://revisesociology.com/2015/12/11/criticism-neoliberalism/ Accessed on 24/04/2018.

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