Research Article 14: Modernism

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

Modernism evolved over a period of approximately 400 years from a philosophy based on the interpretation of the mythical to a paradigm based on logic. Generally speaking, it is a movement towards articulating traditional beliefs and practices with modern ideas and needs.

Initially, modernism was associated with the church and art. However, the concept developed into a full-fledged paradigm through a process of logical growth. Currently, science and reason are said to be critical considerations for achieving accuracy, objectivity, and reliability in the process of knowledge creation. Reason is said to transcend and exist independently of our existential, historical and cultural environments. Some researchers regard modernism as the paradigm of all true knowledge.

Modernism favours structure, hierarchy, order and centralised control. It is believed that planning leads to order, authority is vested in a superior, centralised control is an effective management approach and planning should be done vertically from top to bottom. Consequently, modernist management is largely bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured.

In terms of research, modernism would imply investigating stages of development. Modernism belongs to the group of technicist paradigms, which favour quantitative research approaches. Important values, therefore, include the scientific method; the authority of the expert; the singularity of meaning; truth and objectivity.

Modernism is used when prediction is hoped to be achieved by analysing reasoning about information that is independent of the environment. The modernist view of time is linear, with events happening one after the other, with no other purpose than to keep progressing in a particular direction. Consequently, statistical analysis and graphical representation of trends are regarded as valuable tools for analysing data.

Modernism follows a realist ontology by accepting facts independent of the human mind. To achieve this the information that is collected and analysed needs to be objective, accurate, valid and authentic in terms of academic meaning, value, and content. The fact that knowledge increases over time supports certainty, order, organisation, prediction, rationality, linearity and progress. Even though a realist ontology, modernism is mostly optimistic about the future.

Research making use of modernism always has as an objective proving facts by making use of accurate statistics, homogeneous epistemological and moral principles and unyielding norms.

Elements  

Existing theory is considered in the search for truth and coming to valid conclusions based on the available information about a phenomenon or event. Acquired knowledge is regarded as universal and true so that reason can help us overcome all conflicts and challenges.

Modernism mostly relates to research on human beings; consequently, social research methods are often used even if in combination with a quantitative research approach. Modernism can also be associated with modern societies and developed states (as opposed to pre-modern societies). It often includes campaigns to promote human emancipation, equality, redress and social progress. The family is seen as the central unit of social order and is therefore also often the focus of research using a modernistic philosophy.

During the past approximately seventy years a series of epistemological developments followed from modernism, starting with empiricism, which claims that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Empiricism further evolved into scientific empiricism or modern science with the development of modernist methodology.

Feminism, like most other paradigms, can be approached in a modernistic manner. It is believed that women who are oppressed by patriarchy can achieve independence and regain their “authentic selves” through reason.

Ethnography, critical theory and critical race theory can also be associated with modernism if quantitative research methods are used or a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods.

In modernistic terms language is transparent, meaning that a one-to-one relationship exists between what is written or said, and the concept that is investigated. This differs from, actually opposes, the post-modern ontology that meaning in language cannot transport meaning from one person to another without being interpreted first.[1]

It is also in opposition with the interpretive paradigms (constructivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology) because they are regarded as anti-realist, meaning that they use subjective data and research methods.

A belief of modernism that clashes with critical race theory and colonialism is that all cultures will embrace the truth because it is universal. Mass culture, mass consumption and mass marketing form part of the modernistic system. Homogeneity is regarded as a strength.


[1] N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln, 2018: 827.

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Research Article 13: Liberalism

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

In our current day and age neoliberalism largely rendered liberalism obsolete. Even so, liberalism is still a relevant paradigm.

Liberalism advocates tolerance, progress, humanitarianism, objectivity, reason, democracy, and human rights. To this can be added a host of other positive attributes dealing with human rights, social interaction and freedom. This, amongst other things, implies that all individuals in a country possess an equal status as legal subjects, regardless of other inequalities and differences that might divide them.[1]

Liberalism, thus, is a philosophical approach to human interaction and also a social force.[2] The basic premise of liberalism is the equality of individuals before the law.[3] In this respect, liberalism links up with critical race theory, critical theory and feminism.

All the elements of liberalism offer valuable fields for research. In a constructivist spirit, research should utilise observation and experiences to reflect on and evaluate previous perceptions in the hope of understanding the situations and phenomena being investigated. Understanding should lead to change and reform.

Constructivism is a variant of liberal theory if issues like human rights, freedom of social interaction, etc. are investigated.

Neoliberalism also supports or extends some elements of liberalism, for example, private property rights, a classically minimal liberal state, and the efficiency of the free market system. In other respects, neoliberalism is in opposition with liberalism, although neoliberalism is gradually adopting more and more liberalist values. The four central areas in which liberalism and neoliberalism overlap are human rights, non-discrimination (ethnicity and gender), education and the media.

Liberalism is associated with relativism through its relativist conception of rights – it accuses other paradigms of being relativist in order to have its own relativism accepted as universalism.[4] For example, liberal relativism is sometimes rather a neo-colonial tactic designed to maintain the exploitation of developing countries by developed former colonial powers, or new powers taking over the role of colonial power under the guise that they are helping the needy country to grow.

Liberalism is associated with radicalism because they both support the struggle for democracy, specifically campaigning for the right to vote, welfare reform, and public services, with radicalism adopting a more aggressive stance than liberalism.

Liberalism is in opposition with some values of critical race theory and colonialism because of its favouritism toward the elite, the rich and the noble.

Some academics still associate ‘liberal’ with unrestrained and undisciplined attitudes and behaviour.[5] The strength of liberalism, namely its commitment to emancipation, is said to also be its most serious weakness. Throughout history, liberalists claimed their love for liberty while demonstrating contempt for people of the colonies and for women. Liberalists are of the opinion that they are entitled to enforce ‘democracy’ upon the ‘less enlightened’.[6] Because of its authoritarian stance, liberalism cannot be equated with democracy, and liberty is not the same as equality.

The second weakness of liberalism is that there is hardly any consensus of exactly what it means. People’s thoughts about and understanding of liberal concepts such as human rights largely depend on who is in charge, whose side you are on, what you stand to gain or lose because of your point of view, if your point of view is legal and politically correct, and your position in a social group or community. Most citizens of the USA probably felt that they were protecting human rights when they invaded Iraq in 2003, whereas most Iraqi citizens probably felt that they were robbed of their human rights.

A negative consequence of liberalism claiming to favour the needy while discriminating between the informed, rich and educated on the one side and the uninformed, poor and uneducated on the other side, is that research on the former often follows an emic approach while research on the latter follows an etic approach. The informed, rich and educated are regarded and treated as participants in the research while the uninformed, poor and uneducated are regarded as subjects upon whom research is done. 


[1] W. Davies in A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 15.

[2] A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 11.

[3] Ibid: 2.

[4] A. An-Na’im in A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 55.

[5] A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 1.

[6] Ibid: 4.

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Research Article 12: Interpretivism

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

Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective way than hermeneutics in which to interpret data. We can also talk about the interpretivist group of paradigms, including hermeneutics and some others that we will summarise at the end of this chapter. Here, however, we discuss interpretivism as a specific paradigm. All interpretivist paradigms claim that there is a clear and significant difference between the natural and social sciences, with the technicist group of paradigms favouring natural research (quantitative) while interpretivist paradigms favour social (qualitative) research.

According to intepretivists, precise, systematic and theoretical answers to complex human problems do not exist. Every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analysis of the uniquely defined, particular contexts in which it is embedded. Social issues, therefore, should be analysed by means of scientific, quantitative research methods. Social laws, if they exist, should be uncovered through qualitative analysis and interpretation. 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.

Interpretivists are of the opinion that human life can only be understood from within because norms and values cannot be divorced from individuals. Human activities cannot be observed as some external reality. 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.

Reality is multi-layered and complex and a single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations. 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. Meaning is, thus, constructed and developed through interaction between people.

In interpretivism, social life is regarded as a distinctively human product. Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed in terms of language, consciousness and shared meanings. 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 it generally attempts to understand phenomena through the meanings that people assign to them.

Human behaviour is believed to be affected by knowledge of the social world. Interpretivism proposes that the realities of phenomena can differ across time and space. 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, 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.

For interpretivists the social world depends on human knowledge. They believe that our own understanding of phenomena constantly influences 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.

Often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation. Therefore, to conceive the world as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our own endeavours.

Interpretivism pays attention to and values what people say, do and feel, and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched. Interpretivism pays special attention to the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences. Patterns, trends and themes should, therefore, emerge from the research process, and your role 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 regarded as a purposive source of meaning. Interpretive investigation searches for meaning in the activities of human beings, which can best be researched by making use of qualitative research. In fact, interpretivists believe that 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.

A concept in especially qualitative research that shares a number of perspectives with the interpretive paradigm, is the notion of praxis. Some regard praxis as a separate paradigm while others regard it as a research method. Praxis means acting upon the conditions that you face in order to change them. It deals with the disciplines and activities predominant in the ethical and political lives of people.

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

Interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics, which, as you already know, is 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.

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.

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). This also applies to hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism. It also applies to radicalism although radicalism belongs more to the critical group of paradigms. All these paradigms pay attention to human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives, and suggest qualitative rather than quantitative approaches for the study of human activities and relationships.

Even though both interpretivism and positivism support social science, interpretivism opposes positivism because of its leaning towards physical science. However, keep in mind that the differentiation between paradigms in terms of being interpretive, critical or technicist is not clear cut. Most paradigms, if not all, can adopt any of the leanings depending on the research approach and method being used.

Because of its acceptance of such a large variety of rather subjective and intuitive sources of knowledge and meaning, some researchers feel that interpretivism is largely based on assumptions rather than accurate and authentic data, with the result that conclusions and findings based on it will lack scientific consistency.

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Is the NQF modernist, constructivist or post-modernist?

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I came across this interesting question in an article written by Samuel BA Isaacs, previous CEO of SAQA, and published in the SAQA Bulletin Volume 12, Number 2 of February 2012. The Bulletin is rather outdated, but the question is not. Here is my attempt at answering the question.

The NQF does show some characteristics of modernism in the sense that its objectives are logical and aimed at supporting quality in education and training, lifelong learning. It is contemporary while keeping pace with changes in technological and social environments. The objectives of the NQF supports the modernist notion that science and reason can be used to achieve accuracy, objectivity and reliability in the process of knowledge creation.

Through the years, since the inception of the NQF, learning institutions and quality assurance bodies experienced it as a system that is bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured, which are elements of a modernist paradigm. Although some of them might deny this, all quality assurance bodies follow evaluation procedures based on specific criteria, procedures and timeframes from which they do not deviate. 

The elements of modernism that can be linked to a constructivist philosophy are that the NQF is formulated in a structured, hierarchical (three sub-frameworks) manner while being implemented and managed in an orderly manner through centralised control.

Constructivism can be regarded as the conscience of the NQF. All stakeholders are given an opportunity to participate in the development and review of the NQF, so that learning institutions and quality assurance bodies can contribute through their own understanding and experience, i.e. prior knowledge. In a constructivist approach, all stakeholders should be allowed to ask questions and to participate in the exploration, research and development processes. Sadly, such flexibility was neglected in the development of the NQF. The intelligence and prior knowledge of experts were utilized selectively and subjectively in the formulation of the NQF. I need to add, though, that Dr. James Keevy, who is probably the best-informed South African authority on NQF systems worldwide, played a valuable and pivotal role in the initial development process, but that is not typical of a constructivist approach.

Post-modernism supports a pluralistic epistemology which utilizes multiple ways of knowing. This means that the NQF, to meet the requirements of post-modernist philosophy, should have been much more flexible in its approach to quality assurance of learning institutions and learning content. Post-modernism values the multiple opinions of individuals and communities. In his article, Isaacs mentions that many stakeholders were consulted in the development process. This would be typical of a post-modernist approach.

Modernism and post-modernism have certain elements that fit together, for example, modernism articulates traditional beliefs and practices with modern ideas and needs while post-modernism links opinions, value-systems, and knowledge to specific cultures. This is largely achieved through the use of language.

Both modernism and post-modernism are technicist, meaning that they adopt a critical and interpretive approach to the achievement of quality education and training. The NQF meets these characteristics. However, this is not necessarily a good thing.

In closing, the NQF needs not be exclusively modernist, constructivist or post-modernist. It can, and probably do, show characteristics of all three and some other paradigms.  For example, there are elements of critical theory in the NQF. The NQF questions knowledge and learning methods, it acknowledges the role of power and social position on education and training and it goes beyond prevailing assumptions of understanding. It also shows characteristics of feminism by promoting the role of women in the education and training system. It also shows characteristics of positivism – quality assurance of education and training as well as the learning process as such follows a cycle of control which includes observation, experimenting, and measurement. Judging from the manner in which the NQF is implemented I would think that it is largely based on a modernist philosophy.  

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Research Article 11: Hermeneutics

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

Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. Originally, hermeneutics referred to the study of the interpretation of written biblical text, but now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication, including verbal, artistic, geo-political, physiological, sociological, etc. In terms of communication, hermeneutics views inquiry as conversation and conversation as a source of data that can and should be used for research. Hermeneutics is now applied in all the human sciences to clarify or interpret, conditions in which understanding takes place.[1]

With the above in mind, hermeneutics can be defined as the aspect of a study that involves interpreting the event or events being studied, to deepen the understanding of the political, historical, sociocultural, and other real-world contexts within which they occur. Language and history play an important role in the interpretation of events and phenomena.

Hermeneutics represents a specific perspective on data analysis. In hermeneutics theories are developed or borrowed and continually tested, looking for discrepant data and alternative ways of making sense of the data.[2] It is not the purpose of hermeneutics to offer explanations or to provide authoritative rules or conceptual analysis, but rather to seek and deepen understanding. As a mode of analysis, it suggests a way of understanding or making meaning of, textual data. Objectivity is sought by analysing our prejudices and perceptions. Even so, ambiguity is not regarded as an obstacle to qualitative research and it is accepted that interpretation will sometimes be typical and perhaps even unique to a particular situation and context.

A hermeneutic approach, thus, is open to the ambiguous nature of textual analysis and resists the urge to offer authoritative readings and neat reconciliations. Rather, it recognises the uniquely situated nature, historically and linguistically influenced, and the ambiguous nature of interpretation, and offers such for readers to engage with, or not, as they wish.[3]

In the process of interpretation you, as the researcher, will inevitably add your own interpretation to text and, perhaps, review historical text if you regard it as necessary for whatever reason. In the process, you will also learn while contributing to the available knowledge in a particular field of study. Understanding occurs when you recognise the significance of the data that you are interpreting and when you recognise the interrelatedness of the different elements of the phenomenon.

A rather impressive number of human, religious and philosophical scientists elaborated on and added to the nature of hermeneutics. Two useful elaborations are, firstly, that experience, expression and comprehension are elements of hermeneutics and, secondly that hermeneutical analysis is a circular process, popularly called the hermeneutic circle.

The hermeneutic circle signifies a methodological process or condition of understanding, namely that coming to understand the meaning of the whole of a text and coming to understand its parts are independent activities. In this regard, “understanding the meaning of the whole” means making sense of the parts, and grasping the meaning of the parts depends on having some sense of the whole. The parts, once integrated, define the whole. Each part is what it is by virtue of its location and function with respect to the whole. In a process of contextualisation, each of the parts is illuminated, which clarifies the whole.[4] The hermeneutic circle takes place when this meaning-making quest involves continual shifts from the parts to the whole and back again.[5]

Hermeneutics focuses on interaction and language. It seeks to understand situations through the eyes of the participants. It involves recapturing the meanings of interacting with others, recovering and reconstructing the intentions of the other role players in a situation. Such research involves the analysis of meaning in a social context.

The hermeneutic data analysis process is aimed at deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning and therefore, in analysing the data you are searching for and unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning of the text. As a consequence, in designing your research you will deliberately plan to collect data that is textually rich and analyse it to make sense of the bigger picture or whole.[6]

Hermeneutics provides the philosophical grounding for the interpretive paradigms, including interpretivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, constructivism and phenomenology. It is also possible to associate and integrate hermeneutics with the critical research paradigms.

Hermeneutics opposes rationalism, positivism, scientism and modernism and, consequently, is more suited to a qualitative rather than a quantitative research approach.

The second criticism of hermeneutics is that viewing inquiry as conversation might damage the validity of your research conclusions and findings.

In summary, hermeneutics seeks understanding rather than to explain; acknowledges the situated location of interpretation; recognises the role of language and history in interpretation; views conversation as inquiry, and is comfortable with ambiguity.[7] Understanding requires the interpretation of words, signs, events, body language, artefacts and any other objects or behaviour from which a message can be deduced. It is, therefore, not a paradigm based on theoretical knowledge only, but also practical actions or omissions.

In closing, the circular nature of hermeneutic investigation is questioned by some researchers because setting understanding as a prerequisite for understanding the parts and understanding the parts as a prerequisite for understanding the whole, is a catch twenty-two situation.


[1] http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/145… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[2] J.A. Maxwell, 2013: 53.

[3] http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/145… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[4] http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/145… Accessed on 20/11/2017.

[5] R.K. Yin, 2016: 336.

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Loc. cit.

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Research Article 10: Functionalism

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

Biological 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.

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 because the contributions of all members of a community facilitate the performance of the community as a whole. Each individual plays an important part and the absence, or inability of an 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 community is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the community as a whole, which leads to social change.

The mental state rather than the internal constitution of the researcher is important. This implies that motivation plays an important role in what you would be willing to do to achieve success, i.e. the purpose of the research project.

Functionalism includes structuralism because both paradigms investigate the functioning of social phenomena. Like structuralism, functionalism also reacts against post-structuralism because of the disruptive nature of the latter.

In closing, functionalism is criticised for the following:

  1. Some researchers feel that functionalism focuses too much on the positive functions of societies while neglecting the impact of negative events.
  2. The current nature of functionalism is no longer in line with the original spirit and purpose of the paradigm. Researchers sometimes try to gain conclusions and findings from the ontology of a society when it might not even be relevant to the current phenomena any longer.
  3. Findings gained from a functionalist philosophical stance are not always generalizable because organisations and societies often differ in terms of their structure and purpose.
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Research Article 9: Feminism

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

Feminism is grounded in feminist values and beliefs. Philosophically speaking feminism is the movement for the political, social, and educational equality of women with men.

The ontology of feminism is that there is a ‘reality’ that has been created and shaped by social, political, cultural, economic, ethnic and gender-based forces that have evolved over time into social structures that are accepted as natural, cultural or in different other ways justified.

Feminist issues range from access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, redress, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the need for equal political representation.[1]

The basic epistemological principles of feminism include the taking of women and gender as the focus of analysis; the importance of consciousness-raising; the rejection of subject and object (valuing the knowledge held by the participants as being expert knowledge and acknowledging how research valued as ‘objective’ always reflects a specific social and historical standpoint); a concern with ethics and an intention to empower women and change power relations and inequality.

With the above philosophy as a basis, research in support of the interests of women aims to emancipate women and improve their lives. The aim of research on women is to clarify bias and inequity in the way that women are treated in various social settings, such as the workplace, universities, sport, etc. and to fill the gaps in our knowledge about women. Even though feminism is mostly directed at achieving equality between women and men, it also argues that women think and express themselves differently from men.

Feminism is characterised by its double dimension and diversity. As opposed to traditional research, its objectives include both the construction of new knowledge and the production of social change. It assumes that woman are oppressed in society, therefore research is used to help reduce such discrimination.

In terms of diversity, feminism can be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary; it uses different methodologies and it is constantly being redefined by the concerns of women coming from different perspectives. In terms of being multidisciplinary feminism can utilise knowledge borrowed from any other discipline that is relevant to the topic and purpose of the research. In terms of being interdisciplinary feminism can analyse, synthesise, harmonise and ultimately link the knowledge borrowed from other disciplines to integrate and systematise findings into a coherent whole. Transdisciplinary refers to feminist research contributing to and sharing knowledge with other disciplines.[2] Feminism, therefore, requires that issues such as antiracism, diversity, democratic decision making and the empowerment of women are addressed in any field of study where a gender-related issue calls for research.

In terms of research methodology feminism actively seeks to remove the power imbalance between research and subject; it is politically motivated in that it seeks to change social inequality and it begins with the standpoint and experiences of women. Feminism uses a wide variety of research methods, including methods belonging with the qualitative research approach, methods belonging with the quantitative approach and mixed methods. A qualitative approach is mostly favoured because it lends itself better to reflect the measure of human experience without focusing too strongly on males while neglecting the role of women in a particular social, economic, political or technological setting.

Feminism shares an academic as well as an affective link with neoliberalism, post-colonialism, critical theory, critical race theory, romanticism and post-structuralism, seeing that all of them deal with issues of inequality and discrimination. 

Although both feminism and structuralism deal with power relations between people, feminism seldom uses the rigorous approach to research that is typical of structuralism. Ironically the unemotional and clinical approach that is typical of structuralism might be what is needed to elevate feminism to a more generally accepted research paradigm.

The main objection to feminism as a research paradigm is not that it is invalid or irrelevant, as some might claim, but rather that the very supporters of the philosophy are causing damage by the emotional manner in which it is put forward. The way in which it is applied and the spirit in which people write about feminism is often overly emotional and devoid of academic substance. In feminist research, arguments are not always supported by corroborating evidence, and findings are superficial and subjective. Feminism is often used as the grounds for advocacy campaigns rather than academic research. The development of knowledge and theory is overshadowed by subjective philosophical points of view. These points of criticism, however, probably refer more to the attitude and motivation of some individual researchers and should not be seen as general characteristics of feminism.

Related to the above argument is the fact that by emphasising the equality of genders we might well be denying both men and women certain privileges and rights that go with such differences. Men and women are different in ways that, if not respected and taken into consideration, can also lead to unfairness. Pregnancy, for example, dictates that women should have certain rights that men might not be entitled to or need, although even this is a contentious argument for some.

In closing, feminism is research done by, for and about women. In research feminism seeks to include women in the research process, to focus on the meanings women give to their world while recognising that research must often be conducted within universities that are still patriarchal.


[1] http://encyclopedia2.thefreedcitionary.com/Feminist+paradigm. Accessed on 04/04/2017.

[2] Adapted from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17330451 and https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/grad5104/… Accessed on 07/02/2019.

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Research Article 8: Ethnomethodology

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

‘Ethnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life and issues related to social order by combining experiencing phenomena with sense experience. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre on the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction.

Ethnomethodology studies the process by which people (subconsciously) formulate and apply certain ‘taken-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation to make it meaningful.

Ethnomethodology does not focus on individuals. Its field is the dynamics of social life. The individual is seen and researched as part of a social unit, for example, a community or a group of people who in some way form a coherent unit. Students who study together at a particular university at a certain point in time can be such a coherent unit. Internal processes, emotions, values, beliefs and other psychological phenomena typical of the thought processes of an individual do not form part of ethnomethodology.

Because ethnomethodologists are mainly interested in social settings, data collected through interviewing is less valid than data collected through observation in the workplace; and why old newspapers might provide less valid data than observation of a recent event. Data collected by means of interviewing is regarded as artificial, focusing on your research needs instead of the problem being investigated. Interviewing is data collection where you have control over those being interviewed, when what is needed is the observation of the actions of people under natural circumstances, for example, while doing routine work. Observation of everyday life is said to improve the validity of data that is collected.

Ethnomethodology does not formulate rules, laws or descriptions of practices of social groups that generally apply. Knowledge is seen as relevant to a specific context and time.

Ethnomethodology can be associated with constructivism and, indirectly also with hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology, the common denominator is that they all study social phenomena in one way or another.

Ethnomethodology does not fit in well with transformative research, which shows characteristics of and is regarded by some as yet another paradigm. The reason for this is that transformative research uses intangibles such as intuition, serendipity and unpredictable events whereas ethnomethodology deals with everyday life and real observations.

A deficiency of ethnomethodology, at least in the opinions of some academics, is that the investigation of everyday life is too narrow and limited to provide valid and generally applicable knowledge about social interaction, and hardly any theories about the wider interaction between human beings.

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Research Article 7: Empiricism

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. As the name and philosophy imply, 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.

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. Reflection, in turn, leads to new or improved knowledge.

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 simulated through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements. Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complementary 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. The knowledge that we have, however, was obtained through previous experiences that we had. Secondly, we can “create” experiences by doing experiments and building models, which can be simulations of reality and in that manner gain knowledge through self-created experiences.

Empiricism favours quantitative research methods, although it can be used with quantitative or qualitative research or a mixture of the two approaches. Its leaning towards quantitative research is demonstrated by the fact that it can be associated with positivism. A clear distinction is made between facts (objective) and values (subjective). Sense data is the ultimate objectivity, uncontaminated by value or theory. This ties in closely with the positivist paradigm.

Empiricism, however, is sometimes used together with critical theory or any of the paradigms associated with critical theory.

Empiricists will at times opt for scepticism[1] as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them. David Hume,[2] for example, argued that our beliefs are a result of accumulated habits, developed in response to accumulated sense experiences.

Empiricism is in opposition to structuralism because empiricism believes that learning is derived from gaining experience while structuralism focuses on interrelationships between objects, concepts, and ideas. More importantly, however, is the fact that structuralism is used in research on events and phenomena that already exist, which means that knowledge also already exists. This implies that people can learn in an empiricist manner and, based on such knowledge continue further learning in a structuralist manner, i.e. not starting off with a “clean slate”.

Then again, empiricism does provide for accumulating further knowledge after having gained knowledge through earlier experiences. Not accepting that learning is a continuous process would have rendered empiricism invalid and illogical. Accumulating facts and knowledge is the second goal of empiricism. This is popularly called “naive empiricism”.[3]

In summary, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is the source of concepts or knowledge. Empiricists are of the opinion that knowledge must be deduced 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 is rejected. Stated differently, knowledge can only be derived a posteriori, i.e. through sensory experience. Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.


[1] Scepticism, sometimes also spelled “skepticism”, questions the validity of some or all human knowledge. It does not refer to any one school of philosophy, which is why it is not discussed separately as a paradigm in this book.

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

[3] A. Bryman, E. Bell, P. Hirschsohn, A. dos Santos, J. du Toit, A. Masenge, I. van Aard, C. Wagner, 2017: 8.

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Article 6: Critical Theory

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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 prescriptive, explanatory, practical and normative, all at the same time.[1] That is, it explains what is wrong with the current social reality, identifies the actors to change it, and provides both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation. Its intention is not merely to give an account of society and behaviour but to realise a society that is based on equality and democracy for all the people in the society.

Conflict and inequality are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human relations. Critical theory seeks to uncover the interests at work in particular situations and to interrogate the legitimacy of those interests, identifying the extent to which they are legitimate in the interests of equality and democracy. Its intention is transformative – to transform society and individuals to social democracy. Improving the quality of life, be it in the workplace or social setting therefore focuses on the elimination or reduction of inequality, preferential treatment, and discrimination.

Critical theory identifies the ‘false’ or ‘fragmented’ consciousness that has brought an individual or social group to relative powerlessness, or power, and it questions the legitimacy of this.[2] It investigates issues of repression, lack of freedom of expression, ideology, participation (or not), representation (or not), inclusion or exclusion and the protection of interests.

Increasingly, the multiple identities of individuals can justify investigation. Differences in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, skin colour, disability, being a minority, can be grounds for discrimination and oppression, which should be investigated and solved.

Critical theory is any research that challenges those conventional knowledge bases and methodologies whether quantitative or qualitative, that make claim to scientific objectivity. In this respect the purpose of a critical theory paradigm in research is practical, namely, to bring about a more just, egalitarian society in which individual and collective freedom are secured. The contribution of critical theory is, therefore, often not just adding to or improving current knowledge or philosophy but also contributing to the physical living quality of people in a community, environment or in general.

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.

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. In this way the power relationships between the system and its structures are disclosed and the oppressive nature of the system are revealed.

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. Consciousness and identity are formed within the political field of knowledge. Critical theorists argue that values, historical circumstance and political considerations cannot be changed through research. Therefore, efforts to eliminate or reduce inequality and discrimination should focus on managing such values, historical circumstance and political considerations in such a way that people are not discriminated against because of them.

Our understanding of the educational, political, economic or social situation depends on the context within which we encounter them, 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. Research making use of a critical theory paradigm should therefore take the context and environment in which people live into consideration when seeking for theoretical and physical improvements. It is 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.

In terms of the need to improve knowledge about the damage that inequality and discrimination causes people, critical research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledge reproduces structural relations of inequality and oppression. Researchers following critical theory methods assume that social reality is historically created and that it is produced and reproduced by people. 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”.

Conflict and inequality are mostly part of research making use of a critical theory paradigm. It is necessary to study conflict and inequality and the resistance that they cause in order to understand the dynamics of human relations. Resistance becomes an important part of the response to injustices towards individuals or groups in a community or society. In this respect critical theory is also “resistance theory”.

Critical theory investigates and uses three types of knowledge, also called cognitive interests: technical interest, practical interest and emancipating interest.

Technical interest is concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge. It is concerned with “how” things are done.

A practical interest is concerned with understanding the meaning of situations, which generates hermeneutic and historical knowledge. Practical interests are concerned with the “what”, or the ontology of phenomena.

An emancipating interest is concerned with the provision of growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraints and domination. The emancipating interest, furthermore, deals with the human capacity to be self-reflective and self-determining, to act rationally.[3] Technical and emancipatory interests together deal with the epistemology of knowledge.

Critical theory serves as a foundation for and can be integrated with rationalism, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism, and critical race theory. Although qualitative research methods are popular, quantitative research methods can also be used. Supporters of quantitative research methods and the accompanying technicist paradigms are of the opinion that the lenses that qualitative researchers use to critically analyse a system are subjective and the observations made through such research are not subject to empirical verification in the positivist sense.

Proponents of critical theory claim that it is a complex and intricate paradigm which requires years of intensive study to fully understand. They, furthermore, feel that research that deals with the values and emotions of people needs to take affective factors, which are difficult to quantify, into consideration. Then again, a second school of scientists feel that that those who regard critical theory as such a difficult to comprehend paradigm are of the opinion that this is nothing but smugness. Emotions, they believe, can be analysed through numbers, for example by asking multiple-choice questions in a questionnaire.


[1] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory. Accessed on 09/02/2017.

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

[3] https://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/teachingwriting/article/download/1089/1047/0. Accessed on 01/05/2018.

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