ARTICLE 63: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Pragmatism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

How is truth discovered in different paradigms?

Should it be based on exact and timeless facts?

Or perhaps how well an argument can be motivated?

Or will it be different for different contexts and communities?

I discuss how truth is discovered through pragmatism in this article.

Pragmatism is concerned with action and change. It focuses on communication and shared meaning-making to develop practical solutions to social problems. To be understood, a society must be observed and interpreted in terms of the action that takes place in the society. Without action, according to the pragmatist point of view, any structure of relations between people is meaningless. Action is used to change existence. To perform meaningful change, action needs to be guided by purpose and knowledge. The world is thus changed through an intervention consisting of reason and action. There is an inseparable link between human knowing and human action.

The purpose of pragmatic inquiry is to create knowledge in the interest of change and improvement. In this respect pragmatism is futuristic in the sense that it does not focus on existing knowledge, but rather strives to create new, improved, knowledge. The knowledge character of pragmatism is not restricted to explanations and understanding. Other forms of knowledge such as prescriptive, normative, descriptive, explanatory, and prospective are essential in pragmatism. 

Prescriptive knowledge refers to giving guidelines.

Normative knowledge refers to the process of exhibiting social and moral values.

Descriptive and explanatory knowledge are self-explanatory.

Prospective knowledge refers to the action of suggesting possibilities or options.

Pragmatism strives to identify actions that will make a constructive difference to a community while seeking general principles that will enable the implementation of the actions in other communities or geographical areas with the same or similar good results. Therefore, pragmatism does seek to identify generalisation of the research findings.

Pragmatism does not seek truth or reality for its own sake because truth and reality are always debatable, changing and dependent on the perceptions of those who are in power or have the initiative. Therefore, pragmatism strives to facilitate human problem-solving.  According to pragmatist assumptions the dynamic reality is based on our actions. As a pragmatic researcher, you will fall back on your own epistemology while making use of scientific research methods to collect and analyse data objectively. This means that you will need to do empirical research in a natural context.

 Pragmatism is not committed to any one system of philosophy or reality. Pragmatist researchers focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the research problem, i.e. the ontology as well as the epistemology. The pragmatic paradigm places the research problem central and applies all approaches to understanding the problem. Data collection and analysis methods are chosen as those most likely to provide insights into the problem statement or question.  To achieve this, pragmatism makes use of abduction, which means a spiral process between induction and deduction by converting observations into theories and then testing the theories in practice.

For research, inquiry is central to the application of pragmatist thinking. It is seen as a natural part of life aimed at improving the conditions of society in the world by adapting the context in which it finds itself. This implies the controlled and directed transformation of an uncertain situation into one that is so precise in its constituents, distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole. 

A host of data collection methods can be used, including surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc. Data collected in this fashion can then be further analysed by means of quantitative or qualitative methods. Also, some data can be analysed quantitatively while others are analysed qualitatively. Corroboration can, however, become problematic in the sense that quantitative data can mostly not be compared with qualitative data.

In terms of research approach, pragmatism is a practical and applied research philosophy that can support a mixed approach. Pragmatism favours an emic approach with you and the target group working together to solve a social problem.

Pragmatism rejects the distinction between realism and anti-realism, which has been the core of debates about positivism versus interpretivism in the social sciences. It can be associated with constructivism, seeing that experience and reflection are required for change to take place.

Pragmatism disagrees with ethnomethodology in the sense that the former focuses on the research problem or question whereas the latter focuses more on social life. This differentiation, however, is not significant. Both pragmatism and ethnomethodology accept qualitative research methods and both seek the improvement of social life. This largely applies to the other interpretive paradigms as well, namely hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology.

Many academics criticise the pragmatic paradigm. However, most of the critique is aimed at qualitative research methodology rather than at pragmatism. Some criticism is directed at a particular context or field of research, such as religion. The paradigm as such is criticised for focusing too much on the research problem or question while the purpose of the research might be neglected. This argument, however raises the question if the problem does not lie with the manner in which the research problem or hypothesis is formulated. After all, the research problem or hypothesis should be articulated to the purpose of the research. Research should indeed, focus on the research problem or hypothesis.

Summary

Pragmatism investigates action to achieve change.

Observation is mostly used to collect data.

Truth and reality are regarded as debatable and dynamic.

The paradigm is not committed to any specific reality.

Knowledge can be descriptive, exploratory, prescriptive, prospective and normative.

A variety of research methods can be used.

An emic approach towards the target for the research is mostly followed.

Data collection and analysis focus on the research problem.

Empirical research in a natural context is conducted.

Research is aimed at solving problems as well as generalisation.

Principles for improvement are developed.

Pragmatism is associated with some elements of the interpretivist paradigms and opposed to other elements of the interpretivist paradigms.

Criticism against the paradigms is that the purpose of the research is sometimes neglected.

However, neglecting the purpose of the research is not necessarily unique to pragmatism.

Close

Pragmatism is, in my opinion, a good and logical foundation for research in the post COVID-19 reality.

It investigates action.

It solves immediate and real problems.

Change is always part of the purpose of the research.

Existing knowledge is used to create new knowledge.

And it is flexible and efficient.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.  

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ARTICLE 62: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Post-structuralism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Introduction

I don’t like this paradigm.
Too many authors wrote about it and twisted the nature and elements of the paradigm to fit their own agendas.
No wonder Michel Foucault denied supporting structuralism and, by implication, post-structuralism.

Besides, it is not the mode of communication that defines a philosophical point of view, but rather how it understands and uses meaning.

Despite my reservations about post-structuralism, I would like to invite you to judge for yourselves if the paradigm is the one for your research.

Post-structuralism

Post-structuralism is a critical point of view that questions the validity in structures, such as culture and language. It is applied mainly in the field of languages and linguistics. It is in fact a reaction against the notion that structure is required for investigation and comprehension.

The purpose of post-structuralism is to interpret, understand and shape our social environment.

Post-structuralism does not have as a purpose the achievement of generalisation. This is because the structures of meanings are not universal and do not reflect a generally applicable and valid definition of human beings or societies.

It provides clarity on the significant role of ethical choice, that is deciding what the meaning of an event or phenomenon is without having to fall back on moral or political principles.

For post-structuralism, disruption is often seen as having a positive meaning because disruption can lead to renewal and change. Text as a construction of human beings is therefore fallible and the original meaning of the author is not easy to determine. Therefore, text needs to be “deconstructed” continually. Not having certainty about what authors originally meant by what they wrote leads to a constant stream of interpretations rather than fixed meaning.

According to post-structuralism, identifying and creating knowledge requires actually experiencing a phenomenon or event, which is typical of phenomenology, as well as an analysis of the different parts making up a system, which would be the structure in the case of structuralism.

Written documents are regarded as more accurate evidence for research purposes than the spoken word. Therefore, literature study is preferred over interviewing, a stance that is shared with ethnomethodology.    

Post-structuralism grew out of, and in response to, the philosophy of structuralism. It is a loose connection of authors and ideas, holding the general view that “structures” are not easily discovered. Post-structuralism is closely linked to the post-modernist paradigm in the sense that both believe that disruption can lead to improvement.

Post-structuralism is often criticised and rejected because of the underlying structure or text that is slippery and deep; and authorial intentions that are hard to unravel. It argues about limits, but the limits are not defined or even explained. It presupposes a core, but the core is not defined, let alone explained, making it easy to bend arguments to fit personal preferences or points of view labelling it post-structural. However, apart from linguistics it also has an influence on other disciplines, for example art, culture, history and sociology.

Post-structuralism should be adopted with great caution because it is interpreted and, therefore, used in many different ways by different people to support controversial points of view. Post-structuralists can overturn assumptions about purity in morals, about essences in terms of race, gender and backgrounds, about values in art and politics and about truth in law and philosophy.

The end-result of this approach is that no link can be found between the core and the limits and you can set your own limits and core without paying much attention to coherence or corroborated truth.

Summary

Post-structuralism:

  1. Questions the validity of structures.
  2. Is a critical point of view.
  3. Believes that text is fallible.
  4. Focuses mainly on language and linguistics.

Knowledge is gained through experience and the analysis of structures.

The written text is regarded as a better source of data than the spoken word.

Post-structuralism is associated with post-modernism and structuralism.

It is opposed to modernism.

Criticism against post structuralism includes:

  1. That its use of personal preferences as data can damage the accuracy of research findings.
  2. Coherence and corroboration are neglected.
  3. It is hard to unravel the intentions of writers with what they wrote.
  4. And different researchers interpret post-structuralism differently.
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ARTICLE 61 Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies: Post-positivism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Here we have a soft teddy bear with teeth.

How do you reconcile values and passion with politics?

And the teddy bear can also be quite cynical.

It believes that all knowledge is flawed.

And that reality can never be fully understood.

What I do not understand, is how a paradigm that values passion and involvement with the target group for the research can favour an etic approach.

I discuss the multi-faceted nature of post-positivism in this article.

Post-positivist approaches assume that reality is multiple, subjective and mentally constructed by individuals. As opposed to truth and evidence being critical factors of the positivist research, values, passion and politics are more important for post-positive research. Post-positivist thinkers focus on establishing and searching for evidence that is valid and reliable in terms of the existence of phenomena rather than generalisation. This contrasts with the positivist approach of making claims about absolute truth through the establishment of generalisation and laws.

Researchers working within the post-positivist paradigm follow a critical-realist ontology, implying that all knowledge is flawed in some way or another.  This means that, in the eyes of post-positivist researchers, reality does exist but can never be fully understood.

Objectivity is recognised as an ideal that can never be achieved, and research is conducted with a greater awareness of subjectivity. Reality is not a fixed entity and it is to a certain degree accepted that reality is structured in the minds of individuals involved in the research. Post-positivists caution, however, that the constructed reality does not exist in a vacuum, but is influenced by context (culture, gender, etc.). For this reason, post-positivists claim that objective reality as proposed by positivist philosophy can only be seen as one aspect or dimension of reality, the focus being on the context and purpose of the research.

Post-positivism is a useful paradigm for researchers who maintain an interest in some aspects of positivism such as quantification, yet wish to incorporate interpretivist concerns around subjectivity and meaning, and who are interested in the pragmatic combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Research, therefore, is broad and general while theory and practice are studied as an integrated unit.

The positivist claims about truth and scientific knowledge are questioned by those supporting a post-positivist paradigm. You will, therefore, rely on your own epistemology, that is how you understand the scope and nature of your research as well as the factors that have an impact on it. You will also need to investigate more widely than you own understanding by taking into consideration how others construct and maintain their perceptions of the environment of relevance.  It is necessary to “see” the research topic and scope from the outside, in order to obtain a holistic picture of the research problem. This implies that you might need to follow an etic approach, even though an emic approach can also be followed, especially if an interpretivist paradigmatic focus is adopted.

From the above argument you can see that in research making use of a post-positivist approach, considering your research and the target group for your research from the outside does not always mean a purely etic approach. It is necessary to consider your research topic more objectively than would have been the case if you became part of the target group for the research. However, an emic approach will enable you to employ sound judgement and to critically consider your data, analysis, conclusions and findings. This would be preferable if a degree of passion and involvement with the target group for your research is called for. You can also combine elements of an etic and emic approach. This will require paying special attention to ethics in the sense that you need to respect and uphold the human rights of the members of your target group.

Like critical theory, post-positivism occupies the space between positivism and constructivism. It also shows elements of relativism in the sense that it is more flexible than the scientific paradigms from which it seems to have evolved. It is also associated with interpretivism; that is the search for meaning, although this is mostly linked to positivism, because quantification can also be used for analysis of data. It, furthermore, shares with post-modernism the characteristic that it can be disruptive in the way data is analysed.

 The limitations of post-positivist approaches generally relate to the interactive and participatory nature of quantitative and qualitative methods. In using interactive and participatory approaches, post-positivists are heavily criticised by positivists who claim that post-positivisms are qualitative methods that are merely an assembly of anecdotes and personal impressions, which are highly suspect in terms of research objectivity and researcher impartiality. Contrary to this, those in favour of approaching research from a more functionalist point of view argue that the two research paradigms could be used complementary, to strengthen the data collection and analysis process.

Summary

Post-positivism focuses on values, passion and politics.

Realty is regarded as multiple, subjective and mentally constructed.

The paradigm seeks truth and evidence that are valid and reliable in terms of phenomena, not in terms of generalisation.

Post-positivism is based on a critical-realist ontology.

All knowledge is flawed.

Reality is not a fixed entity and is influences by context and purpose.

Objectivity is a volatile entity.

Post-positivism can be associated with relativism, interpretivism, constructivism and positivism.

Post-positivism is also opposed to positivism.

Criticism against post-positivism includes:

  1. That the objectivity of research making use of the paradigm is questioned.
  2. That the impartiality of the researcher is questioned.
  3. And that some academics regard the paradigm as an assembly of anecdotes and personal impressions.
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ARTICLE 60: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies. Post-modernism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

How would you define knowledge?

Is knowledge “a final verdict by an expert or authoritarian figure”?

Is knowledge dependent on time?

Does context influence knowledge?

Can the meaning of knowledge be changed and still remain valid?

Post-modernism offers interesting, liberating and unexpected answers to these and other questions about the nature of knowledge.

I discuss post-modernism in this article.

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 way 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 must 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 for 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 must 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 are 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, inconclusive frivolous and rigid. 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.

Summary

Post-modernism is based on a pluralistic epistemology.

This means that multiple ways of knowing are applied.

Power is distrusted.

Knowledge is fragmented and unstable.

It refers more to probability than certainty.

Reality is not the same for everybody.

Research focuses on multiple realities.

Facts and values interact.

Universal, objective truth does not exist.

Convention is challenged through research.

Any research approach and a variety of research methods can be followed.

Rational discovery through science is rejected.

An interactive process of knowledge creation is used.

Ambiguity is tolerated.

Diversity is emphasised.

Innovation and change are embraced.

Multiple opinions and meanings are valued.

Post-modernism is associated with post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-positivism, relativism, pre-modernism and modernism.

Post-modernism is opposed to positivism, pre-modernism and modernism.

Criticism against post-modernism is that it is resisted by some academics, who regard it as too tentative, inconclusive, frivolous and rigid. Academics also disagree about the meaning of the concept.

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ARTICLE 59: Research Methodology for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Post-colonialism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Was colonialism a success?

Who benefited from colonialism?

Who were damaged by the empire building process?

What would the empires and colonies of old have looked like if the transitive process did not take place?

Does it still matter or is it water under the bridge?

Questions like these show that there is lots of potential for interesting social research in the colonial past.

I discuss post-colonialism in the article.

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 a rather unsettling disagreement amongst academics about the true meanings of paradigms. This can be found in discussions and arguments about paradigms in books, to some extent, and magazine articles, to a much larger extent. 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 technicist paradigms in the sense that it focuses more on the study of subjective interpretation of social interaction, whereas technicist paradigms, such as positivism, focus more on statistical analysis and cause and effect. 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 to 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. 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 particular country was not colonised.

Summary

Post-colonialism mostly deals with oppression, learning from and describing the colonial past.

The research process focuses on interpretation and understanding.

Post-colonialism draws continuities with and challenges the grand narratives of colonial rule.

A quantitative or qualitative research approach can be followed.

However, a qualitative approach is preferred.

Post-colonialism can be associated with ethnomethodology, post-modernism, critical race theory and feminism. 

It is opposed to positivism and structuralism.

Criticism against post-colonialism includes:

  1. That it is too dependent on literature study.
  2. It is mostly written by die “wrongdoers”.
  3. It is often obsessed with national identity.
  4. And that colonization was a failure.
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ARTICLE 58: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Positivism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Have you ever heard of a paradigm that supports natural science, but:

  1. Is not interested in meeting the target group for their research.
  2. Is not interested in discovering the ultimate truth.
  3. Accepts supernatural and abstract data for their research. AND
  4. Seeks the simplest solution to the research problem.

I discuss positivism in this video.

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.

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 is 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 from the study and following 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 relationships 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. We discussed empiricism as a paradigm already. Knowledge stems from human experience. The approach is deductive in nature because you are seen as being independent from 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. 

Summary

Positivism relies on the senses for data collection.

Reliability and validity of data are regarded as important requirements.

Research follows a process of observation, experimentation, control and measurement.

An etic and deductive approach is followed in research.

Facts are researched.

Supernatural and abstract data are also accepted.

There is only one objective reality that can be identified by means of observation and reason.

Knowledge can be revealed or discovered.

Society consists of structures, concept, labels and relationships.

Findings are integrated and systematised into a meaningful pattern or theory.

A quantitative research approach is preferred.

Findings are neutral and technical and, therefore, also often generalisable.

Positivism can be associated with empiricism, scientism, behaviourism and modernism.

Positivism is opposed to constructivism.

Some characteristics of positivism can be associated with while others are in opposition to post-positivism and rationalism.

Criticism against positivism is:

  1. That reports are not always accurate.
  2. That the wrong approach is sometimes followed.
  3. Not all academics support positivism for research purposes.
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ARTICLE 57: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Phenomenology

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

Do you think personal perceptions can be a true reflection of the nature of events or phenomena?

Can opinions based on nothing more than experience be accepted as valid and accurate data for research?

Can you come to logical findings if you do not use cognitive thinking and reflection when conducting research?

Here we have a paradigm that does all of those things.

I discuss phenomenology in this video.

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.  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 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 is 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 the 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. 

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 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 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. 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.

Summary

Phenomenology studies experience through direct interaction.

Social reality rather than the external reality is investigated.

The researcher’s and target group’s perceptions are used to understand phenomena and human behaviour.

Research attends to political, historical and socio-cultural contexts.

The uniqueness of events and phenomena can be the focus of the research.

The researcher can analyse data by falling back on common sense thinking.

Accurate descriptions of events and phenomena are related.

Events and phenomena are not judged.

Conscious experiences are described without theory and causal explanations.

The use of concepts, categories, procedures, reflections, taxonomies and techniques are resisted.

Phenomenology is associated with ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics and interpretivism.

The paradigm is opposed to scientism, positivism and modernism.

Criticism against the paradigm are:

  1. That cognitive thinking and reflection are neglected
  2. It is difficult to find valid examples of the use of phenomenology.
  3. It is seldom possible to generalise research findings.
  4. Researchers are confused about the meaning of the paradigm.
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ARTICLE 56: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Neoliberalism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Many writers wrote about an innocent and beautiful farm girl who sought fame and fortune in the city.

Only to become the victim of unscrupulous criminals who misused her innocence.

Neoliberalism is such a teenage girl.

In this article, I will tell you how vulnerable neoliberalism is to the corrupt people of our world.

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. 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 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.

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. 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.

Summary

Neoliberalism focuses on political and other elements of the human environment.

Knowledge and skills development are regarded as an investment.

The state and private institutions play an important role in the economy and therefore also in research.

Neoliberalism support extensive economic liberalisation.

A qualitative research approach is preferred.

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

Neoliberalism is well suited for action research.

Neoliberalism can be associated with critical theory, critical race theory, feminism, radicalism, romanticism and post-colonialism.

Neoliberalism is opposed to scientism, positivism and modernism.

Criticism against neoliberalism is that it lacks scientific consistency and that unethical and irresponsible government and business practices can damage the value of the paradigm for research and practice.

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ARTICLE 55: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Modernism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Here we have a paradigm with an identity crisis.

It is called modernism, but it is bureaucratic.

It supports scientific research methods but tries to predict the future.

It tries to predict the future but ignores environmental change.

It is based on a realist ontology but is optimistic about the future.

It focuses on research about social events and phenomena but rejects interpretivist paradigms.

I will try to explain how these anomalies in modernism are possible.

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.

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 critical considerations for achieving accuracy, objectivity, and reliability in the process of knowledge creation. Reason transcends and exists 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. 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 for prediction 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. Knowledge increases over time and 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. Reason is used to overcome conflict and challenges.

Modernism mostly relates to research on human beings.

Therefore, 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 is in opposition with the post-modern ontology that meaning in language cannot transport meaning from one person to another without being interpreted first.

Modernism is also in opposition with the interpretivist paradigms. As you probably know by now, they are constructivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology.

Interpretivist paradigms 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.

Summary

Modernism is the paradigm of all true knowledge.

It is based on logic.

Master-narratives and meta-narratives are accepted for research purposes.

Modernism favours structure, hierarchy, order and centralised control.

Modernism fits in well with a quantitative research approach.

Authority is vested in a superior, who would also be an expert in the field of study.

Scientific research methods, including statistical analysis, are preferred.

Knowledge, truth, reason, validity and objectivity are important criteria for research.

Efforts are made to predict future trends by analysing data independent of the environment.

Modernism can be used in combination with critical theory, critical race theory, scientism and empiricism.

It opposes the interpretivist paradigms.

Criticism that is sometimes raised against modernism is that the process is too bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured.

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ARTICLE 54: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Liberalism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Introduction

Liberalism implies freedom.

Does this mean that people should be allowed to decide for themselves how they will live, if they will work or not, if they will commit crime or not, support a particular religion or not?

Or does it mean that the government should protect people against the criminal, decadent, greedy, racist, sexists, etc.?

Liberalism promotes change and reform.

Does that mean that everyone should have the right to own property?

Or does it mean that the government should own all property to ensure that all will have equal access to the wealth of the country?

Are all people in any country really equal before the law?

Or is the law there to protect the rich, the wealthy and the elite?

I discuss liberalism in this post.

Liberalism

Neoliberalism rendered liberalism, in the opinion of some academics, 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 have an equal status as legal subjects, regardless of other inequalities and differences that might divide them.

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 are investigated.

Neoliberalism also supports or extends some elements of liberalism.

For example, private property rights, a classically liberal state and the efficiency of the free market system.

In other respects, neoliberalism is in opposition to liberalism.

However, neoliberalism is gradually adopting more and more liberal values.

The four central areas in which liberalism and neoliberalism overlap are human rights, non-discrimination, education and the media, freedom of speech and opinion.

Liberalism is a philosophical approach to human interaction.

It is also a social force.

The basic premise of liberalism is the equality of individuals before the law.

In this respect, liberalism links up with critical race theory, critical theory and feminism.

Liberalism is associated with relativism through its relativist conception of rights.

It accuses other paradigms of being relativist to proclaim its own relativism as universalism.

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 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 favoritism towards the elite, the rich and the noble.

Some academics still associate ‘liberal’ with unrestrained and undisciplined attitudes and behavior.

The strength of liberalism is said to be its most serious weakness.

This is its commitment to emancipation.

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’.

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 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.

A negative consequence of the liberalism paradigm claiming to favor 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.

Summary of Liberalism

Liberalism:

Is a philosophical approach to human interaction.

Is a social force.

Advocates tolerance, progress, humanitarianism, objectivity, reason, democracy and human rights.

Offers a valuable field of research.

Uses observation and experience as data or data collection methods.

Supports the equality of individuals before the law.

Is associated with constructivism, neoliberalism, critical race theory, critical theory, feminism, relativism and radicalism.

Is in opposition with some values of neoliberalism, critical race theory and colonialism.

Criticism against liberalism includes:

 Supporters of liberalism accuse other paradigms of being relativist to proclaim its own relativism as universalism.

It favors the rich, the elite and the noble.

Some associate liberalism with unrestrained and undisciplined attitudes and behavior.

Its commitment to emancipation is a strength but also a weakness.

Liberalists sometimes adopt an attitude of contempt for people of the colonies of old and for women.

There is a lack of consensus amongst academics about the meaning of liberalism.

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