Who should benefit from the recognition of prior learning?

The quality assurance body that misuses the recognition of prior learning (RPL) for its own benefits and comfort rather than for the improvement of the quality of learning is doing the country and its people a terrible disservice.

To avoid learners feeling alienated, RPL needs to be integrated with other learning and assessment services and opportunities. South-Africa is a country with a low number of employees who have obtained tertiary degrees and diplomas. There are many managers and employees who have years of informal learning and experience, but who do not have the formal certificates to recognise their level of competence.

Traditionally, only institutional, certificated learning carries any status. Unaccredited learning has up until now only been acknowledged as being somewhat useful, which is probably why people often regard the certificate as more important than the knowledge and skills that they can gain from studying.

RPL has a social justice function, and it opens up access to formal higher education programmes. It contributes to the full personal development of each learner as well as to the social and economic development of the nation at large.

This brings me back to my statement in the first paragraph. Quality assurance bodies that set artificial limits and preconditions for RPL can easily destroy the socio-economic and redress value of the process. Allowing RPL only for gaining access to further learning but not for certification is unfair and discriminatory. It is internationally accepted that qualifications obtained through RPL should have the same status as qualifications obtained through formal learning.

A certificate is just the written confirmation that an individual has certain knowledge and skills. How the knowledge and skills were obtained is not relevant.

Even worse, a quality assurance body that refuses to grant learners credits towards a national qualification if the credits were achieved through RPL is villainous. Why on earth would one give a learner who achieved a degree through formal learning 360 credits, but the learner who achieved 50 of the 360 credits through RPL only 310 credits for the same degree? Again, qualifications achieved through RPL should enjoy the same status and value as the same qualification achieved through formal learning.

Why would you limit the number of students who can be admitted to further studies through RPL? Not only is this an unnecessary and unfair obstacle in the way of redress of injustices of the past, it is also labeling RPL as inferior to formal learning. Countries with advanced RPL systems in place provide for the RPL of entire groups, which would mean that all students in a particular cohort can be accepted on account of them being assesses through RPL for full qualifications.

South Africa, the one country in the world where there is a desperate need for the recognition of prior learning, cannot afford an elitist stance that serves the interests of the quality assurance body and universities rather than to protect and promote the interests of the students.

In closing, RPL should be assessed holistically, meaning that credits, certificates and access to further learning should be judged against the purpose of the qualification. Candidates applying for RPL will seldom meet all the requirements for a qualification if specific assessment criteria and outcomes are used as yardsticks. Therefore, learning institutions should include in their RPL procedures top-up learning to close the gap between the requirements of a curriculum and the knowledge and skills of the student.


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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Functionalism

 Introduction. I am hoping to share my research on 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research. The purpose of sharing the articles with you is to also learn. After having done research and written for seven years, my book on qualitative research methodology is more or less ready for publication. However, the field of study is immensely vast and I need to do my utmost not to spread inaccurate information. So far I received no comments, feedback or suggestions on my articles. Please let me know if you find any mistakes or room for improvement.

This is the eighth article that I am sharing.


Functionalism. 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 society facilitate the performance of the society 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 society is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the society 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.

Some researchers feel that functionalism focuses too much on the positive functions of societies while neglecting the impact of negative events.

A second point of criticism against functionalism is that 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.

Thirdly, findings gained from a functionalist philosophical stance are not always generalizable.

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What is the meaning and purpose of blind peer review?

In my previous article on peer review I concluded that it should not be used for accreditation purposes because of its inherent subjectivity. As if using peer review to evaluate for accreditation purposes is not bad enough, some add “blind” to “peer review” and then claim that “blind peer review” is justification for them not revealing the names or profiles of the evaluators. This is completely wrong in terms of the meaning and purpose of “blind” in this context.

If used as a way in which to evaluate an application for accreditation, blind peer review would mean that two or more people would evaluate (review) the same application. The purpose of this would be to ensure objectivity, which is achieved by having two or more experts evaluate the application without knowing who the other evaluators are. The reason why different evaluators should not know who the others are is to ensure that they don’t discuss their evaluations and findings. The possibility exists that they might influence one another, thereby rendering the process subjective and unfair.

Once the evaluation reports have been submitted to the quality assurance body, they would compare the findings and recommendations of the different evaluators. If the evaluators agree, their recommendations would be accepted. If they disagree, the quality assurance body can do one of three things:

  1. They can fall back on their veto right and decide which recommendation they agree with.
  2. They can invite the evaluators to meet and, with the quality assurance body facilitating the process, discuss the findings and recommendations in an effort to reach synergy.
  3. They can ask additional evaluators to also evaluate the application.


There is no reason to keep the identities of the evaluators confidential once the evaluation has been completed and a decision made. In fact, the identity of the evaluators should be revealed once the evaluation has been completed else the process cannot come to a logical conclusion, especially if there is a split decision between the different evaluators. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India (NAAC) also make use of peer review for evaluation purposes. However, the detail assessment report is made public after the evaluation and the identities of the peers are not kept secret. In fact, one of the critical elements of the NAAC evaluation strategy is transparency in all its policies and practices.[1]

One might argue that you should protect the evaluator’s against retribution, blackmail, bribery or intimidation. This, however, is not blind peer review, especially if the evaluation has been done by one evaluator only. Besides, the day it becomes necessary to protect evaluators against applicants for accreditation would be the lowest that a country claiming to maintain quality in education and training can sink to – then we can just as well not quality assure at all.

In closing, it should be rather obvious that a quality assurance body in education and training should have in its employ people who understand quality assurance concepts. It should also be obvious that such bodies should at all times act ethically. The worst thing that a quality assurance body can do is to bend and manipulate concepts to justify not conducting professional work, thereby misleading government as well as learning institutions.



[1] Prasad and Stella, 2004: 4-5.

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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Feminism

Introduction. I was hoping to share my research on 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research. The purpose of sharing the articles with you is to also learn. After having done research and written for seven years, my book on qualitative research methodology is more or less ready for publication. However, the field of study is immensely vast and I need to do my utmost not to spread inaccurate information. So far I received no comments, feedback or suggestions on my articles. Please let me know if you find any mistakes or room for improvement.

This is the seventh article that I am sharing.

Feminism. 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 has 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.

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.

Simply stated 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.

With the above philosophy as 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 a 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.

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 is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary; it uses different methodologies and it is constantly being redefined by the concerns of women coming from different perspectives. Feminism therefore requires that issues such as antiracism, diversity, democratic decision making and the empowerment of women are addressed.

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 deal with power relations between people, feminism seldom uses the rigorous approach to research that is typical of structuralism. Ironically the lack of objective and systematic research 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 research, arguments are not supported by corroborated evidence, and findings are superficial and subjective. Feminism is 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.

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.

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Is peer review a suitable evaluation method for accreditation purposes?

Written by Dr J.P. Nel, D. Com, D. Phil

Introduction. Peer review is a form of external audit. An external group of experts, called peers, is invited to assess the quality of different fields of the institution, such as the quality of education and training provision of individual departments or of the entire organisation. During the evaluation process, the peers visit the reviewed institution. Peers are external but work in a similar environment and have specific professional expertise and knowledge of the evaluated subject. They are independent and “persons of equal standing” with the persons whose performance is being reviewed.

There is no doubt in my mind that peer review can add value to learning institutions. Closely related to self-evaluation, peer review, if used correctly, can be developmental and consultative. It offers substantial advantages to the parties who are involved in the review process, for example measuring control over quality, the improvement of the learning offered by learning institutions, sharing ideas and efficient learning procedures, establishing networks of co-operation and many more.

The question, however, is if peer review is a suitable evaluation method for accreditation purposes. I offer the hypothesis that peer review is not suitable for the evaluation of applications for accreditation.

Preconditions for peer review. Peer review, if used incorrectly or for the wrong purposes, can do more damage than good. The following are preconditions for the use of peer review:

  • For the sake of objective judgement, peer review should always be a two-way process, meaning that learning institutions should evaluate each other to promote and improve the learning offered by both. More than two learning institutions can also participate in peer review. It is not peer review if only one individual one-sidedly evaluates a learning institution.
  • Peer review should be a voluntary process between learning institutions working in similar environments.
  • Peer review should always be an open and transparent process.
  • Peer review groups should always count among their number independent, external experts who possess appropriate skills and who are competent to perform their functions. They should include, where appropriate, persons who are competent to make national and international comparisons.
  • Where internal experts are included – in the case of some programme-based and department/unit-based reviews – they should not be closely associated with the programme or department/unit under review.
  • In the case of reviews of the effectiveness of an institution’s quality assurance procedures, all peer review group members should be external experts.
  • Bodies responsible for the activation and administration of reviews should publish clear and transparent guidelines regarding the selection of reviewers. These guidelines should set out criteria and processes for the selection of relevant experts, because these guarantee their independence. Bodies responsible for the activation and administration of reviews should also publish clear and transparent guidelines regarding the responsibilities and duties of peer review group members. They should also ensure that the latter are adequately briefed about these responsibilities, duties, and the contexts (including relevant legislation) in which the reviews are being undertaken.

Why peer review is not suitable for the evaluation of applications for accreditation. The reason why peer review is not suitable for the evaluation of applications for accreditation is quite obvious – it does not meet the requirements for peer review listed above for the following reasons:

  • Peer review in not, as some may claim, an internationally accepted method of evaluation for accreditation purposes. The claim that peer review is employed worldwide to conduct external evaluation is false. I conducted interviews with CEDEFOP experts in quality assurance and participated as the only speaker from a non-EU member state in a workshop on quality assurance at the University of Berlin in 2010. The general consensus amongst CEDEFOP interviewees and University of Berlin delegates, who were also speakers, was that peer review should not be used for external quality assurance.
  • The inherent subjectivity of the procedure renders it unacceptable as an evaluation method where the future of learning institutions is at stake.
  • The fact that peer review is used for other purposes does not justify using it for the evaluation of applications for accreditation. For example, using peer review to determine an academic paper’s suitability for publication or whether an academic qualifies for conferment of professorship has nothing to do with accreditation.
  • Peer review is a self-regulating process, which means that it should not be regarded or used as an external evaluation tool for accreditation purposes.
  • Peer review used with political motives in mind can be seen as a form of capillary power in which learning institutions are seduced into policing themselves. In a constructive quality culture any evaluation intervention, be it undertaken externally or internally should be for the benefit of the provider and students and not merely intended to meet external demands, especially not political ones.
  • Unfortunately praxis shows that South African quality assurance bodies claim for themselves a position of power that is totally out of line with the purpose and spirit of quality assurance. Blom describes this as follows:

“Thus, while improvement is the rhetoric, the underlying intention seems to be to prescribe quality from the perspective of those who are in charge, and those whose interests are served…”

  • The possibility of unfair evaluation is always real for many different reasons, for example because of the fear of creating competition for the own university or college, professional jealousy, etc.
  • It is not only learning institutions offering the same qualifications that are in competition with one another. Students at public universities often launch advocacy campaigns and riot because of high fees, the colonial nature of learning content, allegations of racism, and many more. Serious students who wish to gain knowledge with which to pursue careers and to prepare for further learning would rather enroll with private learning institutions where their studies will not be damaged by such riotous activities. That is why any private learning institution may well be regarded as competition for public learning institutions.

Conclusion and close. Peer review is a healthy form of co-operation between learning institutions that can be used to improve the quality of learning offered. It should, however, not be used to evaluate a learning institution or qualification for accreditation purposes.

The potential lack of objectivity should be born in mind if peer review is used to evaluate compliance for accreditation purposes.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research uses peer review for accreditation. However, they adopt a flexible approach in order to render the process objective and fair. For example:

  1. They offer guidance and support to learning institutions applying for accreditation.
  2. The learning institution is allowed to start offering the qualification prior to accreditation. Accreditation is only done for the first time after successful completion of at least one batch of students.
  3. Accreditation is voluntary.
  4. Accredited learning institutions receive financial assistance.
  5. Accreditation can be granted conditionally.
  6. Evaluation always includes a site visit.
  7. Peer review is done by a team of experts, not just one individual.
  8. Peer reviewers are carefully selected based on relevant knowledge and experience, leadership and people skills; personal/professional relationship; communication skills; objectivity, openness and freeness from preconceived judgments; lack of conflict of interests; willingness to serve; etc.


Blom, R. January 2016. The Size and Shape of the Public and Private Post-School Education and Training System in South Africa. Centre for Researching Education and Labour.

Kelly, B. Interviewed on 27 April 2007 in Brussels, Belgium.

Nel, J.P. A strategic Approach to Quality Assurance in Occupationally-Directed Education, Training and Development in South Africa. Doctoral thesis, UJ, Johannesburg.


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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Ethnomethodology

Written by Hannes Nel, B. Mil; BA Hons; MBL; D. Com (HRM); D. Phil (LPC)

 Introduction. I was hoping to share my research on 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research. The purpose of sharing the articles with you is to also learn. After having done research and written for seven years, my book on qualitative research methodology is more or less ready for publication. However, the field of study is immensely vast and I need to do my utmost not to spread inaccurate information. So far I received no comments, feedback or suggestions on my articles. Please let me know if you find any mistakes or room for improvement.

This is the sixth article that I am sharing.

Ethnomethodology. ‘Ethnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre on the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction.

Ethnomethodology deals with issues related to social order by combining experiencing phenomena with sense experience.  It studies the process by which people invoke certain ‘take-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 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 general rules, laws or descriptions of general practices of social groups. Knowledge is seen as relevant to a specific context and time.
  • can be associated with constructivism and, indirectly also with hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology, the common denominator being that they all study social phenomena in one way or another.
  • 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. However, in this book we discuss transformative research as a research method.

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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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Empiricism

Written by Hannes Nel, B. Mil; BA Hons; MBL; D. Com (HRM); D. Phil (LPC)


Introduction. I am sharing 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research. Your comments, criticism, additions or endorsements of the articles will be appreciated. This is the fifth paradigm that I am discussing.

The purpose of sharing the articles with you is to also learn. After having done research and written for seven years, my book on qualitative research methodology is more or less ready for publication. However, the field of study is immensely vast and I need to do my utmost not to spread false information. So far I received no comments, feedback or suggestions on my articles. Please let me know if you find any mistakes or room for improvement.

Empiricism. Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. As the name and philosophy implies, empiricism means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or empirically based. Evidence should be observable by the senses or extensions of the senses.

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. 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 strong 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, 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 a second goal of empiricism. This is popularly called “naive empiricism”.[3]

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 are 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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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Critical Theory

Written by Hannes Nel, B. Mil; BA Hons; MBL; D. Com (HRM); D. Phil (LPC)

 Introduction. I will share 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research, starting with behaviourism. Your comments, criticism, additions or endorsements of the articles will be appreciated. This is the fourth paradigm that I am discussing.

The purpose of sharing the articles with you is to also learn. After having done research and written for seven years, my book on qualitative research methodology is more or less ready for publication. However, the field of study is immensely vast and I need to do my utmost not to spread false information. So far I received no comments, feedback or suggestions on my articles. Please let me know if you find any mistakes or room for improvement.

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

Critical theory is 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 which can be grounds for discrimination, for example race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, skin colour, disability, minority, mean that these kinds of oppression “intersect” in their effect on persons and societies.

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 particular 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.

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 the attempt to dispense with values, historical circumstance and political considerations in research cannot be achieved. 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 it.

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 therefor take the context and environment in which people find themselves 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”.

Researchers using critical theory assert that what counts as valid social science knowledge arises from the critique of the social structure and systems as revealed through the analysis of the discourse in society. The critical researcher lays bare the current discourses in society and analyses them in terms of the system within which they operate with the aim of disclosing the power relationships between the system and its structures so that the oppressive nature of the system can be revealed.

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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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Critical Race Theory

Written by Hannes Nel, B. Mil; BA Hons; MBL; D. Com (HRM); D. Phil (LPC)


Introduction. I will share 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research, starting with behaviourism. Your comments, criticism, additions or endorsements of the articles will be appreciated. This is the third paradigm that I am discussing.

The purpose of sharing the articles with you is to also learn. After having done research and written for seven years, my book on qualitative research methodology is more or less ready for publication. However, the field of study is immensely vast and I need to do my utmost not to spread false information. So far I received no comments, feedback or suggestions on my articles. Please let me know if you find any mistakes or room for improvement.


Critical race theory. Critical race theory focuses on the application of critical theory in terms of race. It objects to the perception of racial power, especially where it is overtly or covertly supported by legislation, which renders it institutionalised.

Institutionalised racism is the structures, legislation, policies, practices and norms resulting in differential access and opportunities between racial groups. It manifests itself in any situation where needs exist, be it material, psychological, political, technological, social, economic or power needs. Intentional discrimination is opposed on all terrains where people are involved, for example universities, schools, employment in the private and public sectors, sport, etc.

Critical race theory favours an aggressive, race-conscious, approach to social transformation. Although the starting point is often simple racial equality, political and legislative transformation can be even more important objectives. Hidden motives can also be present, for example to gain the support of African countries for an international political agenda, opposition to the involvement of superpowers in the Middle East, South American countries, etc.

Not all critical race theory agendas are negative – it is also used to combat racial discrimination, facilitate the upliftment and growth of disadvantaged communities, redress of racial discrimination in the past, etc.

Although critical race theory originally applied to black people being discriminated against by whites, the opposite is also possible. Critical race theory also covers research where perceived discrimination of black people against white might call for investigation. In fact, it can be any group discriminating against the other who is often the minority in a country, region or community.

Critical race theory mostly investigates the achievement of racial emancipation and equality and can be addressed in any field of study, although social studies arguably embrace the paradigm the most. Historical and current incidents of racial discrimination are often used as evidence in support of a research problem or question or a research hypothesis.

Critical race theory is supported by structuralism, for example by investigating how legislation and cultural influences impact on the demography of a community. In this respect micro-aggression is often an element of research making use of a critical race theory perception. Micro-aggression can be found in any community where a certain group might feel anger and frustration because of the way the perceived or real privileged elite threaten them or because of one or more privileges that they have at the expense of the discriminated or that the discriminated are denied. This can erupt into riots, crime, or violence, which might well call for research.

Critical race theory can also be linked to critical theory, neoliberalism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism and post-structuralism.

Critical race theory is not always structured. Although it investigates legislation and cultural influences, the process can be aggressive and unstructured, sometimes including riotous advocacy campaigns.

Critical race theory is, unfortunately, sometimes used to achieve political agendas and to oppress minority or even majority groups that are vulnerable.

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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Constructivism

Written by Hannes Nel, B. Mil; BA Hons; MBL; D. Com (HRM); D. Phil (LPC)

 Introduction. There are a multitude of paradigms. Some of them are modifications of classical paradigms that have been slightly changed by academics. Then there are those paradigms that are not research paradigms. They may be educational, philosophical, or theoretical, but not of such a nature that they can logically serve as the foundation for academic research.

I will discuss 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research, starting with behaviourism. Your comments, criticism, additions or endorsements of the articles will be appreciated. This is the second paradigm that I am discussing.

 Constructivism. Constructivism claims that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. We reconcile new observations and experiences with our previous ideas and experiences. This might change our perceptions or the new information and experiences might be discarded, depending on how we process it in our minds. This means that we actually create our own knowledge by asking questions and exploring things, which would inevitably be subjective.[1] Elkind[2] defined constructivism as follows:

“Constructivism is the recognition that reality is a product of human intelligence interacting with experience in the real world.”

Ethics is an important value in constructivism. Constructivists recognise the importance of the construction and the way in which data is collected as prerequisites for validity and accuracy of analysis. The quality of data and the way in which it is analysed determine the nature of reality and how it is interpreted.

Constructivism is mostly used with grounded theory methodology.[3] Human interests are important for research purposes, with the result that the paradigm can also be used with a number of other research methods, for example action research, case study research, ethnography, etc. A multitude of data collecting methods can be used, for example interviews, participant observation, artefacts, and almost any documents that are relevant to the field of study.[4]

The aim of such research is to understand particular situations or phenomena. Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed. It involves a researcher collaborating with participants. The interaction of a number of people is researched in their context or setting, mostly to solve social problems of the target group. The accuracy of research findings is validated and creates an agenda for change or reform. This is a rather well-known sequence of events that is followed in most qualitative research methodology.

Constructivism is also closely associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism. For example, like positivism, constructivism also uses observation to gather information. Different from positivism, which argues that knowledge is generated in a scientific method, i.e. externally, you, as the researcher, are part of what is being observed, i.e. internally. This is called an ‘emic’ approach, which means observing the community, also called the target group, from the inside. An ‘etic’ approach would mean to observe the target group from the outside, as in the case of positivism.

Although some academics claim that constructivism can be positively associated with behaviourism, this is a rather weak and unconvincing link because of the absence of reflection in the case of behaviourism. This, however, is also questionable because “learned history” without reflection does not make sense. Constructivism also rejects scientism and empiricism for much the same reason, i.e. lack of reflection.

Constructivism is rather widely criticised in terms of its value, or lack of value in education as well as its lack of balance when used as a philosophy in research. In education it can lead to group thinking when the interpretation of one or a few prominent educators or scientists is regarded as “the only truth”.

Constructivists sometimes place too much emphasis on sensory experience at the expense of reflection. This means that constructivists sometimes focus strongly on the ontology, i.e. “what is” and neglect the epistemology, i.e. the “explanation” and “justification” of the phenomenon, with the result that knowledge is not sufficiently proven to be valid or accurate.

Different academics link constructivism to a multitude of different other paradigms, research methods and realities, thereby robbing it of its identity as a valid research paradigm.


[1] http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concpet2class/constructivism. Accessed on 22/11/2017.

[2] In https://research-methodology.net/research-philosophy/epistemology. Accessed on 22/11/2017.

[3] Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. 2018: 416. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. Fifth edition. Sage Publications, Inc. Los Angeles.

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Barbara_Kawulich/publication/… Accessed on 01/05/2018.

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