ARTICLE 73: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Contextualising your Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Let’s say you plan on conducting research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the social interaction between people.

Do you think your findings will be the same if you were to do the research in a large city compared to a jungle village in central Africa?

Do you think your findings will be the same for any one population for different seasons?

Do you think your findings will be the same ten years from now as they are now?

I will discuss contextualising your research in this article.

Research is always done in a context.

The context can be expressed as the scope or limits of the research. Teaching and learning, for example, are managed and administered on local, regional and national level so that we can also do research on one or more of these levels.

Context can also be a geographical area, for example a suburb, a city, a country or perhaps even the whole world. Choosing a context for your research can be compared to weightlifting. If you put too little weight on the bar, your performance will be insignificant. If you try to lift too much you might fail and can even injure yourself.

Therefore, keep in mind that, the wider the context for your research, the more likely will your research topic not be viable.

Natural scientists often claim that their findings are valid regardless of time or context. This would mean that the knowledge, principles, tenets, laws, etc. that they develop are not dependent on context. It does not mean that context does not exist but rather that their findings apply to all, or at least most, contexts.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of a context that has an impact on almost all fields of study. Phenomena and events are in many ways different in terms of social, economic, financial, legislative, political, environmental and many other conditions than when the virus was not present.   

Depending on the level of your research, you can narrow down the limits even further by deciding on and describing the appropriate structures, stakeholders and social groups involved in the topic being researched as well as related services that will be included in the research. You can go even further by deciding if the research will be done on a micro (going into much detail) or macro (addressing only some broader issues) level.

Once you have decided on the scope and limits of your research, it will be easier to also decide who and what you will include in your data collection efforts. Unless you already know your participants well, for example if they all come from the organisation in which you work, you will need to collect and record relevant information from appropriate groups. The target group for your research will probably be stakeholders in the project.

This information must be properly structured and updated to ensure that you do not get some unpleasant surprises when you start collecting data on your research topic. It can, for example, happen that you have in mind interviewing miners at a particular mine only to find that the mine ceased operating since you last had contact with the people working there.

You also need to contextualise your research in terms of time. It serves no purpose conducting research on historical events and trends if it is something for which there is no further need. Your conclusions might not apply to the current situation if the situation or people’s needs changed. You need to base your research on current developments and how it impacts on the members of the target group, unless your research is historical.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also a good example of a situation that exists during a particular period. The world did not have the pandemic before 2020 and everybody is hoping that it will disappear at some stage. Research can also now already be done about what to expect after the current pandemic.

Research always needs to be followed up. This means that your research findings need to be communicated to other stakeholders if it is to be of any value to the community. Remember that the community in which the research is done forms an integral and important part of the context of your research, so that you need to explain your research findings to the members of the target group or whoever else were participants in your research.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economies of different countries or different business sectors might not be the same, in the event of which findings will be inconsistent in terms of the context. If your findings apply to the entire world, they will be consistent in terms of the context. If the pandemic dissipates, or is replaced by an even more severe virus, findings that apply now might not apply any longer, say three months from now. Your findings will then be inconsistent over time. If the virus stays with us and becomes the so-called “new reality” then your findings will be consistent over time.


Research always applies to a specific context.

The impact of context is often more dynamic and inconsistent on qualitative research than on quantitative research.

The more narrowly the limits for your research are defined, the less generalisable will your findings probably be and the other way around.

The scope for your research represents the context in terms of the purpose of your research.

The limits of your research refer to the boundaries, or target for your research.

The data that you collect must be valid.

You need to specify the period on which you will conduct research.

You must point out in your thesis or dissertation if your findings are timeless or valid for only a certain period.

Your research findings will be worthless if you do not share your findings with stakeholders.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time.

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ARTICLE 11: The Table of Contents of your Thesis or dissertation

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I discuss the layout of a table of contents for a thesis or dissertation in this article. In the beginning, the table of contents will be more a structure for a table of contents than a final one.

You will probably have decided which chapters to include in your report, but you will have only one or two lower-level headings. Also, you might need to add a small number of chapters as you progress with your research.

The table of contents should follow directly after the authentication of your work.

Once you have written your thesis or dissertation, you will probably delete the provisional structure for a table of content and replace it with the chapters, headings and sub-headings of your final thesis or dissertation. Keep in mind that your table of contents must not differ from the chapters, headings and sub-headings in your thesis or dissertation.

At the end of your table of contents, you should also have the references that you consulted, a list of figures and a list of tables.

Universities are mostly flexible about the structure of a table of contents for a thesis on the master’s degree level. There are certain chapters and topics that you must cover in the dissertation for a Ph. D.

Also, keep in mind that the thesis for a master’s degree is a good opportunity to practice for when you will write the dissertation for a Ph. D. It will not be wrong to follow the structure of a dissertation when writing the report on the master’s degree level.

Here is a list of the most basic headings that most universities will expect you to discuss in your dissertation:

  1. Title page.
  2. Confirmation of authenticity.
  3. Acknowledgments.
  4. Abstract.
  5. Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study.
  6. Chapter 2: Research Methodology.
  7. Chapter 3: Theoretical Background.
  8. Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis.
  9. Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study.
  10. References.
  11. List of Figures.
  12. List of Tables.

The title page. I already discussed the title page, sometimes also called the cover page, in a previous article (article 5). Just take note that this is where it will fit into your thesis or dissertation.

Confirmation of authenticity. You will be required by the university to confirm that the contents of your thesis or dissertation are your own. Most universities, if not all, use a standard format for such confirmation.

Here is an example:

“I, (your full names and surname) declare that (the title of your thesis or dissertation) is my own work and that all the sources that I have used or quoted have been indicated and acknowledged by means of complete references.

(Your signature)


Acknowledgments. Acknowledgments are a matter of choice.

However, it is only good manners to thank people who helped you with your research.

The acknowledgment has real value for your research, though.

  1. It shows the readers of your report that you conducted your research in a systematic, ethical and disciplined manner.
  2. It shows that you understand that research should not be done by one person only.

Abstract. The abstract is a mandatory summary of your thesis or dissertation. Not all universities will require you to write an abstract for a thesis. The abstract must be short – you will be required to summarise your thesis or dissertation in three or four pages.

Some readers, for example, your sponsors, might read only the abstract. Therefore, you will need to ensure that you cover all the questions that they might have.

Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study. Researchers making use of technicist research methods often claim that their findings and the principles and concepts that they develop are timeless and that it applies independently of context.

Even they, however, need to define the range and scope of their research – they will not be able to include the entire world, let alone the entire universe, in their research projects.

Chapter 2: Research Methodology. In this chapter you will discuss:

  1. The research approach that you will use.
  2. The research methods that you will use.
  3. The paradigmatic approaches that you will follow.
  4. The data collection methods that you will use.
  5. How you will analyse the data that you collect.

Chapter 3: Theoretical Background. You will probably need to do a literature study as a foundation for your research. It would be rather difficult to jump into data collection and the analysis of data if you do not know what you should be looking for.

Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis. You already discussed the data collection and analysis methods that you will use in Chapter 2 of your dissertation. Here you will need to discuss the actual processes of data collection and analysis. This is a critically important chapter and might even be broken down into two or three separate chapters. It is from the contents of this chapter that you will come to conclusions and findings from which to develop a solution to the problem that you investigated.

Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study. Chapter 5 will normally be your final chapter. This is where you will describe your solution. Depending on the purpose of your research and the research approach and methods that you used, you might develop a model, new knowledge, new methods to combat oil pollution at sea, new medication, and many more.

References. All sources that you consulted must be acknowledged in your thesis or dissertation.

Universities invariably have prescriptions in this regard, and you should abide by them.

I will discuss referencing formats in a future article.

List of Figures and List of Tables. The lists of figures and tables follow directly after the table of contents.

One can regard it as part of the table of contents.

The figure and table numbers in the lists must be the same as in the content of the thesis or dissertation.

Different universities have different requirements for the layout and format of the lists of figures and tables, although most are flexible in this respect.


Your provisional table of contents will probably be just a structure, consisting of chapters with no lower-level headings.

Your actual and final table of contents must align exactly with the contents of your thesis or dissertation.

I will discuss the abstract, chapters, references, lists of figures and tables in more detail in separate articles following on this one.

Good luck with your studies and stay healthy and safe.

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ARTICLE 7: How to Decide on the Context for Your Ph. D. or Masters Degree Research

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


Research is always done in a specific context.

Your contextual perspective is necessary to explain the background of your research.

You will need to explain the context for your research in your research proposal if you are studying towards a Ph. D.

You should also repeat the context for your study in your research report, regardless if it is for a master’s degree or a Ph. D.

All the stakeholders in your research will be interested in the context of your research.

Stakeholders can be a Postgraduate Committee, your study leader, sponsors, external assessors, leaders in the industry, government officials and, of course, future students.

Context is expressed as the scope or limits of your research.

It is the “playing field” on which you will conduct your research.

You can and should use the context for your research to create interest in your research and to show that you can do the research.

The context for your research can change when to do your research. You will need to check with your study leader that such change will be acceptable because it can impact on the viability of your study.

You can also use the context for your research to refine your research topic and to formulate your research problem, research question or hypothesis.

The Elements of Context

The following can be elements of the context of your research:

  1. Geographical area. You can, for example, confirm the viability of your research by showing that you will investigate just one country rather than a whole continent or the world.
  2. Field of research
    • Your field of research will decide the faculty where you will study. For example, Medical Science, Human Resources Management, Military Science, Arts and Culture, Marketing, and many more.
    • The field of research can also decide the research method and the paradigmatic approach that you will use, but we will need to discuss these issues in a future post or posts.
  3. Target population. Your target population can be people, animals, insects, rocks, cloud formations, etc.
  4. Time. Your research can stretch over a period, focus on a specific point in time, compare one era (mostly in the past) with a different era (mostly the present), etc. Data seldom apply infinitely, although rationalists are of the opinion that some scientific principles do.
  5. Gender. You can conduct research on just one gender, all genders, compare the behavioural profiles of different genders, etc.
  6. Value systems. You can focus on just one value system, for example, a comparison of how tourists would behave compared to how locals will behave. You can also investigate many behavioural patterns and link them to the profile elements of your target group.
  7. The level of your research. Research is mostly done on a micro or macro level. The field of research will have an impact on the level of your research.

You will need to explain why you chose the context that you did. Possible reasons for deciding on a context can be the nature of the problem that you would like to solve, the time and funds that you have available, viability in general, etc.

From the reason for your choice of context should follow the value that your research will add to the academia, the industry, the community, government, etc.


The context of your research explains the “what”, where”, “who” and the “when” of your research.

The context can include a geographical area, a value system, a religious group, a species of living organisms, artefacts, etc.

Context can be refined in terms of structures, stakeholders, social groups, etc.

Your research problem or hypothesis can be deduced from the context for your research.

Do not over-complicate the context for your research. Just explain it in simple language.

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