ARTICLE 86: Research Method for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Preparing for Data Collection

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

How long do you think will it take you to complete a thesis or dissertation?

You probably know the old saying that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

That is also true for academic research.

I guess the average student will need one or two years for a thesis towards a master’s degree and two to ten years for a dissertation towards a Ph. D.

This is not a lot of time.

Believe me, you will need every second that you can spare to complete the work in the available time.

And you will need to plan your research project as accurately as you possibly can.

I discuss how to plan and organise data collection for research in this article.

Organising data collection. Once you have decided on the research approach and data collection instruments you will use you should be able to draw up a draft schedule for your research. This will relate the time you have available in which to carry out the research – a given number of hours, days, weeks or perhaps years – to your other responsibilities and commitments. You can then slot in the various research activities you will need to engage in at times when you expect to be both free and, in the mood, to work on your research.

Many universities require of students to report on their progress at specific stages. This is not in line with the principles of adult learning, although it is often necessary. Even if such due dates are not set by a study leader, it is still a good idea to draft a schedule for your research work. You know that you will probably have only limited time in which to do the work, so sketch out what you will be doing, month by month or week by week, in order to achieve your objectives. Remember to leave yourself some flexibility and some ‘spare time’, for when things do not go exactly as planned. This means that you need to do some contingency planning as well.

Just because you have drawn up a schedule, however, does not mean that you will go to jail if you do not keep strictly to it. It is difficult, even with experience, to precisely estimate the time that different research activities will take. Some will take longer than expected, whereas others may need less time. Some will be abandoned, whereas other unanticipated activities will demand attention. It is a good idea to allow for some spare time and flexibility in your scheduling. You should also revisit your schedule from time to time, and make revisions, to allow for such changes and to keep yourself on track.

One thing you must avoid is to put off work until the last minute. If you drag your feet you will not be able to submit on the due date. Rather try to work ahead of your schedule so that you will have some spare time, should you need it because of unforeseen eventualities.

There are several ways of scheduling your research time. Project management software offer sophisticated ways in which to illustrate your research project diagrammatically or graphically. 

Such charts suggest a simplified, rational view of research. They are useful in conveying the overlap of concurrences between the tasks to be carried out and can serve as a guide to monitor your progress. In practice there will be numerous minor changes to your plans as set out, and perhaps some major ones as well.

Piloting instruments for the collection of data. It is advisable to pilot your data collection instruments before you use them on your actual target group. In this manner you can save lots of time and money, because it would be a catastrophe if, for example, you were to send out 10 000 questionnaires of which you receive 2 000 back only to find that you cannot use any because of some simple technical error.

Rather carry out a couple of interviews with friends or colleagues in advance or have them fill out some questionnaires or observe some organisational activities – or whatever else you plan on using to gather data with. You will learn a great deal from the activity, for example the amount of time that collecting data can take. You will also know if your instruments work or not. You need to pilot your instruments early enough so that you will still have time to change them or even your data collecting strategy if necessary.

Do not underestimate the value of pilot research. Things never work out quite the way you expected them to, even if you have done them many times before, and they have a nasty habit of turning out differently from how you expected them to. If you do not pilot your data collection instruments and procedure first, you will probably find that your initial period of data collection turns into a pilot study in any case. 

And yes, the surprise that you get will be a pleasant one if you planned and conducted your data collection well.


You can use the following steps to plan and organise your data collection:

  1. Decide which research approach and method or methods you will use.
  2. Choose the data collection methods and instruments that you will use.
  3. Decide how much time you will need to conduct your research I you did not decide already.
  4. Fit your research activities into the time that you have available for research.
  5. Draft a schedule for your research work.
  6. Do contingency planning if you did not do so already.
  7. Allow for some spare time in your schedule.
  8. Allow for time to meet with your study leader.
  9. Pilot the data collection instruments that you will use.


Do not put off any research work until the last minute.

Pilot the data collection instruments early enough so that you will have time to correct and improve them.

Keep your study leader informed about your progress.

Enjoy your studies.

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ARTICLE 85: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Written Documents

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I guess many of us were conditioned from the day we started school to regard what is written on paper or what we can see on our computer monitors or cell phones as knowledge.

And as we grew older, we were taught to write things.

Probably most teachers and, later, lecturers, teach pupils and students that there are other sources of data apart from written documents.

But somehow, when we need to write a report of any kind, we fall back on written documents as our main, sometimes only, sources of data.

It is a good starting point.

Just keep in mind that what is written on paper or electronically is already old.

And the world is dynamic.

And we must be able to adapt to changes in the environment rapidly.

And especially on doctoral level, we need to develop new knowledge.

And existing knowledge is sometimes an obstacle in the way of progress.

I discuss the use of written documents as a data source in this article.

Almost all research projects involve, to a greater or lesser extent, the use and analysis of documents. You are expected to read, understand and critically analyse the writing of others, whether fellow researchers, practitioners or policymakers. For some research projects the focus of data collection is wholly or almost entirely, on documents of various kinds.

Documents are records of past events that are written or printed; they may be anecdotal notes, letters, diaries, reports and, of course, books. Official documents include internal papers, communications to various public, student and personal files, programme descriptions, and institutional statistical data.

In interactive data collection techniques, you can find these documents at the site or a participant may offer to share these personal records with you. Documents are the most important data source in concept analysis and historical studies. Documents are usually catalogued and preserved in archives, manuscript collection repositories, or libraries. Documents might, for example:

  1. Be library-based, aimed at producing a critical synopsis of an existing area of research writing.
  2. Be computer-based, consisting largely of the analysis of previously collected data sets.
  3. Be work-based, drawing on material produced within an organisation.
  4. Have a policy focus, examining material relevant to a particular set of policy decisions.
  5. Have a historical orientation, making use of available archival and other surviving documentary evidence.

Using documents can be a relatively unobtrusive form of research, one which does not necessarily require you to approach respondents directly. Reading documents is usually supplemented by other data collection methods. You will probably make considerable use of secondary data, i.e. data which has already been collected, and possibly also analysed, by somebody else. Technically speaking most documents are secondary data, the most common forms of which are official statistics collected by governments and government agencies.

One needs to be cautious when analysing secondary data. The questions you need to ask of any existing document are:

  1. What were the conditions of its production? For example, why, and when, was the document written and for whom?
  2. If you are using statistical data sets, have the variables changed over time?
  3. Have the indicators of statistical data sets that you used to measure variables changed? For example, the measurement of unemployment has undergone many changes in the past two decades, and even today different research agencies use different definitions of unemployment as well as different statistical models, so that they produce different figures for what should be the same thing. This makes comparison of figures difficult and sometimes unrealistic.

You will invariably make use of written documents, including books and your own notes taken during interviews and fieldwork (observation), as sources of information. You will already have used such documents when you prepared your study proposal. Another important data collection activity where you will extensively use written documents will be when you do your literature review. 

The notes taken during interviews need to be a true and accurate reflection of what has been said by the interviewees. You need to distinguish between capturing the exact words and paraphrasing. This is important for showing proof that you did not commit plagiarism and that the way you used the data is accurate, valid and consistent.

Notes that you take can be rather voluminous. However, you should still pay attention to taking accurate notes. You should also note the names of people who you interviewed or spoke to, who said what during focus group meetings and the time, dates and places where the interviews or discussions took place.

Treat the opportunity to review any material as if it were your only opportunity to access and read the documents. By doing so, you will reduce the frustration created by having to return to the material later. You will also minimise inconveniencing any people who may have had to retrieve the material for you.

People whom you interviewed will not always be available or willing to repeat the interview, should you lose your notes. It is always a good idea to make duplicates of written documents. This, of course, is easier if you could just make a backup of an electronic version of the documents. Also type a copy of a voice recording as soon as you have an opportunity to do so. Check that the recorder is working before you do an interview or focus group.


Almost all research projects use written documents as a source of data.

A document can be anything that is written or printed.

Documents can be found in libraries, personal collections, in bookshops, archives and many more.

The contents of documents are often supplemented by other sources of data.

Most documents are secondary data.

You must corroborate written data.

Be careful of not committing plagiarism when using documents as a source of data.

Make sure that your notes and other documents that you prepare are accurate and relevant to your research.

It is advisable to store your notes electronically or to make printed or written duplicates.


The requirements for the collection and use of documents as sources of data are in many ways the same as for most data collection methods.

  1. All data should be corroborated, regardless of how it was collected.
  2. All data that you collect, and use must be relevant to your research.
  3. You must acknowledge the origin of data that you use in your thesis or dissertation.
  4. You must be able to provide evidence of the data that you refer to in your thesis or dissertation, should your study leader, an external evaluator or any other stakeholder question it.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 82: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Observation Part 2 of 2 Parts: Participant Observation versus Non-participant Observation

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Does participant observation mean that a player is also made the referee?

Should you, as a researcher, intervene in the problem that you are studying?

Is it ethically justifiable to observe and collect information about people without them knowing what you are doing?

Can you do research on yourself?

I discuss possible answers to these questions in this article.

Participant observation versus non-participant observation. Participant observation is also direct observation. It is a mode of field-based research whereby researchers locate themselves in the real-world field setting being studied, participating and observing in the setting while also collecting data and taking notes about the field setting, its participants, and its events.

As a participant observer you will participate in the event or action about which data is being collected. An example of this would be if you participate in an advocacy campaign while taking photos or perhaps just notes, on the behaviour of members of a crowd marching on a government office building.

Making observations as part of qualitative research will probably not involve either a formal observational instrument or a large sample of observations made under highly comparable conditions. Instead, your observations will likely be part of a participant-observer role or will be made more by chance during your interviews or other field activities. Most importantly, in most qualitative research, you are unlikely to be making multiple and repetitive observations at a single, fixed location or at pre-specified time intervals.

In acting as a participant-observer, you are likely to locate yourself in some field setting that is fluid in time and space. Such fluidity will require you to make explicit decisions about your observational choices. For instance, the fluidity means that you cannot be at all places at the same time. You also cannot watch everything that is going on, especially if the event that you are observing is complex or takes place at different places at the same time. You will, therefore, need to decide where to position yourself. It might also be necessary to use the assistance of other people.

You should plan your observation procedure well to ensure that you collect the data that you need to satisfy your research question. Record keeping is important and should reflect what you observed and when. You will need to write down who participated in the process that you observed, what you saw, how it is relevant to your research topic and the conclusions that you can make from your observations.

Objectivity, representativeness, authenticity and accuracy can be improved by repeating observations at different times or different, though similar locations.

It would be unrealistic to list all possible observations that can be done for research purposes. Some examples include observing the characteristics of individual people (mannerisms, clothes, behaviour, etc.); interactions between and among people; processes; physical surroundings, etc.

A host of different paradigmatic approaches can be used with participant observation, including, behaviourism, constructivism, ethnomethodology, functionalism, phenomenology, pragmatism, radicalism, romanticism, scientism, and symbolic interactionism.

Participant observation is an interactive technique of “participating” to some degree in naturally occurring situations over an extended time and writing extensive field notes to describe what occurs. You should not collect data to answer a specific hypothesis; rather the explanations are inductively derived from the field notes. Since the context of the observations is important, you should be careful to document your role in the situation and what effect that may have on the findings.

Most field workers remain a respectful distance from the informants – cultivating empathy but not sympathy, rapport but not friendship. Collaborative and participatory research introduces the notion of active participation by you and sharing the research role with the participants. In each variation of participant observation, the research role is established at the beginning of the study and then monitored while records are kept.

To intervene or not is an important question when doing participant observation. Your intervention in an event or action, for example asking members of your target group questions while they are doing something, might change their behaviour. Perhaps this is what you want – you need to observe how people react to certain stimuli, which you will produce or arrange. However, mostly your observations will be much more natural and valid if you don’t intervene with the target group and what they do.

As a non-participant observer, you will observe “from the outside”. In this instance you will not participate in the event. If we use the example of an advocacy campaign – you might take video footage from the top of a building of a marching crowd becoming involved in a violent riot and clashes with the police. You should recognise this as an etic approach.

Overt observation versus covert observation. Overt observation would be if you observe an event, phenomenon openly and, if necessary, with the permission of those who have an interest in the event or phenomenon. You might, for example, need the permission of the police to take footage of a march in support of an advocacy campaign.

Covert observation would be if you collect images without those who are being observed, or those who should give permission, knowing that the data is being collected. This often happens when the events or actions will be different, probably artificial, if people know that they are being observed, especially if evidence, such as photos or video footage, is being collected.

Obstacles in the way of observation. Observation can be a valuable tool with which to collect and analyse data, but it is by no means perfect.

One of the most important considerations to keep in mind when doing observations is ethics. Especially covert observation and intervening with the activities of your target group can be contentious. Collecting evidence without the consent of the target group might violate the requirement of informed consent, invade the privacy and private space of participants, and insult people by treating them as research objects.

However, the validity, authenticity and accuracy of research sometimes depend on conducting covert observation. Covert observation might, for example, be necessary for groups who would otherwise not agree to being observed even though the research is in their interest. Another example is where people will not act naturally, thereby damaging the validity of the research, if they know that they are being observed. A third scenario justifying covert observation is where the knowledge of being observed might move people to act in an unsafe manner, for example a peaceful march turning violent to provoke the police or people doing dangerous deeds because they know that video cameras are on them.

People who act illegally and under the protection of “darkness” such as burglars, child abusers, murderers, etc. can and should usually not be asked for their permission to be observed, although this might lead to rather serious arguments about denying people their constitutional rights. The ethical dilemmas are numerous. At issue is the dilemma that arises between protecting the rights of an individual versus protecting the rights of the community at large.  

A second obstacle in the way of objective and accurate observation is intervention. Should you intervene if you observe a child being abused, a person being murdered or raped, a crime being committed when your intervention will deny you a once in a lifetime opportunity to obtain valuable data for your research?

These are issues that cannot be solved by means of a code of conduct. Legislation, religion and your personal value system might serve as a guideline to help you decide. However, you will probably need to consider a host of variables to decide what you should do when confronted with ethical considerations.

A third obstacle in the way of collecting valid and reliable information through observation is the issue of bias. All human beings are subjective and largely, if not entirely, guided by their own perceptions. The following are examples of factors that can lead you to the wrong interpretations and conclusions:

  1. Our focus decides what we see and how we interpret what we see. We can easily be distracted.
  2. People do not behave the same when they know that they are being watched as when they think they are alone or can hide in a crowd or in the dark.
  3. Your state of mind, state of health and whether you are tired or not influence how you observe and think.
  4. Body language can lead us astray.
  5. Our personal preferences and value system largely determine what we see and how we interpret what we see.
  6. The longer we take to record our observations, the more likely it is that we will have forgotten details, facts and the order of events.
  7. We are subjectively influenced by our memory – what we observed previously. We tend to believe that events will repeat themselves and people will always act and respond the same under the same or similar circumstances. 
  8. We are influenced by what we expect or wish to happen.

Self-observation versus observation of others. It is possible to conduct research on the self. An example of self-observation is where a person recorded video footage and wrote down his feelings and reactions while taking drugs. Mostly, however, you would observe the target for your research.


Participant observation is also direct observation and fieldwork.

It is an interactive technique.

Therefore, you will mostly follow and emic approach.

An etic approach is also possible.

You need to decide what your role towards the target group for your research will be before you start collecting data.

To intervene with the target group or not is an important decision to make when planning observation.

Participant observation can often be semi-structured or even unstructured in qualitative research.

Even so, it is advisable to plan your observation procedure well.

You can use the assistance of other people when using participant observation to collect data.

You need to keep record of what you observed and when.

Corroboration of data can be achieved by repeating observations at different times but at similar locations.

Participant observation fits in well with the interpretivist paradigms, although it can sometimes also be used in conjunction with technicist and critical paradigms.

Overt observation would be if you observe an event or phenomenon openly.

Covert observation would be if you collect images or other data without the knowledge or permission of the target for your research.

Covert observation is sometimes necessary but needs to be done with circumspection.

Ethics is an important consideration when using observation to collect data.

A second important consideration is if you should intervene in an event or phenomenon that is relevant to your research.

A third important consideration is bias.

This means that you need to persistently guard against subjectivity in your data collection and interpretation.

It is possible and can be valuable to conduct research on yourself.


I hope you noticed that it is possible to act as player and referee when collecting data through observation.

There are three preconditions for this.

Firstly, you need to act ethically.

Secondly, you should not intervene in the activities of the target group for your research, unless ethical considerations make intervention necessary.

And thirdly, you need to persistently act objectively when collecting and interpreting data.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 81: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Observation: Part 1 of 2 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I could live for ever just seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling things.

Astronomers must have a wonderful time trying to figure out the universe.

As do microbiologists trying to make sense of the micro world.

They, and all the natural and social scientists between these two extremes can use observation to collect data for research.

I discuss direct, indirect, structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation in this article.

In a way, all data collection techniques involve observation of some kind. Observational research methods refer to a specific method of collecting information that is different from interviews or questionnaires. As a technique for collecting information, the observational method relies on seeing and hearing things and recording those observations, rather than relying on a subject’s self-report responses to questions or statements. You can also use your other senses to observe things.

The role of the observer is to remain detached from the group or process, and thus act as an observer only. You may, for example, wish to study the way students express their dissatisfaction with study-related issues by observing what they do and how they behave in such situations. You, as the observer, must not participate in the activities but rather just observe and record the information (an etic approach). It is, however, also possible to observe from the inside, i.e. as a member of the target group being observed (an emic approach).

Your role as an observer depends on the degree of inference or judgement that is required. At an extreme, you may make high inference observations, which require you to make judgements or inferences based on the observed behaviour.

What is recorded with high inference observation is your judgement as the observer. For example, a high inference observation of a teacher would be a rating made by the principal on factors such as classroom management, facilitation skills, enthusiasm, etc. You need to summarise the main points made or main developments at the event that you are observing. The principal would observe the class and make a rating of excellent, good, fair, or poor on each of the criteria measured.

Low inference observation, on the other hand, requires the observer to record specific behaviour without making judgements in a more global sense. Thus, the principal might record the number of rebukes or cues used by the teacher as information that is used subsequently to judge classroom management. Low inference observation usually is more reliable, but the approach that you follow will largely depend on the purpose of the research. Whatever the purpose of the research, it is important to report all observed outcomes as accurately and impartially as possible. It will mostly be necessary to present critical comment on strengths and weaknesses of the event, supported with reasons.

Observation always takes place in a specific context, with the result that different observations made at different locations and times will seldom deliver the same results. Such scenarios will mostly be one of the following five possibilities:

  1. Direct observation versus indirect observation.
  2. Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation.
  3. Participant observation versus non-participant observation.
  4. Overt observation versus covert observation.
  5. Self-observation versus observation of others.

I will discuss the first two (direct observation versus indirect observation and structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation) in this article. The remaining three scenarios (participant observation versus non-participant observation; overt observation versus covert observation and self-observation versus observation of others) in the second part of the articles on observation.

Direct observation versus indirect observation.Direct observation is observation that takes place during fieldwork. As such it offers you the opportunity to gather ‘live’ data from naturally occurring situations. The use of direct observation has the potential to yield more valid and authentic data than would be the case when making use of any ‘indirect’ source of information.

Field observation is fundamental to most qualitative research – direct, eyewitness accounts of everyday social action and settings taking the form of field notes. Field observation is especially favoured by research based on ethnomethodology. Qualitative field observations are detailed descriptions of events, people, actions, and objects in settings.

Field observation is used in interactive data collection, such as participant observation and in-depth interviewing. In the former, you will rely on careful observation as you will initially explore several areas of interest at a site, selecting those to study in detail, and searching for patterns of behaviour and relationships. In the latter, you will note the nonverbal body language and facial expressions of the interviewee to help interpret the verbal data.

Indirect observation would be observation that takes place in unnatural, artificial settings. An unnatural setting would, for example, be observations in a laboratory, observation of video footage, photos, etc.

Direct observation coupled with indirect observation, for example video and audio recordings that you took, provide ‘permanent’ evidence of an event, facts, action or phenomenon. Some people would rather be observed than to complete a questionnaire or answer questions during an interview. Furthermore, the duration of observations can be measured quite accurately when it is necessary, for example when it is important to know how long an individual spoke, a crowd rioted, etc.

Video recordings of observations can also show body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, extreme (or not) reaction to a question, attack, insult, etc. You can also test your interpretation of your observations by asking others to air their views or perceptions of what you video recorded. Video recordings can be replayed as many times as you wish.

Video recordings are not without challenges. Lack of control when observing and recording a natural setting may limit the value of your observations. What happens ‘outside’ the picture can often shed a completely different meaning to the images than what you see. Measuring lengths, heights, distance and width can be difficult if you do not have known images in the footage.

Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation. A highly structured and systematic observation is based on proper and detailed planning. It can also be pre-ordinate, meaning that you will decide in advance what kind of pictures you will be looking for. In this instance you will already have formulated your hypothesis, problem statement or problem question so that you will know what kind of data you need. Collecting information in image format systematically means that you should work according to your plan, which might include venues, time, type of images to collect, etc. Structured observation is often directed at collecting qualitative data although the collection of quantitative data is also possible.

A semi-structured observation will be based on some planning, possibly even an agenda or at least a list of the images that you need. Your modus operandi, i.e. the way in which you will seek for and collect images, might well be haphazard, hoping that you will have some luck in finding what you are looking for. In this case you might have a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question although collecting images might trigger an issue to conduct research on.

An unstructured observation would be where you do not quite know what kind of images you are looking for. In this instance you will probably work in an unsystematic manner, relying on coming across useful images by chance. You might, for example, happen to have your video camera with you when something happens that you can use in your research. In this case you might not even have decided to embark on research yet. The image or images that you come across might trigger in your mind the need for research. Therefore, you will only now formulate a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question.


All data collection techniques involve some observation.

Observation relies on what you become aware of through the senses.

As an observer you will mostly remain detached from the target for your research.

It is, however, also possible to observe an event while participating in the activity.

You can act as an observer to make high or low inference observations.

In high inference observation you will need to make judgements or inferences based on your observations.

In low inference observation you will record your observations of specific behaviour without judgement.

You must always report all observations relevant to your research as accurately and impartially as possible.

Observation always takes place in a specific context, or scenario.

Scenarios for observation can be:

1.         Direct observation versus indirect observation.

2.         Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation.

3.         Participant observation versus non-participant observation.

4.         Overt observation versus covert observation.

5.         Self-observation versus observation of others.

Direct observation is observation that takes place during fieldwork.

Indirect observation takes place in unnatural, artificial settings.

Direct observation coupled with indirect observation provide ‘permanent’ evidence of an event, facts, action or phenomenon.

Structured observation is deliberately decided on and planned.

Some planning is needed for semi-structured observation.

You might, however, identify and select images haphazardly as and when you come across them.

An unstructured observation is where you do not plan the observations.

You will observe events and phenomena that you come across by chance.


I will discuss participant observation versus non-participant observation; overt observation versus covert observation and self-observation versus observation of others in the second part of my articles on observation.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 79: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Interviewing Part 3 of 4 Parts: Focus Group Discussions

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Can and should focus group discussion be used in quantitative research?

Can inputs obtained from participants in a focus group be quantified?

Is such data of any value to natural scientists?

Or is focus group discussions the reserve of qualitative research methods?

And should social scientists take note of the opinions of other social scientists?

Or would they simply share more of the same?

And why would the opinions of other academics be more authoritative than your own opinion?

I discuss data collection through focus group discussions in this article.

Focus groups are sometimes also called ‘group interviews’. You, as the researcher, will act as the facilitator of the discussions, thereby collecting data for your research.

The focus group discussion is an interview style designed for small groups of individuals who, because of their prior knowledge, experience or expertise can add value to a research project. As such it is an interview with a purposefully sampled group of people rather than each person individually.

Focus group interviewing can help you learn through discussion about almost any topic in a wide variety of disciplines. Group members are encouraged to share their opinions with the rest of the group. You, as the researcher, will normally facilitate the process, and you will need to take detailed notes on what is discussed. Somebody other than you can also be tasked in advance to take notes, or even minutes of the focus group event. It is also you who will analyse and use the information gathered after the event.

By creating a social environment in which group members are stimulated by the perceptions and ideas of others, you can increase the quality and richness of data through a more efficient approach than one-to-one interviewing. You can also use focus groups as a technique to confirm data collected by other methods.

Focus group interviews can be used to collect data quickly and conveniently from several people simultaneously. Group interaction is important. Although focus group interviews can be used as a stand-alone data collection method, it is more valuable, valid and accurate if triangulation is used to corroborate data gathered through focus groups and other data collection methods and sources. The technique is useful for research involving beliefs, impressions, experiences, and emotional concerns.

Some may feel that a focus group should be as small as possible. However, the arguments why a small group is better than a large group can also be used as reason why a large group would deliver better and more valid results. For example, a small group might make it easier to manage the number of inputs given. However, statistically the larger number of inputs given, the more accurate will be the average of the inputs as a true reflection of the “truth”. One or a few strong or vocal participants might force the discussions in a particular direction and in favour of a particular point of view. However, the larger the group, the more “strong” participants there should be, which facilitates objectivity. Control and the transcription of many inputs can be more difficult in a large group than in a small group, though.

Focus groups could, for example, be representatives from universities discussing ways in which to improve student performance, young people sharing their experiences with drug dealers targeting them, and many more. The discussion is usually based on a series of questions (the focus group ‘schedule’). As the researcher, you will usually act as a facilitator for the group by posing questions, keeping the discussion flowing and ensuring that all group members participate to the best of their ability.

Group members interact with each other while you gather information by taking notes, making an audio or image recording of the discussions and asking salient questions to the group in general. You will mostly analyse the information afterwards using conventional qualitative methods: most commonly, content or thematic analysis. Focus groups are distinctive for the method of data collection rather than for the method of data analysis.

Focus group interviews can facilitate the collection of information for research purposes. The following are advantages that focus group interviews can offer a researcher:

  1. It is flexible in terms of the number of participants, groups, costs, duration, etc.
  2. It is efficient in the sense that a large amount of information can be collected from potentially large groups of people in a relatively short time.
  3. It can facilitate the understanding of previously unclear topics.
  4. It allows you to better understand how members of a group arrive at or change their conclusions about interrelated topics and issues.
  5. It can be used to gather information from transient populations, such as academics attending a one or two-day workshop.
  6. It places participants on a more even footing with each other and you.
  7. The facilitator of a focus group can introduce the exploration of related but unanticipated topics as they arise during the group’s discussion.
  8. It is not necessary to follow complex sampling processes to compile a focus group because criteria for the composition of a focus group are fairly simple.

Despite the advantages that focus group interviews offer, it is not a flawless data collection method. The following are some disadvantages that go with focus group interviews:

  1. The quality of the data is dependent on the facilitating and motivating skills of the facilitator.
  2. Focus group attendance is voluntary, and an insufficient number of individuals may attend planned sessions.
  3. The duration of each focus group session needs to be brief to keep the participation and support of the members of the group.
  4. The limited time available for a focus group mostly does not allow for the discussion of many questions.
  5. Dominant personalities may overpower and steer the group’s responses in an unwanted direction.
  6. Information gathered through focus group interviews needs to be processed with care to ensure validity and accuracy of conclusions.

There are several pitfalls that you should avoid when undertaking focus group interviews. These pitfalls can reduce the quality of the information gathered. The following are such pitfalls:

  1. Organising a focus group for the wrong reason, for example because you don’t know what else to do or just because it sounds like a good idea.
  2. Not explaining the objectives of the focus group clearly to the participants.
  3. Using too few focus groups or including too few members in the focus groups.
  4. Using too many focus groups or focus group members per group.
  5. Poor facilitation of and preparation for the focus group meetings.
  6. Allowing an individual or a small group of individuals to bully other members or to steer the focus group discussions in an unwanted direction.

The following are rules for analysing focus group data which are different from the analysis of other textual data such as field notes or interview data:

  1. Provide quotations to support your evaluation of what the various trends and patterns of discussion are.
  2. Use quotations to illustrate the relevance for discussion of an argument or point rather than to prove its validity.
  3. Introduce each group member in terms of his or her profile to show that they have been invited on relevant merit.
  4. Raise a point, concept, theory or cognitive pattern supported by reputable sources of information before inviting discussions.


The focus group discussion is an interview style designed for gathering data from small groups of experts.

Focus group discussions are distinctive for the method of data collection.

You can use focus group discussions to collect data and to learn.

Some will argue that you should avoid quantifying results or offering magnitudes.

The rationale behind this is that statistical analysis of focus group inputs is seldom valid.

I do not agree.

Even if only opinions or beliefs, focus group inputs can corroborate conclusions and findings based on statistical data.

After all, focus group interviewing should not be the only data collection method that you use.

You can improve the quality and richness of the data that you collect by creating a friendly social atmosphere.

Data can be collected quickly and conveniently from several people simultaneously.

The members of the focus group can often corroborate data through their shared expertise, knowledge and experience.

Focus group discussions are especially useful for collecting data involving beliefs, impressions, experiences and emotional concerns.

The size of the group will have an impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the data collection process.

The analysis of the data is usually done by the researcher alone.

Focus group discussions must be well planned, prepared and facilitated.

You must know in advance what you wish to achieve with the focus group discussion.

You should share the purpose of the discussions with the group members.

The participants in the group discussions must have knowledge and expertise to add value to your research project.


I would like to encourage you to use focus groups to collect data for your research.

None of us has perfect knowledge.

And we do not always think objectively.

You should always be open minded when conducting research.

Accept that you are conducting the research to learn and be willing to listen to the opinions and advice of others.

This applies equally to social and natural sciences.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 78: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Interviewing Part 2 of 4: Online interviewing

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

The world is changing at an incredible pace.

I wonder how my late parents would have responded to the laptop computer and the internet.

I guess they would probably have refused to touch it, let alone use it.

And they were rather open-minded.

As far as I am concerned, it is the one thing that I would have loved to see develop even further.

Even though it is already hard to keep pace with what we now have.

I discuss online interviewing in this article.

Any type of interview can be conducted electronically. Electronic interviews can take place either synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous environments include real-time chat rooms, instant messenger protocols, and real-time threaded communications. Such environments provide you and the interviewees an experience similar to face-to-face interaction insofar as they provide a mechanism for a back-and-forth exchange of questions and answers in almost real time over really long distances, actually world-wide. Computer facilities, such as Skype, ZOOM, etc. facilitate visual communication.

Asynchronous environments include the use of e-mail, forums, and privately hosted bulletin posting areas. Asynchronous environments are typically used by researchers undertaking survey-based research or a Delphi technique. 

Technological developments and the growth of the internet have developed opportunities for online interviewing in qualitative research and have reduced the problems related to face-to-face interviews. The internet has altered the nature of the context in which research can take place and how knowledge is constructed by offering a different space and dimension in which conventional research designs and methods can be used and adapted.

Online interviews can be used to gather original data via the internet with the intention of analysing these to provide new evidence in relation to a specific research question. This contrasts with secondary internet research, that uses existing documents or information sources found online. Online interviews can be conducted asynchronously, i.e. in non-real-time, and synchronously, i.e. in real-time and can involve audio, textual as well as visual exchanges. Currently, emails, Facebook, bulletin boards and discussion groups, including focus groups and forums, are the most used methods of asynchronous online interviewing. Synchronous approaches focus on text-based chat groups, instant message protocols, voice-over internet protocol (VOIP) and visual conferencing to ask and answer questions and to see interview participants while conversing.

In synchronous interviews the interaction and sharing of experiences are framed by the researcher and participant(s) online presence. The real-time nature of online interviews, whether one-to-one or focus-group interviews, can encourage spontaneous interactions between participants and the researcher, whether they are involved in text-based one-to-one or group interviews or multi-channel visual interviews.

Online synchronous interviewing facilitated by online communication platforms can lead to rapid, real-time discussions. Creative use of interactive visual stimulus means they can be valuable platforms for facilitating immediate and dynamic group interactions and creating new forms of knowledge. These interactions can elevate participants’ awareness of each other and narrow the psychological distance between participants as well as enhance the feeling of joint involvement. Alternatively, you as the researcher, can set up your online forum or use an external provider to offer both synchronous text communication and a graphical representation of the environment.

An issue that can be challenging for both researchers and participants of online interviews is the fast-paced nature of online discussions, which can lead to researchers and participants lagging. The distinction between responding and ending can become blurred or responses can become brief, with the result that important data might not be shared.

Increased bandwidth and the availability of inexpensive, easy-to-use technologies have made it more viable to conduct synchronous online audio and visual interviews. Synchronous online focus groups can be set up with tools such as instant messaging and chat rooms and can offer a less threatening interview environment than visual interviews because they offer no visual clues about other participants, although you will need to make participants aware that they are taking part in a research project. You also need to establish a friendly atmosphere and to act as moderator and facilitator of the discussions. The speed and complexity of participant interactions can result in a chaotic script which can be frustrating and lead to misinterpretation of the meaning of what people said and loss of some information.

Asynchronous interviews that are conducted in non-real time are far easier to set up than synchronous interviews in terms of technological requirements. Email, for example, allows you to ask questions and receive responses as and when it suits you and the interviewee. Even so, a clear protocol in terms of the interviewing process is still needed. Also keep in mind that you will need the permission of the holders of online blogs, email addresses, etc. to use the data shared online.

Textual data collected asynchronously are in written form, therefore there is no need to transcribe. This increases the accuracy of the transcripts and reduces the potential for error. It may also enhance the interpretation of what is communicated by you as the researcher. Participants may compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues by ensuring that their descriptions portray the level of meaning and emotion that they wish to communicate, allowing a greater level of transparency and sensitivity to the original context of the data. The explicit expression of emotion in written language can be more easily interpreted and incorporated into analyses than the implicit emotional nuances offered in spoken communication.

Asynchronous data collection can be simple to administer because you only need to send your questions to the interviewees and then wait for a reply, making it a questionnaire rather than an interview. However, it can take several days or weeks for participants to reply to the questions. Further, there is a greater risk of non-response from participants than with synchronous interviews. Participants can even withdraw from the project if they regard other obligations as more important.

You may need to work hard to maintain a rapport with participants who only engage irregularly with your research project. Probes or prompts to main questions can get lost in participants’ electronic communication traffic. It is relatively easy for participants to delete messages or questions if they are too busy to respond. Spontaneity of interaction can be lost if participants digress to subjects outside the research project, making it difficult to maintain the flow of the discussion.

When conducting online interviews, you need to decide how you are going to access the target population and how you will obtain information from all the participants. When using visual conferencing with certain populations, access and availability can be greatly improved because individuals are not only connected through their home computers but also on their cell phones, tablets, reading devices or at internet cafés. For most people, this is not a problem, but older people and people with disabilities, for example, may not have access to or be able to take part in an online interview.

Whichever mode (synchronous or asynchronous interviewing) or type (one-to-one or group interview, visual or audio) you choose for your online research, you need to consider how you are going to establish a research relationship with your participants. You also need to consider the impact of the online interaction on those being researched.   

In face-to-face interviews, the presentation of self is based not only on what participants choose to show, for example through gestures or tone of voice, but also on how that is perceived by others participating in social interaction. In online text-based interviews, the written word becomes the sole means of building rapport and trust. When face-to-face contact is absent, you need to keep in mind the potential obstacles that anonymity and disembodiment pose in attempting to establish a relationship of trust with other people online. When visual and social gestures and cues in online interviews are not visible, such as friendly gestures (nodding, smiling, eye contact, etc.) these have to be translated into text and you should more quickly and with greater clarity establish the profiles of the participants to determine if they can add value to your research.

Unless you are using web-cameras or visual conferencing, you and the other participants are hidden from each other. This has a detrimental effect on the discussions that will take place, although it can promote the accuracy and validity of information on sensitive topics.

Any interview situation, no matter how formalised, restricted or standardised, relies upon interaction between participants who are constantly engaged in interpretive practice. When using the internet as a communicative social space to host interaction between participants, you need to consider critically the authenticity of the data that you obtain and interpret. Online interviews or a mixture of face-to-face and online media are not less authentic or truthful than offline data. Standards of authenticity should be confirmed, even though you will need to largely rely on the trustworthiness of the participants.


Any type of interview can be conducted electronically.

Electronic interviews can take place either synchronously or asynchronously.

Technological developments and the growth of the internet have developed opportunities for online interviewing.

Synchronous approaches focus on text-based chat groups, instant message protocols, voice-over internet protocol and visual conferencing for interactive interviewing.

Currently social media are the most used for asynchronous online interviewing.

Online synchronous interviewing facilitated by online communication platforms can also lead to rapid, real-time discussions.

The fast-paced nature of online discussions can lead to researchers and participants lagging.

This can lead to the collection of superficial data.

Increased bandwidth and the availability of inexpensive, easy-to-use technologies made it more viable to conduct synchronous online audio and visual interviews.

Asynchronous interviews that are conducted non-real time are far easier to set up than synchronous interviews in terms of technological requirements.

You will need the permission of the holders of online social media platforms to use the data shared online.

Textual data collected asynchronously are in written form, therefore there is no need to transcribe the data.

Asynchronous data collection can be simple to administer.

Maintaining contact and rapport with interviewees can be challenging.

When conducting online interviews, you must decide how you are going to access the target population. You also need to decide how you will obtain information from all the participants.

Especially older people are reluctant to participate in online interviewing for a variety of reasons.

You should consider the impact of the online interaction on the interviewees.

Not being able to see participants in an online interview makes it difficult to establish trust and loyalty.

It will also be difficult to establish if the interviewee has enough relevant expertise, knowledge and experience to add value to your research project.

Online interviews or a mixture of face-to-face and online media are not less authentic or truthful than offline data.


It is difficult to keep pace with the rapid development of electronics and the internet.

New interviewing opportunities are created all the time.

You can render your research much more efficient if you stay informed about new developments.

And, of course, you must use the facilities and opportunities that become available.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 77: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies: Data Collection Methods: Interviewing Part 1 of 4 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Interviewing is one of the most popular data collection methods in almost any research, therefore it deserves special attention. It involves questioning and discussing issues with people and can be a useful technique for collecting data which would likely not be accessible using techniques such as observation.

I discuss the following types of interviewing in this article:

  1. One-to-one interviewing.
  2. Structured interviewing.
  3. Unstructured interviewing.
  4. Non-directive interviewing.
  5. Focused interviewing.
  6. In-depth interviewing.

One-to-one interviewing. One-to-one interviewing should be treated as a narrative between two individuals. According to Holstein and Gubrium this can be achieved by approaching the interview as follows:

1.         The interviewee and interviewer should co-operate to obtain relevant and current information.

2.         Utilise open communication to gather logical information that will contribute to the achievement of the research purpose. This will require communicating in the context of the research environment.

3.         Carefully consider what is communicated to ensure that the information provided by the interviewee is relevant to the research context and problem statement, question or hypothesis.

4.         Guard against cognitive dissonance. Be objective and make sure that you interpret what the interviewee communicates correctly.

5.         Listen and observe more widely than just the interviewee. Take note of external cues that might influence the meanings of what is communicated, for example body language, tone of voice, the venue where the interview takes place, etc.

6.         Be alert to differences in interpretation of what is communicated between you and the interviewee. Ask questions to ensure that you understand what the interviewee means.

7.         Keep the environment in which the interview takes place in mind. External factors can also cloud the true meaning of the communication between the interviewer and the interviewee, and these should be eliminated if possible.

Structured interviewing. The structured interview is one in which the content and procedures are organised in advance. Organising the content and procedures in advance implies proper planning and includes determining the sequence and wording of the questions by means of a schedule. You, as the interviewer, should not modify your questions or schedule unnecessarily. This should not be necessary if you planned well. There will be direct verbal interaction between you and the subject. You should provide for a measure of flexibility even though the interviewing plan is structured and, by implication, relatively rigid. A structured interview is, therefore, a closed situation.

A structured interview is, thus an oral, in-person asking of a standard set of questions that is prepared in advance. The questions usually invite selected- or semi-structured responses. When asked a selected-response question, the subject selects the response from alternatives provided by the interviewer. Semi-structured questions are phrased to allow unique responses for each subject. Regardless of the type of question, the responses are coded, tabulated and summarised numerically.

Unstructured interviewing. The unstructured interview is an open situation, allowing greater freedom and more flexibility than in the case of the structured interview. You will need to plan and develop the questions to be asked, their content, sequence and wording, keeping the purpose of the interview in mind. Although relatively casual, the unstructured interview needs to be carefully planned.

The unstructured interview has been variously described as naturalistic, autobiographical, in-depth, narrative or non-directive. Whatever the label used, the informal interview is modelled on the conversation and, like the conversation, is a social event with, in this instance, two participants. The interactional rules may be explicit and easy to recognise by the two participants in the interview, namely you and the subject. In addition to its generally social character, there are several ways in which the interview constitutes a learning process. At the level of its process, participants can discover, uncover or generate the rules by which they are involved in the research process, be it as researcher or target group. You, as the interviewer, can become more adept at interviewing, in general, in terms of the strategies which are appropriate for eliciting responses, and in enabling people to talk about the sensitive issues.

Non-directive interviewing. According to Cohen, Manion and Morrison, the non-directive interview derives from the therapeutic or psychiatric interview. The non-directive interview will typically be free flowing with little, if any direction by you. The respondent must express his or her subjective feelings as fully and as spontaneously as he or she chooses or is able to. The respondent should, furthermore, be encouraged to talk about the subject being researched and to be free to guide the interview, with few set questions or pre-figured framework. You should prompt and probe, pressing for clarity and elucidation, rephrasing and summarising where necessary and checking for confirmation of this, particularly if the issues are complex or vague.

Focused interviewing. The focused interview is characterised by more interviewer control than in the case of a non-directive situation. This will enable you to use the data from the interview to substantiate or reject previously formulated hypotheses. You can place explicit verbal cues to the stimulus pattern or even represent it, thereby encouraging more concrete responses by interviewees.             

In-depth interviewing. An in-depth interview is mostly also a structured interview. In an in-depth interview you will fully explain the nature of the research project and the potential risks and benefits at the beginning of the interview. Once the interviewee has been briefed, you should ask him or her if he or she understands the information and is still willing to take part in the interview.

An in-depth interview is often characterised as a conversation with a goal. You may use a general interview guide or protocol but not a set of specific questions worded precisely the same for every interview. Rather, there are a few general questions, with considerable latitude to pursue a wide range of topics. The interviewee can shape the content of the interview by focusing on topics of importance or interest. In fact, you should encourage the interviewee to talk in detail about areas of interest. In-depth interviews typically last an hour or more. You will probably make an electronic recording of the interview to analyse common themes from descriptions of experiences. The benefit of this form of implied consent is the elimination of any record of the interviewee’s name. Confidentiality, however, is necessary for most types of interviews.

Interviewing can be used to collect data for most research methods and topics.

One-to-one interviewing is like a narrative between two people with the intention of collecting data for research.

It requires:

  1. Co-operation.
  2. Open communication.
  3. Careful consideration for relevance.
  4. Avoidance of cognitive dissonance.
  5. Taking note of external cues.
  6. Alertness.
  7. Taking external factors into consideration.

In structured interviewing the content of and procedure for the interview are organised in advance.

Although a structured interview is a closed situation, a measure of flexibility should be allowed.

The unstructured interview allows greater freedom and flexibility than the structured interview.

Although the unstructured interview is modelled on the conversation, it needs to be carefully planned.

The non-directive interview will be free flowing with little, if any, direction by the researcher.

The respondent can express his or her personal feelings spontaneously.

In the case of a focused interview the researcher will have more control over the process than in a non-directive situation.

The data gathered through a focused interview can be used to test a hypothesis.

An in-depth interview is mostly also a structured interview.

In an in-depth interview the interviewee is briefed in advance about the procedure, purpose and possible consequences of the interview.

You should introduce the in-depth interview with some general questions followed by impromptu questions on a wider range of topics.

The questions must still be relevant to your research, though.


Interviewing is an interesting way to collect data.

Most people are open and honest when they are interviewed about academic topics.

Even so, you should corroborate the data that you collect through interviewing.

Natural scientists are sometimes sceptical about data collected through interviewing.

However, they are often eager to discuss their research projects with other scientists who are experts in the same field.

And that is also a form of interviewing.

You should rather not use interviewing to collect data if you follow an ethnomethodological paradigmatic approach.

Ethnomethodology rejects interviewing as a data collection method.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 74: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Applying Techniques for Collecting Data

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Data collection is at the same time a simple and complex task.

The data that is available on most topics is often vast.

And because there is so much data available, students sometimes spoil their research at this early stage already.

Because they tend to accept any books that they find in the library by searching for key words on computer and in the library referencing system.

And they would accept what people who claim to be experts or people with master’s degrees or Ph. D’s tell them.

It does not matter what the topic of the interviewee’s thesis or dissertation dealt with.

If they have the qualifications their opinions are jam-packed with wisdom and truth.

I discuss applying data collection techniques in this article.

The different research methods provide alternative, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, frameworks for thinking about and planning research projects. In addition to this there are four main data collection methods that can be used with all the main approaches, namely documents, interviews, observation and questionnaires. In this respect four characteristics of documentary evidence are important, namely content, social construction, how recent the documents are, and documents in networks.

The study of content. Documents are used as sources of information when content is studied. Diaries, written life histories and letters can be significant sources of data. In everyday life documents are often records of naturally occurring social events. In addition to this, bureaucratic offices routinely produce rich textual data in the form of medical reports, minutes of meetings, planning documents, memoranda, emails, etc.

When reading the contents of a document, you need to interpret and evaluate the written words. Interpretation will invariably be subjective and different researchers can interpret the same document differently. That is why you need to validate the interpretation of data. This can be done by calling upon many other sources of information, often through a process of triangulation. 

The social construction of documents and records. You can also approach research material as data to be drawn and used as facts. The analysis of statistical reports in the form of tables or graphs or both is an example of using records as facts from which we can come to certain conclusions. The production of ‘realities’ from data requires a source, for example statistical reports, rules and technical instructions according to which the data can be analysed and interpreted and grouped. A simple example would be a group of students (the data source) that are grouped into those who are good at athletics, music, mathematics, etc. (according to certain rules for grouping, which can be as simple as asking student what their interests are).  

Documents in use. Studying documents that are in use have the advantages that they are recent and mostly provide data in a context that is relevant to the purpose of the research. Such documents are often used to manage projects, for example building plans for a bridge, and as a means of communication between role players in a project.

Documents in networks. Documents often make a big difference to social arrangements and interaction. We have all experienced how a speech can influence the way in which people behave. Documents can also make a difference to the way in which people behave. Marketing, for example, utilise this ability of documents to influence people to establish or increase the demand for a product or service.

Documents can enable us to perform better and safer. Aircraft pilots use documents to check if they are taking off and landing safely. Educators use evaluation check lists to ensure that they offer quality learning. Exam papers are used to check if students meet the requirements for promotion or certification.

Actor-network theory (ANT) supports the idea that documents can function as actors.  ANT theory claims that data plays an important role in almost all human activities, including politics, economics, technology, sociology, etc.


Most researchers use reading documents, interviews, observation and questionnaires to collect data for research.

All data that we collect must be validated.

Documents are mostly used to obtain and study context.

Records can be used as facts from which conclusions can be gathered.

Documents that are still in use provide recent data in a context that is relevant to the purpose of the research.

Documents can influence people’s behaviour and they can enable people to perform better and safer.

Data plays an important role in most human activities.

Interviews, observation and questionnaires deserve special attention.

Therefore, I will discuss them in a series of videos dedicated to each separately.


I hope that, having watched this video, you at least realise that you need to plan and execute data collection for research with great care.

You must plan your data collection carefully.

You must know what you are looking for.

You must have a good reason or reasons why you accept every data source that you use in your thesis or dissertation.

You must know what you are hoping to achieve with every piece of data that you use.

False or irrelevant data can do serious damage to your research.

Don’t even accept what I share in my videos without corroborating my advice.

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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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