ARTICLE 31: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Historical Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Historical research can be conducted with the aim of answering a wide range of social research questions.

It is a systematic process of describing; analyzing and interpreting; and comparing the past.

The past can, of course, also be compared to the present.

It is based on information from selected sources as they relate to the topic under study.

Descriptive research

When conducted with a description in mind, historical research attempts to construct a map of the past.

It can also describe a developmental trajectory of events, for example, an educational system, political developments, community growth or deterioration, etc.

It involves locating events in time and place and requires sensitivity towards understanding the context within which an event took place or developed over time. Trajectories of development are plotted, and it may or may not try to explain how or why events occurred.

Historical research used for descriptive purposes also establishes background information about events.

Analytical and critical research

In analytical research, relationships between factors or events are critically interrogated within the context in which they occurred with the aim of exploring the possible causes and impact of the factors or events.

It requires critical, analytical scrutiny of documents and a process of cross-checking records and reports about incidents.

It aims to impact decision-making and policy formulation.

When conducting historical research, you might need to search for successes or mistakes from the past in order for a society or even an individual to avoid repeating mistakes made by others and to capitalize on the successes of the more fortunate or wiser.

The process of analytical research is complicated by the fact that there is seldom just one cause of an event.

You can never be certain if you did not omit the consideration of other important factors or events.

All sources of information should, therefore, be subjected to evaluation through processes known as external and internal criticism.

External criticism refers to the authenticity of the information.

For example, is the document that you are evaluating real or fake?

Internal criticism refers to whether the information is credible.

You need to determine if the information is consistent and accurate.

Rigour and sound analytical critique of sources lend considerable validity and reliability to the findings and conclusions reached.

Inferences about intent, motive and character are common, with the understanding of appropriateness to the context of the period.

Comparative research

Comparative historical research is much wider in scope than other historical research designs because the units of analysis are often whole societies or systems within societies.

It implies systematic research for similarities and differences between the cases under consideration.

Comparative researchers usually base their research on secondary sources, such as policy papers, historical documents, official statistics, etc.

Some degree of interviewing and observation can also be involved.

Historical comparative researchers generally prefer first-hand accounts, written by people who witnessed something personally, rather than documents derived from other secondary sources.

These researchers need to verify two important aspects regarding documents:

The validity of the documents’ content and its authenticity.

The content of a document is valid when it is not distorted, exaggerated or false.

Validity can be checked by making use of triangulation or any other form of corroboration.

Additional sources of information can be other, similar books, alternative documents, certification, living witnesses, demonstrations by the individual who claims authenticity, traces of validating substances, etc.

Authenticity refers to whether a document is a forgery.

Historical research can adopt paradigmatic approaches such as constructivism, critical race theory, empiricism and post-colonialism.

Sources of data

Broadly speaking there are four types of historical evidence that you can use – primary sources, secondary sources, running records and recollections.

Customarily, researchers rely on primary sources.

That is, the original source texts also called archival data.

Archival data are mostly kept in museums, archives, libraries or private collections.

Emphasis is given to the written word on paper, although modern histiography can involve any medium.

Substantial historical data is already captured electronically.

The internet is already a popular source of information, even though authenticity and accuracy are difficult to confirm.

Secondary sources are the work of other researchers writing about the issue being studied.

In its widest sense, a document simply means anything that contains text.

Official reports, records from schools, hospitals and courts of law, films, photographs, reports from journals, magazines, newspapers, letters, diaries, emails, and even graffiti scrawled on a wall are all examples of documents.

Running records are documentaries maintained by organizations.

For example, minutes of meetings, records of events, commentaries about events, war diaries, etc.

Recollections include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral relay of historical information.


Historical research answers a wide range of social questions.

It can be used to describe, analyse or interpret the past.

People can learn from historical events if it is accurately and objectively communicated.

Both mistakes and successes from the past can provide lessons to learn.

Analytical research attempts to provide the basis for understanding the past by exploring past events and trends and applying these to current events and trends.

Analytical research is complicated by the fact that successes and mistakes are mostly attributable to many variables.

Accuracy, authenticity and validity of data can be achieved through external and internal criticism.

Historical research makes use of four types of evidence – primary sources, secondary sources, running records and recollections.

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ARTICLE 9: The Nature and Structure of a Dissertation for a Ph. D. or a Thesis for a Master’s Degree

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Before we discuss the nature and structure of a Ph.D. or master’s degree research report, I need to point out that research on especially the doctoral level is not about just writing an essay. It is hard and complex work, but the rewards are most certainly worth the effort.

Conducting research and writing a report is like the seafarers of old and the astronauts of today who, as the old space science movie used to begin, “venture where no one else has ventured before”.

You will enjoy interesting and exciting discoveries.

Sometimes you might weep because of what you discover.

At other times you will jump for joy.

It is, indeed, a roller coaster ride that I hope you will enjoy.

Let’s board the ship.

Characteristics of a dissertation or thesis

A dissertation should show the following characteristics:

  1. The topic can be highly complex but need not be so.
  2. The content will be highly specialized in a highly complex area of expertise.
  3. The scope can be extensive or at least apply to a realistic community or geographical area.
  4. Analysis of data will require sophisticated analytical processes.
  5. Recognised research approaches, methods and paradigms should be used.
  6. The report should be 30,000 to 70,000 words in length.
  7. The bibliography can include generic and specific sources.
  8. More than 130 sources should be consulted.
  9. Some universities might be flexible about the characteristics of a dissertation.

A research report for a masters degree should show the following characteristics:

  1. The topic will probably be complex.
  2. The content will be specialized but probably not generally applicable.
  3. The scope can be broad in terms of the subject and geographical area to which it applies.
  4. Analysis of data can require the use of complex analytical processes.
  5. Any recognised research approaches, methods and paradigms can be used, depending on the scope, context and purpose of the research.
  6. The thesis should be 20,000 to 50,000 words in length.
  7. The bibliography can include generic and specific sources. An advanced level of existing knowledge of the topic and problem should be evident.
  8. 70 to 130 sources should be consulted.
  9. Some universities might be flexible about the characteristics of a thesis.

The research design

You should design your dissertation or thesis in such a way that it will satisfy the purpose of your research.

Although the design will consist of several headings or steps, it does not mean that you will follow a linear process. You will inevitably need to return to previous work, construct and reconstruct until you achieve an acceptable level of complexity, validity, authenticity and reliability.

The design will be linear, but the research process is always a spiral.

Most of all, however, you will need to achieve the purpose of your research.

In the case of doctoral studies, your research design will probably move from underlying philosophical assumptions and theoretical knowledge to new knowledge and a solution to a problem.

Even though the basic structure of a research report is prescribed by universities, all of them will allow a measure of flexibility by allowing you to add chapters. Omitting chapters that the university asks for might be risky because you might leave out important steps in the writing of the report or in the research process.

Changes in the internal or external environment, new information, unforeseen obstacles and unexpected opportunities to improve your work can move, perhaps even force you to change the structure and layout of your research report.

Research is not just about collecting and interpreting data. It is also a process by means of which you would manage change. That is why your design should be flexible.

Never pad, i.e. never include data in your report that is not relevant to the purpose of your research. Study leaders are experienced educators and they will not be impressed by volume. Quality is what they are looking for.

Structure your dissertation or thesis, including the chapters, subsections, paragraphs and even sentences in such a manner that they logically flow from the problem to the solution.

The design of your dissertation or thesis will depend on your research skills, the topic of the research and what the university prescribes. It should include which type of research you will conduct. Your research can be exploratory, descriptive or explanatory.

Exploratory research is research on a concept, people, or situation that you, as the researcher, know little about. You will typically use observation, interviews and content analysis to do exploratory research.

Descriptive research is research on a concept, people or situation that you know something about and about which you wish to describe what you have found or observed. Descriptive studies lend themselves well to a combination of quantitative and qualitative research approaches.

Explanatory research involves testing a hypothesis and coming to one or more conclusions about the validity of your hypothesis. The topic of the research is often something that has not been researched properly before. For explanatory research, you might use quantitative studies and hypothesis testing or the pursuance of a problem statement or question.

The scale and scope determine the boundaries of the design.

The boundaries put the problem statement or hypothesis into perspective.

You will also need to acknowledge the limitations of your research process. Some universities will allow you to overcome limitations with assumptions. Be careful of using assumptions in your research. It can damage the validity of your findings and the reliability of your recommendations.

Acknowledging that you are developing or deconstructing the findings of somebody else will lend validity and authenticity to your work.

Be modest about your claims to the originality of your work.

Do not underestimate the quality of research done by academics before you.

Do not regard quotations from the work of other researchers as a substitute for sound arguments by you.

Do not be jealous of the work of other researchers. You can often use their work as a corroboration of your own.

Regarding the structure of your research report, it should have the following elements:

  1. The title page.
  2. The table of contents.
  3. A list of figures and tables.
  4. The abstract.
  5. Confirmation of authenticity.
  6. Acknowledgments.
  7. The preface or introduction.
  8. The chapters.
  9. Bibliography and references.
  10. Appendices.


Research design is the blueprint according to which you will conduct your research.

Accept that change will occur while you do your research. Accept this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Consult as many sources of data as you can find, but guard against trying to include too many research methods, paradigms and data collection methods in your research.

The insights that you offer must be your own.

Remember that scrupulous honesty is as important in small matters as in large.

Enjoy your studies. Hard work will bring you good luck.

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