ARTICLE 57: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Phenomenology

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

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

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

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

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

I discuss phenomenology in this video.

Phenomenology is a philosophy that believes that individual behaviour is the product of a person’s experience through direct interaction with phenomena. An objective external reality is believed not to have any effect on behaviour.

Social reality is believed to have meaning; therefore it should be taken into consideration when developing knowledge. Social reality is important for the way in which people behave as well as the factors that determine behaviour. This implies that research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals.  Actual experience is the essence of data used in phenomenology. Opinions, point of view, beliefs, superstitions, etc. are not taken into consideration.

Phenomenology deals with how people make sense of the world around them and how this can be used to understand phenomena and human behaviour. Phenomenologists realise that they should take their own perceptions into consideration when investigating those of other people. Their perceptions, however, should be based on experiences.

The data, research approaches and methods used in the natural sciences differ markedly from the data, research approaches and methods used in the social sciences, notably phenomenology. Data is analysed by reflecting on how we experienced events and phenomena, and gathering meaning from our reflections and consciousness.

Research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals because of the importance of social reality. The objective of phenomenology is to investigate and describe an event or phenomenon as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanations or objective reality. The description needs to describe as accurately as possible the phenomenon, without judging, in order to remain true to the facts. Phenomenological research, thus, studies people’s perceptions, perspectives and understanding of a particular situation, event or phenomenon to construct meaning.

Human beings interpret interaction with phenomena and attach meanings to different actions and/or ideas to construct new experiences. You, as the researcher, need to develop empathic understanding of phenomena to know how individuals interpret what they observe or experience, to understand the feelings, motives and thoughts that determine the behaviour of others.

Research based on a phenomenological paradigm strongly focuses on capturing the uniqueness of events or phenomena. For example, as part of research in human behaviour you may immerse yourself in the lives of convicted criminals. In carrying out such an inquiry, you might observe convicts in a correctional facility, share their particular struggles, conflicts and fears in an attempt to derive a deeper understanding of what it is like for them to serve time in the facility.

Phenomenological studies attend not only to the events being studied but also their political, historical, and sociocultural contexts. The studies strive to be as faithful as possible to the actual experiences, especially as it might be described in the participants’ own words. In the example of research in a correctional facility, you would, for example, ask convicts to describe situations where they felt that their lives were threatened.

In such inquiries, phenomenological studies resist the use of concepts, categories, taxonomies, or reflections about the experiences. This implies that generalisations should be avoided because they may distort the desired focus on the uniqueness of the events. You would also avoid any research methods having a tendency to construct a predetermined set of fixed procedures and techniques that would govern the research project. 

An alternative to seeking assertions of enduring value or considering all human experiences as unique, can be to aim for a limited form of generalisability. Such a limited form recognises the uniqueness of local situations but accepts that, depending on the degree of similarity of the sending and receiving contexts, some transferability of findings is possible.   

Phenomenological research embraces participants as stakeholders and participants in the research process. Even if limited, you and the participants can make some generalisations of what a phenomenon is like as an experience from the ‘insider’s’ perspective by analysing multiple perspectives of the same situation. This is yet another example of ‘emic’, the insider’s point of view, as opposed to ‘etic’ which would be the outsider’s point of view.

Phenomenologists are reluctant to follow a structured step-by-step research procedure. They argue that this would erode the integrity of the observed phenomenon. Research guidelines might be necessary just as long as it does not become a rigid procedure.       

Almost any qualitative research method can be used, including interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, etc. The only precondition is that the data should be a full description of actual experiences.

The data collection method used will largely decide how the data will be analysed. Keep in mind that data can be gathered as and when an event takes place, which would mean that the data can change in unexpected ways and directions. You should focus on deep understanding of the data through analysis. The data and its analysis should contribute to the achievement of the purpose of your research. Reflection is needed to extract meaning from data, and you will need to carefully analyse the data to achieve this.

Phenomenological studies emphasise hermeneutic or interpretive analysis of actual experiences. It is also associated with symbolic interactionism, which argues that the individual is continually interpreting and analysing the symbolic meaning of his or her environment, with symbolism often being the spoken or written word. Phenomenology tries to interpret and describe experiences in a way that others will also be able to understand.

Phenomenology is opposed to the positivist paradigm and most other technicist paradigms. The reason for this is that phenomenology requires collecting and reflecting on actual experiences which will seldom include quantitative analysis. Data gathered phenomenologically would mostly be subjective whereas the positivist paradigm requires objective data.

Researchers criticise phenomenology for many different reasons. The paradigm is interpreted and used in a variety of ways by different researchers, with the result that the meaning of the philosophy has been eroded. Secondly, there is little, if any consistency in the examples given in many different fields of research, all claiming to be case studies of phenomenology. Thirdly, phenomenological observations are not always useful for research purposes because of the lack of cognitive thinking and reflection. Fourthly, the limited provision for the development of generalizable knowledge is contrary to the purpose of especially doctoral studies.


Phenomenology studies experience through direct interaction.

Social reality rather than the external reality is investigated.

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

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

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

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

Accurate descriptions of events and phenomena are related.

Events and phenomena are not judged.

Conscious experiences are described without theory and causal explanations.

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

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

The paradigm is opposed to scientism, positivism and modernism.

Criticism against the paradigm are:

  1. That cognitive thinking and reflection are neglected
  2. It is difficult to find valid examples of the use of phenomenology.
  3. It is seldom possible to generalise research findings.
  4. Researchers are confused about the meaning of the paradigm.
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ARTICLE 37: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s degree Studies: Sampling Part 5 of 6

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


On face value sampling seems like a simple job.

And so it mostly is.

However, if you choose the wrong sample or you choose the sample incorrectly, you can destroy the validity and accuracy of your research project.

And you might have wasted a good number of years on fruitless research.

Think carefully about the examples that I offer in this post, especially the ones on systematic sampling.

I will discuss:

  1. Stratified sampling.
  2. Systematic sampling.
  3. Theoretical sampling.
  4. Time sampling.

In this post.

Stratified sampling

Stratified sampling is used to ensure that the sample is representative of a population with multiple characteristics that are evenly distributed amongst the population.

The research population is divided into homogeneous groups, with each group containing subjects with similar characteristics.

Such homogeneous groups are often called ‘sub-units’ or ‘strata’.

Samples are selected by making use of random selection procedures such as systematic sampling or simple random sampling.

For example, students at a specific university, which are the population on which the research will be conducted, can be grouped into a male and a female group.

Or they can be grouped per faculty.

Or per leisure time interests, etc.

If, for example, you wish to do research on the impact of leisure time interest on academic performance, you will need to investigate a representative sample from each leisure time interest group.

Representivity is achieved by identifying the parameters of the wider population and taking them into consideration when composing samples.

So, in this example leisure time utility will be the independent variable.

Factors such as gender, age, occupation, academic year, etc. can be the dependent variables.

For the sake of coming to valid conclusions and findings, the process of organizing a stratified sample requires ensuring that the characteristics typical of the wider community are present in the sample.

If you draw more than one sample, you must also ensure that the samples are homogeneous in terms of at least one characteristic, which would be your independent variable.

In qualitative research, you will probably not calculate the size of the sample in terms of a statistical level of accuracy.

Therefore, representivity will depend on your own judgement.

You do need to take certain factors into consideration, though.

For example, the size of the population, time and cost constraints, access to data, the need for simplicity and the purpose of the reach.

Systematic sampling

Although some simple calculations need to be done with systematic sampling, it is not enough to be called quantitative research.

Systematic sampling is a modified form of random sampling.

For example, in a population of 10,000 individuals, you might feel that you should have a sample of, say, 200 people.

This will mean that you should select every first person from each sub-unit of 50 for your sample.

Fifty is, thus, your sample interval, i.e. the distance between each element selected for the sample.

You can choose numbers 1, 51, 101, 151, etc. for your sample.

If, for example, the first 57 people on the list that you use are the only females, you will have only two females in your sample.

This will probably distort your findings.

Another example of a skewed list would be if you work on a number of name lists for different faculties and the faculty lists are ordered normatively with the best performing student as the first name on the list and the poorest performing student as the last name on the list.

To use an extreme example, if there are fifty names on each list, your sample will include only the poorest performing students.

Periodicity can be a problem with systematic sampling if the list is not a fully random one.

For example, if you start by selecting the first name on the list, then names numbered 1 to 49, 50 to 99, 100 to 149, etc. do not have any chance of being selected for the sample.

You can eliminate this problem by ‘randomizing’ the list first by ‘shuffling’ the names like you would a deck of playing cards, and then selecting the sample.

You can also deviate somewhat from a systematic selection. A sampling procedure is not cast in concrete and you can adapt it to your research needs.

Just as long as it improves the randomness of your sample.

You can, for example, use systematic sampling coupled with the condition that both genders are fairly represented in the sample.

This can be achieved by splitting the name lists for males and females and then selecting a number of males and females from each list randomly.

Theoretical sampling

Theoretical sampling is the process of investigating incidents, events, occurrences or people over a period based on their potential to represent or demonstrate important theoretical constructs.

Researchers who follow an approach where deductions can be made from data with which theory can be developed or extended would be interested in finding individuals with the right makeup, or cases that embody theoretical constructs.

Theoretical sampling, therefore, is a special type of criterion sampling.

As the name implies, theoretical sampling is best used when the research focuses on theory and concept development.

Your goal would be to develop theory and concepts that are connected to, are grounded in, or emergent from real life events and circumstances.

To generate new theory will often require substantial research and is, therefore, a time-consuming process.

You will need to analyze and probably reconstruct and deconstruct existing theory until you manage to develop new theoretical ideas.

As opposed to purposeful sampling, you cannot know in advance precisely what to sample for and where it will lead you when you use theoretical sampling.

That is why theoretical sampling fits in well with grounded theory and why you will probably work towards solving a problem statement or question rather than hypothesis testing.

Time sampling

Time sampling is where observations of occurrences or events need to be taken and recorded at certain times.

You can use it if it is important to know the chronology of events.

Time sampling can be instantaneous, at specific intervals or measured in terms of how long it takes, i.e. duration.

Instantaneous sampling is achieved by observing an event or occurrence at standard intervals, for example every minute, hour, etc. on the dot.

You will need to take observations at a specific time and intervals that you planned on, or that are prescribed or necessary for whatever reason and you will take notes of your observations.

In the case of interval recording, you will observe and record events or occurrences during each interval.

This means that you will record observations during each interval for the entire time of the interval and not just at the moment each interval starts.

For example, you might wish to conduct research on the emotional state of a patient over a period and at set intervals, say every fifteen minutes for a day.

You can then count the number of times that the patient is happy, sad, angry, etc. and how the patient expressed the emotions.

The patient might have smiled, cried, laughed, etc.

You might also need to take note of what possibly might have triggered the emotion.

Duration sampling is where you will measure how long it takes for an individual or group to complete a certain task.

With duration sampling, you might, for example, need to record how long it takes the patient to overcome an anger attack or any other emotional state.

Or you might need to record how often the individual switches between different emotions, and many more.

The format of your notes will depend on the type of data that you wish to collect.

Time sampling will often require a quantitative research approach or at least some calculations.

This, however, does not mean that it cannot be used in qualitative research.

It might also be necessary to use a mixed approach, i.e. quantitative and qualitative research.


Stratified sampling is where you will select a representative sample from a diverse community. You will use random sampling to select the sample or samples.

In systematic sampling you will select individuals or items from a population at structured intervals.

In theoretical sampling you will select the sample based on certain criteria that will enable you to develop new theories and concepts.

Time sampling is where you will take samples at certain times. It can be instantaneous, at specific intervals or measured in terms of duration.

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ARTICLE 32: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Literature Study

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


People who do not like reading will probably shy away from making use of literature study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

I can understand such an attitude, especially if you don’t have any specific questions that you need answers to.

Or an academic problem to solve.

For some, there are many more exciting things to do rather than to read a book.

I guess studying late at night, over weekends, public holidays and university holidays is not something to look forward to.

Perhaps it takes a special kind of person, or some alien external force to motivate “normal” people to spend what they regard as leisure time engrossed in books.

However, if you embark on Ph. D. or master’s degree studies you will need to sacrifice some of your social freedom.

That does not mean that you will need to live like a recluse.

It only means that you will need to read a lot.

The point is this – as an adult, you are the captain of your ship.

Only you can decide what you should do with your life.

You need to be absolutely motivated to study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

So, let’s discuss literature study.

Literature study

Literature study will form part of most research work, regardless of what main research methods are used.

With the expansion of online data sources, it is becoming progressively more possible to undertake research without leaving your study or office.

You can even do research while having something to eat and drink in a restaurant or a bar.

Texts and records can be researched in four distinct ways:

  1. The study of content.
  2. The social construction of documents and records.
  3. Documents ‘in the field’
  4. Documents in action and documents in networks.

However, doing all your research by studying documents is deskwork rather than fieldwork.

When documents are included in the dataset, they tend to serve as ‘background material’ for many research projects.

Literature is often used to crosscheck oral accounts.

The empirical opportunities to analyze documents are endless: newspaper articles, advertisements, policy documents, government reports, blogs and web sites, schedules, letters, posters, pamphlets, brochures, campaign material, etc.

Everyday life offers a range of situations that involve forms and documents.

Particularly regarding interpersonal encounters within various institutions.

Even so, researchers interested in identifying practical examples may find it hard to recognize relevant events in a pile of documents.

The majority view of documentary data in qualitative research is that documents are detached from social action.

In contrast to an interview, the document appears more stable and fixed, whereas the content of an interview seems more dynamic and alive.

Documents can be quite lively agents in their own right rather than merely containers of text.

They can tell people what to do.

They can stir up conflicts.

They can evoke emotions such as anger, relief, envy, pride and despair.

Additionally, people do things with documents.

They can use them for various purposes, both intended or unintended.

They exchange documents.

They hide documents.

They write books and make movies about documents.

To recognize the aspects of documentary data, fieldwork rather than deskwork is required.


All researchers must do some literature study, regardless of which research approach or method they mainly use.

Texts and records are studied for the content, social construction, corroboration of other research methods and to support action research.

Literature study mostly means reading and analyzing books and other documents.

It can also include doing research on the internet.

Documents often trigger chains of interaction far beyond the original piece of paper.

Literature is often used to confirm research through other research methods.

Some researchers would rather do without literature study.

They prefer practical fieldwork or research in a laboratory that is not contaminated by old data.

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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 28: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Experimental Methods

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Can lessons from events be gained in a laboratory?

Lessons that will apply to every place and all people?

You be the judge of that after reading this article.

Quantitative experimental methods

The essential feature or experimental methods is that you deliberately control and manipulate the conditions which determine the results in which you are interested.

To achieve this, you will need to introduce an intervention and measure the difference that it makes.

It is mostly used by people doing quantitative research and in natural sciences.

The precondition for research to be experimental is that it should meet the requirements for scientific research.

The requirements for scientific research are that the researcher must have control over the variables, careful measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.

An experiment involves making a change in the value of one variable – called the independent variable – and observing the effect of that change on another variable – called the dependent variable.

Using a fixed design, experimental methods can be confirmatory, seeking to prove or disprove a hypothesis, or explanatory, which would be discovering the effect of certain variables.

The variability and validity of experimental methods often depend on the ability to replicate the results from an experiment in similar situations and generalizing the findings to other similar situations.

You can, for example, test the psychological effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on people by asking them relevant questions during an interview.

You can also ask people to complete a questionnaire.

Responses to the questions can be measured in different ways, depending on the type and context of the experiment.

In the experimental methodology, generalization is referred to as “external validity”.

External validity means that the same results will be obtained with different groups and in different places.

You can imagine that external validity will not be easy to achieve.

This is mostly because of the number of different external variables that can influence your experiment.

The less external variables there are, the better will the chances be that you will achieve external validity.

Experiments can be experiments in a laboratory, field experiments or natural experiments.

Regardless of where the experiments are done, they require quite some planning and preparation.

Most, if not all, tests that are done in a laboratory are examples of experimental research.

Experiments in a laboratory

A laboratory experiment would be an experiment that is conducted under highly controlled conditions where accurate measurements are possible.

Laboratory experiments are mostly easy to replicate.

That is because standardized procedures and measurements of variables are used.

There are not many external variables over which you have no or little control.

Laboratory tests, however, do not always replicate real life, with the result that findings will probably not be generalizable outside the laboratory.

Field experiments

Field experiments are done in real-life environments.

The researcher still manipulates the independent variable but in a real-life setting.

Findings in field experiments should be generalizable to real-life settings.

A limitation of field experiments is that there will probably be many external variables that might bias the results.

Consequently, it would be difficult for other researchers to replicate the results.

Natural experiments

Natural experiments are also conducted in real-life environments.

They differ from field experiments in that the researcher cannot manipulate the independent variables – events occur as they would in real life.

Behavior in a natural experiment is more likely to reflect real life because of its natural setting.

It might be necessary for covert observation.

That is, the target group for the research does not know that they are being observed.

The reason for this is that people often behave differently when they know that they are being watched than they would normally behave.

This is even worse if they know that video footage is being taken of them.

Covert research can have ethical consequences which you should consider and remove in advance.

The researcher has no control over external variables that might bias the results.

Experiments in qualitative research

The parallel in qualitative research is when a part or the whole qualitative research study is the subject of attempted replication of a phenomenon or event.

For example, within a single qualitative research study, replication can sometimes be achieved by conducting more than one of the same or at least similar case studies.

The more similar the findings from the cases, the more a replication might be claimed.

However, replication is not always possible because of the dynamic nature of human phenomena.

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with experimental methods include behaviourism, empiricism, modernism, phenomenology, scientism and symbolic interactionism.


In experimental research:

  1. You, as the researcher, manipulate the conditions for the research.
  2. You must have control over the variables.
  3. Careful measurement of phenomena or behavior will be necessary.
  4. You will need to establish a cause and effect relationship.
  5. External validity will not be easy to achieve.

Experimental methods can be confirmatory or explanatory.

An independent variable is the input variable, whereas the dependent variable is the outcome variable – the result.

It is not easy to achieve external validity with any of the experimental research types.

That is because of differences in variables between the place where the experiment is done and real-life conditions.

Experiments can be experiments in a laboratory, field experiments or natural experiments.

The conclusions of experimental methods can be achieved through qualitative research.


In closing,

I used one additional source of information for this article. That is McLeod, S.A. (2012, Jan 14) Experimental method. Simply psychology: https://www.simplypsychology/org/experimental-method.html. I accessed the source on 10 March 2020.

The main source of information that I use for all my articles and videos on Ph. D. and master’s degree research is my book entitled Preparing Qualitative Research Reports.

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ARTICLE 27: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Ethnography

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Why would academics do research about people that they probably regard as inferior?

In a positive vein, probably because they want to help those who are less fortunate than them.

Did the researchers ask the people if they needed or wanted help?

I would think yes, at least most of the time. But not always.

And if the researchers try to help, will they do the right thing?

Unfortunately, not always.

I think it can be humiliating and frustrating to have outsiders dissect your value system and the way you have lived for centuries.

And then they tell you how you should live and what you should do.

Remember, these people know their culture and way of life and they are watching you while you observe them.

Sometimes it can be funny, but it can also be embarrassing and lead to serious damage and harm to both the people being researched and the researcher.

It is not easy for an outsider to understand the culture and being of another population group.

People with a populist orientation will probably feel that such differences are not important and that it should be eliminated.

That, however, is not the reality for many nations.

For an outsider ethnography as a research method is much more difficult than we think. That is also why many researchers embarrassed themselves when they tried to tell the world how people from other cultures think, live and do things.

What is ethnography?

Some may regard ethnography and ethnomethodology as the same thing.

They are not entirely wrong.

Ethnomethodology is the philosophy behind ethnic research.

Ethnomethodology claims that research deals with everyday life amongst people in a social setting; where currently observed behavior and interaction provides the most accurate and valid data.

For the purposes of this post, ethnomethodology is regarded as a paradigm that can be used with ethnography, which is a research method.

Ethnography, therefore, is the method by which ethnic research is conducted.

I will discuss ethnomethodology as a paradigm in a future post.

How did ethnography begin?

Ethnography mostly has colonialism as its foundation.

It relates to distant cultures that were occupied by the seafaring nations, largely between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Colonialism came to an end in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The influence of colonization can still be seen in what used to be colonies and is popular as a topic of research.

Unfortunately, some researchers call any kind of quantitative research ethnography.

Ethnography has traditionally been associated with social and cultural anthropology.

Sources consulted in ethnography

Ethnographic research sometimes needs to be done through semi-structured interviews or literature study that will include official documents.

This can include historical data and not just current observations.

The process of ethnographic study

Ethnography encompasses forms of research that are extremely diverse from a methodological point of view.

Ethnography can have a contemporary or historical focus.

It is the aim of ethnography to establish the hidden inferences that distinguish, for example, different eating habits.

Such a phenomenon is then placed in its social and cultural context.

Ethnography, therefore, is oriented toward studying shared meanings and practices, or culture.

As a researcher, you might need to study a community for a long period, perhaps years to gain some understanding of their culture and value system.

Although ethnography is traditionally associated with long-term fieldwork, some aspects are employed in applied settings.

Applied, or current settings require a naturalistic research approach.

Observing individual and group behavior in its natural context and participating in that context can generate insights that might otherwise have eluded you.

Ethnography follows a holistic perspective, based on the premise that human behavior and culture are complicated phenomena and are composed of, and influenced by, a multitude of factors.

These might include historical precedents, the physical context in which people live and work, the social structures in which individuals are embedded and the symbolic environment in which they act.

Ethnography assumes that all human behavior is intentional and observable.

Research should, therefore, be oriented towards understanding the reasoning behind people’s actions.

This means that you, as the researcher, and often not a member of the community, will probably spend time living in the community observing and doing in-depth interviews, reading and researching primary source material and observing the lives of the people that you wish to study.

Eventually, you will compile all this data and analysis to create a full picture of the group you are studying.

The picture includes not only reporting what people do or say but also some analysis that tells us about the social structure and worldview of the community.

You should not disrupt the environment or routine of the target for your research.

This means that you, as the researcher, might need to be “invisible” and involve yourself in unobtrusive observation.

In this instance, an etic approach will probably be more effective than an emic approach.

You will need to establish trust and rapport between you and those whom you do research on.

Also, you should guard against becoming emotionally involved with the target group for your research because it might cloud your judgement.

Research reports are in the form of a narrative, with key evidence, such as detailed descriptions of episodes, being reproduced to illustrate your findings and recommendations.

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with ethnography include relativism, behaviorism, constructivism, critical race theory, critical theory, ethnomethodology and post-colonialism.


Ethnography literary means “to write about a group of people”.

Research topics and problem statements or questions require the study of social and cultural processes and shared meanings within a group of people.

Participant observation is the method most used in ethnographic research.

Normally ethnographers will spend lots of time in the field to study the lives of people from within their naturalistic setting.

The “thick” detail of the data that you can obtain through participant observation usually fulfils the key criterion of validity far better than data obtained by other methods.

Ethnographic research can also consult data sources such as interviews and literature studies.

It also offers flexibility and can provide the basis for inductively generating new theoretical explanations.

Ethnographic research can:

  • follow a qualitative or quantitative approach,
  • will probably follow an etic approach, although an emic approach would also be possible, and
  • can be done by one or a group of researchers.
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ARTICLE 26: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Conceptual studies

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Is prostitution all bad?

Are all prostitutes bad people?

When is a person a prostitute?

In laymen’s terms, one would probably call subjective answers to questions like these “labelling the individual”.

The label can easily become a concept for academic research.

Concepts are the elements of which theories are composed.

Also, concepts are symbolic and abstract elements that represent objects, or features of objects, processes, or phenomena.

If prostitution is the topic of your research, you might need to identify characteristics that will define such a person.

Concepts may introduce new ideas or perspectives.

They may also be a means of explaining a broad generalization.

You might, for example, discover through your studies that prostitutes are not all bad, which might question the rather general perception that a prostitute can only be defined in terms of bad characteristics.

In terms of ideas, concepts are important because they are the foundation of communication and thought.

Concepts provide a means for people to let others know what they are thinking and allow information to be shared.

By conceptualizing a set of behaviors or ideas as part of a coherent package, we can describe a range of possible ideas, relations and outcomes with a single term.

Examples of such terms are sociopaths, delinquents, criminals, rapists, altruists, serial murderers, etc.

Conceptual studies are largely based on secondary sources that you, as a researcher, may consult to gain an understanding of concepts.

They aim to add to your existing knowledge and understanding.

An in-depth critical analysis of the literature is intrinsic to concept analysis.

Apart from books and documents, maps and air photos can also be sources of data for concept analysis.

Conceptual cartography takes the process of critical analysis further because maps are both analytical tools and products of concept analysis.

Conceptual studies can comfortably use the interpretivist paradigms, for example, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, interpretivism.

Some critical paradigms, for example, feminism, can also be used.  

The classical concepts analysis-type studies follow a step-by-step procedure.

The following are possible steps:

Step 1: Select the concept.

The concept may be prostitutes, whom you would describe in terms of certain characteristics.

Step 2: Identify the purpose of the analysis.

The purpose of your analysis might, for example, be to determine real and objective characteristics of what defines a person as a prostitute.

Step 3: Analyze the concept’s range of meanings.

You will need to keep an open mind when doing research through conceptual studies.

Kill your preconceived perceptions.

Do not be judgmental.

Let your research discover the range of meanings for you.

Step 4: Determine the critical attributes of the concept.

Critical attributes can also be subjective if you do not wipe out your perceptions and believe the data that you collected.

You will need to consult unbiased sources of information.

Step 5: Select a paradigmatic approach.

Interpretivist paradigms are mostly best for conceptual studies because they accept conversation and personal opinions as data.

Step 6: Construct additional cases.

It would not be a good idea to study just one prostitute, although this is also possible, depending on the purpose of your research.

However, corroboration can be found best by comparing case studies and consulting a variety of data sources.

Step 7: Identify antecedents and consequences.

Real-life experiences can often be the best evidence in social research.

Even natural scientists look for actual cause and effect occurrences in their research.


Conceptual studies:

  1. Tend to be abstract, philosophical and rich in theoretical underpinnings.
  2. Are the foundation of communication and thought.
  3. Are largely based on secondary sources of data.
  4. Follow a step-by-step research procedure.

Concepts are the building blocks from which theories are constructed.

They can also be the symbolic and abstract elements of theories.

Conceptual studies aim to:

  1. Add to existing knowledge and understanding.
  2. Introduce new ideas and perspectives.
  3. Explain broad generalizations.
  4. Describe a range of ideas in a single term.
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ARTICLE 44: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Constructivism

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


One certainty about post-graduate research is that there is no guarantee that you will succeed.

Many students do not even start because they are afraid that they might fail.

And the uncertainty coupled with the fear of failure after you have done a lot of work causes many students to not even start.

Constructivism is a simple paradigm with lots of promise of success.

Although there is still no guarantee, you can at least embark on your studies in the knowledge that you will have a fair chance to show what you are capable of.

What is more attractive to an intelligent and creative researcher than the opportunity to use his or her mind to develop new knowledge and understanding?

The work will still be a challenge, but thanks to constructivism, not an insurmountable one.


Constructivism is a rather liberal paradigm, that allows the researcher to create new knowledge and understanding through cognitive reasoning.

It claims that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

We reconcile new observations and experiences with our previous ideas and experiences.

This might change our perceptions, or the new information and experiences might be discarded.

How we respond to new information and experiences depends on how we process the data in our minds.

This means that we create our own knowledge by asking questions and exploring things.

To compensate for the subjectivity of constructivism, you need to pay special attention to ethics.

The way in which you collect, and construct, data are prerequisites for the validity and accuracy of your analysis.

Also, the quality of data and the way in which it is analyzed determine how reality is interpreted.

Constructivism is mostly used with grounded theory methodology.

Human interests are important for research purposes.

Therefore, constructivism can also be used with several other research methods.

For example, action research, case study research, ethnography, etc.

A multitude of data collection methods can be used.

For example, interviews, participant observation, artifacts and almost any documents that are relevant to the field of study can be consulted.

The aim of research using constructivism is often to understand situations or phenomena, not only to create new knowledge.

Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed.

It involves a researcher collaborating with participants.

That is an emic approach.

For those who might not be familiar with the etic and emic approaches to research – an emic approach is where the researcher works with the target group for the research.

She or he can even become part of the target group.

In an etic approach, the researcher observes the target group from the outside.

The interaction of several people is researched in their context or setting.

It mostly involves the social problems of the target group for the research.

The accuracy of research findings is validated and creates an agenda for change or reform.

This entails a rather well-known sequence of steps that are followed in most qualitative research methodologies.

The following are typical steps:

  • Identify human interests.
  • Formulate the aim of the research.
  • Gather rich data.
  • Collaborate with participants.
  • Research target group interaction.
  • Validate the accuracy of the findings.
  • Create an agenda for change or reform.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

For example, like positivism constructivism also uses observation to gather information.

Different from positivism, which argues that knowledge is generated in a scientific method, constructivism generates knowledge in an interpretive manner.

There are other differences between constructivism and positivism.

Constructivism prefers an emic approach while positivism is equally comfortable with an emic and an etic approach.

Constructivism prefers qualitative research while positivism prefers quantitative research.

Although some academics claim that constructivism can be positively associated with behaviorism, the link is rather weak and unconvincing.

Very well, behaviorism also uses observation to collect data, but behaviorism does not make use of reflection while constructivism does.

Then again, radical behaviorism makes use of reflection.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism, also because of the lack of reflection.

Constructivism is widely criticized for its lack of value in education and its lack of balance when used as a philosophy in research.

In education, it can lead to group thinking when one or a few prominent educators propagate a process or concept as “the only truth”.

Constructivists sometimes place too much emphasis on sensory experience at the expense of reflection.

This means that constructivists sometimes focus strongly on the ontology, that is “what is” and neglect the epistemology, that is the “why” and the “how” of a phenomenon.

Because of this, knowledge is sometimes not sufficiently proven to be valid and accurate.

Some academics integrate constructivism with other paradigms.

Others regard such integration as robbing constructivism of its identity.

The third group of academics feels that integrating constructivism with other paradigms enhances the philosophical strength of the research process.


Constructivism requires intelligent cognitive reasoning.

People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection.

The aim of constructivism is to understand situations and phenomena.

Research often involves creating change or reform.

Ethics and human interests are important in constructivism.

Constructivism makes use of many data collection methods.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism.

Constructivism is criticized for:

  • Not having much value in education.
  • Lack of balance.
  • Too much emphasis on sensory experiences.
  • New knowledge not always been proven as valid and accurate.
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ARTICLE 25: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Case Studies

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


There is an increasing number of COVID-19 cases across the world without a defined chain of transmission.

It is easy to miss infected people who might have come into contact with the virus.

New cases increasingly crop up in unsuspected places.

There is still much uncertainty regarding how and where the virus is spreading.

Rumours abound, and scaremongering is becoming as serious a problem as the virus itself.

This is a perfect example of a problem that can be researched through case study research.

Case study research

Case study research can follow almost any research paradigm.

The exceptions can be technicist paradigms, especially scientism, rationalism, positivism and modernism.

Then again, I believe one can even use case studies to do research in natural science.

Case study means doing systematic research on contemporary phenomena or events.

Like action research, it is linked to a specific time, site and context.

Multiple sources of evidence can be used.

A case study strives towards a holistic and comprehensive understanding of how participants relate to and interact with each other in a specific situation.

Case study research looks for meaning in a situation or event.

It can be used across a variety of disciplines to answer epistemological questions.

Research questions can be answered by an individual, two people or a whole group.

Although answers are given by members of a target group, the focus is on a system of action rather than just the sample for the research.

Case study research can be selective, focusing on one or two issues that are fundamental to understanding the system being examined.

Case study research investigates behavior, but not just the behavior of the target group for the research.

It strives to identify the behavior of an entire system.

For example, the researcher might do research on how people react to those who might have come into contact with the COVID-19 virus by interviewing such people.

Or they can determine how people respond to such “almost infected” people by observing how family and friends react when they return home from where they could have come into contact with the virus.

The researcher will probably try to identify a pattern of behavior that can be regarded as generally applicable.

You will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioral pattern can be identified and described.

A strong point of the case study method is that almost any data collection method can be used.

For example, participant observation, interviews, audio-visual material, document surveys and even the collection of physical artifacts.

You should determine in advance what evidence to gather and what analysis techniques to use with the data that you collect.

Data collection will probably be mostly qualitative in nature, but it can also include quantitative data.

A second strong point of the case study method is that it deals directly with the individual case in its actual context.

Case studies get as close to the subject of interest as they possibly can.

This is achieved because direct observation in natural settings can be used.

Also, because you can have access to subjective factors, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.

Surely you will ask people how they feel, how they experience the situation, etc. when you interview them.

The case itself is the focus of your research, not the variables.

You need to focus strongly on the purpose of your research.

The general purpose of case study research is to generate knowledge.

It can also be used for theoretical elaboration or analytical generalization.

Criticism of case study research is that it often depends on a single case.

That makes it difficult to have your findings apply generally.


Case study research is perfectly suited to finding solutions for social problems.

The current COVID-19 situation is a good example, where social scientists would investigate the psychological effect of the threat on people while natural scientists try to find a way in which to combat the virus.

Case study research can use most philosophical stances or paradigms.

Epistemological questions are mostly investigated.

A good measure of generalization is sought for human behavior at a particular time and context.

You, as the researcher, will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioral pattern can be identified and described.

Case studies investigate a target group through direct observation in a natural setting.

The purpose of the research is critically important.

Case study research can be used to generate knowledge, for theoretical elaboration and analytical generalization.

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ARTICLE 23: The Interrelatedness of Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology in Post-graduate Research.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


With what degree of probability can experimental physicists say that they know how the world and life on it were created?

Will social scientists agree with them?

We can gain insight into questions like these through epistemology, ontology and methodology.

The interrelatedness of ontology, epistemology and methodology is the topic of this article.


Ontology is concerned with the natural world.

It is the nature of reality.

It focuses on the core characteristics, origin and what we can observe.

The “what” question often leads to an ontology.

For example: “What exists?” “What is true?” “What is real?” “What is?”

Ontology deals with the nature of being. Such “being” is not necessarily checked for validity, although scientists often try.

You can already identify an event or phenomenon as true by making use of your senses.

The “origin of” or “the original meaning of” is given by ontology.

Phenomena are not explained but rather described or simply stated as fact.


Epistemology is the study and explanation of what knowledge is and the logic behind the knowledge.

It can also be the philosophy behind knowledge.

It focuses on explaining knowledge, how we can obtain knowledge and how we should reason about the nature and elements of knowledge.

Knowledge is often formulated and explained in terms of what an event or phenomenon looks like, why it is as it is and how models interact.

Epistemology is made up of the elements of the world in which we live.

Three such elements are popularly described.

The first element is a philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge, which can include arguments, opinions and beliefs and how it relates to concepts such as the truth, validity, relevance and justification.

The second includes various issues of skepticism.

It asks if knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs are true, valid, relevant and justified.

The third is an explanation of the sources, criteria and scope of knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs.

For an epistemology understanding is more important than knowing and knowing is more important than to believe.

Even so, you can hardly develop an epistemology if you do not “know”.

Knowing is necessary to come to conclusions.

You will at least have an opinion or belief.

The epistemology of an event or phenomenon can be found through quantitative or qualitative research methods.

Your epistemological approach should be an effort to generate descriptions and explanations of the world, or at least the small part of the world that you do research on.

Your descriptions and explanations must, of course, be true, valid, relevant and justified.

Epistemology seeks to understand the how, origin, processes and limitations of observation.

Developing an epistemology requires operations such as drawing distinctions, establishing relations and creating constructs.

Epistemology includes a description of how knowledge impacts the target group for your research.

So, you can see that epistemology includes the research methods, data collection methods, and data analysis methods that we employ in our research.

Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

It implies the provision of evidence for your conclusions and inferences.


Methodology is the procedure that you will follow to identify and prove your argument, opinion or belief.

Some researchers differentiate between research methodology and research methods.

They argue that research methodologies are philosophical approaches while research methods are ways of doing things.

Philosophical approaches are also called paradigmatic approaches while research methods can include data collection methods.

I am just mentioning this for the sake of those who wish to differentiate between research methodologies and research methods.

Whatever stance you adopt will probably not influence the research work that you do.

Methodology is concerned with how you know something and go about obtaining the knowledge and understand that you need to solve a research problem.

It is the way in which you would discover knowledge in a systematic way.

The link between ontology, epistemology and methodology

Ontology is the belief upon which you base your research.

Ontology defines your research framework while epistemology determines the research questions that you will need to answer.

Ontology specifies the nature of something that we can sense and that we wish to investigate further if we are to know more about and understand an event or phenomenon.

Epistemology is the philosophy and knowledge behind the belief that you will investigate by making use of a research method, or methodology.

This is called your research premise, paradigm or interpretive framework.

Checking for validity is the bridge between ontology and epistemology.

If you manage to explain a fact, you will have crossed the bridge to epistemology.

Here is a simple example – your ontology can be that something tastes sweet. Your epistemology will be the reasons why it tastes sweet.

A century ago, most people would not have known what a computer is. They never saw one and, therefore, it is not included in their ontology.

Today almost all people will recognize a computer when they see one, but some will still not know how it works. It has not been explained to them and, therefore, it is not yet part of their epistemology.

Epistemology and methodology are driven by ontological beliefs and observations.


Ontology is “the science of being”.

The ontology is a statement of fact without explanation.

A statement of fact can also be just a belief.

Thinking, evaluating, studying and theorizing about an event or phenomenon within the framework of a predefined society can be your epistemology.

Epistemology asks: “how do we come to know?”

Epistemology is an explanation, not a label.

In doctoral research, you need to find evidence that your theoretical and philosophical claims are correct.

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and the science of explanation.

Your initial epistemology is improved through the development of new knowledge and philosophy.

Methodology is driven by your ontological beliefs and based on your initial epistemological philosophy.

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