ARTICLE 46: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Critical Theory

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Violence against women tend to increase during every type of crisis.

Reports from some countries show that the abuse of women, children and old people are much higher than normal when countries institute lockdown in an effort to gain control over the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

According to medical and psychological reports, the detrimental impact of domestic violence on the physical and mental health of the victims has increased substantially.

As people lose their jobs and resources become scarcer, women and children may be at even greater risk of experiencing abuse.

Critical theory is one of the most suitable paradigmatic approaches to follow when conducting research on violence against women, children and the elderly.

I discuss critical theory and how it should be approached in this post.

What is Critical Theory?

The term ‘critical’ refers to the capacity to question the conceptual and theoretical basis of knowledge and method.

The questions that the researcher asks should go beyond prevailing assumptions and understandings. AND

Also, it should acknowledge the role of power and social position in phenomena.

Critical theory is prescriptive, explanatory, practical and normative.

It explains what is wrong with the current social reality,

It identifies those who are responsible for change, and

It provides clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.

Its intention is not merely to give an account of society and behavior, but to realize a society that is based on equality and democracy for all the people in the society.

Conflict and inequality are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human relations.

Critical theory seeks to uncover the interests at work in particular situations and to interrogate the legitimacy of those interests.

Legitimacy implies identifying the extent to which equality and democracy are protected and promoted.

The intentions of critical theory are to transform society and individuals to social democracy.

Improving the quality of life in the workplace and in social settings focuses on the elimination or reduction of inequality, preferential treatment and discrimination.

Critical theory identifies the ‘false’ or ‘fragmented’ consciousness that has brought an individual or social group to relative powerlessness.

It questions the legitimacy of power.

It investigates issues of repression, lack of freedom of expression, ideology, participation (or not) representation (or not), inclusion or exclusion and the protection of individual and group interest.

Increasingly the multiple identities of individuals can justify an investigation.

Differences in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, skin colour, disability and minority can be grounds for discrimination and oppression.

Any such discrimination can be investigated through critical theory.

Critical theory is any research that challenges conventional knowledge and methodologies.

It can use a quantitative or qualitative research approach.

Such research will, of course, need to maintain scientific objectivity.

In this respect the purpose of the critical theory paradigm would be practical, namely, to bring about a more just, egalitarian society in which individual and collective freedom are secured.

The contribution of critical theory is often not just adding to or improving current knowledge or philosophy, but also to contribute to the physical living quality of people.

The main task of critical research is seen as being one of social critique, meaning that the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo are brought to light.

Critical research focuses on the contest, conflict and contradictions in contemporary society.

It seeks to be emancipatory by helping to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination in society.

Critical theory decides what counts as valid social knowledge.

This is expressed as critique of the social structure and systems as revealed through the analysis of the discourse in society.

Although people can consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, critical researchers recognize that their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination.

Consciousness and identity are formed within the political field of knowledge.

Critical theorists argue that values, historical circumstances and political considerations cannot be changed through research.

Therefore, efforts to eliminate or reduce inequality and discrimination should focus on managing such values, historical circumstances and political considerations in such a way that people are not discriminated against because of it.

Our understanding of the educational, political, economic or social situation depends on the context within which we encounter them.

Our own theoretical knowledge and assumptions also influence our interpretation of observations.

These factors create our ideological frames of reference that act as lenses through which we see the world.

Research making use of a critical theory paradigm should, therefore, take the context and environment into consideration when seeking theoretical and physical improvements.

You, as the researcher, should disclose the needs and struggles of the community being investigated regardless of whether the community is aware of the needs or challenges.

Critical research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledge reproduces structural relations of inequality and oppression.

It is assumed that social reality is historical and that it is produced and reproduced by people.

Every historical period produces rules that dictate what counts as scientific facts.

Society reproduces inequalities from one generation to the next.

This is called “reproduction theory”.

It is necessary to study conflict and inequality and the resistance that they cause to understand the dynamics of human relations.

Resistance becomes an important part of the response to injustices towards individuals or groups in a community or society.

In this respect, critical theory is also “resistance theory”.

Critical theory investigates and uses three types of knowledge, also called “cognitive interests”.

They are technical interests, practical interests and emancipatory interests.

Technical interests are concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge.

They are concerned with “how” things are done.

Practical interests are concerned with understanding the meaning of situations, which generates hermeneutic and historical knowledge.

Practical interests are concerned with the “what”, or the ontology of phenomena.

Emancipatory interests are concerned with the provision of growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraint and domination.

The emancipatory interest deals with the human capacity to be self-reflective and self-determining.

That is to act rationally.

Technical and emancipatory interests together deal with the epistemology of knowledge.

Critical theory serves as a foundation for and can be integrated with rationalism, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism, humanism, and critical race theory.

Although qualitative research methods are popular, quantitative research methods can also be used.

Proponents of critical theory claim that it is a complex and intricate paradigm which requires years of intensive study to fully understand.

They, furthermore, feel that research that deals with the values and emotions of people need to take affective factors, which are difficult to quantify, into consideration.

A second school of scientists feel that regarding critical theory as complex is smugness.

Emotions, they believe, can be analyzed quantitatively by asking multiple-choice questions in a questionnaire.


Critical theory questions the conceptual and theoretical basis of current knowledge and methods.

It focuses on the contest, conflict and contradictions in society.

Valid social knowledge is expressed as critique of the social structure and systems.

Critical theory is hampered by social, cultural and political domination.

Historical as well as current own knowledge and assumptions are accepted as data for research.

Critical theory is:

  1. Prescriptive.
  2. Explanatory.
  3. Practical.
  4. Normative. AND
  5. Emancipatory.

The intention of critical theory can be:

  1. To identify who is responsible for change and who resists needed change.
  2. To realize a society based on equality and democracy for all.
  3. To uncover illegitimate practices in society.
  4. To transform society and individuals to social democracy.
  5. To improve the quality of life of a community or society in general.
  6. To identify the acts or omissions that cause inequality and injustice.
  7. To combat discrimination.
  8. To set achievable and practical goals for social transformation.
  9. To explain what is wrong with the current social reality.
  10. To add to and improve current knowledge.

Critical theory can be used with qualitative or quantitative research methods.

It investigates technical interests, practical interests and emancipatory interest.

Critical theory can be associated with rationalism, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism, humanism, and critical race theory.

Positivism opposes critical theory.

Some scientists regard critical theory as complex while others regard the perception that it is complex as smugness.

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ARTICLE 29: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Masters Degree Studies: Field Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Once when I sent out questionnaires for a research project, the CEO of a manufacturing plant collected and worked through the questionnaires completed by his employees.

There were probably 100 to 200 completed questionnaires. He removed all the questionnaires that he felt could put him in a bad spot and sent me the rest.

Of course, I did not use any of them.

I was fortunate that one of his employees phoned and told me what he did.

Field Research

For many researchers, the collection of data involves or at least includes fieldwork.

Not all field research deals with people.

Also, fieldwork is not limited to research in nature only.

Field research can require the use of quantitative or qualitative analysis.

Preparing for field research

You should first refine your research project and develop your data collection instruments before you embark on fieldwork.

This is because your topic and the context in which your research will be done will determine if you should do fieldwork or not.

Where field research will take place

Field research, or fieldwork, means conducting empirical research in real-world settings.

You can do fieldwork in a classroom, observing students or lecturers, in factories, on ships, in aircraft and many more.

Doing fieldwork is not a must for all research.

You will use fieldwork if your research topic demands it if you feel that it will enable you to do accurate and valid research, if your study leader expects it from you, if you can afford it, and if it is something that you will enjoy doing.

The research process

In the spirit of grounded theory, you should be open-minded about the realities that you encounter.

Let the data that you collect lead your thinking processes.

Don’t try to bend what you see and experience to fit your preconceived ideas.

Preconceptions that you should get rid of include personal beliefs and initial theoretical propositions.

It might be necessary to divide your observations into different categories.

Don’t categorize your observations and events prematurely, though.

The first days in the field are often seen as the most challenging and emotionally rewarding.

Meeting a new group of people in their environment, about which you might not know much, can be uncomfortable, perhaps even intimidating.

Remember that such people might not trust you in the beginning.

People are suspicious of the unknown and they may resist you and your research.

Your research will be as intimidating to them as their environment to you.

If your doctoral or master’s degree studies are an extension of your previous studies, you might feel more comfortable with the environment in which you will do research.

Even so, you will probably encounter some new experiences and observations.

Doing site visits is a formally recognized way of doing fieldwork.

Site visits can be the only data collection method that you may use.

However, it is mostly necessary to collect other data as well.

You should be able to develop categories, propositions and eventually meaning based on what you experience and observe in the field.

Participant observation takes place during a site visit and a site visit may include other data collection activities.

Can you see how you can integrate different research methods?

Experimental methods, for example, can fit in well with fieldwork.

An advantage of site visits is that they enable data to be collected from many field settings as part of the same study.

The data from any single setting or site may be limited in terms of quantity, quality and variety.

Studying cross-site patterns might be necessary for comparison, to identify trends or patterns in phenomena or behavior and for corroboration of data.

Not just any field setting will be suitable for research and data collection.

Difference In functions, context, time and size can render some sites irrelevant to your research topic.

It might sometimes be necessary to visit the same site at different times and more than once.

An example of this is where you do research on the effect over time of global warming on glaciers, rivers, vegetation, etc.

Site visits are likely to be more rigid than participant observation.

Site visits usually follow a pre-established schedule, as well as an agenda while you are in the field.

Site visits can be time-consuming and require substantial preparation.

It can also require good timing, for example, if you were to do research on the migration of salmon up rivers to spawn.

Interviewing, conversing with participants, and observing them while they do something that you do research on will also require good planning and timing.

Members of a field setting for interviewing may have helped you to arrange the schedule.

They will probably use the opportunity to schedule the interviews so that it will suit them.

The disadvantage of this is that they can also prepare their responses to your questions in advance, thereby making it artificial and probably not valid.

Their responses may be idealized and what they think you would like to hear.

This is an example of reflexivity.

Reflexivity in this context means that the presence of the researcher affects the people being studied.

The same kind of situation can happen in the case of participant observation.

A further complication arises when you are accompanied by your host during the site visit.

The host may wish to monitor you and see and hear what you learn from his employees.  

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with field research include behaviorism, constructivist, critical race theory, critical theory, functionalism, neoliberalism, positivism, pragmatism, radicalism and scientism.


Field research can deal with people, phenomena in nature or even history.

It may require qualitative and/or quantitative research.

You will need to do a literature study and decide how you will collect further data first before you will know what kind of field research you should do.

Fieldwork can be done almost anywhere.

You need to be open-minded and objective about the data that you collect through fieldwork.

Also, be prepared to go through a process of mental adjustment. You will need time to grow accustomed to strange people and an unknown environment.

The contextual conditions between participant observation and interviewing are not the same, but both can be damaged by reflexivity.

You can integrate fieldwork with most other research methods.

Fieldwork is not always necessary for all research on especially the doctoral level.

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ARTICLE 3: How to Structure your Research Proposal for a Ph. D.

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


In my previous post, I shared with you some hints on how to write your research proposal and how to present it orally.

In this post, I will share with you some ideas on how to structure your research proposal so that the Research Committee will be convinced that your idea is a good one.

There is no synergy between universities about the meaning of a dissertation versus a thesis.

Most dictionaries call a research report on Ph. D. level a dissertation, and a research report on masters degree level a thesis.

These are the meanings that I will use in this and all my other posts on research methodology.

The structure of your research proposal

Most universities will require you to cover the following in your research proposal:

  • A title for your dissertation.
  • Table of contents.
  • The context of the research.
  • The goals of your study.
  • Research approaches and methods.
  • The table of content for your dissertation.
  • Bibliography.
  • Endnotes and footnotes.

What you write and discuss under each of these eight points will determine if your application to study for a Ph. D. will succeed or not.

I, therefore, will discuss each point separately in future posts.

For now, I will just mention a few salient issues to remember.

Let us look at the eight points.

A title for your dissertation

The title for your dissertation should be brief and descriptive.

Members of the Postgraduate Committee or your study leader, if you already have one, might suggest a different title.

The title can change at any time during your studies.

You will need to check if the title is still valid with your study leader from time to time.

Table of contents

The table of contents is an overview of all the topics that you will cover in your research proposal.

The context of the research

The context of your research should also be the scope or limits of your research.

Context is always relevant to postgraduate research and it will largely determine if your proposed study is viable.

The goals of your study

The goals and purpose of your study will determine the value of your research.

This section should start with the purpose of your research followed by the goals that you hope to achieve.

Research approaches and methods

Your research approach can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed.

Your choice of research approach and method will depend on your personal preference, research skills and the topic of your research.

You will probably also indicate which paradigmatic approach or approaches you will follow here.

The table of content for your dissertation

The table of contents should provide an outline of your chapters.

It can also serve as the scope for your research.


Your bibliography cannot be complete and final yet.

You will need to consult many more data sources when you start doing serious research.

You should list the sources that you already consulted and the sources that you believe you will consult.

Endnotes and footnotes

You will not have a heading for endnotes and footnotes.

They are used to explain terminology, to make incidental comments or to amplify or corroborate a point of argument.


In summary, do not underestimate the importance of preparing for the oral presentation of your study proposal.

What you write and present will determine if the university will allow you to study for a Ph. D.

You need to know what you should discuss, and you need to do it well.

That is why I will share with you in future posts hints on how to write and present every issue that you need to cover in your study proposal.

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