ARTICLE 47: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Empiricism

Group of young interns listening carefully to an experienced doctor of medicine

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I often wonder if the developers of paradigms were serious when they made claims like:

The only way in which you can learn is through experience, OR

You cannot learn anything from interviewing people, OR

External reality has no effect on behaviour.

Fortunately, most paradigms are quite flexible when it comes to the ways in which truth can be discovered.

And most, if not all of them, can be integrated.

Empiricism, however, is claimed by many to be an exclusivist paradigm.

Meaning that it cannot be integrated with other paradigms.

Or can it?

I discuss empiricism in this post.

What is Empiricism?

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience.

It means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or at least empirically based.

Evidence should be directly or indirectly observable by the senses.

Also, people must experience things before they will learn.

The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition is rejected.

Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

According to empiricism, people are born with empty brains, like a clean slate.

As people experience phenomena, the brain is filled by what they learn from experience.

Two learning processes take place –

The individual experiences a sensation and then reflects on the sensation.

Reflection, in turn, leads to new or improved knowledge.

Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated.

Events can be things that happened to them and observations that they made.

Experience can also be simulated through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements.

Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complementary lines of thought if it is integrated with rationalist arguments.

First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists site, insofar as we have it in the first place.

However, the knowledge that we have was obtained through previous experiences.

Secondly, we can “create” experiences by doing experiments and building models, which can be simulations of reality.

In that manner we can gain knowledge through self-created experiences.

Empiricism favours quantitative research methods, although it can be used with quantitative, qualitative or mixed research methods.

Its leaning towards quantitative research is demonstrated by the fact that it can be associated with positivism.

Because positivism is even more technicist in nature.

And secondly, positivism also makes a clear distinction between objective facts and values.

Thirdly, both positivism and empiricism regard sense data that is uncontaminated by value or theory as the ultimate objective.

Empiricism is sometimes used in association with critical theory or any of the paradigms associated with critical theory.

Empiricism can also support scepticism as an alternative to rationalism.

Rationalists argue that, if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge, then we do not have them.

Empiricists do not agree with the rationalists’ account of how reason is the source of concepts and knowledge.

Empiricism is in opposition to structuralism because empiricism believes that learning is derived from gaining experience while structuralism focuses on interrelationships between objects, concepts and ideas.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that structuralism is used in research on events or phenomena that already exist, which means that knowledge also already exists.

According to empiricism, people can learn without reasoning.

Empiricism provides for accumulating further knowledge after having gained knowledge through earlier experiences.

Most empiricists accept that learning is a continuous process.

Accumulating facts and knowledge are a second goal of what is called “naïve empiricism”.


The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from experience.

The mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience.

Knowledge must be deduced or inferred from actual events.

Reasoning and intuition are rejected as sources of learning.

Empiricists believe that innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

People are born with an empty brain that is filled by experiencing phenomena through the senses.

Two learning processes take place – experiencing and reflection.

Experience can be simulated.

Prior knowledge is accepted in naïve empiricism and if empiricism is integrated with rationalist thinking.

Any research method can use empiricism although quantitative research is favoured.

Empiricism can be associated with:

  • Most interpretivist paradigms.
  • Some technicist paradigms, notably positivism and rationalism.
  • Some critical paradigms, for example scepticism and structuralism.
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ARTICLE 43: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Behaviorism


Many Baby Boomers will remember the teachers at school who would not allow you to verbally respond to their scolding and reprimands.

“Listen to me and don’t talk back!”, they would say.

The consequence of this was that sometimes, when you had a good reason for behaving in a manner that they did not approve of, you just kept quiet and took your punishment with a stiff upper lip.

Just to set the record straight – I am deeply thankful to every teacher that taught me at school.

They did what they thought was right and they always had the interests of their pupils at heart.

Of course, there were also the difficult teachers, but I was fortunate not to have such a teacher ever.

All right – almost never.

Teachers in those days adopted an exaggerated behavioristic approach towards pupils.

They reacted to what they saw and did not care to think about the reasons why children behaved the way they did.

Hello, my name is Hannes Nel and I will discuss the nature and elements of behaviorism in this article.


Behaviorism is a set of doctrines that argue that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learner history and reinforcement.

Behaviorists argue that the human mind cannot be known.

Therefore, it cannot be shown that human thinking has an effect in the individual’s behavior.

All mental states, including beliefs, values, motives and reasons can only be described, defined and explained in terms of observable behavior.

Any data of a mental kind should be regarded as unscientific.

Reinforcement can increase or decrease the desired behavior.

Thus, reinforcement of behavior can be positive or negative.

All human behavior can be understood in terms of cause and effect.

Therefore, research should focus on that which is determined by and is the product of the environment.

This implies that research should focus on observable behavior which can be objectively measured rather than on cognitive processes which can only be inferred.

Intentionality and purposiveness are excluded or regarded as less important.

Behaviorism is related to positivism because positivism also believes that understanding human behavior can be gained through observation and reason.

Behaviorism can also be associated with empiricism because both make use of experimentation, specifically experimentation with experience and the simulation of experience in research.  

Symbolic interactionism is also related to behaviorism because both believe that learning takes place through the interaction between human beings, that is, external stimuli.       

Both behaviorism and symbolic interactionism depend on language to convey and share research findings.

Consequently, the accuracy and validity of findings through both behaviorism and symbolic interactionism depend on the ability of the researcher to use language.

So, you might have noticed that behaviorism, positivism, empiricism and symbolic interactionism gain comprehension through the observation of cause and effect.

Here we have the possibility of using different types of paradigms together, because:

  • Behaviorism, empiricism and symbolic interactionism are predominantly interpretivist paradigms.
  • Positivism is a predominantly technicist paradigm.

Behaviorism disagrees with phenomenology because phenomenology considers experience through direct interaction while behaviorism takes external stimuli into consideration.

Behaviorism disagrees with constructivism because constructivism claims that understanding is gained through experience and reflection while behaviorism largely neglects the cognitive processes, especially reflection.

The same applies to pragmatism because pragmatism postulates that knowledge is gained through observation and interpretation.

Again, the difference is vested in cognitive processes.

The problem with behaviorism as a research paradigm is that changes in behavior without taking cognitive processes into consideration are often only temporary.

Consequently, it does not deal with subjective, but lasting, human meaning-making.

Some behaviorists, however, do recognize the fact that cognitive thinking and the accompanying emotions can influence behavior.

This would be called radical behaviorism.

A second criticism against behaviorism is that the causes of changes in behavior are not always scientifically corroborated.


Behaviorism argues that behavior can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learner history and reinforcement.

The human mind cannot be known.

Cognitive processes can only be inferred.

Therefore, all mental states can only be described, defined and explained in terms of observable behavior.

Behavior can be improved or suppressed.

All human behavior can be understood in terms of cause and effect.

Behaviorism is related to positivism, empiricism, and symbolic interactionism.

Behaviorism disagrees with constructivism and pragmatism.

Criticism against behaviorism includes that change without cognitive processes will probably be temporary.

And that the causes of changes in behavior are not always scientifically corroborated.


In closing, There are four ground rules for research that one should meet regardless of which paradigm or paradigms you use.

Firstly, you should not ignore cognitive processes.

Secondly, you should always try to integrate and systemize your findings into a meaningful pattern and theory.

Thirdly, keep in mind that text constructed by human beings is fallible.

Therefore, you must always corroborate your data and findings.

Fourthly, personal preferences can damage the accuracy of your data collection, analysis, conclusions, finding and recommendations.

Despite paradigms not always supporting all four these ground rules, I strongly recommend that you keep them in mind.

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