ARTICLE 100: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 4 of 9 Parts: Ethics Part 2 of 3 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What does ethics in research entail?

Some post-graduate students will think that not committing plagiarism is what it is all about.

And they will not be entirely wrong.

Not committing plagiarism is an element of ethics.

However, there are many other facets to the concept.

Ethics are not only important for writing your thesis or dissertation, but also for the safety and integrity of the participants.

Especially the target group for your research.

I discuss the following issues on ethics in this article:

  1. Axiology.
  2. Codes of consent.
  3. No harm to participants.

Axiology. The quality of our research will be judged according to the criteria of validity and authenticity. This brings us to the concept “axiology”. Axiology addresses the nature of ethical behaviour. In research axiology refers to what you belief to be ethical. Basic beliefs about what is ethical are embedded in research paradigms and guide the researcher’s decision making. The purpose of the research needs to be balanced with what you value as well as other ethical considerations in the conduct of research, notably validity and authenticity.

Validity and authenticity are prerequisites for understanding. It is in this that epistemology and ethics are brought together. It is also a meeting point between epistemology and ontology because what we know (ontology) is tied up with what we understand (epistemology).

Ontological and educative authenticity, on the other hand, were designated as criteria for determining a raised level of awareness; in the first instance, by individual research participants and, in the second, by individuals who share a particular value system and, therefore, maintain contact for some social or organisational purpose. That is why the validity of your epistemological approach starts with ontology. It is rather difficult and mostly unnecessary, to separate epistemology from ontology, because they form a unified system and are highly interdependent. Epistemology is the declarative extension of ontology and often includes additional ontological statements.

It is, however, important that you do not confuse ontology and epistemology. As a matter of routine, it helps to mention ontology first, and then epistemology, since it enables you to base your study on a statement of “fact” (which can include your target group, world or society) before you do any explaining and theorising.

It is, sometimes, necessary and useful to develop models of real-life situations or artefacts for research purposes. Choice of representation (i.e., the way in which models must be articulable) does, in fact, have real implications for what aspects of the research target receive the most attention – what the model handles well, and what gets minimised or left out. On the other hand, models of what there is (ontology) need to be explained by what can be known and how it can be known (epistemology). We know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line – this is what we know, or the ontology. How we know this, that is. the evidence that the shortest route between two points is a straight line, is the epistemology.

Epistemology is not just a way of knowing. It is also a system of knowing through cognitive reasoning based on internal logic (contextualising information gathered to your research purpose) and the wider applicability of the knowledge, that is external validity (ensuring that findings are in line with the general environment and that they will be acceptable to other stakeholders).

Epistemology is intimately linked to a world-view. People from different continents, countries and even regions will often not have the same outlook or frame of reference towards the world around them. Thus, the conditions under which people live and learn, shape both their knowledge and their world-views.

Codes of consent. Codes of consent deal with if the target group for the research participates voluntarily or not. Qualitative research can be an intrusion into people’s lives, especially if it is social research. The interviewer’s knock on the door or the arrival of a questionnaire in the post or by email signals the beginning of an activity that the respondent has not requested, and one that may require a significant portion of his or her time and energy. Participation in a social experiment disrupts the subject’s personal and work schedule.

What is needed is informed consent, meaning that the research subjects need to know that they are being researched and what the nature and purpose of the research are. Participants in research should base their voluntary participation on a full understanding of the nature of the research and possible risks involved. When obtaining their consent, you need to appreciate that the participants may be under subtle pressure to co-operate, and you should take this possibility into account.

Consent is considered ‘informed’ when, in a language that the participants understand, you explain to them the nature of the research, their right to refuse to participate or withdraw from participation at any time, factors that may influence their willingness to participate, and the data collection methods to be used. The participants must have a complete understanding of the nature, aims and processes of the research, its intended outcomes, as well as any consequences that may follow from participation and publication.

Participants in research are often required to provide personal information about themselves, such as their age, weight, eating habits, drinking habits, smoking habits, etc. Such information may be unknown to their friends and associates and they might not want people close to them to know. Furthermore, research on human activities often requires that such information be revealed to strangers. Other professionals, such as physicians, and lawyers, also require such information. Their requests, however, may be justified because the information is required for them to serve the personal interests of the respondent. Social researchers can seldom make this claim. Like medical scientists, they can only argue that the research effort may ultimately help all of humanity.

No one should be forced to participate in research. This norm, however, is far easier to accept in theory than it is to apply in practice. It is unlikely that people will participate voluntarily if they do not believe that they will, somehow, benefit from participating. That is probably the most important reason why the response rate to questionnaires is often low, and you should plan on receiving only a fraction of the questionnaires back that you send out. Any response rate higher than 10% is good, unless you take special steps, like delivering and collecting the questionnaires personally.

No harm to the participants. Research should never physically, psychologically or financially injure the people involved, regardless of whether they volunteer for the study. Questions that would embarrass people or endanger their home life, friendship, career, etc. should not be asked or, if asked, be done with the consent of the participants. Sometimes subjects are asked to reveal deviant behaviour, attitudes they feel are unpopular, or demeaning personal characteristics, such as low income, the receipt of welfare payments, etc. You, as the researcher, should agree not to reveal such information and you must keep your undertaking. You must look for the subtlest dangers that information might end up in the wrong hands and guard against them.

The ethical norms of voluntary participation and no harm to participants have become formalised in the concept of informed consent, which we touched on under the sub-heading “codes of consent”. 

To avoid harm to respondents, you as the researcher should have the firmest of scientific grounds for asking questions that may cause injury to others. The objective of informed consent may be rather difficult to achieve and maintain in the case of internet or other electronic research contexts. You might not even have physical contact with the participants in the research. The challenge is exacerbated if the maintenance of anonymity is also needed. With this as background, informed consent can sometimes cause harm, be counterproductive or simply impossible to achieve.

Qualitative research projects may also force participants to face aspects of themselves that they do not normally consider. The project can be a source of continuing, personal agony for the subject. If the study concerns codes of ethical conduct, for example, the subject may begin questioning his or her own morality, and that personal concern may last long after the research has been completed and reported.

Subjects can also be harmed by the analysis and reporting of data. If the respondent reads the research report it might happen that he or she may find themselves characterised in an index, table or description. Having done so, they may find themselves portrayed – though not identified by name – as bigoted, unpatriotic, irregular, etc. 

An obvious and generally applicable concern in the protection of the participants’ interests and well-being is the protection of their identity, especially in survey research. Two techniques – anonymity and confidentiality – can be used in this regard.

Anonymity. A respondent may be considered anonymous when you cannot link a given response with a given respondent. This means an interview survey respondent can never be considered anonymous, since an interviewer collects the information from an identifiable respondent. Assuring anonymity makes it difficult to keep track of who has or has not returned the questionnaires.

Anonymity relates to the issue of privacy and is especially difficult to maintain on the internet. Privacy is regarded as the right to withhold information from public consumption. People often use publicly accessible information spaces, like Facebook, but maintain strong expectations of privacy. Because of this, privacy often refers to the way information is used rather than how easy or difficult it is for people to gain access to such information.

Confidentiality. Confidentiality means that you, as the researcher, should protect your participant’s identity, places of work and stay, and the location of the research. In a confidential survey, the researcher can identify a given person’s responses but essentially promises not to do so publicly.

You can use several techniques to ensure the maintenance of confidentiality. All stakeholders in the research team who might need to maintain confidentiality and who will have access to data and findings should be trained in their ethical responsibilities. All names and addresses should be removed from the questionnaires as soon as they are no longer needed and replaced by special identification numbers, not their national identification numbers. A file should be prepared linking special identification numbers or codes with real identification numbers. This file should be kept in a safe or lockable filing cabinet to which only people who need to know have access.  

It is your responsibility to inform the respondent if a survey is confidential rather than anonymous. Do not use the term anonymous if you mean confidential.  


Axiology addresses the nature of ethical behaviour.

Basic beliefs about what is ethical are embedded in research paradigms.

You need to achieve a balance in your research between ethics, your values, validity and authenticity.

Validity and authenticity are prerequisites for understanding.

Ethics is based on the ontology and epistemology of your research topic.

Codes of consent deal with if the target group for your research participates voluntarily or not.

Participants in research need to be informed about the purpose and nature of the research, how they will be involved and possible risks.

Participants are sometimes asked to share personal information with the researcher.

No one should be forced to participate in research.

You should keep in mind that the response rate to especially questionnaires is often low.

Research should never physically, psychologically or financially injure participants in the research.

Participants must not be harmed by the collection, analysis or reporting of data.

Questions asked to participants must be relevant and necessary for the research.

Anonymity and confidentiality should be maintained if necessary.

Anonymity is difficult to maintain.

Confidentiality means that the participant’s identity, places of work and stay and where the research took place must only be revealed on a need-to-know basis.


Maintaining sound ethical standards is important for the protection of the interests of others who participate in your research.

However, most importantly, you should protect your own interests.

It is in your interest not to cause damage to other people.

And it is in your interest to submit good quality work.

Because gaining higher qualifications is supposed to prepare you for a career and quality life.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.   

Continue Reading

ARTICLE 98: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 2 of 9 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I discuss deconstruction and empirical generalisation in this article.

Is deconstruction just a euphemism for plagiarism?

After all, what we do when we deconstruct a concept, argument, knowledge or philosophy, is to take what somebody else said or wrote and change it to serve our own purpose.

You be the judge if deconstruction is theft or progression.


Deconstruction is not an independent research method as such, but rather a way in which data that you collected for your research is ‘unpacked’ into more useful chunks that belong together and that can be articulated to the purpose of your research. To rearrange the data, you need to identify the right meanings for terminology and concepts.

Constructivism as a paradigm addresses deconstruction. Some academics are of the opinion that deconstruction belongs with post-structuralism. However, it is important to also discuss it separately as part of the process of research methodology seeing that it is necessary, regardless of your paradigmatic preference.

To clarify the difference between constructivism as a paradigm and deconstruction as a research method – constructivism deals with the way in which people perceive their research environment; deconstruction deals with the way in which you, as a researcher, will contextualise and articulate the research data that you collect to convey the ‘message’ of your investigation.

When deconstructing data that you collected, you will group them under headings and sub-headings that will enable you to offer the data in harmony with the purpose of your research, hopefully on a higher level of abstraction or at least in a more creative manner. When studying towards a doctoral degree you will need to ‘create’ new data, which will probably include some deconstruction.

When doing research for a master’s degree and even more so for a doctoral degree, you will need to group your data into a set of categories and transform the groupings into abstract types of philosophies and knowledge which you need to analyse further. Dedicated computer software enables you to code your data so that deconstruction is much easier to accomplish by just grouping pieces of information under specific codes and then analysing and recombining the information into new messages. In this manner you can reconstruct the data that you collected into a logical, accurate and authentic thesis or dissertation.

Deconstructing data is not about disclosing an already established, underlying or privileged truth, thereby committing plagiarism. Rather, it is about synthesising existing data in such a manner that the inherent truth of the data is extracted and offered as an alternative, higher level construction of reality. In the case of doctoral studies such deconstruction should lead to alternative meanings, aligned with the problem statement, problem question or hypothesis of the research.

It stands to reason that the products of a research deconstruction need to be tested by checking with readers, and by exploring with especially your study leader, the extent to which the set of deconstructed components as captured in your thesis or dissertation, is in line with the general usage and meaning of the components, while being articulated to the purpose and requirements of your research and contextualised to the scope and range of your research target group.

As is often the case with master’s and doctoral studies, the deconstructed information may apply more widely than just the target group for the study. The deconstructed data may not be limited to component meanings associated with only your abstracted categories as defined in your thesis or dissertation. How you group your data is up to you and you may test new concepts and their technical or academic definitions. The dominant logic of the process of deconstruction is abduction, although induction plays a part in testing the scope and range of the constructed concepts and their meaning in terms of a variety of related everyday meanings.

For the sake of efficiency, you will start with meaningful components that you already deconstructed previously. By linking subsets of components, according to plausible themes, which should be the problem statement or hypothesis of your research broken down into abstracted categories, you can produce a compact set of concepts and associated academic meanings articulated to the purpose of your research. These ‘sets of concepts’ are the typologies through which you communicate your arguments in a thesis or dissertation.

Typologies not only provide descriptions but also enable a clear exchange of deeper understanding about the meanings of words and concepts with which you work in your thesis or dissertation. Hence, typologies answer ‘what’ questions but not ‘why’ questions. Stated differently, your typologies reflect the ontology of your research, which you will need as the foundation for the epistemology, which would be your discussion, analysis and explanations of your arguments.

The epistemology of your thesis or dissertation proposes and tests discriminating insights about associations between elements of the regulatory and the primary ‘why’ questions. Because a theory or argument should at least hold across the same for your research, the testing should be applied to each unit of a selected sample to ensure validity with a reasonable probability of being accurate. You will not statistically calculate the probability that your sample is large enough to provide a good measure of accuracy when conducting qualitative research. However, you should take great pains in ensuring accuracy of your findings, for example by making your sample as large as possible, consulting as many different sources of information as you can reasonably obtain, asking readers for comment, arranging focus groups, etc.

Empirical generalisation

Empirical generalisation should not be confused with empiricism, which is a paradigm, as you should know by now. Empirical generalisation is studies based on the collection and presentation of evidence to prove a hypothesis or claim in the form of a problem statement or question. The evidence needs to be shown to be accurate, valid and credible. As such it represents the most basic requirements for qualitative research.

Empirical research mostly refers to evidence that can be observed and measured, which implies quantitative research. It can be directed at the ontology of a phenomenon, requiring you to focus on “what”, as well as the epistemology of phenomena, requiring answers to questions like “how many?”; “why?”; “what are the results?”; “what is the effect?”; and “what caused it?”.



  1. Is not an independent research method.
  2. Is used to group and articulate data to the purpose of research.
  3. Fits in well with constructivism.
  4. Can be rendered efficient through coding.
  5. Synthesises existing data to identify the inherent truth in the data.
  6. Needs to be checked by other stakeholders in the research.

On doctoral level, you will:

  1. Create new data from existing data.
  2. Escalate data to a higher level of abstraction.
  3. Develop or identify alternative meanings for words and concepts aligned with the problem statement, research question or hypothesis for your research.
  4. Mostly use induction.

On master’s degree level, you will:

  1. Deconstruct data to make it more creative.
  2. Mostly use deduction.

On doctoral and master’s degree level:

  1. Data need to be grouped into a set of categories and transformed into abstract types of philosophies and knowledge.
  2. You should aim at generalisation of your findings.
  3. You must ensure that your findings are logical, accurate and authentic.
  4. Typologies can be used:
    1. To communicate arguments in your thesis or dissertation.
    1. To describe concepts relevant to your research.
    1. To enable a clear exchange and deeper understanding of the meanings of concepts and words.
    1. To serve as an ontology upon which the epistemology for your research can be developed.

Empirical generalisation means providing solutions to a research problem, answers to a research question or evidence to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

Evidence must be accurate, valid and credible.


So, what do you think?

Is deconstruction just a euphemism for plagiarism?

Let’s put this question on ice for the time being.

The three articles following on this one deal with ethics.

Perhaps we will be in a better position to answer the question after we have taken a closer look at ethics and what it means.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading