ARTICLE 48: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Ethnomethodology

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Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I guess the times in which are living is everything but funny.

Even so, I just watched a real-life incident on television that I found hilarious.

It is snowing rather hard in and around this city.

Next to a road in town a good number of homeless people erected tents in which they slept the previous night.

It was still dark when the cops arrived.

“I give you ten minutes to dismantle your tents before I start dismantling them!’, a cop shouted.

Absolute silence.

After a while, the policeman shouted again: “If you don’t dismantle your tents now, I am going to start writing out fines!”

A woman’s voice shouted from one of the tents: “I thought you said you were going to dismantle the tents for us!”

This is a good example of a situation that can be researched by making use of ethnomethodology.

Hello, my name is Hannes Nel and I discuss ethnomethodology in this post.

What is Ethnomethodology?

Ethnomethodology deals with the world of everyday life.

According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre on the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction.

Issues related to social order are investigated by combining experiencing phenomena with sense experience.

Those of you who follow my posts and saw the previous one, will now already notice that ethnomethodology is associated with empiricism –

both paradigms believe that knowledge is gained through sense experiences.

Ethnomethodology studies the process by which people subconsciously formulate and apply certain ‘taken-for-granted’ rules about behavior which they interpret in an interactive situation to make it meaningful.

Ethnomethodology does not focus on individuals.

Its field of study is the dynamics of social life.

The individual is seen and researched as part of a social unit.

For example, a community or a group of people who in some way form a coherent unit.

Internal processes, emotions, values, beliefs and other psychological phenomena typical of the thought processes of an individual do not form part of ethnomethodology.

Because ethnomethodologists are mainly interested in social settings, data collected through interviewing is less valid than data collected through observation in the workplace.

And old books and newspapers often provide less valid data than observation of a recent event.

Data collected by means of interviewing is regarded as artificial, focusing on research needs instead of the problem being investigated.

Interviewing is data collection where you have control over those being interviewed, and that is not what ethnomethodologists want.

The observation of the behaviour of people under natural circumstances is considered as the best source of data.

For example, when doing routine work.

Observation of everyday life is said to improve the validity of the data that is collected.

Ethnomethodology does not formulate rules, laws or descriptions of practices of social groups that generally apply.

Knowledge is seen as relevant to a specific context and time.

Except for empiricism, ethnomethodology can also be associated with constructivism, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology.

All these paradigms study social phenomena in one way or another.

Ethnomethodology does not fit in well with transformative research, which I discussed in a previous post as a research method.

Transformative research uses intangibles such as intuition, serendipity and unpredictable events whereas ethnomethodology deals with everyday life and real observations.

Some academics are of the opinion that the investigation of everyday life is too narrow and limited to provide valid and generally applicable knowledge about social interaction and hardly any theories about the wider interaction between human beings.


Ethnomethodology is used in the investigation of everyday life.

Social issues are investigated by analyzing sense experiences.

Groups are researched rather than individuals.

Thought processes are not taken into consideration.

Observation is used to collect data rather than interviewing or any other sources that are not current.

Knowledge gained through ethnomethodology applies to a specific context and time.

Ethnomethodology is mostly associated with interpretive paradigms.

It is also associated with empiricism, which leans more towards the technicist paradigms.

Ethnomethodology does not fit in well with transformative research.

Some academics regard research making use of ethnomethodology as too narrow and limited to provide validity and general applicability.

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ARTICLE 41: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Transformative Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Change starts when someone sees the next step.

This is often true, and it is when the need for change becomes critically important that somebody will be motivated enough to apply their minds to finding a solution.

There are many examples of people who discovered wonderful solutions for problems when it looked like everything was lost.

And yes, it is during times of crisis that people often perform at their best.

War, financial depression, a pandemic seem to stimulate the innovative skills of people.

When caught with their back against the wall, people discover the most remarkable solutions.

The jet engine, electronics, vaccines are examples of such inventions.

Transformative research deals primarily with research on and for change.

I discuss transformative research in this article.

We are living in a dynamic environment where environmental, economic, technological, political, legislative, health and social change are the order of the day.

Transformative research focuses on the discovery and development of new ideas, procedures, products, etc.

Change can take place in any field of study, operations, or industry.

Transformative research challenges our current understanding and ways of doing things.

It provides new ways in which to do things, solve problems, even how we perceive life and the world around us.

Transformative research is often not planned.

Examples of things that were discovered by accident include penicillin, post-it notes, saccharine and the pacemaker.

It depends on a receptive and open mind.

It takes advantage of unforeseen events leading to novel hypotheses that might sometimes seem implausible.

It begins with learning, development of new ideas, visualization of problems and exploration of problem-solving techniques.

Communication and debate often prove beneficial in allowing the development of transformative ideas.

Accepted dogma is not allowed to stand in the way of the search for the truth in terms of a problem statement or hypothesis.

Researchers making use of a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods often favour a transformative research approach.

A good measure of logic, wisdom and creativity is necessary for transformative research.

Cognitive errors can lead to serious, perhaps even tragically destructive implementation.

And experimenting with faulty assumptions can lead to serious damage.

Irresponsible and shoddy research can destroy industries, even countries and populations.

Tainted research with short-term political or economic gain in mind can lead to serious long-term damage.

Research on global warming and the resulting climate change is an example of this.

You can probably think of even more radical examples.

Despite a rather liberal approach, you should keep in mind that researchers remain accountable for their findings and the consequences of their work.

You should, therefore, work in an academic atmosphere and make use of reputable data sources and research methods.

You research findings must be logical, accurate, authentic and valid.

The university, notably your study leader, will require of you to motivate your arguments and prove or at least explain the validity of your findings.

You will probably experience a feeling of elation and personal revelation when you discover something new or come to appreciate newly found information.

Discovering new knowledge or ideas may depend on optimism and hope.

And the development of a concept usually relies on persistence and mental discipline.

It is often claimed that revelations and discoveries happen by chance.

However, it is possible that you just had a better understanding of a system, keener observation or a better ability to think analytically than others.

New knowledge will change you and the environment in which you do your research.

Doctoral studies should lead to such intellectual evolvement and contribute new knowledge that can be used in a field of study.

Master’s degree studies can create an awareness of the need for change.

Transformative discoveries leading to paradigm shifts can effect change at many levels and fields of study.

When this happens, there will often be sociological stages of resistance to the change.

First the change is denied or ridiculed.

Then some people might get angry and resist the change, and

Finally, they will accept the change.

Some people might even claim that they knew all along that the change would happen.

Or that it was their idea.

Transformative research does not always lead to change.

You can expect to stumble upon some inaccuracies, especially in the beginning.

Creativity and an open mind invite trial and error, leading to a gradual progression towards new concepts and ideas.

Change mostly requires persistence and hard work.

Although sudden and unexpected change can happen.

However, observations and findings are often only approximations.

But it is the next step that is needed to trigger change.

Ontologically transformative research evolved from a paradigm to a full-fledged research method.

Paradigms that can be used in association with transformative research include functionalism, liberalism, pragmatism and radicalism.

Because of its focus on everyday life, ethnomethodology opposes transformative research.

Modernism is too bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured to be used with transformative research.


Transformative research deals with the search for change.

New ideas, procedures or products are often sought.

Change can be discovered by chance.

It can also be triggered through an open mind, creativity and analytical thinking.

Communication and debate facilitate transformation.

You need to be careful of making cognitive mistakes, because it can sometimes lead to serious damage.

Keep in mind that you are accountable for the outcomes and consequences of your research.

People sometimes resist change.

It can start with denial, followed by anger and resistance, and finally acceptance.

Transformative research does not always deliver creative solutions.

Change can happen suddenly, but it is mostly the result of a gradual process of transformation.

Paradigms that focus on change and survival fit in well with transformative research.

Paradigms that focus strongly on structure, bureaucracy, prescriptions and procedures do not fit in well with transformative research. 

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ARTICLE 24: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Action Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Studying for a Ph. D. or a master’s degree can be expensive.

Also, some universities are better positioned than others to offer research in certain fields of science.

You might need a laboratory that only one or a few universities have.

Or perhaps you might need a special computer or other scientific tools and equipment that not all universities have.

In such an instance you will be doing the right thing to do whatever it takes to be accepted for Ph. D. or master’s degree studies by the university of your choice.

However, whatever the topic of your research, the most important deciding factor, if your dissertation or thesis will be a quality product, is you – the student.

Some know action research by other names, for example, action learning, action science, collaborative inquiry, community-based study, contextual action research, co-operative inquiry, emancipatory research, participatory research, etc.

Action research is “learning by doing”.

This means that a group of people or just one researcher will identify an immediate problem, do something to resolve it, evaluate their efforts and try again if unsuccessful.

Action research aims to solve the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation.

It, simultaneously, adds value to social science, especially on the doctoral level.

The community that is the target for action research often also actively participate in the research.

This means that the people affected by a social problem work with the researcher to study a problem.

They help to collect data, make suggestions and recommendations and use the results of the research to influence social change.

This would be an emic approach to research.

Just to clarify – In terms of the relationship between the researcher and his or her target for research, we can follow either an emic or an etic approach.  

An emic approach to research is where the researcher and the target for the research cooperate in finding a solution to a problem.

An etic approach to research would be where the researcher does research as an observer divorced from the target group.

Action research is a developmental research process.

This means that people not only solve problems by falling back on their current knowledge but also learn and develop new knowledge that they can apply in the future to solve the same or similar problems.

The solutions to problems in one community can often also be used to solve the same or similar problems in other communities.

Action research is typically cyclical in terms of data collection and analysis and starts with identifying a problem, collecting data, analyzing the data, taking action to resolve the problem and evaluating the outcome of the research.

Typically, the participants in the research “own” the problem and they become partners in carrying out the research.

A process of reflective critique is followed, meaning that members of the target group together with the researcher would consider, discuss and decide on a solution to the problem being researched.

It also implies dialectical critique, meaning that the research problem is solved through open critique.

As a researcher, you will probably be concerned that people might not accept your interpretations, ideas and judgements.

This is normal. People often resist change because it creates uncertainty and sometimes even fear.

Sometimes fear has little to do with the potential changes in the immediate environment, but rather with the research process itself.

There is also the risk that change might threaten people’s status and even their relevance to the community.

You will need to address these fears if you are to gain and keep the support of the community with your research.

Such fear is not all bad, though. It is what drives you to do professional research.

The nature of action research raises several possible ethical dilemmas.

Your bias towards the data being collected might damage the quality of your research as well as your relationship with the target group for your research.

Other factors, such as the needs and fears of the target group might contaminate the authenticity and validity of the data that you and the members of the target group collect.

The target group might have a different agenda than you for participating in the research.

Your own diligence and drive, or rather lack of diligence and drive, can hamper the level of your involvement in the research.

You might become too emotionally involved with the target group for the research and the problem being investigated.

The effect on the participants when you withdraw from the community on completion of the research might leave them in a position where they cannot manage the situation on their own.

You will need to consider this and ensure that the community is not damaged by your research.

Examples of paradigms that fit in well with action research are:




The process of action research can be summarized as in the slide given here.

Action research considers theory to inform practice, that is the real situation in a particular context and at a particular point in time.

Theory together with reality is analyzed to transform the status quo, which is to solve a social problem.

Solving a social problem is achieved by following an emic approach and reflective and dialectical critique.

The researcher should consider the possible risk that research can do more harm than good if there is not mutual respect and trust between him or her and the community whose problem is being addressed.

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