ARTICLE 53: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Interpretivism

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Do you think the personal opinions and intuitive beliefs of people can deliver valid and accurate research findings and new knowledge?

Interpretivists do.

That triggers a new question in my mind.

When is data truly valid and accurate?

Is it when it can be proven by means of statistical analysis and laboratory tests?

Or perhaps it is valid and accurate when the majority regards it so.

I discuss the way in which interpretivists perceive the truth in this post.


Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective philosophy than hermeneutics.

We can also see interpretivism as a group of paradigms, including hermeneutics and some other paradigms that I will mention nearer to the end of this post.

All interpretivist paradigms claim that there is a clear and significant difference between the natural and social sciences, with the technicist group of paradigms favouring natural research, while interpretivist paradigms favour social research.

As you know by now if you followed my posts, natural science mostly uses quantitative research while social sciences prefer qualitative research methods.

According to interpretivism, precise, systematic answers to complex human problems do not exist.

Every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analysis of the uniquely defined contexts in which they are embedded.

Social laws, if they exist, should be uncovered through qualitative analysis and interpretation.

Because of the specific social, political, economic and cultural experiences underpinning each study, the findings cannot be generalized.

They do, however, provide greater clarity on how people make meaning of phenomena in a specific context.

Therefore, the interpretivist philosophy facilitates greater understanding of the human condition.

Interpretivists are of the opinion that human life can only be understood from within because norms and values cannot be divorced from the individual.

Human activities cannot be observed as some external reality.

Social reality is viewed and interpreted by individuals according to the ideological positions that they hold.

Therefore, knowledge is personally experienced rather than acquired or imposed from outside.

Reality is multi-layered and complex.

A single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations.

Interpretivism, therefore, focuses on people’s subjective experiences.

On how people “construct” the social world by sharing meanings and how they interact with or relate to each other.

Meaning is, thus, constructed and developed through interaction between people.

In interpretivism, social life is regarded as a distinctively human product.

Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed in terms of language, consciousness and shared meanings.

The underlying assumption is that by placing people in their social contexts, there is a greater opportunity to understand the perceptions they have of their own activities.

The uniqueness of a particular situation is important to understand.

It generally attempts to understand phenomena through the meanings that people assign to them.

Human behaviour is believed to be affected by knowledge of the social world.

As our knowledge of the social world and the realities being constructed increase, it enriches our theoretical and conceptual framework.

There is, thus, a two-way relationship between theory and research.

Social theory informs our understanding of issues which, in turn, assists us in making research decisions and making sense of the world.

The experience of doing research and its findings also influence our theorizing.

Inevitably, as theory will be abstract, it gives a partial account of the multifaceted social world.

Such a theory allows researchers to link the abstract with the concrete and the theoretical with the empirical.

For interpretivists, the social world depends on human knowledge.

They believe that our own understanding of phenomena constantly influences us in terms of the types of questions we ask and in the way we conduct research.

Our knowledge and understanding are always limited to the things to which we have been exposed.

That is, our own unique experiences and the meanings we have shared with others.

As we proceed through the research process, our humanness and knowledge inform us and often also direct us.

Often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation.

Therefore, to conceive the world as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our research endeavours.

Interpretivism pays attention to and values what people say, do and feel and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched.

Interpretivism pays special attention to the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences.

Patterns, trends and themes should, therefore, emerge from the research process.

Your role should be to understand real-life situations from the point of view of the

target group for your research.  

The human mind is regarded as a purposive source of meaning.

Interpretive investigation searches for meaning in the activities of human beings.

There is a radical element in interpretivism in the sense that it investigates real-life events and phenomena.

A concept in qualitative research that shares some perspectives with the interpretivist paradigm, is the notion of praxis.

Some regard praxis as a separate paradigm while others regard it as a research method.

Praxis means acting upon the conditions that you face to change them.

It deals with the disciplines and activities predominant in the ethical and political lives of people.

By exploring the richness, depth and complexity of phenomena we can begin to develop a sense of understanding of the meanings given by people to such phenomena and their social context.

Through uncovering how meanings are constructed, we can gain insight into the meanings imparted and thereby improve our understanding of the whole.

You might have noticed that interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics.

Both paradigms study the theory and practice of interpretation.

In hermeneutics, the text is the expression of the thoughts of its author.

Interpreters attempt to put themselves within the perception or thinking pattern of the author to reconstruct the intended meaning of the text.

Interpretivism relates to the constructivist epistemology.

Constructivism holds that individuals, in their reasoning, do not have access to the real world.

This suggests that their knowledge of the perceived world is meaningful in its own terms and can be understood through careful use of interpretivist procedures.

The social context, conventions, norms and standards of the individual or community being researched are crucial elements in assessing and understanding human behaviour.

This applies to all interpretivist paradigms, namely hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, constructivism, relativism and, of course, interpretivism.

It also applies to radicalism although radicalism belongs to the critical group of paradigms.

All the interpretivist paradigms pay attention to human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives.

Even though both interpretivism and positivism support social science, interpretivism opposes positivism because of its stronger leaning towards physical science and quantitative methodology.

Some researchers criticize interpretivism for its acceptance of such a large variety of rather subjective and intuitive sources of knowledge and meaning.

Interpretivism is said to lack scientific consistency because conclusions and findings are often based on assumptions.

Summary of Interpretivism


  • Prefers qualitative research methods.
  • Uses analyses and interpretation of social events and phenomena.
  • Considers ethics and politics.
  • Explores the richness, depth and complexity of real-life events and phenomena.
  • Identifies the uniqueness of social events and phenomena.
  • Gains new knowledge by analysing intuition, values, beliefs, assumptions, and conversations.
  • Can change the status quo.
  • Enriches our theoretical and conceptual frame of reference.
  • Improves our understanding of social events and phenomena.
  • Is associated with all the interpretivist paradigms and with radicalism.
  • Opposes the technicist paradigms.
  • Is criticised for accepting subjective and intuitive sources of data. AND
  • For lack of scientific consistency.

Social reality:

  • Is interpreted according to the researcher’s ideological position.
  • Can have multiple interpretations.
  • Will differ in terms of context and time.
  • Cannot be interpreted precisely and systematically.
  • Is interpreted through interaction between people.
  • Is a distinctively human product.
  • Is affected by knowledge of the social world.
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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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ARTICLE 30: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Grounded Theory

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Hello, I am Hannes Nel and I will discuss Grounded Theory in this post.

What is grounded theory?

Grounded theory is a type of inductive thematic analysis (ITA).

It was developed by Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s.

Glaser and Strauss supported symbolic interactionism as a philosophical perspective.

How is grounded theory used?

Grounded theory uses inductive reasoning to generate the theoretical understandings, of research by grounding the theory in the data that the researcher collected.

It is a highly systematic method for mostly studying social experiences, interactions and structures.

Grounded theory discovers, develops and provisionally verifies phenomena.

This means that the data originate in the framework for the study and should deliver logical and relevant conclusions.

Integrating grounded theory with other research and data collection methods

It is almost always necessary to use grounded theory in conjunction with one or more other research methods.

Any data collection method may be used in conjunction with grounded theory methods, bearing in mind that data collection should build on a naturalistic, interpretive philosophy.

Grounded theory methods specify analytical strategies, not data collection methods.

Grounded theory:

  1. Is a qualitative research approach.
  2. Requires an open mind, objectivity and ethical and responsible analysis of data.
  3. Is especially popular amongst those who study humanistic sciences.
  4. Can also be used for the study of non-human phenomena.

The purpose of grounded theory

The primary purpose of grounded theory is to generate theory from observations of real life.

Grounded theory aims at the discovery of regularities, the identification of categories or elements and the establishment of their connections.

Theoretical models and new theoretical concepts and arguments should be created and continuously revised as you collect and analyse data.

Grounded theory holds as a basic view that qualitative researchers do not go around testing an existing body of knowledge, but rather that they build new theory by allowing their data collection to steer their thoughts and conclusions into the unknown.

The grounded theory process

Grounded theory research should be done in a specific and well-defined context.

The research should be grounded in social reality and not be just an exercise in theorizing.

It uses a typical research process of data collection, data analysis, coming to conclusions, and formulating findings.

Findings should be transformable into formal theoretical models.

The process of collecting data is a prerequisite for analysis, while theory development should result from the analysis.

Researchers sometimes think that grounded theory is about the research process, especially data collection and analyses.

Although data collection and analysis are important research activities, the essence of grounded theory does not lie in the research process but rather in the attitude of the researcher towards the data and the purpose of the research.

It requires that each piece of the data is systematically compared with other data on the same or related issue or topic.

You should not ignore small units of text.

It just might have the potential to improve current theory and practice.

At the same time, you should not waste time with data that is clearly of no significance, because analysis is a time-consuming activity.

You can compare existing data with other existing data or with new data.

Grounded theory is based on the subjective experiences of humans.

You may also use your own experiences to understand the experiences of others.

Guard against just adopting the ideas, perceptions or models of others.

If you do this, you run the risk of just packaging old, existing knowledge differently.

Verification is a natural element of any scientific research because it strengthens the authenticity and validity of the findings and provides you with a measure of security.

Data collected should not be over-verified, because grounded theory epistemology leans strongly towards the generation of new theory rather than the analysis of existing theory.

Deconstruction can be used to lend a good measure of authenticity to the data.

Do not neglect to acknowledge the work of other researchers that you consulted and quoted.

Computer software

You can use dedicated computer programmes to arrange, compare and analyse the data that you collected.

ATLAS.Ti is an example of software that you can use.

There are a good number of others. I am just mentioning ATLAS.Ti because it is the one that I used and am familiar with.

You can easily find suitable software by just Googling for them.

Most dedicated computer programmes make use of coding.

Coding can be described as a sophisticated form of notecards like the ones that we used many decades ago.

You will create codes for salient data with most of the available relevant software.

You can also write explanatory notes in the form of memorandums.

The programme groups related codes and memorandums together.

This enables you to get a clear and holistic picture of concepts and arguments so that you can more easily come to conclusions and findings.

Your findings should be or lead to new knowledge, theories and models.

From the codes and memorandums, new theory and new theoretical models can be discovered through inductive reasoning.

You will, of course, not be required to develop new knowledge or theories on master’s degree level, but you will need to show that you understand and can apply existing knowledge and theories.

Inductive reasoning entails systematic data collection and analysis which leads to discovery, development and verification.

Most importantly, dedicated programmes substantially simplify the process of writing your research report.

Grounded theory methodology needs not to be limited to computer analysis only.

You can, for example, still use the old notecard system or you can develop your own system on a computer.

The value of grounded theory

Grounded theory enables you:

  1. To step back and critically analyse situations.
  2. To recognise the tendency towards bias.
  3. To think abstractly.
  4. To be flexible and open to helpful criticism.
  5. To be sensitive to the words and actions of respondents.
  6. To adopt a sense of absorption and devotion to the work process.

Utilizing grounded theory for research should enable you to see beyond the ordinary and to arrive at new understandings of social life.

The most important value of grounded theory is that it enables you to generate theory and to ground that theory in data.

Paradigms that can be used with grounded theory

Before we look at paradigms that can be used with grounded theory – don’t be too concerned if at this stage you do not know the paradigms.

I will discuss 29 such paradigms in later posts.

I suggest that you then return to my earlier posts on research methods to get the bigger picture.

Any paradigmatic approach can be used with grounded theory.

Mostly, however, grounded theory displays elements of post-modernism as well as symbolic interactionism.

Post-modernism lends itself to the achievement of formal theory while symbolic interactionism implies that the study is grounded in a specific empirical world.

As already mentioned, grounded theory requires elements of interpretivism as well.

There are two versions of grounded theory, namely objectivist and constructivist grounded theory.

Objectivist grounded theory is rooted in a positivist paradigmatic approach.

The objectivist viewpoint claims that it is possible to discover objective truth.

The data already exists, and you will need to discover theory from them.

Constructivist grounded theory has its roots in an interpretivist paradigmatic approach.

The constructivist viewpoint rejects the objectivist viewpoint, contending that there is no objective truth waiting to be discovered.

Constructivist grounded theory assumes that truth exists only through interaction with the realities of the world.

Meaning is, therefore, constructed rather than discovered.


The following are the elements of grounded theory:

  1. The purpose of grounded theory is to build new theory.
  2. Current theory or observation can serve as the basis for new theory.
  3. Grounded theory deals with how data and phenomena are interpreted and used rather than how they are collected.
  4. You should systematically review units of data as they become available.
  5. Any research method should utilize the philosophy behind grounded theory, meaning that any researcher should be open-minded and objective.
  6. Building new theory requires analytical induction, meaning that new theory emerges from collected data inductively through a series of steps.
  7. Grounded theory requires the development of five interrelated properties.
    • The theory must closely fit the relevant field of study in which the new theory will be used.
    • The new theory must be readily understandable to laymen concerned with the field of study.
    • The new theory must be relevant to a multitude of diverse daily situations within the focus area of the field of study.
    • New knowledge should be generalizable as widely as possible.
    • The new knowledge must allow those who use it to have enough trust in the validity and accuracy of the new knowledge, theories and models.
  8. Dedicated computer programmes enable you to discover regularities in data, to identify categories or elements and to establish their connections.
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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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