ARTICLE 50: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Functionalism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


What do you think will the world look like when the COVID-19 pandemic is over?

How will the world function?

Who will play the key roles in the new system?

Which businesses will survive?

Will new businesses come to the fore?

What will politics look like?

Who will play the leading roles in governments?

Against what criteria will political leaders be elected?

Will the world have learned anything good from the crisis?

Functionalism will be a good paradigm to use if you plan on doing research to find out what the world will look like after the pandemic.

What is Functionalism?

Biological organisms have systems that perform various specialist and survival functions.

Similarly, social institutions ‘function’ in a systematic and coherent way through their constituent elements to ensure their survival and optimal functioning.

Airlines, for example, were indispensable in the pre-pandemic world.

But will they still play such a critical role in the post-pandemic reality?

Role differentiation and social solidarity are key elements in the smooth functioning of any organization.

This means that functionalism interprets each part of society in terms of how it contributes to the stability of the whole society.

Medical and health systems were always critically important to human beings.

Some might argue that they are currently more important than even governments.

What will it look like once the virus has been brought under control?

Society is more than the sum of its parts because the contributions of all members of a society facilitate the performance of the society as a whole.

It is in times of crisis that the roles of the elements of a system are tested the most.

All around the world people are asking if organizations and bodies on all possible levels were able to deal with the current world crisis.

Small, medium, and large businesses, countries, unions, federations, even families are tested to their absolute limits.  

Everyone plays an important part and the absence, or inability of an individual to contribute, detrimentally affects the performance of the community.

According to functionalism, an institution only exists because it serves an important role in the community.

Drive-in theaters all closed their gates when the television and computers, with the internet, took over.

Now it would seem that drive-in theaters might just make a comeback.

An individual or organization that does not play a role in the community will not survive.

How many political and business leaders showed their mettle and will survive the crisis?

This applies to individuals and groupings on all levels in society.

Individual, families, clubs, schools, suburbs, cities, countries, etc. all will only survive if they add value to the community.

Organizations and societies evolve and adjust to changing conditions to ensure the continued, smooth, integrated functioning of all elements of the organization or society.

When new needs evolve or emerge, new organizations will be created to satisfy the new needs.

When any part of the society is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the entire society.

This often leads to social, political, economic, and technological change.

The mental state rather than the internal constitution of the researcher is important.

This implies that motivation plays an important role in what you would be willing to do to achieve success, that is the purpose of the research project.

The country that is most motivated and has the knowledge and skills to find a vaccine might save the world.

Functionalism includes structuralism because both paradigms investigate the functioning of social phenomena.

Like structuralism, functionalism also reacts against post-structuralism because of the disruptive nature of the latter.

Some researchers feel that functionalism focuses too much on the positive functions of societies while neglecting the impact of negative events.

A second point of criticism against functionalism is that the current nature of functionalism is no longer in line with the original spirit and purpose of the paradigm.

Researchers sometimes try to gain conclusions and findings from the ontology of a society when it might not even be relevant to the current phenomena any longer.

Thirdly, findings gained from a functional philosophical stance are not always generalizable because organizations and societies often differ in terms of their structure and purpose.


Functionalism deals with survival and optimal functioning.

Individuals as well as groups must contribute to the functioning of a society to achieve solidarity.

Organizations and societies evolve and adjust to changes in the environment.

A society can be regarded as a system of independent parts with each part fulfilling a separate role.

The mental state of the researcher, especially his or her motivation, is important to achieve accurate, valid and authentic research result.

Functionalism can be associated with structuralism.

Functionalism is opposed to post-structuralism.

Criticism against functionalism is that it is no longer related to its original ontology, that too much focus is placed on positive functioning and that it is too ideological.

Continue Reading

ARTICLE 6: The Layout and Structure of a Table of Contents for a Ph. D. Research Proposal

Written by Dr J.P. Nel


The table of contents is your first opportunity to impress upon the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader the importance and value of your planned research.

Especially experienced professors often claim that they can already see if your study proposal is viable or not by just looking at the table of contents.

Just to avoid confusion – you can have two tables of content in your research proposal. The first would be the table of contents for the proposal itself and the second can be the proposed table of contents for your research report.

In this post, I will share with you hints on what you should write under each heading of your table of content to gain the approval of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.

The table of contents

To begin with, here is an example of a table of contents for a research proposal.

Table of Contents

                                                                                                Page no

1     Introduction                                                                          1

1.1  Introduction to the problem                                                 1

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study                                           2

1.3  The Importance of the Problem                                            2

1.4  Definition of the Problem                                                       3

1.5  Definition of Concepts                                                           3

1.6  The Motivation for the Study                                                 5

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem                                      5

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research                                       6

2     Research Design                                                                 7

2.1  The Research Approach                                                       7

2.2  Research Methodology                                                         8

2.3  Data-collection Strategy                                                         9

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration                                           10

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates                  11

3     References                                                                            12

4     Definitions                                                                             13

5     Quick Reference Manual                                                    14      

You will notice that the research proposal consists of three main sections, namely the introduction, the body and supplementary information.

In the introduction, you should discuss the context and purpose of your planned research.

In the body, you should discuss how you will approach and conduct the research.

Supplementary information should lend authenticity and validity to your proposal.

1     Introduction                                                                         

1.1  Introduction to the problem

See if you can here already impress upon the Postgraduate Committee the importance of the study by discussing your ideas in the context of your planned target group or target area.

You should link your introduction to the environmental factors that you regard as wonting and show how your research can solve problems in that context.

Do not criticize if you do not have facts to substantiate your claims.

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study

Keep in mind that your research proposal, like your eventual research report, should follow the so-called golden thread that runs through your study.

To achieve this, let the environment and context that you discussed in the introduction to the problem develop into your focus for the study.

After all, you should focus on the research problem if you are to solve it.

1.3  The Importance of the Problem

Link the importance of the problem with the previous issue, that is the focus of your study. Discuss why the problem is important and who will benefit if the problem is solved.

Do not claim over-emotional problems. Always reason in an objective and professional manner.

It is especially when you choose a critical paradigm, for example, critical theory, critical race theory, or feminism that researches sometimes can ignore the facts to prove a point about which they feel strongly.

1.4  Definition of the Problem

Please do not now define a problem that has no relevance to what you discussed so far. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis should follow from what you already wrote.

The research approach that you will follow will largely decide if you will define a research problem, research question or hypothesis.

You will probably formulate a hypothesis if you intend to use quantitative research.

You will probably formulate a research problem or research question if you intend to use a qualitative approach.

You can have more than one research problem or question, but don’t list too many. I would suggest not more than three.

1.5  Definition of Concepts

The definition of concepts is a challenge even in the policies and procedures for Ph.D. and master’s degree studies of universities and other research organisations.

That is why you will need to explain what you mean by key terms and concepts.

Once you have explained what you mean by such terms and concepts, you must apply the meanings consistently.

1.6  The Motivation for the Study

The motivation for the study links up with the importance of the study. The importance of the study is mostly also the motivation for the study.

You should not use something like “It is important because my dad wants me to study for a Ph.D.” as a motivation for the study.

Your motivation for the study should reflect the needs of the community, a sponsor, the academic fraternity, even perhaps the entire world.

The potential value of your study should invite acceptance, validity and sincerity.

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem

It would be risky to choose a research topic about which you know nothing.

You will probably need to do some prior studying and you should provide evidence of such prior knowledge and, perhaps, experience.

You can also mention the profiles of the individuals or organisations who will be involved in your research if it is relevant.

Just keep in mind that they cannot do your research for you.

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research

Your research must have theoretical value, practical value and scientific value.

Theoretical value would be the new knowledge that will result from your research.

Practical value would be what can be applied in the industry.

Scientific value can be to the benefit of a field of science.

Theoretical, practical and scientific value can form the basis for future research.

2     Research Design                                                                

2.1  The Research Approach

You should mention if you will do quantitative or qualitative research.

Briefly explain why you chose the approach that you did.

You can also discuss the paradigmatic approach that you will follow here, or you can discuss it under a separate heading, also here.

2.2  Research Methodology

Make sure that the research methodology that you will use is reconcilable with the research approach that you chose.

2.3  Data-collection Strategy

Data collection strategies are often regarded as research methods.

I don’t think this is a serious problem because data collection strategies are, indeed, often also research methods.

Then again, not all data collection strategies go with all research methods or even research approaches.

This, however, is also not a serious problem.

You will learn that what you intended to do cannot be done once you get to the point where you need to do the research and collect the data.

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration

We will discuss ethical issues in much more detail in a future post because ethics in Ph.D. are a mouthful. It includes issues such as being honest, protecting the identity of people involved in your research, not committing plagiarism, trust, deception, legality, professionalism and many more.

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates

The proposed chapter outline can be a provisional table of contents for your research report.

You will also need to provide deadline dates for your research.

We will discuss the chapter-outline and deadline dates separately in future posts.

3     References

You can have a separate heading for literature study in which you list the references that you already consulted and a list of references for your research proposal.

Don’t list references that you did not use. If you list references that you did not use yet in your literature study, you will need to point this out.

4     Definitions and a Quick Reference Manual

You might have separate headings for references and a quick reference manual.

Not all study leaders will allow this, though.

Definitions and the quick reference manual are mostly there to help you maintain consistency in your writing.

Summary and close

In summary:

  1. If your research proposal does not show that your research topic is important and that you can do the research, the Postgraduate Committee will probably not approve your application.
  2. Keep your research proposal sufficiently simple for you to understand everything that you write.
  3. Make sure that you know what the university will require you to cover in your research proposal.
Continue Reading

ARTICLE 5: How to Structure a Title Page for a Master’s Degree or a Ph. D. Research Report

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


In this post, I will share with you several hints on the title page for a Ph. D. or masters degree research report.  

Just before we discuss the format of the title page – It is not possible to use terminology with which all universities will agree.

Some call the report submitted for a Ph. D. a dissertation, others call it a thesis. It is also called a doctorate.

The same applies to a research report for a master’s degree.

I will refer to the research report as a thesis on the master’s degree level and a dissertation on Ph. D. level.

I will use “research report” when referring to both the thesis and the dissertation.

Some universities call the person who applies for doctoral or masters studies a student or prospective student, others call him or her a candidate. In a relativist spirit, I will just use what feels right.

The study leader is sometimes also called the promoter or the supervisor. In a more structuralist spirit, I will stick to ‘study leader’.

A title page for your research report

I deliberately decided to discuss the title page for a research report and not just the title, because the title page includes the title.

There are several other issues of the title page that I would also like to bring to your attention.

The layout and wording of the title page for a research report might differ slightly from the title page for the research proposal. This is also something about which universities do not always agree, although the differences in the layout are mostly subtle.

As I said in my previous post, members of the Postgraduate Committee might suggest a different title from the one that you suggest.

If you chose a study leader before applying for post-graduate studies, she or he will probably help you with the formulation of the title.

The title of your research proposal, once refined, can be the same as the one that you will use for your final research report.

Here is an example of a title page for a research proposal.

An Epistemological Explanation of the Migration of the Ontology of Functionalism that can be Attributed to the Erosion of the Epistemological Development of Society from a Foucauldian Perspective

Please note that the title given here is in many ways flawed.

I deliberately did this so that we can use it as an example of how you should refine the title.

Let us analyse and refine the title.

To begin with, the title is too long. We will need to shorten it.

There are too many pompous words in the title.

“Epistemological explanation” is a tautology. Epistemology ís the explanation of something. The student should omit either “epistemological” or “explanation” or rephase the sentence entirely.

Even “migration” can probably be replaced by something like “change”.

Using “epistemology” twice in the title makes it sound awkward. The student should lose the second “epistemology”.

Ontology will probably be the right word to use if it is the student’s purpose to do research on the changed meaning of Functionalism as a paradigm over time. She or he could have explained this in the body of the proposal or could have used a simpler word, for example, the “original meaning”.

Michel Foucault’s philosophy is said to be post-structuralist in nature, or perhaps even post-modernist. He, however, does not agree. It would be rather risky to use his philosophy as the foundation for your research title if you are not sure that his philosophy is even relevant to your study.

Lastly, it would be difficult to come to conclusions and to suggest recommendations that would apply to the entire world. Different countries and even continents differ in terms of culture, geography, politics, levels of development, etc. It would, furthermore, be impossible to conduct research globally because of time, financial and physical constraints.

Here is a suggested title that would eliminate the flaws in the original one:

An analysis of the changes in the value system and structure of the Namibian society since independence.

The meaning of the original title has changed in the sense that it now refers to a much narrower context.

Some universities might require you to use some more technical or scientific terms, perhaps just to lend some status to the title of your research.

In my opinion, however, the status of your research should come from the quality of your research and not from window-dressing.

Close and summary

In summary, check the requirements for a title page of the university where you study or plan to study.

Ask your study leader for examples of good title pages and copy their layout.

Keep the title of your research report short and simple, but also listen to the suggestions of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.

Continue Reading