ARTICLE 73: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Contextualising your Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Let’s say you plan on conducting research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the social interaction between people.

Do you think your findings will be the same if you were to do the research in a large city compared to a jungle village in central Africa?

Do you think your findings will be the same for any one population for different seasons?

Do you think your findings will be the same ten years from now as they are now?

I will discuss contextualising your research in this article.

Research is always done in a context.

The context can be expressed as the scope or limits of the research. Teaching and learning, for example, are managed and administered on local, regional and national level so that we can also do research on one or more of these levels.

Context can also be a geographical area, for example a suburb, a city, a country or perhaps even the whole world. Choosing a context for your research can be compared to weightlifting. If you put too little weight on the bar, your performance will be insignificant. If you try to lift too much you might fail and can even injure yourself.

Therefore, keep in mind that, the wider the context for your research, the more likely will your research topic not be viable.

Natural scientists often claim that their findings are valid regardless of time or context. This would mean that the knowledge, principles, tenets, laws, etc. that they develop are not dependent on context. It does not mean that context does not exist but rather that their findings apply to all, or at least most, contexts.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of a context that has an impact on almost all fields of study. Phenomena and events are in many ways different in terms of social, economic, financial, legislative, political, environmental and many other conditions than when the virus was not present.   

Depending on the level of your research, you can narrow down the limits even further by deciding on and describing the appropriate structures, stakeholders and social groups involved in the topic being researched as well as related services that will be included in the research. You can go even further by deciding if the research will be done on a micro (going into much detail) or macro (addressing only some broader issues) level.

Once you have decided on the scope and limits of your research, it will be easier to also decide who and what you will include in your data collection efforts. Unless you already know your participants well, for example if they all come from the organisation in which you work, you will need to collect and record relevant information from appropriate groups. The target group for your research will probably be stakeholders in the project.

This information must be properly structured and updated to ensure that you do not get some unpleasant surprises when you start collecting data on your research topic. It can, for example, happen that you have in mind interviewing miners at a particular mine only to find that the mine ceased operating since you last had contact with the people working there.

You also need to contextualise your research in terms of time. It serves no purpose conducting research on historical events and trends if it is something for which there is no further need. Your conclusions might not apply to the current situation if the situation or people’s needs changed. You need to base your research on current developments and how it impacts on the members of the target group, unless your research is historical.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also a good example of a situation that exists during a particular period. The world did not have the pandemic before 2020 and everybody is hoping that it will disappear at some stage. Research can also now already be done about what to expect after the current pandemic.

Research always needs to be followed up. This means that your research findings need to be communicated to other stakeholders if it is to be of any value to the community. Remember that the community in which the research is done forms an integral and important part of the context of your research, so that you need to explain your research findings to the members of the target group or whoever else were participants in your research.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economies of different countries or different business sectors might not be the same, in the event of which findings will be inconsistent in terms of the context. If your findings apply to the entire world, they will be consistent in terms of the context. If the pandemic dissipates, or is replaced by an even more severe virus, findings that apply now might not apply any longer, say three months from now. Your findings will then be inconsistent over time. If the virus stays with us and becomes the so-called “new reality” then your findings will be consistent over time.


Research always applies to a specific context.

The impact of context is often more dynamic and inconsistent on qualitative research than on quantitative research.

The more narrowly the limits for your research are defined, the less generalisable will your findings probably be and the other way around.

The scope for your research represents the context in terms of the purpose of your research.

The limits of your research refer to the boundaries, or target for your research.

The data that you collect must be valid.

You need to specify the period on which you will conduct research.

You must point out in your thesis or dissertation if your findings are timeless or valid for only a certain period.

Your research findings will be worthless if you do not share your findings with stakeholders.

Research findings can be consistent or inconsistent in terms of context and time.

Continue Reading

ARTICLE 72: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Here is a hint that will save you lots of time, energy and money on the research that you will do towards your master’s degree or Ph. D.

In fact, your thesis or dissertation will probably not be accepted by the university if you do what I am advising you not to do.

The hint is simply this – avoid doing unnecessary work as far as you possibly can.

To achieve this, you must steer clear of three bad practices:

Do not pad.

Do not confuse volume with quality.

And do not confuse motion with action.

I introduce my series of videos on data collection for research purposes in this article.

Both qualitative and quantitative research covers a wide spectrum but share one important feature – the collection and organisation of research data to enable analysis. Most importantly, though, the data that you collect must satisfy the purpose of your research. Students sometimes complete a research report without producing any significant findings. 

When collecting and analysing data you need to interpret the data creatively to develop insights that will lead to new knowledge or at least add value to existing knowledge. In the case of especially action research your work should also produce new ways of doing things. To achieve this, you need to have the ability to analyse data, be sensitive to theoretical arguments and have sufficient writing abilities to write a professional report. All of this, however, would be worthless and perhaps even damaging to the current knowledge if you collect inaccurate, superficial, irrelevant or simply poor-quality data.

In research, questions of relevance, specificity and scope with which you will be able to cope, bearing the available time, cost and philosophical level in mind, are central to the process of subject analysis, offering strategies for effective information organisation and retrieval. The principles of data collection and organising are important for enhancing the thoroughness of research and any researcher should be aware of them.

In organising data for analysis, the ideal is to turn the raw data into a logical narrative, where emergent themes will be distinct and clearly identified, and will fit into an overall structure that makes sense, given the research questions. However, few research projects fit this ideal, and categories more commonly resemble a bag of puzzle pieces, with one or two pieces missing and a few others belonging to a different puzzle. Here, themes are identified, like the colours and shapes of the puzzles, but need to be picked and sorted carefully from the pile during the analysis process.

In a worst-case scenario, data are splattered all over like the colours when some of the puzzle pieces have been cut in two or three. Potential themes may be identifiable, but overall, the data gives little direction for rigorous analysis.

All research involves the collection and analysis of data, whether through reading, observation, measurement, questions, or a combination of these or other procedures. The data collected during and for research may, however, vary considerably in their characteristics. For example:

  1. Data may be numerical, or may consist of words, or may be a combination of the two.
  2. Data may be neither numbers nor words, but consist of, for example, pictures and artefacts.
  3. Data may be ‘original’, in the sense that you have collected information never before collected; or may be ‘secondary’, already put together by somebody else, but reused, probably in a different way, by you.
  4. Data may consist of responses to a questionnaire or interview transcriptions, notes or other records of observations or experiments, documents and material, or all of these things.

Collecting and using qualitative data are both important parts of qualitative research. Data collection methods tie up closely with the research approach that you choose, i.e. quantitative or qualitative.


All academic research requires the collection and analysis of data.

On doctoral level you will need to interpret the data that you collect in such a manner that it will lead to new knowledge or at least add to existing knowledge.

On master’s degree level you will need to show that you understand and can apply the data that you collected.

For the sake of efficient and effective research, the data that you collect must be relevant, specific and articulated to the scope for your research.

The ideal is to turn the raw data that you collected into a logical narrative.

You will probably collect many different types of data making use of different data collection methods.

Collecting and using data are equally important for the success of your research project.

Continue Reading

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 33: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Sampling Part 1 of 6

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel


I will discuss sampling in this and the five postings following on this one.

How large should your sample be if you were to do research on factors that make some people more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus than others?

Would you even use a sample, or would that be irresponsible for a topic that threatens human life as we know it?

Should one entrust an individual with such a critically important issue, or would it be something that should be done by a large team of researchers in as many countries as possible?

The three questions that I just asked should already show that sampling is not suitable for all research topics.

It is valuable for academic purposes and can be used if the main purpose is to broaden our knowledge.

As we all know, sampling is used to study the social and medical impact of the COVID-19 virus.

We also know that the findings of such research are sometimes questioned.

And we know that findings are sometimes proven wrong.

Sampling is largely about data collection.

However, it also includes the analysis of data.

That is why I am discussing it as a research method rather than a data collection method.

Obviously, sampling cannot be a stand-alone research method.

It must always be linked to other research methods.

The type and size of sample that you choose for your research can determine if your research will succeed or not.

You should choose the size and type of sample after you have chosen the target group for your research.

In quantitative research, you might need to calculate the size of the sample based on what percentage probability of accuracy you will need.

Dedicated computer programmes can often work out the sample size for you.

In qualitative research factors like expense, time available and where your target group is will determine the size of your sample.

Where the target group is, impacts on distance and accessibility, which will determine what size sample you will be able to reach and deal with.

The data collection method or methods that you will use will also have an impact on the size of your sample.

Although a sample should be large enough to provide valid and generally applicable information for a community, it should be small enough for you to manage.

Sampling in qualitative studies focuses on the quality of the information collected and not on the number of participants.

A sample of ten to twelve people in a community of 100 people is often acceptable.

Researchers in natural sciences will probably frown upon such a small sample or the unscientific way the sample size is decided upon.

Keep in mind that the response rate to questionnaires is often low.

You will do well if you achieve a 10% or more response rate.

If you need to receive at least 100 completed questionnaires back, you will need to send out at least 1,000 questionnaires.

To play safe I would send out double that number, i.e. 2,000 questionnaires.

Because if you don’t receive enough completed questionnaires you might need to send out more later.

You will not be able to receive as many responses through interviewing as you would through sending out questionnaires via the internet or the postal system.

Then again, you will not need to hold as many interviews as you would send out questionnaires.

Your sample must be representative of the population forming your target group.

Representativeness is determined by the size and composition of your sample.

A too-large sample is better than a too-small one.

You should, for example, not send your questionnaires only to people living in an old age home if you are doing research on people of all ages.

A random sample in terms of gender, age group, population group, intellectual capacity, interests and many more are often needed.

I will share 26 different types of sampling with you in this and five future articles.

Obviously, it would not be a good idea to discuss all of them in one post.

Therefore, I will spread them over six posts as shown on the slides.

Here, I will start with boosted sampling and case study sampling.

This article:

  1. Introduction to sampling.
  2. Boosted sampling.
  3. Case study sampling.

Article 2:

  • Cluster sampling.
  • Convenience sampling.
  • Critical case sampling.
  • Dimensional sampling.

Article 3:

  • Event sampling.
  • Extreme case sampling.
  • Matched sampling.
  • Multi-purpose sampling.
  • Non-probability sampling.
  • Opportunistic sampling.

Article 4:

  1. Probability sampling.
  2. Purposive sampling.
  3. Quota sampling.
  4. Random sampling.
  5. Reputational-case sampling.
  6. Snowball sampling.
  7. Stage sampling.

Article 5:

  • Stratified sampling.
  • Systematic sampling.
  • Theoretical sampling.
  • Time sampling.

Article 6:

  • Typical-case sampling.
  • Unique-case sampling.
  • Volunteer sampling.
  • Closing remarks.

Boosted sampling

Boosted sampling is a variant of purposive sampling.

It is a type of sampling where you take specific steps to ensure that certain individuals or types of individuals, who might otherwise have been omitted or underrepresented in the sample, are included.

People with special needs are often not included in samples because there are so few of them.

You can, for example, “boost” the sample by intentionally including people with special needs.

It is important to ensure that all relevant people are represented in the sample if you intend to do statistical analysis and quantitative research.

You might need the responses of specific people even if you are doing qualitative research.

Case study sampling

A case study is an investigation into a specific instance or phenomenon in its real context.

It is used to illustrate a general principle, pattern behavior, etc.

Case studies can establish cause and effect in a real context.

The value of a case study is largely dependent on the size and composition of the sample.

The advantage of a case study is that it serves as a small sample of a large whole, which makes it much more manageable.

This, of course, will only be so if the case being investigated is representative of the entire population being investigated.

It is important to allow case study events to speak for themselves rather than to depend too much on your interpretation, evaluation and judgement.

Data should be collected systematically and rigorously.

This means that you need to prepare well for case study research.

You should never manipulate a case because that will lead to false information and conclusions.

It is, however, not wrong to select a case as your sample to fit the purpose of your research.

For example, it would not be wrong to select tramps in an area frequented by them if you are doing research on factors that make people decide to turn their backs on society.


Sampling includes data collection and analysis.

It is always used in combination with other research methods.

The size of the sample will be statistically calculated in quantitative research.

Factors like time, funds, data collection methods, the purpose and topic of the research will decide the size of the sample in qualitative research.

The sample must be representative of the population for your research.

In boosted sampling you will take deliberate steps to ensure that certain elements in the population are included in the sample.

A case study sample will focus on a specific group or phenomenon.

Continue Reading

ARTICLE 28: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Experimental Methods

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Can lessons from events be gained in a laboratory?

Lessons that will apply to every place and all people?

You be the judge of that after reading this article.

Quantitative experimental methods

The essential feature or experimental methods is that you deliberately control and manipulate the conditions which determine the results in which you are interested.

To achieve this, you will need to introduce an intervention and measure the difference that it makes.

It is mostly used by people doing quantitative research and in natural sciences.

The precondition for research to be experimental is that it should meet the requirements for scientific research.

The requirements for scientific research are that the researcher must have control over the variables, careful measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.

An experiment involves making a change in the value of one variable – called the independent variable – and observing the effect of that change on another variable – called the dependent variable.

Using a fixed design, experimental methods can be confirmatory, seeking to prove or disprove a hypothesis, or explanatory, which would be discovering the effect of certain variables.

The variability and validity of experimental methods often depend on the ability to replicate the results from an experiment in similar situations and generalizing the findings to other similar situations.

You can, for example, test the psychological effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on people by asking them relevant questions during an interview.

You can also ask people to complete a questionnaire.

Responses to the questions can be measured in different ways, depending on the type and context of the experiment.

In the experimental methodology, generalization is referred to as “external validity”.

External validity means that the same results will be obtained with different groups and in different places.

You can imagine that external validity will not be easy to achieve.

This is mostly because of the number of different external variables that can influence your experiment.

The less external variables there are, the better will the chances be that you will achieve external validity.

Experiments can be experiments in a laboratory, field experiments or natural experiments.

Regardless of where the experiments are done, they require quite some planning and preparation.

Most, if not all, tests that are done in a laboratory are examples of experimental research.

Experiments in a laboratory

A laboratory experiment would be an experiment that is conducted under highly controlled conditions where accurate measurements are possible.

Laboratory experiments are mostly easy to replicate.

That is because standardized procedures and measurements of variables are used.

There are not many external variables over which you have no or little control.

Laboratory tests, however, do not always replicate real life, with the result that findings will probably not be generalizable outside the laboratory.

Field experiments

Field experiments are done in real-life environments.

The researcher still manipulates the independent variable but in a real-life setting.

Findings in field experiments should be generalizable to real-life settings.

A limitation of field experiments is that there will probably be many external variables that might bias the results.

Consequently, it would be difficult for other researchers to replicate the results.

Natural experiments

Natural experiments are also conducted in real-life environments.

They differ from field experiments in that the researcher cannot manipulate the independent variables – events occur as they would in real life.

Behavior in a natural experiment is more likely to reflect real life because of its natural setting.

It might be necessary for covert observation.

That is, the target group for the research does not know that they are being observed.

The reason for this is that people often behave differently when they know that they are being watched than they would normally behave.

This is even worse if they know that video footage is being taken of them.

Covert research can have ethical consequences which you should consider and remove in advance.

The researcher has no control over external variables that might bias the results.

Experiments in qualitative research

The parallel in qualitative research is when a part or the whole qualitative research study is the subject of attempted replication of a phenomenon or event.

For example, within a single qualitative research study, replication can sometimes be achieved by conducting more than one of the same or at least similar case studies.

The more similar the findings from the cases, the more a replication might be claimed.

However, replication is not always possible because of the dynamic nature of human phenomena.

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with experimental methods include behaviourism, empiricism, modernism, phenomenology, scientism and symbolic interactionism.


In experimental research:

  1. You, as the researcher, manipulate the conditions for the research.
  2. You must have control over the variables.
  3. Careful measurement of phenomena or behavior will be necessary.
  4. You will need to establish a cause and effect relationship.
  5. External validity will not be easy to achieve.

Experimental methods can be confirmatory or explanatory.

An independent variable is the input variable, whereas the dependent variable is the outcome variable – the result.

It is not easy to achieve external validity with any of the experimental research types.

That is because of differences in variables between the place where the experiment is done and real-life conditions.

Experiments can be experiments in a laboratory, field experiments or natural experiments.

The conclusions of experimental methods can be achieved through qualitative research.


In closing,

I used one additional source of information for this article. That is McLeod, S.A. (2012, Jan 14) Experimental method. Simply psychology: https://www.simplypsychology/org/experimental-method.html. I accessed the source on 10 March 2020.

The main source of information that I use for all my articles and videos on Ph. D. and master’s degree research is my book entitled Preparing Qualitative Research Reports.

Continue Reading

ARTICLE 27: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Ethnography

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Why would academics do research about people that they probably regard as inferior?

In a positive vein, probably because they want to help those who are less fortunate than them.

Did the researchers ask the people if they needed or wanted help?

I would think yes, at least most of the time. But not always.

And if the researchers try to help, will they do the right thing?

Unfortunately, not always.

I think it can be humiliating and frustrating to have outsiders dissect your value system and the way you have lived for centuries.

And then they tell you how you should live and what you should do.

Remember, these people know their culture and way of life and they are watching you while you observe them.

Sometimes it can be funny, but it can also be embarrassing and lead to serious damage and harm to both the people being researched and the researcher.

It is not easy for an outsider to understand the culture and being of another population group.

People with a populist orientation will probably feel that such differences are not important and that it should be eliminated.

That, however, is not the reality for many nations.

For an outsider ethnography as a research method is much more difficult than we think. That is also why many researchers embarrassed themselves when they tried to tell the world how people from other cultures think, live and do things.

What is ethnography?

Some may regard ethnography and ethnomethodology as the same thing.

They are not entirely wrong.

Ethnomethodology is the philosophy behind ethnic research.

Ethnomethodology claims that research deals with everyday life amongst people in a social setting; where currently observed behavior and interaction provides the most accurate and valid data.

For the purposes of this post, ethnomethodology is regarded as a paradigm that can be used with ethnography, which is a research method.

Ethnography, therefore, is the method by which ethnic research is conducted.

I will discuss ethnomethodology as a paradigm in a future post.

How did ethnography begin?

Ethnography mostly has colonialism as its foundation.

It relates to distant cultures that were occupied by the seafaring nations, largely between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Colonialism came to an end in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The influence of colonization can still be seen in what used to be colonies and is popular as a topic of research.

Unfortunately, some researchers call any kind of quantitative research ethnography.

Ethnography has traditionally been associated with social and cultural anthropology.

Sources consulted in ethnography

Ethnographic research sometimes needs to be done through semi-structured interviews or literature study that will include official documents.

This can include historical data and not just current observations.

The process of ethnographic study

Ethnography encompasses forms of research that are extremely diverse from a methodological point of view.

Ethnography can have a contemporary or historical focus.

It is the aim of ethnography to establish the hidden inferences that distinguish, for example, different eating habits.

Such a phenomenon is then placed in its social and cultural context.

Ethnography, therefore, is oriented toward studying shared meanings and practices, or culture.

As a researcher, you might need to study a community for a long period, perhaps years to gain some understanding of their culture and value system.

Although ethnography is traditionally associated with long-term fieldwork, some aspects are employed in applied settings.

Applied, or current settings require a naturalistic research approach.

Observing individual and group behavior in its natural context and participating in that context can generate insights that might otherwise have eluded you.

Ethnography follows a holistic perspective, based on the premise that human behavior and culture are complicated phenomena and are composed of, and influenced by, a multitude of factors.

These might include historical precedents, the physical context in which people live and work, the social structures in which individuals are embedded and the symbolic environment in which they act.

Ethnography assumes that all human behavior is intentional and observable.

Research should, therefore, be oriented towards understanding the reasoning behind people’s actions.

This means that you, as the researcher, and often not a member of the community, will probably spend time living in the community observing and doing in-depth interviews, reading and researching primary source material and observing the lives of the people that you wish to study.

Eventually, you will compile all this data and analysis to create a full picture of the group you are studying.

The picture includes not only reporting what people do or say but also some analysis that tells us about the social structure and worldview of the community.

You should not disrupt the environment or routine of the target for your research.

This means that you, as the researcher, might need to be “invisible” and involve yourself in unobtrusive observation.

In this instance, an etic approach will probably be more effective than an emic approach.

You will need to establish trust and rapport between you and those whom you do research on.

Also, you should guard against becoming emotionally involved with the target group for your research because it might cloud your judgement.

Research reports are in the form of a narrative, with key evidence, such as detailed descriptions of episodes, being reproduced to illustrate your findings and recommendations.

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with ethnography include relativism, behaviorism, constructivism, critical race theory, critical theory, ethnomethodology and post-colonialism.


Ethnography literary means “to write about a group of people”.

Research topics and problem statements or questions require the study of social and cultural processes and shared meanings within a group of people.

Participant observation is the method most used in ethnographic research.

Normally ethnographers will spend lots of time in the field to study the lives of people from within their naturalistic setting.

The “thick” detail of the data that you can obtain through participant observation usually fulfils the key criterion of validity far better than data obtained by other methods.

Ethnographic research can also consult data sources such as interviews and literature studies.

It also offers flexibility and can provide the basis for inductively generating new theoretical explanations.

Ethnographic research can:

  • follow a qualitative or quantitative approach,
  • will probably follow an etic approach, although an emic approach would also be possible, and
  • can be done by one or a group of researchers.
Continue Reading

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.
Continue Reading

ARTICLE 44: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Constructivism

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


One certainty about post-graduate research is that there is no guarantee that you will succeed.

Many students do not even start because they are afraid that they might fail.

And the uncertainty coupled with the fear of failure after you have done a lot of work causes many students to not even start.

Constructivism is a simple paradigm with lots of promise of success.

Although there is still no guarantee, you can at least embark on your studies in the knowledge that you will have a fair chance to show what you are capable of.

What is more attractive to an intelligent and creative researcher than the opportunity to use his or her mind to develop new knowledge and understanding?

The work will still be a challenge, but thanks to constructivism, not an insurmountable one.


Constructivism is a rather liberal paradigm, that allows the researcher to create new knowledge and understanding through cognitive reasoning.

It claims that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

We reconcile new observations and experiences with our previous ideas and experiences.

This might change our perceptions, or the new information and experiences might be discarded.

How we respond to new information and experiences depends on how we process the data in our minds.

This means that we create our own knowledge by asking questions and exploring things.

To compensate for the subjectivity of constructivism, you need to pay special attention to ethics.

The way in which you collect, and construct, data are prerequisites for the validity and accuracy of your analysis.

Also, the quality of data and the way in which it is analyzed determine how reality is interpreted.

Constructivism is mostly used with grounded theory methodology.

Human interests are important for research purposes.

Therefore, constructivism can also be used with several other research methods.

For example, action research, case study research, ethnography, etc.

A multitude of data collection methods can be used.

For example, interviews, participant observation, artifacts and almost any documents that are relevant to the field of study can be consulted.

The aim of research using constructivism is often to understand situations or phenomena, not only to create new knowledge.

Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed.

It involves a researcher collaborating with participants.

That is an emic approach.

For those who might not be familiar with the etic and emic approaches to research – an emic approach is where the researcher works with the target group for the research.

She or he can even become part of the target group.

In an etic approach, the researcher observes the target group from the outside.

The interaction of several people is researched in their context or setting.

It mostly involves the social problems of the target group for the research.

The accuracy of research findings is validated and creates an agenda for change or reform.

This entails a rather well-known sequence of steps that are followed in most qualitative research methodologies.

The following are typical steps:

  • Identify human interests.
  • Formulate the aim of the research.
  • Gather rich data.
  • Collaborate with participants.
  • Research target group interaction.
  • Validate the accuracy of the findings.
  • Create an agenda for change or reform.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

For example, like positivism constructivism also uses observation to gather information.

Different from positivism, which argues that knowledge is generated in a scientific method, constructivism generates knowledge in an interpretive manner.

There are other differences between constructivism and positivism.

Constructivism prefers an emic approach while positivism is equally comfortable with an emic and an etic approach.

Constructivism prefers qualitative research while positivism prefers quantitative research.

Although some academics claim that constructivism can be positively associated with behaviorism, the link is rather weak and unconvincing.

Very well, behaviorism also uses observation to collect data, but behaviorism does not make use of reflection while constructivism does.

Then again, radical behaviorism makes use of reflection.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism, also because of the lack of reflection.

Constructivism is widely criticized for its lack of value in education and its lack of balance when used as a philosophy in research.

In education, it can lead to group thinking when one or a few prominent educators propagate a process or concept as “the only truth”.

Constructivists sometimes place too much emphasis on sensory experience at the expense of reflection.

This means that constructivists sometimes focus strongly on the ontology, that is “what is” and neglect the epistemology, that is the “why” and the “how” of a phenomenon.

Because of this, knowledge is sometimes not sufficiently proven to be valid and accurate.

Some academics integrate constructivism with other paradigms.

Others regard such integration as robbing constructivism of its identity.

The third group of academics feels that integrating constructivism with other paradigms enhances the philosophical strength of the research process.


Constructivism requires intelligent cognitive reasoning.

People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection.

The aim of constructivism is to understand situations and phenomena.

Research often involves creating change or reform.

Ethics and human interests are important in constructivism.

Constructivism makes use of many data collection methods.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism.

Constructivism is criticized for:

  • Not having much value in education.
  • Lack of balance.
  • Too much emphasis on sensory experiences.
  • New knowledge not always been proven as valid and accurate.
Continue Reading

ARTICLE 25: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Case Studies

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


There is an increasing number of COVID-19 cases across the world without a defined chain of transmission.

It is easy to miss infected people who might have come into contact with the virus.

New cases increasingly crop up in unsuspected places.

There is still much uncertainty regarding how and where the virus is spreading.

Rumours abound, and scaremongering is becoming as serious a problem as the virus itself.

This is a perfect example of a problem that can be researched through case study research.

Case study research

Case study research can follow almost any research paradigm.

The exceptions can be technicist paradigms, especially scientism, rationalism, positivism and modernism.

Then again, I believe one can even use case studies to do research in natural science.

Case study means doing systematic research on contemporary phenomena or events.

Like action research, it is linked to a specific time, site and context.

Multiple sources of evidence can be used.

A case study strives towards a holistic and comprehensive understanding of how participants relate to and interact with each other in a specific situation.

Case study research looks for meaning in a situation or event.

It can be used across a variety of disciplines to answer epistemological questions.

Research questions can be answered by an individual, two people or a whole group.

Although answers are given by members of a target group, the focus is on a system of action rather than just the sample for the research.

Case study research can be selective, focusing on one or two issues that are fundamental to understanding the system being examined.

Case study research investigates behavior, but not just the behavior of the target group for the research.

It strives to identify the behavior of an entire system.

For example, the researcher might do research on how people react to those who might have come into contact with the COVID-19 virus by interviewing such people.

Or they can determine how people respond to such “almost infected” people by observing how family and friends react when they return home from where they could have come into contact with the virus.

The researcher will probably try to identify a pattern of behavior that can be regarded as generally applicable.

You will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioral pattern can be identified and described.

A strong point of the case study method is that almost any data collection method can be used.

For example, participant observation, interviews, audio-visual material, document surveys and even the collection of physical artifacts.

You should determine in advance what evidence to gather and what analysis techniques to use with the data that you collect.

Data collection will probably be mostly qualitative in nature, but it can also include quantitative data.

A second strong point of the case study method is that it deals directly with the individual case in its actual context.

Case studies get as close to the subject of interest as they possibly can.

This is achieved because direct observation in natural settings can be used.

Also, because you can have access to subjective factors, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.

Surely you will ask people how they feel, how they experience the situation, etc. when you interview them.

The case itself is the focus of your research, not the variables.

You need to focus strongly on the purpose of your research.

The general purpose of case study research is to generate knowledge.

It can also be used for theoretical elaboration or analytical generalization.

Criticism of case study research is that it often depends on a single case.

That makes it difficult to have your findings apply generally.


Case study research is perfectly suited to finding solutions for social problems.

The current COVID-19 situation is a good example, where social scientists would investigate the psychological effect of the threat on people while natural scientists try to find a way in which to combat the virus.

Case study research can use most philosophical stances or paradigms.

Epistemological questions are mostly investigated.

A good measure of generalization is sought for human behavior at a particular time and context.

You, as the researcher, will need to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the situation before a behavioral pattern can be identified and described.

Case studies investigate a target group through direct observation in a natural setting.

The purpose of the research is critically important.

Case study research can be used to generate knowledge, for theoretical elaboration and analytical generalization.

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