ARTICLE 58: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Positivism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Have you ever heard of a paradigm that supports natural science, but:

  1. Is not interested in meeting the target group for their research.
  2. Is not interested in discovering the ultimate truth.
  3. Accepts supernatural and abstract data for their research. AND
  4. Seeks the simplest solution to the research problem.

I discuss positivism in this video.

According to the positivist paradigm true knowledge is based on experience of the senses and can be obtained by observation, and by conducting experiments, control, measurement, to achieve reliability and validity. Positivism, therefore, strives for objectivity, measurability, predictability, controllability, patterning, the construction of laws and rules of behaviour, and the ascription of causality.

The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the idea that you can best gain an understanding of human behaviour through observation and reason. Stated differently, only objective, observable facts can be the basis for science.

A positivist approach to knowledge is based on a real and objective interpretation of the data at our disposal. Such knowledge can be transmitted in tangible form – knowledge is often derived from observation.

Positivism is a philosophy of knowing (epistemology) which believes that only knowledge gained through direct observation is factual and trustworthy. Factual information collection, for example watching people work, measuring manufactured items, measuring time in athletics, is regarded as objective and therefore also valid.

Observations should be quantifiable so that statistical analysis can be done. Researchers following a positivist approach believe that there is one objective reality that is observable by a researcher who has little, if any, impact on the object being observed.

Positivism implies that there is objective, independent laws of nature to which human life is subjected. It is the purpose of the research to discover and describe these objective laws. This view describes society as being made up of structures, concepts, labels and relationships. Proving the existence and impact of such laws requires discovery through scientific means.

The researcher observes the community from the outside (an ‘etic’ approach). This means that you are seen as being independent from the study and following a deductive approach. As the researcher, you should concentrate on facts rather than human interests, making this approach a deductive one.

To explain the concept of doing research independently of other people, notably your target group for the research – a researcher following a positivist approach can receive and analyse completed questionnaires from people whom he or she has never met and does not intend meeting either. All they are interested in are the responses from which objective conclusions can be made.

With these assumptions of science, the ultimate goal is to integrate and systematise findings into a meaningful pattern or theory which is regarded as tentative and not the ultimate truth. Theory is subject to revision or modification as new evidence is found.

The positivist paradigm is mostly used with quantitative research. A systems approach is followed to generate knowledge, and quantification is essential to enhance precision in the description of parameters and the discernment of the relationships among them. 

An interesting feature of positivism is that it accepts the supernatural and abstract as data for research purposes. However, theological (the supernatural) or metaphysical (the abstract) claims must yield to the positive – that which can be explained in terms of scientific laws.

Positivists believe that knowledge can be “revealed” or “discovered” through the use of the scientific method. The “discovered” knowledge enables us to provide possible explanations of the causes of things that happen in the world.

Positivists argue that the scientific research method produces precise, verifiable, systematic and theoretical answers to the research question or hypothesis. They also suggest that the use of the scientific method provides answers that are neutral and technical and can thus be universalised and generalised to all historical and cultural contexts.

The advantage of a positivist approach to research is that you can cover a wide range of situations in a short period of time. However, the following disadvantages of positivism should also be borne in mind:

•           Positivism relies on experience as a valid source of knowledge. However, a wide range of basic and important concepts such as cause, time and space are not based on experience.

•           Positivism assumes that all types of processes can be perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or relationships between individuals. We know that this is not always the case.

•           Adoption of positivism can be criticised for reliance on the status quo. In other words, research findings are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.

Positivist thinkers lean strongly on determinism, empiricism, parsimony and generality. ‘Determinism’ means that events are caused by other circumstances; and hence, understanding such causal links is necessary for prediction and control. ‘Empiricism’ means the collection of verifiable empirical evidence in support of theories or hypotheses and knowledge stems from human experience. We discussed empiricism as a paradigm already. Knowledge stems from human experience. The approach is deductive in nature because you are seen as being independent from the study while concentrating on facts rather than human interests. Parsimony means that phenomena are explained in the most efficient way possible. Generality is the process of generalising the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large.

Although some researchers feel that positivism is also associated with rationalism, others disagree, claiming that the two actually challenge one another. Constructivism and Post-positivism reject positivism.

Not all natural scientists and certainly not many social scientists support the positivist paradigm. Furthermore, natural scientists do not always reveal their research practices accurately in their research reports. Thirdly, the term “positivist” is not always interpreted as meaning a quantitative approach to research. 


Positivism relies on the senses for data collection.

Reliability and validity of data are regarded as important requirements.

Research follows a process of observation, experimentation, control and measurement.

An etic and deductive approach is followed in research.

Facts are researched.

Supernatural and abstract data are also accepted.

There is only one objective reality that can be identified by means of observation and reason.

Knowledge can be revealed or discovered.

Society consists of structures, concept, labels and relationships.

Findings are integrated and systematised into a meaningful pattern or theory.

A quantitative research approach is preferred.

Findings are neutral and technical and, therefore, also often generalisable.

Positivism can be associated with empiricism, scientism, behaviourism and modernism.

Positivism is opposed to constructivism.

Some characteristics of positivism can be associated with while others are in opposition to post-positivism and rationalism.

Criticism against positivism is:

  1. That reports are not always accurate.
  2. That the wrong approach is sometimes followed.
  3. Not all academics support positivism for research purposes.
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ARTICLE 47: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Empiricism

Group of young interns listening carefully to an experienced doctor of medicine

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I often wonder if the developers of paradigms were serious when they made claims like:

The only way in which you can learn is through experience, OR

You cannot learn anything from interviewing people, OR

External reality has no effect on behaviour.

Fortunately, most paradigms are quite flexible when it comes to the ways in which truth can be discovered.

And most, if not all of them, can be integrated.

Empiricism, however, is claimed by many to be an exclusivist paradigm.

Meaning that it cannot be integrated with other paradigms.

Or can it?

I discuss empiricism in this post.

What is Empiricism?

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience.

It means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or at least empirically based.

Evidence should be directly or indirectly observable by the senses.

Also, people must experience things before they will learn.

The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition is rejected.

Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

According to empiricism, people are born with empty brains, like a clean slate.

As people experience phenomena, the brain is filled by what they learn from experience.

Two learning processes take place –

The individual experiences a sensation and then reflects on the sensation.

Reflection, in turn, leads to new or improved knowledge.

Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated.

Events can be things that happened to them and observations that they made.

Experience can also be simulated through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements.

Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complementary lines of thought if it is integrated with rationalist arguments.

First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists site, insofar as we have it in the first place.

However, the knowledge that we have was obtained through previous experiences.

Secondly, we can “create” experiences by doing experiments and building models, which can be simulations of reality.

In that manner we can gain knowledge through self-created experiences.

Empiricism favours quantitative research methods, although it can be used with quantitative, qualitative or mixed research methods.

Its leaning towards quantitative research is demonstrated by the fact that it can be associated with positivism.

Because positivism is even more technicist in nature.

And secondly, positivism also makes a clear distinction between objective facts and values.

Thirdly, both positivism and empiricism regard sense data that is uncontaminated by value or theory as the ultimate objective.

Empiricism is sometimes used in association with critical theory or any of the paradigms associated with critical theory.

Empiricism can also support scepticism as an alternative to rationalism.

Rationalists argue that, if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge, then we do not have them.

Empiricists do not agree with the rationalists’ account of how reason is the source of concepts and knowledge.

Empiricism is in opposition to structuralism because empiricism believes that learning is derived from gaining experience while structuralism focuses on interrelationships between objects, concepts and ideas.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that structuralism is used in research on events or phenomena that already exist, which means that knowledge also already exists.

According to empiricism, people can learn without reasoning.

Empiricism provides for accumulating further knowledge after having gained knowledge through earlier experiences.

Most empiricists accept that learning is a continuous process.

Accumulating facts and knowledge are a second goal of what is called “naïve empiricism”.


The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from experience.

The mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience.

Knowledge must be deduced or inferred from actual events.

Reasoning and intuition are rejected as sources of learning.

Empiricists believe that innate ideas and superiority of knowledge do not exist.

People are born with an empty brain that is filled by experiencing phenomena through the senses.

Two learning processes take place – experiencing and reflection.

Experience can be simulated.

Prior knowledge is accepted in naïve empiricism and if empiricism is integrated with rationalist thinking.

Any research method can use empiricism although quantitative research is favoured.

Empiricism can be associated with:

  • Most interpretivist paradigms.
  • Some technicist paradigms, notably positivism and rationalism.
  • Some critical paradigms, for example scepticism and structuralism.
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ARTICLE 45: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Critical Race Theory

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


What is the truth?

Just think about it – 29 paradigms, 29 different ways in which the truth can be perceived.

And there are many more that I will not discuss because some of them are not suitable for research purposes. Some are concepts, others are value systems, a third group focus more on applications rather than research.

I mentioned in my previous post that paradigms should help us to achieve meaningful patterns and theories and that we should guard against subjectivity.

Accepting more than twenty-nine ways in which to perceive the truth is already gambling with objectivity, authenticity, validity and accuracy in our research.

If we, moreover, ignore our responsibility to do research in an ethical manner, our theses or dissertations will end up being fictitious novels.

I will discuss critical race theory and how it should be approached in this post.

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory focuses on the application of critical theory in terms of race.

It objects to the perception of racial power, especially where it is overtly or covertly supported by legislation, which would render it institutionalized.

Institutionalized racism is the structures, legislation, policies, practices and norms resulting in differential access and opportunities between racial groups.

It can manifest itself in any situation where needs exist.

Such needs can be material, psychological, political, technological, social, economic or power needs.

In critical race theory intentional discrimination is resisted on all terrains where people are involved.

For example, universities, schools, employment in the private and public sectors, sport, etc.

Critical race theory favours an aggressive, race-conscious, approach to transformation.

Although the starting point is often simple racial inequality, political and legislative transformation can be even more important objectives.

Critical race theory is often used to combat racial discrimination, facilitate the upliftment and growth of disadvantaged communities, redress historical racial discrimination, etc.

Critical race theory focuses on discrimination of one race against another.

It is not the reserve of any one race, and the victims of discrimination can be a minority or majority racial group.

Critical race theory mostly investigates the achievement of racial emancipation and equality.

It can be addressed in any field of study, although social studies embrace the paradigm the most.

Historical and current incidents of racial discrimination are often used as evidence in support of a research problem, question or hypothesis.

Critical race theory is supported by structuralism.

For example, by investigating how legislation and cultural influences impact on the demography of a community.

In this respect, micro-aggression is often an element of research making use of a critical race theory perception.

Micro-aggression can be found in any community where a certain group might feel anger and frustration because of the way the perceived or real privileged elite threaten them or because of one or more privileges that they have at the expense of the discriminated or that the discriminated are denied.

This can erupt into riots, crime, or any other form of violence.

And, of course, such micro-aggression can become the topic of research.

Critical race theory can also be linked to critical theory, neoliberalism, feminism, romanticism, humanism, post-colonialism and post-structuralism.

Liberalism is in opposition with some of the values of critical race theory because of the former’s favouritism towards the elite, the rich and the noble.

Critical race theory and structuralism are also in opposition because structuralism promotes positions of power, which can have a detrimental effect on human relationships.

Positivism is also in opposition with critical race theory because positivism favours quantitative research while supporters of critical race theory feel that the analysis of numbers strip human interaction of its affective values.

Critical race theory is not always structured.

Although it often investigates legislation and cultural influences, the process can be aggressive and unstructured.

It can even include riotous advocacy campaigns.

Hidden motives can also be present.

Critical race theory is, unfortunately, sometimes misused to achieve political agendas and to oppress minority or even majority groups that are vulnerable.


Critical race theory investigates race-related issues.

It objects to institutionalized racial discrimination.

It often studies situations where needs exist because of the unfair treatment of a racial group.

An aggressive, race-conscious approach to transformation can be favoured.

Any field of study making use of any research method can investigate racial discrimination.

However, social studies predominate.

Micro-aggression is often an element of the research making use of critical race theory.

Critical race theory is supported by structuralism, critical theory, neoliberalism, feminism, romanticism, humanism, post-colonialism and post-structuralism.

Critical race theory is opposed by liberalism, structuralism and positivism.

Criticism against critical race theory include that:

  1. It is not always structured.
  2. Hidden motives can be present.
  3. It is sometimes misused.
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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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