ARTICLE 63: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Pragmatism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

How is truth discovered in different paradigms?

Should it be based on exact and timeless facts?

Or perhaps how well an argument can be motivated?

Or will it be different for different contexts and communities?

I discuss how truth is discovered through pragmatism in this article.

Pragmatism is concerned with action and change. It focuses on communication and shared meaning-making to develop practical solutions to social problems. To be understood, a society must be observed and interpreted in terms of the action that takes place in the society. Without action, according to the pragmatist point of view, any structure of relations between people is meaningless. Action is used to change existence. To perform meaningful change, action needs to be guided by purpose and knowledge. The world is thus changed through an intervention consisting of reason and action. There is an inseparable link between human knowing and human action.

The purpose of pragmatic inquiry is to create knowledge in the interest of change and improvement. In this respect pragmatism is futuristic in the sense that it does not focus on existing knowledge, but rather strives to create new, improved, knowledge. The knowledge character of pragmatism is not restricted to explanations and understanding. Other forms of knowledge such as prescriptive, normative, descriptive, explanatory, and prospective are essential in pragmatism. 

Prescriptive knowledge refers to giving guidelines.

Normative knowledge refers to the process of exhibiting social and moral values.

Descriptive and explanatory knowledge are self-explanatory.

Prospective knowledge refers to the action of suggesting possibilities or options.

Pragmatism strives to identify actions that will make a constructive difference to a community while seeking general principles that will enable the implementation of the actions in other communities or geographical areas with the same or similar good results. Therefore, pragmatism does seek to identify generalisation of the research findings.

Pragmatism does not seek truth or reality for its own sake because truth and reality are always debatable, changing and dependent on the perceptions of those who are in power or have the initiative. Therefore, pragmatism strives to facilitate human problem-solving.  According to pragmatist assumptions the dynamic reality is based on our actions. As a pragmatic researcher, you will fall back on your own epistemology while making use of scientific research methods to collect and analyse data objectively. This means that you will need to do empirical research in a natural context.

 Pragmatism is not committed to any one system of philosophy or reality. Pragmatist researchers focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the research problem, i.e. the ontology as well as the epistemology. The pragmatic paradigm places the research problem central and applies all approaches to understanding the problem. Data collection and analysis methods are chosen as those most likely to provide insights into the problem statement or question.  To achieve this, pragmatism makes use of abduction, which means a spiral process between induction and deduction by converting observations into theories and then testing the theories in practice.

For research, inquiry is central to the application of pragmatist thinking. It is seen as a natural part of life aimed at improving the conditions of society in the world by adapting the context in which it finds itself. This implies the controlled and directed transformation of an uncertain situation into one that is so precise in its constituents, distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole. 

A host of data collection methods can be used, including surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc. Data collected in this fashion can then be further analysed by means of quantitative or qualitative methods. Also, some data can be analysed quantitatively while others are analysed qualitatively. Corroboration can, however, become problematic in the sense that quantitative data can mostly not be compared with qualitative data.

In terms of research approach, pragmatism is a practical and applied research philosophy that can support a mixed approach. Pragmatism favours an emic approach with you and the target group working together to solve a social problem.

Pragmatism rejects the distinction between realism and anti-realism, which has been the core of debates about positivism versus interpretivism in the social sciences. It can be associated with constructivism, seeing that experience and reflection are required for change to take place.

Pragmatism disagrees with ethnomethodology in the sense that the former focuses on the research problem or question whereas the latter focuses more on social life. This differentiation, however, is not significant. Both pragmatism and ethnomethodology accept qualitative research methods and both seek the improvement of social life. This largely applies to the other interpretive paradigms as well, namely hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology.

Many academics criticise the pragmatic paradigm. However, most of the critique is aimed at qualitative research methodology rather than at pragmatism. Some criticism is directed at a particular context or field of research, such as religion. The paradigm as such is criticised for focusing too much on the research problem or question while the purpose of the research might be neglected. This argument, however raises the question if the problem does not lie with the manner in which the research problem or hypothesis is formulated. After all, the research problem or hypothesis should be articulated to the purpose of the research. Research should indeed, focus on the research problem or hypothesis.


Pragmatism investigates action to achieve change.

Observation is mostly used to collect data.

Truth and reality are regarded as debatable and dynamic.

The paradigm is not committed to any specific reality.

Knowledge can be descriptive, exploratory, prescriptive, prospective and normative.

A variety of research methods can be used.

An emic approach towards the target for the research is mostly followed.

Data collection and analysis focus on the research problem.

Empirical research in a natural context is conducted.

Research is aimed at solving problems as well as generalisation.

Principles for improvement are developed.

Pragmatism is associated with some elements of the interpretivist paradigms and opposed to other elements of the interpretivist paradigms.

Criticism against the paradigms is that the purpose of the research is sometimes neglected.

However, neglecting the purpose of the research is not necessarily unique to pragmatism.


Pragmatism is, in my opinion, a good and logical foundation for research in the post COVID-19 reality.

It investigates action.

It solves immediate and real problems.

Change is always part of the purpose of the research.

Existing knowledge is used to create new knowledge.

And it is flexible and efficient.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.  

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

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Change starts when someone sees the next step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformative research deals primarily with research on and for change.

I discuss transformative research in this article.

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

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

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

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

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

Transformative research is often not planned.

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

It depends on a receptive and open mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And experimenting with faulty assumptions can lead to serious damage.

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

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

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

You can probably think of even more radical examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First the change is denied or ridiculed.

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

Finally, they will accept the change.

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

Or that it was their idea.

Transformative research does not always lead to change.

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

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

Change mostly requires persistence and hard work.

Although sudden and unexpected change can happen.

However, observations and findings are often only approximations.

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

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

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

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

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


Transformative research deals with the search for change.

New ideas, procedures or products are often sought.

Change can be discovered by chance.

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

Communication and debate facilitate transformation.

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

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

People sometimes resist change.

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

Transformative research does not always deliver creative solutions.

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

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

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

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