ARTICLE 96: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Methods for Organising and Analysing Data: Part 2 of 2 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Research has shown that most people seek for excuses to fail rather than for ways in which to achieve success.

Nobody throws in the towel without rationalising about why their decision is justified.

And that is the difference between a winner and a loser.

Success always requires perseverance.

The most important decision that you must make before embarking on master’s degree or doctoral studies is that you will succeed.

Do not even think of failure as an option.

I discuss memoing and reflection on the analysis process in this article.

Memoing. Memos are an extremely versatile tool that can be used for many different purposes. It refers to any writing that you do in relation to the research other than your field notes, transcription or coding. A memo can be a brief comment that you type or write in the margin of your notes on an interview, notes on observations that you made during field work, your own impressions or ideas inspired by field work or literature study, an essay on your analysis of data, provisional conclusions and even possible findings. The basic idea behind memoing is to get ideas, observations and impressions down on paper to serve as the foundation for reflection, analytical insight and remembering spur of the moment ideas. Memos can also be coded in order to save them as part of the other data that you collected for further analysis.

Memos capture your thoughts on the main information that you recorded and can be most useful for creating new knowledge and findings. In dedicated computer software that uses it, memos are similar to codes, but usually contain longer passages of text. They, furthermore, differ from quotations in that quotations are extracts from primary documents, while memos represent your personal observations and impressions.

Although mostly recorded independently, a memo may refer to other memos, quotations, and codes. They can be grouped according to types (method, theoretical, descriptive, etc.), which is helpful in organizing and sorting them. Memos may also be assigned to primary documents so that they can be analysed with associated other coded data.

Memos are one of the most important techniques you have for recording and developing your ideas. You should, therefore, think of memos as a way of recording or presenting an understanding you have already reached. Memos should include reflections and conclusions on your reading and ideas as well as your fieldwork. They can be analytical, conceptual, theoretical or philosophical in nature. Memos can be written on almost anything that might have a positive impact on your research findings, including methodological issues, ethics, personal reactions, sudden understanding of previously complex concepts, misconceptions, etc. Memos should, therefore, be written in narrative format, including logical reasoning about the elements of your research. 

Writing memos by means of dedicated computer software is an important task in every phase of the qualitative research process. The ideas captured in memos are often the “pieces of the puzzle” that are later put together when you make conclusions and compile findings. Memos might be rather short in the beginning and become more elaborate as you gain more clarity on your arguments and the nature of the data or observations that you are investigating.

Memos can stand alone, in the event of which they would explain data that deals with a particular and important issue relevant to the purpose of the research. Memos can also be linked to other memos, quotations, or codes, in the event of which linked objects should refer to associated data and arguments to form a new, reconstructed or deconstructed narrative. Such associated memos, quotations and codes can contain methodological notes; they can be used as a bulletin board to exchange information between team members; they can be used to write notes about the analytical process, keeping a journal of to-dos; conclusions and findings can be deduced from them. Memos may also serve as a repository for symbols, text templates, and embedded objects (photos, figures, diagrams, graphs, etc.) that you may want to insert into primary documents or other memos.

The difference between memos and codes. A code can be just one word or a heading, forming a succinct, dense descriptor for a concept or argument emerging when you study data closely with the intent of identifying data elements relative to the purpose and topic of your research. Complex findings can be reduced to markers of important and relevant data.

A memo is normally longer than a code. A memo is a record of the process of cognitive thinking that you would go through when collecting data through observation, literature study, interviewing, etc. Words and short sections of a memo can be coded. Like codes, memos have short and concise names. These names, or titles, are used for displaying memos in browsers, and help to find specific memos.

The similarity and difference between memos and comments. The best way in which to compare memos and comments is probably to compare them with codes. Codes should be seen as “headings” for concepts. Memos and comments both refer to lengthy texts and both are generated by you as the researcher.

However, comments belong with just one entity or argument. You can, for example comment on a particular primary data source, such as a book, a report, minutes of a focus group meeting, etc. Memos, on the other hand, can be associated with more than one object or source of information. Memos, furthermore, can contribute to your collection of data in more than one way, for example as theoretical data, philosophical data, descriptions of methods, general comments, etc. Memos can be free-standing while comments must always be linked to other data. Memos can be associated with more than one object and be used for a variety of purposes, for example to discuss, analyse and process theoretical data, to describe methods, to comment, to inform, etc.

Reflection. The last step in data analysis is reflection. Reflection has to do with the ability to stand back from and think carefully about what you have done or are doing. The following questions will help you develop your ability to reflect on your analysis:

1.         What was your role in the research?

2.         Did you feel comfortable or uncomfortable? Why?

3.         What action did you take? How did you and others react?

4.         Was it appropriate? How could you have improved the situation for yourself, and others?

5.         What could you change in the future?

6.         Do you feel as if you have learnt anything new about yourself or your research?

7.         Has it changed your way of thinking in any way?

8.         What knowledge, from theories, practices and other aspects of your own and other’s research, can you apply to this situation?

9.         What broader issues – for example ethical, political or social – arise from this situation?

10.       Have you recorded your thoughts in your research diary?


Memos are versatile tools that you can use in the analysis of data. You can use memos to do the following:

  1. Integrate data in your thesis or dissertation.
  2. Consolidate your impressions and ideas into provisional conclusions and possible findings.
  3. To serve as the foundation for reflection, analytical insight and to remember spur of the moment ideas.
  4. To store interrelated ideas as codes.
  5. To capture your thoughts on the main information that you recorded.
  6. To develop new knowledge and findings.


  1. May refer to other memos, quotations and codes.
  2. Can be grouped according to type.
  3. May be assigned to primary documents.
  4. Is a way of recording or presenting an understanding that you have already reached.
  5. Should include reflections and conclusions on your reading, ideas and fieldwork.
  6. Can be analytical, conceptual, theoretical or philosophical.
  7. Can be written on almost anything that might add value to your research.
  8. Should be written in a narrative format.
  9. May serve as a repository for symbols, text templates and embedded objects.

Memos are similar to codes, but usually contain longer passages of text.

Memos differ from comments in that comments belong with just one entity or argument, while memos can be associated with more than one object or source of information.

Also, memos can be free standing while comments must always be linked to other data.

The last step in data analysis is reflection.


With this article we cross the bridge from data analysis to the layout of the thesis or dissertation.

Once you know how to structure a thesis or dissertation, you should be able to write and submit it.

There is one more step before you submit your thesis or dissertation for assessment, and that is to review your work.

The people who successfully completed a thesis or dissertation in the past are pretty much the same as you.

They are intelligent, creative and willing to work hard.

But they are not super human beings.

And there is no reason why you cannot achieve what they did.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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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.
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