ARTICLE 74: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Applying Techniques for Collecting Data

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Data collection is at the same time a simple and complex task.

The data that is available on most topics is often vast.

And because there is so much data available, students sometimes spoil their research at this early stage already.

Because they tend to accept any books that they find in the library by searching for key words on computer and in the library referencing system.

And they would accept what people who claim to be experts or people with master’s degrees or Ph. D’s tell them.

It does not matter what the topic of the interviewee’s thesis or dissertation dealt with.

If they have the qualifications their opinions are jam-packed with wisdom and truth.

I discuss applying data collection techniques in this article.

The different research methods provide alternative, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, frameworks for thinking about and planning research projects. In addition to this there are four main data collection methods that can be used with all the main approaches, namely documents, interviews, observation and questionnaires. In this respect four characteristics of documentary evidence are important, namely content, social construction, how recent the documents are, and documents in networks.

The study of content. Documents are used as sources of information when content is studied. Diaries, written life histories and letters can be significant sources of data. In everyday life documents are often records of naturally occurring social events. In addition to this, bureaucratic offices routinely produce rich textual data in the form of medical reports, minutes of meetings, planning documents, memoranda, emails, etc.

When reading the contents of a document, you need to interpret and evaluate the written words. Interpretation will invariably be subjective and different researchers can interpret the same document differently. That is why you need to validate the interpretation of data. This can be done by calling upon many other sources of information, often through a process of triangulation. 

The social construction of documents and records. You can also approach research material as data to be drawn and used as facts. The analysis of statistical reports in the form of tables or graphs or both is an example of using records as facts from which we can come to certain conclusions. The production of ‘realities’ from data requires a source, for example statistical reports, rules and technical instructions according to which the data can be analysed and interpreted and grouped. A simple example would be a group of students (the data source) that are grouped into those who are good at athletics, music, mathematics, etc. (according to certain rules for grouping, which can be as simple as asking student what their interests are).  

Documents in use. Studying documents that are in use have the advantages that they are recent and mostly provide data in a context that is relevant to the purpose of the research. Such documents are often used to manage projects, for example building plans for a bridge, and as a means of communication between role players in a project.

Documents in networks. Documents often make a big difference to social arrangements and interaction. We have all experienced how a speech can influence the way in which people behave. Documents can also make a difference to the way in which people behave. Marketing, for example, utilise this ability of documents to influence people to establish or increase the demand for a product or service.

Documents can enable us to perform better and safer. Aircraft pilots use documents to check if they are taking off and landing safely. Educators use evaluation check lists to ensure that they offer quality learning. Exam papers are used to check if students meet the requirements for promotion or certification.

Actor-network theory (ANT) supports the idea that documents can function as actors.  ANT theory claims that data plays an important role in almost all human activities, including politics, economics, technology, sociology, etc.

Summary

Most researchers use reading documents, interviews, observation and questionnaires to collect data for research.

All data that we collect must be validated.

Documents are mostly used to obtain and study context.

Records can be used as facts from which conclusions can be gathered.

Documents that are still in use provide recent data in a context that is relevant to the purpose of the research.

Documents can influence people’s behaviour and they can enable people to perform better and safer.

Data plays an important role in most human activities.

Interviews, observation and questionnaires deserve special attention.

Therefore, I will discuss them in a series of videos dedicated to each separately.

Close

I hope that, having watched this video, you at least realise that you need to plan and execute data collection for research with great care.

You must plan your data collection carefully.

You must know what you are looking for.

You must have a good reason or reasons why you accept every data source that you use in your thesis or dissertation.

You must know what you are hoping to achieve with every piece of data that you use.

False or irrelevant data can do serious damage to your research.

Don’t even accept what I share in my videos without corroborating my advice.

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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.

Summary

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.

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ARTICLE 71: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Symbolic Interactionism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What do you think is the one single concept that can save the world?

It is a concept that can solve all conflicts between individuals, communities and even countries.

It can solve corruption, prevent wars, heal physical and psychological illnesses.

And one day, when the aliens arrive, it is the concept that will decide if we will receive them as friends or enemies.

Sadly, our inability to utilise that concept to the full is responsible for most, if not all the things that it is supposed to solve.

I introduce you to the concept that can save the world in this video.

‘Symbolic interactionism’ emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions between human beings. Human interaction in the social world is mediated using symbols like language, which helps people to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only focusing attention on individuals’ capacity to create symbolically meaningful objects in the world, human interaction and resulting patterns of social organisations can be understood. As a result, not only individuals change themselves through interaction, but also societies.

According to symbolic interactionism, human behaviour depends on learning rather than biological instinct. People communicate what they learn through symbols, the most common system of symbols being language. Linguistic symbols amount to arbitrary sounds or physical gestures to which people, by mutual agreement over time, have attached significance or meaning.

Symbolic interactionism also emphasises the role that the inner mental processes play in people’s subjective experiences. The mental processes are regarded as the key to understanding the link between individuals and the society to which they belong. Individuals and society are intrinsically linked. The individual is born into an already formed society and thus he or she emerges from, and is defined, in terms of an ongoing flux of social activity. Words of habit, fads, jargon, etc. lose their meaning, or the meaning is changed, if it is used in different contexts and different societies.

The emphasis on meaning and its influence on social behaviour are the key features of symbolic interactionism. There are three aspects to this.  Firstly, people act towards things based on the meanings that these things have for them. An example is how some, probably most, people react to how athletes from their own country or rival countries perform at the Olympic Games.

The second premise of symbolic interactionism is that meaning arises out of social interaction. For example, students who would otherwise not have acted aggressively might well do so under group pressure during advocacy campaigns.

The third premise of symbolic interactionism is that meaning is handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process. Meaning is not permanently fixed or unchanged. For example, an inexperienced soldier might be highly upset the first time he sees the body of a comrade or even an enemy killed in action. As he gains experience in war and as he sees more bodies, he loses his sensitivity towards other people and, to an extent, his respect for life. The meaning of a message, regardless of the medium though which it is conveyed, requires time to be absorbed and reflected on before it will make sense to the receiver.

The core task of research following a symbolic interactionist philosophical perspective is to capture the essence of the process for interpreting or attaching meaning to various symbols.

Strictly speaking, symbolic interactionism is utilised in all research, be it quantitative or qualitative in nature. Logically a quantitative research approach will rely more heavily on the use of symbols to convey and interpret messages that require counting, measuring or statistical analysis. Data collection methods need to be selected with the value that symbols have to offer as an important deciding factor. Written questionnaires, for example, do not convey idiosyncratic expressions, such as irony, mocking, sarcasm, etc. as well as a face-to-face interview would. Written documents cannot have the same intonation value as spoken words.

Symbolic interactionism adopts a measure of romantic philosophy by accepting fiction and art as sources of information for research purposes. However, some qualitative researchers regard these sources as less rigorous, less useful, inaccurate, and even wrong while a second group considers such information as insightful and significant.

Symbolic interactionism can be used in conjunction with constructivism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, interpretivism, romanticism and phenomenology.

Symbolic interactionism does not agree with the preference of the technicist paradigms in favour of quantitative research methods. They include rationalism, scientism, positivism and modernism.

The peculiarity of this approach is that human beings interpret and define each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions.

Some researchers regard symbolic interactionism as too unfocused in the research methods that it supports, while at the same time being unsystematic in their philosophies. This loose approach to the research results in the findings of the research being difficult to motivate or prove and, therefore, also difficult to test for validity and accuracy.

Summary

Symbolic interactionism emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions between human beings.

Human behaviour depends on learning.

The role of inner mental processes is emphasised.

Individuals and society are intrinsically linked.

The emphasis on meanings and its influence on social behaviour are key.

Meaning:

  1. Can change in different contexts and societies.
  2. Is handled in and modified through interpretation.
  3. Is mediated using symbols.
  4. Is not permanently fixed or unchanged.
  5. Arises out of social interaction.
  6. Influences the actions and behaviour of people.

Symbolic interactionism can be used with quantitative or qualitative research.

Data collection methods are an important consideration in research.

The core task of research making use of symbolic interactionism is to capture the essence of processes.

Symbolic interactionism can be associated with all the interpretive paradigms.

And is opposed to all the technicist paradigms.

Points of criticism against symbolic interaction include:

  1. That it lacks focus.
  2. That findings are not based on testable evidence.
  3. That data is interpreted but not reacted upon.

In closing,

I hope you noticed that the concept that can save the world is meaning.

And meaning is what symbolic interactionism is all about.

How we act on the meanings that things have for us determine if our lives will be good or bad.

I hope you will inject some positive meanings to the world through your research.

Thank you for watching my videos.

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ARTICLE 69: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Scientism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Why do academics write less about scientism than about most other paradigms?

Is it because paradigms deal with philosophy while natural scientists are more interested in cause and effect, exact data and timeless facts?

If this is the case, is research in natural science always more objective, accurate and valid than research in social science?

Or do natural scientists keep the philosophy about their research methods divorced from philosophical arguments?

I discuss the nature and elements of scientism in this article.

Scientism is the belief that science and its method of sceptical inquiry is the most reliable path to the truth. As such it represents the technicist group of paradigms.

Scientific researchers tend to believe that the methods normally used to investigate natural sciences are the only true way in which to investigate any academic problem or topic. Some even believe that any research that is not “scientifically” conducted is not true science at all. This is often called scientific imperialism because of the exaggerated trust in the validity and accuracy of the quantitative methods as opposed to qualitative research methods.    

Supporters of the scientism paradigm claim that it is based on the “rule of law” of science.  The “rule of law” of science refers to the prescription of a domain, a set of practices and an attitude to the world, which should match the development of new knowledge. This implies that the truth can only be known through scientific proof.

Scientism believes that scientific research can be applied to almost any field of research, not only natural sciences. Although a quantitative research approach is more suitable, some scientists believe that the methods of science are not only appropriate for discovering physical truth, but also all other truths, including those traditionally utilised in philosophy, ethics and morality, political and cultural philosophy, and the rights and wrongs of human interaction. This often leads to a mixed approach.

Scientism developed from empiricism. By extending the scope of scientism, it tends to overlap with other technicist paradigms, for example positivism, modernism and rationalism.

Constructivism and post-positivism reject scientism because of its etic approach, which is regarded as divorced from reality and not providing for qualitative arguments, such as morality and philosophy in general. Scientism, in turn, rejects the former two paradigms because of their emic (participatory) approach, which is regarded as unscientific.

Scientism, furthermore, creates a closed system of knowing, that certifies itself by scientific discoveries or evidence that fits its own closed system of paradigm understanding. If the new knowledge does not fit the paradigm, it is usually assumed that there was something wrong with the methodology that produced it, rarely with the paradigm understanding itself. In terms of the nature of research this is a rather risky point of view.

Research should always provide for the possibility that a hypothesis can be disproven, which does not mean that there is anything wrong with the research process, gathered information or conclusions made. It might be possible that not sufficient information was gathered or that the information was not sufficiently corroborated. However, questioning the methodology because you do not agree with the research findings may well be subjective and unscientific.

Summary

Scientism belongs to the group of technicist paradigms.

Many natural scientists regard it as the most reliable path to the truth.

They also regard natural science as the only true science.

Social scientists regard the attitude of the natural scientists as scientific imperialism.

Scientism is mostly used with quantitative research methods.

Scientism can be associated with empiricism, positivism, rationalism and modernism.

Scientism is opposed to constructivism and post-positivism.

Points of criticism against scientism include:

  1. That it is a closed system of knowing.
  2. It ignores qualitative arguments.
  3. And natural scientists tend to blame the research process if the project fails.
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ARTICLE 68: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Romanticism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What can be better than a philosophy that encourages you to follow your dreams?

Imagine how great it will be if you could create your own space in life.

To do the things that you enjoy doing and that makes you happy.

Don’t you think that life would be so much better if you could live your personality, be your own unique self?

Perhaps you can have such freedom by paying more attention to romanticism as your philosophical perspective of life.

I discuss romanticism as a paradigm in this article.

Romanticism originally dealt with art, culture and literature on an intellectual level, starting as a revolt against social and political norms and a reaction against the scientific explanation of nature. It strives towards an understanding of people and nature.

Romanticism, however, no longer deals with art only. It is also not always historical in nature. Many recent phenomena, such as nationalism, existentialism, leadership, interpersonal relationships, democracy, politics and many more are affected by romanticism.

Romanticism focuses on imagination, creativity, uniqueness, emotion, and freedom. Even though appearing to be a rigid and intolerant stance, romanticism promotes tolerance and acceptance of the irrationality of human behaviour. This means that romanticism acknowledges and accepts liberalism, decency and a measure of increased rational self-understanding.

Romanticism accepts as fact that human conclusions and the structuring of knowledge are ubiquitous, though not always accurate. This means that the absence of truth is regarded as truth and the absence of values is regarded as a value. Rejection is regarded as a form of creativity which rejects cause and effect and even logic. Reason is regarded as a kind of confinement, and freedom a triumph of will. Training and culture are regarded as synonymous.

Romanticist researchers believe in naturalness, freedom from boundaries and rules, and living a solitary life free from communal restrictions. Imagination is regarded as superior to reason. Romanticism is individual rather than group oriented, even though some of the romantic values, such as social solidarity, lean towards group cohesion. The mysterious, occult and satanic are often researched following a romanticist paradigm.

Romantic nationalism developed as an extension of romanticism. It can include the manner of government practice, language, race, culture, religion and customs in a country and nation. Romantic nationalism would typically oppose autocratic, discriminatory and corrupt government. Self-determination is often a key issue. The use of a command and control hierarchy is frowned upon.

Romanticism draws a measure of parallelism with liberalism and relativism by claiming that there are many compatible values. It is enlightening and supports values such as striving for justice, the power of science, love of truth, happiness and a focus on wisdom.

In terms of its view of especially power relations, romanticism is the opposite of structuralism, with the former challenging it and the latter embracing it as the foundation for the development of knowledge. Unwittingly romanticism erodes itself by promoting new ideas and creativity which, it seems, is not what romanticists originally had in mind.

Conducting research in topics such as the occult and satanism may invite the disapproval of some people, especially if the purpose of the research is to erode integrity and ethics. This may be regarded as misuse and unprofessional conduct.

Summary

Romanticism:

  1. No longer deals with art and culture only.
  2. Can manifest as a revolt against social and political norms.
  3. Opposes the scientific explanation of nature.
  4. Strives towards the understanding of people and nature.
  5. Promotes tolerance and acceptance.
  6. Focusses on imagination, creativity, uniqueness, emotion and freedom.
  7. Acknowledges liberalism, decency and some rational self-understanding.
  8. Frowns upon the use of a command and control hierarchy.
  9. Researches the mysterious, occult and satanic.
  10. Believes in naturalness, freedom from boundaries and rules and living a solitary life.
  11. Is associated with liberalism and relativism and opposed to structuralism.

Freedom is regarded as a triumph of will.

Rejection is creativity.

The absence of value is value.

The absence of truth is truth.

Reason is a confinement.

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ARTICLE 64: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Pre-modernism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Is there any justification for universities to conduct research for the sake of research?

Stated differently, should universities spend time and money on research that does not solve any social, technological, economic, legislative, environmental or political problems?

Should universities be allowed to spend time and money on research just to flex their intellectual muscles?

To show other universities and the world how advanced they are?

Is such research a step backwards?

After all, that is what pre-modernists did centuries ago.

I discuss pre-modernism in this video.

Originally pre-modernism was based upon revealed knowledge from authoritative sources. It was believed that ultimate truth could be known and the way to this knowledge was through direct revelation. This direct revelation was believed to come from a god with a church as the primary authority source.

Pre-modernists see the world as a totality with a unified purpose. The human being is seen as part of the whole, which is greater than its parts. This means that value is added to the sum of the values of each part by combining them into one phenomenon from which knowledge can be gained.

Pre-modernists strive to progress away from historical developments. As part of the whole, human beings also share the blame for the mistakes that the collective made through history. The rationale for this is that each individual is personally and collectively responsible to act morally correctly. However, there is no distinction between individual and collective responsibility.

Although an emic approach fits in better with the spirit of pre-modernism, research can also be done by a researcher who is not a member of the target group for the research, i.e. an etic approach. Qualitative or quantitative research methods can be used to investigate the human being as part of the whole.

Pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism can be seen as periods of time and as philosophical systems, the one evolving into the next.

Although pre-modernism is seen as the forerunner of modernism, they differ in the sense that modernism is a scientific paradigm, preferring quantitative research methods, whereas pre-modernism favours qualitative research methods.

Criticism of pre-modernism is that it is almost irrelevant except, perhaps for historical development study purposes. The reason for this is that the notions of divine interventions and the mystical have been pushed aside by what is regarded as reason. Even so, some of the most advanced universities world-wide support the notion that ‘research for the sake of research’ is an advanced approach to research. This includes understanding events and cultures that no longer exist. In this respect one can argue that pre-modernism still has a role to play, although it is now technicist paradigms rather than interpretive paradigms that support free inquiry.

The notion that research should not be restricted by considerations of immediate practical relevance applies to any field of research. The pursuit of knowledge for the purposes of deepening understanding might, eventually, support or at least inspire practical and occupational value.

Summary

Pre-modernism originally believed that ultimate truth could come from direct revelation.

Now pre-modernism is moving away from historical beliefs.

The world is a totality with a unified purpose.

The whole is regarded as greater than its parts.

Each individual is held personally and collectively responsible to act morally correct.

People share the blame for mistakes.

An emic approach to data collection is preferred.

Qualitative and quantitative research methods can be used.

Pre-modernism is associated with some elements and opposed to other elements of modernism and post-modernism.

Some academics regard the value of pre-modernism for research purposes as insignificant.

Close

On my question if universities should spend time and money on research just for the sake of research:

Yes, I think they should.

In fact, in my opinion there is no such things as worthless research.

Research that is well structured, logical and based on corroborated data will always add value.

Even if only to serve as an example of how academic research should be conducted.

Enjoy your studies.

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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.

Summary

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.

Close

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 60: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies. Post-modernism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

How would you define knowledge?

Is knowledge “a final verdict by an expert or authoritarian figure”?

Is knowledge dependent on time?

Does context influence knowledge?

Can the meaning of knowledge be changed and still remain valid?

Post-modernism offers interesting, liberating and unexpected answers to these and other questions about the nature of knowledge.

I discuss post-modernism in this article.

Post-modernism gradually became popular from the 1950s onwards. Instead of relying on one approach to knowing, post-modernists support a pluralistic epistemology which utilises multiple ways of knowing. Post-modernism is more than just a philosophical movement or school of thought based on a definite point of view, value system or goal. It is applied mainly in the artistic and social sciences, although it has also gained acceptance in other fields of learning, for example economics, architecture, etc. Different from modernism, which is technicist in nature, post-modernism is critical but also interpretive.

Post-modernism regards knowledge as fundamentally fragmented and unstable. It rejects the possibility that we can have objective knowledge. Any research should question the validity and accuracy of current knowledge, and the paradigms that are used with research methods should be articulated to the way this is achieved.

Post-modernism questions the existing knowledge upon which we base our thinking and deconstructs this to convey a different way of interpretation and reality. Narratives of truth and knowledge, text or written content, previous authority sources of power, for example the church and government are deconstructed. Language is fluid and arbitrary and rooted in power or knowledge relations. Meaning is, therefore, vague and the result of deconstruction without scientific proof. Following on from this reasoning, post-modernists caution that we should be careful with generalisations, seeing that events and phenomena are mostly only true in a particular context or point in time or both.

Post-modernism values the subjective and multiple opinions of individuals and communities rather than predetermined rules for action. It assigns value to multiple meanings rather than the single, authoritative voice of the expert researcher. This is because what we call knowledge must be made with the linguistic and other meaning-making resources of a particular culture, and different cultures can see the world in different ways.

All knowledge of reality bears the mark of human culture, personality and biology, and these cannot be separated from what a specific group of people or culture would call knowledge or truth. Post-modernism argues that what we call knowledge is a special kind of story that puts together words and images in ways that portray the perspective of a particular culture or some relatively powerful members of that culture.

According to post-modernists universal, objective truth does not exist. All judgements of truth exist within a cultural context. This is sometimes also called “cultural relativism”. Stated differently, our endeavour is not to find absolute truth or facts, but the best approximation of truth as it applies to a specific group in a specific situation and a specific time. This does not mean that just anything can be accepted as truth.

Post-modernists reject the idea of a fixed, universal and eternal foundation for reality. They argue that because reality is in part culturally dependent and culture changes over time and varies from community to community, we can logically assume that reality is not the same for everybody. In addition, it is asserted that we construct reality in accordance with our needs, interests, prejudices and cultural traditions.

Because power is distrusted, post-modernists try to set up a less hierarchical approach in which authority sources are more diffuse. The knowledge that we construct refers more to probability than to certainty. It is constantly changing as each individual or group gives a particular interpretation to it, reflecting distinctive needs and experiences. For this reason, we must deconstruct previous authority sources of power and text to uncover the hidden or intended meanings and discourse.

Facts are seen as temporary and volatile, with the result that they should not be regarded as an only truth. Reality is in part socially constructed with the result that reality is the product of subjective human interpretation with no sharp fact-value distinction. All factual statements reflect the values they serve, and all value beliefs are conditioned by factual assumptions. What we call facts are only somewhat less value-determined, but they are not independent of values.

The idea of a socially constructed reality leads directly to a radical shift in the idea of method. Some post-modernists hold that a research method not only discovers a part of reality, it simultaneously constructs it. No longer do we see ourselves as seeking to uncover a pre-existing reality, but rather as involved in an interactive process of knowledge creation. As researchers we are part of developing an explanation and understanding of reality and life. What we arrive at is in part autobiographical: it reflects our personal life-story and our interpretation of the meaning of life.

In terms of research, convention is challenged, research approaches are mixed, ambiguity is tolerated, diversity is emphasised, innovation and change are embraced, and multiple realities are focused on. It is a broad term that encompasses many different research methods, most of them valuing uncertainty, disorder, indeterminacy and regression rather than progress.

Post-modernism rejects the emphasis on rational discovery through the scientific method. It replaces rational discovery through scientific research with respect for difference and a celebration of the local at the expense of the universal.

Post-modernism is often associated with post-structuralism. It can include elements of pre-modernism and modernism along with many other ways of knowing, for example intuition, relational and spiritual. Generally, post-modernism accepts the basic ontological assumption of relativism and claims that there can be no “objective” or final truth as all “truth” is a socially constructed entity. Although post-modernism accepts some elements of modernism, the issue of objective truth is not shared by them.

Reason and science are seen by some as simply myths created by people. It, therefore, rejects the notion that science can be viewed as objective. It consists of a loose alliance of intellectual perspectives which collectively pose a challenging critique of the fundamental premise on which modernism, specifically the scientific research method, is based. Therefore, the notion that science, or scientism, is the paradigm of all true knowledge is rejected.

Technicist researchers, favouring paradigms such as scientism and positivism, claim that post-modernism questions existing knowledge on account of opinions, perceptions and presuppositions that are not corroborated by substantial and authoritative evidence. This, they feel, renders research, making use of the post-modernist paradigm, unscientific. Post-modernism, they feel, is based on an anti-realist, subjective ontology, because the formulation of facts is based on human interpretation.

Even proponents of post-modernism do not always agree on what scientific research really means. There are progressive and conservative post-modernists. Some post-modernists seek reaction while others seek resistance. Then there are those who strive for reform and others who like to disrupt the status quo. All post-modernists do not agree to the claim that reality is a human construct.

Not all researchers support the idea of post-modernism. According to the opponents of post-modernism the approach is too tentative, inconclusive frivolous and rigid. Some academics feel that post-modernism adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge because it is not based on any principles and supports no consistent and new theories. While some regard post-modernism as not sufficiently objective, there are also those who feel that it is not sufficiently flexible.

The ability of post-modernism to generate truth is questioned because, like any research, findings need to be reported. Post-modernists are of the opinion that the use of language (to write research reports) damages the accuracy of what is shared because language cannot relate reality accurately.

Summary

Post-modernism is based on a pluralistic epistemology.

This means that multiple ways of knowing are applied.

Power is distrusted.

Knowledge is fragmented and unstable.

It refers more to probability than certainty.

Reality is not the same for everybody.

Research focuses on multiple realities.

Facts and values interact.

Universal, objective truth does not exist.

Convention is challenged through research.

Any research approach and a variety of research methods can be followed.

Rational discovery through science is rejected.

An interactive process of knowledge creation is used.

Ambiguity is tolerated.

Diversity is emphasised.

Innovation and change are embraced.

Multiple opinions and meanings are valued.

Post-modernism is associated with post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-positivism, relativism, pre-modernism and modernism.

Post-modernism is opposed to positivism, pre-modernism and modernism.

Criticism against post-modernism is that it is resisted by some academics, who regard it as too tentative, inconclusive, frivolous and rigid. Academics also disagree about the meaning of the concept.

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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. 

Summary

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 57: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Phenomenology

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

Do you think personal perceptions can be a true reflection of the nature of events or phenomena?

Can opinions based on nothing more than experience be accepted as valid and accurate data for research?

Can you come to logical findings if you do not use cognitive thinking and reflection when conducting research?

Here we have a paradigm that does all of those things.

I discuss phenomenology in this video.

Phenomenology is a philosophy that believes that individual behaviour is the product of a person’s experience through direct interaction with phenomena. An objective external reality is believed not to have any effect on behaviour.

Social reality is believed to have meaning; therefore it should be taken into consideration when developing knowledge. Social reality is important for the way in which people behave as well as the factors that determine behaviour. This implies that research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals.  Actual experience is the essence of data used in phenomenology. Opinions, point of view, beliefs, superstitions, etc. are not taken into consideration.

Phenomenology deals with how people make sense of the world around them and how this can be used to understand phenomena and human behaviour. Phenomenologists realise that they should take their own perceptions into consideration when investigating those of other people. Their perceptions, however, should be based on experiences.

The data, research approaches and methods used in the natural sciences differ markedly from the data, research approaches and methods used in the social sciences, notably phenomenology. Data is analysed by reflecting on how we experienced events and phenomena, and gathering meaning from our reflections and consciousness.

Research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals because of the importance of social reality. The objective of phenomenology is to investigate and describe an event or phenomenon as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanations or objective reality. The description needs to describe as accurately as possible the phenomenon, without judging, in order to remain true to the facts. Phenomenological research, thus, studies people’s perceptions, perspectives and understanding of a particular situation, event or phenomenon to construct meaning.

Human beings interpret interaction with phenomena and attach meanings to different actions and/or ideas to construct new experiences. You, as the researcher, need to develop empathic understanding of phenomena to know how individuals interpret what they observe or experience, to understand the feelings, motives and thoughts that determine the behaviour of others.

Research based on a phenomenological paradigm strongly focuses on capturing the uniqueness of events or phenomena. For example, as part of research in human behaviour you may immerse yourself in the lives of convicted criminals. In carrying out such an inquiry, you might observe convicts in a correctional facility, share their particular struggles, conflicts and fears in an attempt to derive a deeper understanding of what it is like for them to serve time in the facility.

Phenomenological studies attend not only to the events being studied but also their political, historical, and sociocultural contexts. The studies strive to be as faithful as possible to the actual experiences, especially as it might be described in the participants’ own words. In the example of research in a correctional facility, you would, for example, ask convicts to describe situations where they felt that their lives were threatened.

In such inquiries, phenomenological studies resist the use of concepts, categories, taxonomies, or reflections about the experiences. This implies that generalisations should be avoided because they may distort the desired focus on the uniqueness of the events. You would also avoid any research methods having a tendency to construct a predetermined set of fixed procedures and techniques that would govern the research project. 

An alternative to seeking assertions of enduring value or considering all human experiences as unique, can be to aim for a limited form of generalisability. Such a limited form recognises the uniqueness of local situations but accepts that, depending on the degree of similarity of the sending and receiving contexts, some transferability of findings is possible.   

Phenomenological research embraces participants as stakeholders and participants in the research process. Even if limited, you and the participants can make some generalisations of what a phenomenon is like as an experience from the ‘insider’s’ perspective by analysing multiple perspectives of the same situation. This is yet another example of ‘emic’, the insider’s point of view, as opposed to ‘etic’ which would be the outsider’s point of view.

Phenomenologists are reluctant to follow a structured step-by-step research procedure. They argue that this would erode the integrity of the observed phenomenon. Research guidelines might be necessary just as long as it does not become a rigid procedure.       

Almost any qualitative research method can be used, including interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, etc. The only precondition is that the data should be a full description of actual experiences.

The data collection method used will largely decide how the data will be analysed. Keep in mind that data can be gathered as and when an event takes place, which would mean that the data can change in unexpected ways and directions. You should focus on deep understanding of the data through analysis. The data and its analysis should contribute to the achievement of the purpose of your research. Reflection is needed to extract meaning from data, and you will need to carefully analyse the data to achieve this.

Phenomenological studies emphasise hermeneutic or interpretive analysis of actual experiences. It is also associated with symbolic interactionism, which argues that the individual is continually interpreting and analysing the symbolic meaning of his or her environment, with symbolism often being the spoken or written word. Phenomenology tries to interpret and describe experiences in a way that others will also be able to understand.

Phenomenology is opposed to the positivist paradigm and most other technicist paradigms. The reason for this is that phenomenology requires collecting and reflecting on actual experiences which will seldom include quantitative analysis. Data gathered phenomenologically would mostly be subjective whereas the positivist paradigm requires objective data.

Researchers criticise phenomenology for many different reasons. The paradigm is interpreted and used in a variety of ways by different researchers, with the result that the meaning of the philosophy has been eroded. Secondly, there is little, if any consistency in the examples given in many different fields of research, all claiming to be case studies of phenomenology. Thirdly, phenomenological observations are not always useful for research purposes because of the lack of cognitive thinking and reflection. Fourthly, the limited provision for the development of generalizable knowledge is contrary to the purpose of especially doctoral studies.

Summary

Phenomenology studies experience through direct interaction.

Social reality rather than the external reality is investigated.

The researcher’s and target group’s perceptions are used to understand phenomena and human behaviour.

Research attends to political, historical and socio-cultural contexts.

The uniqueness of events and phenomena can be the focus of the research.

The researcher can analyse data by falling back on common sense thinking.

Accurate descriptions of events and phenomena are related.

Events and phenomena are not judged.

Conscious experiences are described without theory and causal explanations.

The use of concepts, categories, procedures, reflections, taxonomies and techniques are resisted.

Phenomenology is associated with ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics and interpretivism.

The paradigm is opposed to scientism, positivism and modernism.

Criticism against the paradigm are:

  1. That cognitive thinking and reflection are neglected
  2. It is difficult to find valid examples of the use of phenomenology.
  3. It is seldom possible to generalise research findings.
  4. Researchers are confused about the meaning of the paradigm.
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