Research Article 13: Liberalism 5

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

In our current day and age neoliberalism largely rendered liberalism obsolete. Even so, liberalism is still a relevant paradigm.

Liberalism advocates tolerance, progress, humanitarianism, objectivity, reason, democracy, and human rights. To this can be added a host of other positive attributes dealing with human rights, social interaction and freedom. This, amongst other things, implies that all individuals in a country possess an equal status as legal subjects, regardless of other inequalities and differences that might divide them.[1]

Liberalism, thus, is a philosophical approach to human interaction and also a social force.[2] The basic premise of liberalism is the equality of individuals before the law.[3] In this respect, liberalism links up with critical race theory, critical theory and feminism.

All the elements of liberalism offer valuable fields for research. In a constructivist spirit, research should utilise observation and experiences to reflect on and evaluate previous perceptions in the hope of understanding the situations and phenomena being investigated. Understanding should lead to change and reform.

Constructivism is a variant of liberal theory if issues like human rights, freedom of social interaction, etc. are investigated.

Neoliberalism also supports or extends some elements of liberalism, for example, private property rights, a classically minimal liberal state, and the efficiency of the free market system. In other respects, neoliberalism is in opposition with liberalism, although neoliberalism is gradually adopting more and more liberalist values. The four central areas in which liberalism and neoliberalism overlap are human rights, non-discrimination (ethnicity and gender), education and the media.

Liberalism is associated with relativism through its relativist conception of rights – it accuses other paradigms of being relativist in order to have its own relativism accepted as universalism.[4] For example, liberal relativism is sometimes rather a neo-colonial tactic designed to maintain the exploitation of developing countries by developed former colonial powers, or new powers taking over the role of colonial power under the guise that they are helping the needy country to grow.

Liberalism is associated with radicalism because they both support the struggle for democracy, specifically campaigning for the right to vote, welfare reform, and public services, with radicalism adopting a more aggressive stance than liberalism.

Liberalism is in opposition with some values of critical race theory and colonialism because of its favouritism toward the elite, the rich and the noble.

Some academics still associate ‘liberal’ with unrestrained and undisciplined attitudes and behaviour.[5] The strength of liberalism, namely its commitment to emancipation, is said to also be its most serious weakness. Throughout history, liberalists claimed their love for liberty while demonstrating contempt for people of the colonies and for women. Liberalists are of the opinion that they are entitled to enforce ‘democracy’ upon the ‘less enlightened’.[6] Because of its authoritarian stance, liberalism cannot be equated with democracy, and liberty is not the same as equality.

The second weakness of liberalism is that there is hardly any consensus of exactly what it means. People’s thoughts about and understanding of liberal concepts such as human rights largely depend on who is in charge, whose side you are on, what you stand to gain or lose because of your point of view, if your point of view is legal and politically correct, and your position in a social group or community. Most citizens of the USA probably felt that they were protecting human rights when they invaded Iraq in 2003, whereas most Iraqi citizens probably felt that they were robbed of their human rights.

A negative consequence of liberalism claiming to favour the needy while discriminating between the informed, rich and educated on the one side and the uninformed, poor and uneducated on the other side, is that research on the former often follows an emic approach while research on the latter follows an etic approach. The informed, rich and educated are regarded and treated as participants in the research while the uninformed, poor and uneducated are regarded as subjects upon whom research is done.


[1] W. Davies in A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 15.

[2] A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 11.

[3] Ibid: 2.

[4] A. An-Na’im in A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 55.

[5] A. Abraham-Hamanoiel, D. Freeman, G. Khiabany, K. Nash, and J. Petley (Editors), 2017: 1.

[6] Ibid: 4.

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About Hannes Nel

CEO and owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd. Academic background: B. Mil.; BA Honnours; MBL; D. Com; D. Phil Published 10 books with two more in the pipeline.

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5 thoughts on “Research Article 13: Liberalism

  • Hannes Nel Post author

    Hello Sylvia, Thank you for being interested in my postings. The difference between an emic and etic approach lies in the way in which the researcher approaches his or her target group for the research. An emic approach would be if the researcher investigates her or his target group “from the inside”. This would mean that the researcher is included in the target for the research. An etic approach would be if the researcher is not included in the research target and do the research “from the outside”.
    If I were to do research on, say, the eating habits of people in Australia, I would need to follow an etic approach because I do not live in Australia. I would conduct the research “from the outside” and I would write a report on “them”. If I were to do the same research on people living in South Africa, it can include me because I live in South Africa, and I would then write a report on “us”. That would be an emic approach.

  • sylvia hammond

    Thank you so much for your explanation. That becomes much clearer for me.
    I am interested in your distinction of academics representing an etic or emic approach in post-colonial studies.
    So following that distinction & taking it further – would it be correct in studying the apartheid years to be able to distinguish older students with a emic approach and young students with an etic approach?

  • Hannes Nel Post author

    Good morning, Sylvia, I wonder if there is anything about philosophical points of view that one can call “generally accepted”. At the same time, many paradigms overlap and share elements and characteristics. Constructivism versus liberalism is a good example of this. Liberalism deals with issues like human rights, tolerance, freedom, etc. These are mostly “good” or positive issues. You will probably find researchers who would claim to be using liberalism as a philosophical point of view with which to do research on negative issues, such as violence, crime, etc. (they should have considered using critical theory). Even when this is the case, you will probably find that the researcher focuses on the “good” elements of the bad issues.
    Like liberalism, constructivism deals with human interests, but not necessarily with personal issues. It is in terms of dealing with human interests that the two can be variants of one another. However, constructivism can be a not-so-finicky lady – it can be associated with any interpretive or critical paradigm. (Constructivism is an interpretive paradigm while liberalism is a critical paradigm.) That is why some academics question the identity of constructivism – it is said to be a mixture of many different paradigms – I guess one can call it an eclectic paradigm, if there is such a thing.
    On the issue of post-colonialism. I post the paradigms in alphabetical order, which is why it will only be discussed later. Liberalism is more in opposition with colonialism than with post-colonialism. Post-colonialism pushed colonialism aside. Many regard colonialism as obsolete, even though it does still have some value, even if mostly historical. Academics and other writers who were citizens of colonial powers mostly wrote about colonialism. Later some of them also wrote in a post-colonial vein. However, academics belonging to countries that were colonies increasingly started writing about the oppression of the past, and they use post-colonialism. The main difference is that academics and other writers from ex-colonial powers do research and write for the outside with ex-colonies and their citizens as the target group, i.e. an etic approach. Academics from ex-colonies, like South Africa, regard themselves as part of the target group for research and write in that vein, i.e. an emic approach.

  • sylvia hammond

    Thank you Hannes. I read with interest, and I have a question and a request please.
    I see your comment about constructivism as variant of liberalism. I had not seen that. Is that a generally accepted view?
    Then a request please. Your last paragraph I think, leads into a discussion of a post-colonial epistemology. Could you engage with that please?