Introduction to Research

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This is an introduction to doing research, particularly original research. Please feel free to edit this guide, to add methods, methodologies that you use, or to add questions, requests or comments on the talk page.

Starting research[edit]

You will most likely start doing research because you have a particular interest in a particular field. You might want to find out more about, for example, the links between poverty and crime; how to provide for multiculturalism in the classroom; or what the extent and effects of pollution in your area are.

To find out more about this interest of yours, you must identify a "path" that you will take in order to undertake this research. You will most likely not know what this path is, but you might have some idea of where to start - eg. from your theoretical/disciplinary standpoint, or from something that you have read that has made you think, even if you disagree with it. You may find, in thinking about your area further, that there is something which is not working, or which is unknown, or perhaps which is hypothesised, but that needs to be tested. This is the context for your research - your research problem. The next thing that you need to do is to turn that problem into a question or a statement - which you will use to address this problem.

Research question[edit]

Your research question (or questions) should be your tool(s) for addressing the issue that you have identified as being of interest to you. The way you ask the question is vital to determining what kind of research you will conduct. For example, if you are interested in the second example above - multiculturalism in the classroom - you could ask a number of questions about this, all of which will guide you in a specific direction. Examples of questions to address this context/problem might include:

  • "Why are some schools managing to integrate students from different backgrounds better than others?"
  • "How are teachers in [X] coping with the increasing numbers of students from [X]?"
  • "What could I do to improve the intercultural awareness of the students within my class?"
  • "What is the impact of multiculturalism on classroom ethos?
  • "What are the strengths and weaknesses of multiculturalism in the classroom?

Each of these questions has a particular slant (possibly even a philosophy), both in what it is targeting and how it is phrased. They will also inevitably spawn a number of other questions, or sub-questions. They also may need to be refined, or clarified (such as, in the second question, by asking "What measures are teachers taking to cope with ...?". This is a continual process that you will have to think about constantly throughout your research - possibly even after your data collection and analysis. Things to bear in mind in forming questions to ask is to be realistic in what you can answer (with the time/resources you have available), and also in how many questions you are answering (better to have one or two well-focussed questions, than five vague ones).

Literature review[edit]

Research cannot exist in a vacuum. In order to be scientific and rigorous, your research must itself be based within the context of "the literature" (ie books, journals, newspaper articles). Literature here can be taken broadly - it is perfectly valid, for example, to cite television programs as contributing to the context of your area of inquiry. Your research should show that you have read around both your subject and the methodologies that you have chosen - your questions, methodologies and methods will also largely be shaped or influenced by what you have read.

Methodologies and methods[edit]

There are a wide array of research methodologies and methods, and, while there are some distinctions amongst these, there can also be significant overlap or multiple methods/methodologies used in a single research design. Research methodologies can take the form of experiment, case study, and/or survey, can be either, or a mixture of, qualitative (based on words and meanings) or quantitative (based on statistics and their meanings), and can incorporate a variety of methods to generate data (eg. observations, questionnaires), as well as varieties of ways of analysing this data. The following are some common ways of designing a methodology that answers your research question(s), and methods of generating data.

Methodologies[edit]

  • Experiment: An experiment-based methodology is where, simply speaking, a stimulus is applied (eg. a new system of teaching science to primary school students) and its response is measured (eg. by analysing exam results). Such a methodology is most often linked with a quantitative (ie statistical) approach, but this is not necessarily the case. To maximise the validity of such studies, there is usually some element of controlling of/for variables (such as by having a group of students who are taught differently to normal, and another group who are taught the same as normal). It can be linked with methods such as observation, interview etc.
  • Survey: A survey is a study of a phenomenon over/within a geographic region. This could involve, say, a survey of the crime rates of every major city in a certain country (where "major city" needs to be defined), or a survey of a sample of bloggers' political motivations (where this sample needs to be defined).
  • Case study: A case study, as the name implies, is a study of a specific "case", or group of "cases" - a "case" being an individual person, an organisation, a school etc. Some research will focus on one single case and attempt to generate "rich" data (ie revealing as much complexity as possible); and some research will focus on a number of cases, either which are significantly different from one another, or which are similar, or which are clustered or spread in a geographic/socio-political spread. Focussing on a number of cases can approach a survey design (or mini-survey) - or sometimes large-scale surveys can be used in order to identify specific cases which might be of interest to the researcher.

Overall, research design is a complicated, and personal, thing. There is no research which is implemented from another design "off-the-shelf". Of course your research will probably echo much research done before - and this is a good thing - but, in order to be individual, interesting and useful, it needs to be continually grounded in the research questions that you have outlined - as well as appropriate to the subject/context/environment/population that you are studying. In order to address a complex question (and all research questions are complex), you will need to identify what methodologies and methods - or, more likely, combinations of methodologies and methods - are most likely to address your particular question to your satisfaction.

Methodological issues[edit]

  • Sampling - Are the people you have chosen to participate in your research (or who have themselves chosen to participate in your research), representative of the population? In other words, if you can draw conclusions from your particular study, will it be useful or applicable to other people? Does it matter to you if your sample is unrepresentative?
  • Ethics - Are you potentially harming someone through your research? A central maxim of human-subject research (ie that involving people) is "do no harm".
  • Validity - How might your design be flawed, or your conclusions wrong?

Methods[edit]

Some examples of research methods:

  • Questionnaires: Sometimes a questionnaire can contain a number of questions with a number of options to choose from (ie where you have to "tick a box, or number of boxes"). Other questionnaires may be questions with space in which to write more free-form or detailed answers. Some questionnaires will have a mixture of both types of questions. Both types of questions can have their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Observations: Observation is paying close attention to an environment, its context, and its social dynamics. It can be systematic (where the researcher will be recording, for example, how many times a person scratches their head), or more free-form where the researcher watches everything and records as much detail as they can or that they feel is appropriate. This latter type is a form of "participant observation", and which is often associated with anthropological or ethnographic research.
  • Interviews: Interviews can be between one person and another, or in a group setting. They can be "structured" (where the interviewer will ask a predetermined set of questions), "semi-structured" (where the interviewer will ask a number of questions based on an outline of topics to be covered), or "unstructured" (where the interviewer will ask questions based on whatever emerges during the interview itself - or, often, will not seem to ask questions, but rather facilitate or participate in a conversation).
    • Eliciting: Eliciting is a way of getting people to talk about something, based on a prompt, such as a photograph, or piece of music. For example, in research done with young children, an interview might be intimidating, but a photograph (for example) gives the child or children something to talk about, while giving the researcher an opportunity to observe reactions to the photograph.

Activity[edit]

Return to the Research questions section above, and try to see what methodologies and methods you would use to address each of them. Why do you think your selection of methodologies and methods works better than other possible options? What potential issues do you see arising from your choices?

Analysis[edit]

Once you have collected your data (e.g. filled-in questionnaires, interviews recorded and transcribed), you must now do something with it! What good is your data to anyone else if it is not interpreted (except, of course, other researchers)?

Writing[edit]

Writing up your research into a report, paper, essay or thesis. See for more at Help:Resource types