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Research Methodology



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Superficially the research process can appear to be relatively simple – if you carry out the basic steps methodically and carefully, then you should arrive at useful conclusions. However, the nature of research can be very complex and when you are reading textbooks on research methodology you will come across many unfamiliar words and terms. We first look at types of research and explain some of the terms.

Types of research

The main different types of research can be classified by its purpose, its process and its outcome. These can in turn be broken down further:

  • The purposeof the research can be classified as:
    • exploratory
    • descriptive
    • analytical
    • predictive.
  • The processof the research can be classified as:
    • quantitative
    • qualitative.
  • The outcomeof the research can be classified as:
    • applied
    • basic or pure
    • action.

Let us look at these in more detail.

Purpose of research

  • Exploratory researchThis is conducted when there are few or no earlier studies to which references can be made for information. The aim is to look for patterns, ideas or hypotheses rather than testing or confirming a hypothesis. In exploratory research the focus is on gaining insights and familiarity with the subject area for more rigorous investigation later. In an undergraduate dissertation it is likely that you will be drawing on previous studies and so pure exploratory research is not generally appropriate for studies at this level – it is more appropriate for postgraduate research. However, it is possible that you may carry out an initial survey to establish areas of concern (exploratory research) and then research these issues in more depth, perhaps through interviews, to provide a deeper understanding (explanatory research).
  • Descriptive research

This describes phenomena as they exist. It is used to identify and obtain information on the characteristics of a particular issue. It may answer such questions as:

  • What is the absentee rate amongst a particular group of workers?
  • What are the feelings of workers faced with redundancy?

The data collected are often quantitative, and statistical techniques are usually used to summarise the information. Descriptive research goes further than exploratory research in examining a problem since it is undertaken to ascertain and describe the characteristics of the issue. An undergraduate dissertation may include descriptive research, but it is likely that it will also include one of the following two types (explanatory or predictive) as you are required in your dissertation to go beyond description and to explain or predict.

  • Analytical or explanatory research

This is a continuation of descriptive research. The researcher goes beyond merely describing the characteristics, to analyse and explain why or how something is happening. Thus, analytical research aims to understand phenomena by discovering and measuring causal relations among them. It may answer questions such as:

  • How can the number of complaints made by customers be reduced?
  • How can the absentee rate among employees be reduced?
  • Why is the introduction of empowerment seen as a threat by departmental managers?
  • Predictive research

Predictive research goes further by forecasting the likelihood of a similar situation occurring elsewhere. It aims to generalise from the analysis by predicting certain phenomena on the basis of hypothesised, general relationships. It may attempt to answer questions such as:

  • Will the introduction of an employee bonus scheme lead to higher levels of productivity?
  • What type of packaging will improve our products?

Predictive research provides ‘how’, ‘why’, and ‘where’ answers to current events as well as to similar events in the future. It is also helpful in situations where ‘What if?’ questions are being asked.

Process of research

There is no consensus about how to conceptualise the actual undertaking of research. There are, however, two main traditions of approaching a research topic – quantitative and qualitative. Each approach demands different research methods.

  • Quantitative research

The quantitative approach usually starts with a theory or a general statement proposing a general relationship between variables. With this approach it is likely that the researchers will take an objective position and their approach will be to treat phenomena as hard and real. They will favour methods such as surveys and experiments, and will attempt to test hypotheses or statements with a view to generalising from the particular. This approach typically concentrates on measuring or counting and involves collecting and analysing numerical data and applying statistical tests.

  • Qualitative research

The alternative tradition is the qualitative approach. Here the investigator views the phenomena to be investigated as more personal and softer. He or she will use methods such as personal accounts, unstructured interviews and participant observation to gain an understanding of the underlying reasons and motivations for peoples’ attitudes, preferences or behaviours. With this approach, the emphasis is more on generating hypotheses from the data collection rather than testing a hypothesis.

In reading around the subject you will find many alternative names for qualitative and quantitative research. It is good to have an understanding of these and to recognise them when you see them in research methods textbooks.

The features and differences between the two research processes are detailed below.

You should note the following points:

  • Qualitative and quantitative research methods are not clear-cut nor mutually exclusive – most research draws on both methods.
  • Both approaches can generate quantitative and qualitative data.
  • The difference between the two methods is in the overall form and in the emphasis and objectives of the study.

Outcome of research

  • Applied research

Applied research is problem-oriented as the research is carried out to solve a specific problem that requires a decision, for example, the improvement of safety in the workplace, or market research. For your dissertation it is not usually acceptable to carry out applied research as it is very much limited to one establishment or company and you are required to look at issues of wider significance, perhaps to your industry as a whole or to a sector of it. You may have already carried out a problem-based piece of research related to your placement. It is important to understand that the dissertation requires you to carry out some form of basic research – see below.

  • Basic research

Basic research is also called fundamental or pure research, and is conducted primarily to improve our understanding of general issues, without any emphasis on its immediate application. It is regarded as the most academic form of research since the principal aim is to make a contribution to knowledge, usually for the general good, rather than to solve a specific problem for one organisation. This may take the form of the following:

  • Discovery – where a totally new idea or explanation emerges from empirical research which may revolutionise thinking on that particular topic. An example of this would be the Hawthorne experiments. (Gillespie, 1991)
  • Invention – where a new technique or method is created. An example of this would be the invention of TQM (total quality management).
  • Reflection – where an existing theory, technique or group of ideas is re-examined possibly in a different organisational or social context. For example, to what extent can Herzberg’s theory of motivation be applied to front-line workers in the contract catering sector?
    (Torrington & Hall, 1995)

For an undergraduate dissertation it is most likely that you will be concentrating on reflection, as the scope of the project is unlikely to be large enough to consider discovery or invention.

  • Action researchThis is a form of research where action is both an outcome and a part of the research. The researcher ‘interferes’ with or changes – deliberately – what is being researched. The critics of action research argue that since the researcher is changing what is being researched during the process of research, the work cannot be replicated. If it cannot be replicated its findings cannot be tested in other situations. This prevents general knowledge being developed and thus it cannot contribute to theory. Also, as the researcher is involved in the change process there is a loss of critical, detached objectivity. There are two approaches to action research:
    • Classical action research begins with the idea that if you want to understand something you should try changing it.
    • New paradigm research is based on a new model or framework for research. It claims that research can never be neutral and that even the most static and conventional research exposes the need for change in what is being researched. It involves inquiry into persons and relations between persons, and is based on a close relationship between researcher and those being researched. The research is a mutual activity of a ‘co-ownership’ involving shared power with respect to the process and the outcomes of the research. Those being researched can, for example, decide how the research will be undertaken, in what form and with what questions being asked. The researcher is a member of a ‘community’ and brings to it special skills and expertise. The researcher does not dictate what will happen. This type of research is most easily carried out when working with individuals or small groups. It means that the researcher must be highly skilled not only in research methods but also in the interpersonal skills of facilitating others. It is not, therefore, usually appropriate for an undergraduate student who is carrying out a major piece of research for the first time. Action research is often used by educationalists who are trying to improve their own practice by making changes to the delivery of their classes and by observing and asking students which actions work best.

    As you can see, there are a number of types of research and not all may be suitable for you in your dissertation. The key points to remember are as follows:

  • While the purpose of your dissertation may have some elements of exploratory or descriptive research you should concentrate on research that will mainly fall into the explanatory area, or perhaps predictive research if you are very confident. Explanatory research gives you the opportunity to demonstrate the skills of analysis and evaluation which will help you to score highly in your final marks.
  • The process of your research can either be quantitative or qualitative and the different methods that can help you to carry out your research in this way are outlined more fully in Unit 3.
  • It is likely that you will be carrying out basic or pure research in the reflection mode (rather than applied or action research) as this will give you the best chance of showing that you can test out a theory in a new situation.

Other research terms

You may find a number of research terms when reading about methodology and it will help if you have some understanding of them as they can be confusing! The next activity will help you explore some of these terms.


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