How to do research


Research is gathering authoritative information to support an argument or point of view.

What is research?

Broadly speaking research is gathering authoritative information to support an argument or point of view. We research all the time, not just for academic purposes. For example, when you buy a pair of trainers you don't simply wander into a shop, pick up the first pair you see, pay for them and walk out. You check the various styles, you compare one pair with another, and you look at the price and perhaps compare it with other shops and online stores. You sometimes conduct primary research (gathering your own data) and try the shoes on or conduct a mini survey by asking your friends opinions. It is only after this extensive research that you make your decision whether it is worth parting with your money. We conduct research before we dress in the morning, before we agree to go out anywhere, before we decide what to eat and where to live and work. Research is a life skill.

How to conduct an online search

Checklist Guide

One useful way to understand research is to consider this definition:
"Research is a structured investigation, on a limited topic, aimed at supporting or illuminating a point of view or hypothesis"

Lets break this down…

  • Structured: A piece of research needs to be organised, it needs to have a beginning, middle and end. It needs to have a clear set of aims and objectives. A piece of research I NOT a random collection of personal opinions.
  • Investigation: This is a term we often come across in detective novels and TV shows. Investigation involves gathering evidence, digging deeply into source material. Some data will be "secondary", in other words evidence taken from other researchers work (remember to reference this). Secondary research is like checking reviews on a website before buying anything. Some research data will be "primary" meaning that it is information that you have gathered yourself. Primary research is often quite demanding as you have to personally collect the data yourself thorough experimentation or questionnaires for example. Trying a pair of shoes on for yourself would be primary research.
  • Limited: All research needs to have its limits. Learning how to focus your research on a clear and manageable topic is the beginning of successful research. Often identifying what your research project ISN'T going to do is as useful as identifying what it is intended to achieve. Simply going out with a vague idea that you want to buy shoes is likely to be less efficient than deciding before hand that you are specifically looking for non-practical party shoes that don't need to be very comfortable but have to look cool and can't cost more than £50.
  • Support: Often research is designed to argue in favour of a particular point of view. With this in mind researchers frequently gather information that is intended to show how a particular opinion is superior to another one. This sort of comparative study requires all the competing points of view to be explored carefully before coming down in support of one of them. Arguing that one point of view is "better" than another requires the researcher to gather evidence to prove this. It is also important to make clear what you mean by "better than" in this case. One pair of shoes may be "better" than another in your eyes because they are stylish and will make you look good but in the eyes of someone else the alternative might be "better" because they are cheaper. You need to make clear how you are evaluating your research evidence.
  • Illuminate: To illuminate something means simply to shine a light on it, to make it clearer especially if it wasn't easy to see before. In many cases research is not concerned with arguing for the superiority of one point of view over another but simply to make complex issues clear. People may be confused over your shoe buying choice but you can easily clarify why you made a particular purchase by presenting evidence that might not be obvious to them – the shoes were on sale, you have a number of events coming up where they will be appropriate, they are made under ethical conditions and not in a sweatshop by underpaid workers.

Final Comments

The Arts and Humanities Research Council usefully define research in this way:

  • It must define a series of research questions, issues or problems that will be addressed in the course of the research. It must also define its aims and objectives in terms of seeking to enhance knowledge and understanding relating to the questions, issues or problems to be addressed.
  • It must specify a research context for the questions, issues or problems to be addressed. It must specify why it is important that these particular questions, issues or problems should be addressed; what other research is being or has been conducted in this area; and what particular contribution the particular project will make to the advancement of creativity, insights, knowledge and understanding in the area
  • It must specify the research methods for addressing these research questions, issues or problems. It must state how, in the course of the research project, it will seek to answer the questions, address the issues or solve the problems. It should also explain the rationale for the chosen research methods and why they provide the most appropriate means by which to answer the research questions, issues or problems.

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