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About this book

This concise and easy-to-use guide provides students with the skills needed for planning and doing research well, whatever their course of study. Short, succinct chapters take students through the process one step at a time, from planning their project and doing the groundwork through to conducting fieldwork, analysing data and writing up their research. It features practical advice and examples from various subject areas throughout, alongside checklists to keep students on track.

This is an ideal resource for students of all disciplines, especially undergraduates undertaking a research project for the very first time.

Table of Contents

1. Planning

Research: v. investigate; study; explore; delve into; examine; inquire; seek; look into. n. careful search; systematic investigation aimed at increasing the store of knowledge. We all do research every day: research is just finding something out. Go to the train enquiries website and look up the time of your train – that’s research. There’s nothing difficult about research. But when you do research at university something else is involved. The research has to be about something more significant than train times: it’s about finding out something new. You should be curious to find out an answer. In exploring your subject you have to base your inquiry not only on the information you collect, but also on what is already known about the subject. And your inquiry has to be thorough and balanced – in other words, you can’t just find out what you want to find out by ignoring any inconvenient facts that you uncover. All this, from beginning to end – from the first question to reading around to conducting your own inquiries ‘out in the field’ – is research. And why do you need this book? You need this book because students often, too often, begin by ploughing straight into interviews or questionnaires or whatever, without really being sure why they are doing them or what they are going to end up with. Good research design helps you to join the dots and end up with a meaningful piece of research: a piece of research that will get you an ‘A’.
Gary Thomas

2. Groundwork

To get from your prima facie question to a final question you have to do some work. It’s like the bulldozers clearing a building site before a new house is built. They have to clear the ground. And so do you: you have to clear the ground. You need some kit for this: a literature review and a storyboard, and you also need to consider ethics. The ground clearing means rethinking your initial question and doing a bit of toing and froing. It involves what is sometimes called a ‘recursive design’ to your research. The alternative is a linear design, which is more usual in certain of the sciences such as physics or chemistry. However, in the social sciences and the applied sciences it is usual for the research, as it is being done, to influence the shape of the ultimate research. As you research you find stuff out and it affects the way you proceed. This diagram isn’t supposed to look pretty. It’s supposed to look a mess. In fact, draw in your own arrows and mess it up even more. The idea I’m trying to convey is that your research changes as you proceed: you’ll have new ideas and these will influence the direction and progress of your research – these are the backward arrows on the diagram. They’re not ‘bad’ backward arrows; they’re backward in the sense of letting you think again – letting you refine your initial questions.
Gary Thomas

3. Building a Scaffold

You have to build a scaffold, or frame, to support your research. The scaffold can be one of a variety of shapes and sizes and it will be built to guide the way your research develops. Another term for these scaffolds that shape your research is design frames. Let’s have a look at the ones most frequently used in small-scale and undergraduate research: ◗◗ action research ◗◗ case study ◗◗ ethnography ◗◗ experiment ◗◗ survey. These are all governed by different assumptions about the world and so you have to follow particular ground rules when you adopt them. I won’t go into a lot of detail about these now, since there are bigger books that can explain them more fully (e.g. Thomas 2017). However, I’ll begin by saying a little about approaches to research, about ways of judging its trustworthiness, and about sampling. I think you will find it helpful to know something about these general issues so that you can understand the different starting (and ending) points to different design frames.
Gary Thomas

4. Fieldwork: Finding the Data

Doing research at university may mean just finding something out by looking for it in a book. However, when you are asked to do research by your tutors, you are usually being expected to find something out empirically. This means that you are expected to find something original and from your own experience (i.e. not a book author’s experience). To do this you need to look at the world, ask people questions and keep notes. It means using your eyes and ears. With your eyes and ears you gather data (or information) and with these data you can answer your questions and support (or not) the claims you made at the beginning of your research. When data are used in support of a proposition in this way, they become evidence. Evidence is very important in research. The process of collecting data is sometimes called fieldwork. Let’s look at some of the principal ways you can collect data in your fieldwork. You can collect them through: ◗◗ interviews ◗◗ diaries ◗◗ questionnaires ◗◗ observation ◗◗ official statistics – also called ‘secondary data’. Let’s look at these and how you might use them.
Gary Thomas

5. Analysing the Data

Once you’ve got all your data, what do you do with them? Remember that they are only data until you have analysed them and used them intelligently. Only then will your data become evidence. So, how do you do the analysis? Your data are likely to come in one of two main forms: ◗◗ words ◗◗ numbers. You treat different kinds of data in different ways. Let’s look at each in turn. What is sometimes called ‘qualitative research’ is usually research to do with words (or, sometimes, images). When I say ‘words’, I mean words joined up in the way that we usually join them up in language in our everyday lives. I don’t mean isolated words, counted, as you might count them, with questionnaire responses. I mean proper sentences with meanings. How do you analyse these, other than by just taking the sentences at face value and copying them out into your research report? Most ways of analysing words are based on the constant comparative method. It’s all you need to know. Here’s what it is.
Gary Thomas

6. Writing Up Research

Your reader (that is, your marker) will have clear expectations about what a research write-up should look like – what you should write and the order in which it should appear. All research is different so all write-ups are different. But here is a rough summary of what might be in a typical write up. Here are the rough proportions and corresponding numbers of words given to each of these sections, although I should warn you that this is only a rough guide: some write-ups will be very different. Don’t feel straitjacketed by this. Chapters 4 and 5 in this imaginary write-up can present a bit of a problem in knowing how best to present them. With a scientific study in chemistry or biology or certain kinds of psychology experiment, you will present your chapters as neatly divided, like this. You may even separate fieldwork and findings into two separate chapters. However, in many kinds of research in the social sciences, particularly those involving case study, it is difficult to decide how Chapters 4 and 5 should be presented. Should they be two chapters, as above, or – given the wholeness stressed by a case study – should you present these as one chapter? All the time as you are presenting your findings, you will be testing them out against your thoughts and reflections – in other words, against your analysis.
Gary Thomas
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