Research Methods

Understand how to identify appropriate research methods for particular methodological communities, rhetorical situations, and research questions.

Research Methods are the tools and techniques (aka protocols, processes, strategies) that investigators and methodological communities use to conduct research.

Research methods may be empirical (aka the scientific method), informal, or textual.

Key Terms: Methodological Community; Research Methodology


Research Methods vs. Research Methodologies
Researchers distinguish between research methods and methodologies:
(1) research methods are tools and techniques used to collect and analyze data. For example, an Interview or Survey is a tool.
(2) Research Methodologies are the justification a researcher provides for using particular methods. A researcher’s methodology is the rationale for using particular tools/methods. It is the philosophical framework, the epistemology that informs a research project.
In other words, methods can be compared to screwdrivers, hammers, nails, etc. while methodologies can be compared to the architectural plans for a building.

Research methods are a social, rhetorical construct. Different academic and professional communities—e.g., mathematics, psychology, physics, engineering, or business—employ unique research methods. A primary focus of training in academic and professional disciplines concerns learning how to use disciplinary-specific methods, tools, protocols, and processes for gathering and assessing information. For instance, an anthropologist’s account of kinship patterns in a tribe of Native Americans bears almost no resemblance to a cognitive psychologist’s investigation of sensory responses to light stimuli. 

Whether research results, truth claims, are understood or judged to be valid or convincing depends to a great extent on whether the investigator follows the tacit and explicit guidelines a discourse community considers appropriate for a particular research question and rhetorical situation. This is why rhetorical reasoning (especially audience awareness) plays such a formative role in the selection of research methods.

Research methods are not necessarily paired with particular methodologies, epistemological values, such as the rejection of positivism. Rather, methodological communities may employ the same methods yet hold contrary assumptions about the sort of knowledge those methods produce. For instance, a researcher could argue a case study creates universal knowledge—insights that transcend individuals, cultures, and historical periods. For instance, based on his therapy notes, Freud theorized we all have an id, ego, and superego. Jung suggested we all play archetypal roles including the hero, the shadow, the anima and and animus. In contrast, another researcher could conduct a case study with similar subjects and yet argue the insights gleaned from the research do not illustrate universal knowledge—i.e., the results are stories, narratives, that provide robust details about the subjects interviewed . . . and nothing more.

Research Methods are constantly changing in response to new technologies. Eager to develop new knowledge or test knowledge claims, investigators experiment with new methods as technologies evolve. For example, the internet enables investigators to conduct worldwide research with online survey tools and video conferencing tools. Businesses are working with big data and analytics to commercialize data about consumers habits as they traverse the internet or purchase items in the world. Machine learning theorists are looking at how people write to develop artificial intelligence so technologies like Amazon’s Alexa can speak with humans.

Research Methods are evolving in response to new cultural mores. Communities of practice reconsider ethical principles and engage in dialectics regarding best practices. For example, capturing gorillas and studying them in cages might have been considered good research in the 1920s. The work of later researchers like Dian Fossey, however, demonstrated how animals might be better understood in their natural environment. Today, research based on observations of wild animals in captivity would gain little support or interest.

Consumers of research studies are wise to evaluate research methods. As a consumer of research, you are wise to critically evaluate a researcher’s methods. You would, for example, take your doctor’s diagnosis of a life-threatening disease more seriously than a fortune teller’s prediction of an early death. What distinguishes a physician’s prognosis from a fortune teller’s prophecy are research methods: the doctor may be looking at the results of your physical, blood work, x rays, CT Scans, MRI, or family history, whereas the fortune teller may be gazing into a crystal ball, pendulum, Tarot cars, or astrological charts.

[ The CRAAP Test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) ]

Taxonomy of Research Methods

Informal Research
Informal Research is a research method that gathers data/information/evidence anecdotally or based on convenience rather than in accordance with the systematic methods prescribed by methodological communities.

When we first contemplate a research question, we may check our intuition, tacit knowledge and procedural knowledge to see whether we have a hunch about how to answer the research question. We may access our intuition before reading what others have said about a topic or conducting our own original experiments.

Or, at times, rather than running on intuition alone, we may conduct a sort of mini-experiment. We may engage in research without fully committing to the sort of structured research methods a methodological community expects investigators to follow in order to develop valid knowledge claims.


Textual Research
(AKA Secondary Research)
Textual Research involves engaging in scholarly conversationsCritical Literacy, Information Literacy Perspectives & Practices, and dialectics.

Textual Research (aka academic scholarship, hermeneutics) relies on rhetorical reasoning, rhetorical analysis, and dialectic to develop knowledge and debate knowledge claims. The act of Textual Research is sometimes referred to as Engaging the Conversation. knowledge claims via —i.e., by engaging scholars in sustained conversations and debates around texts.

Thanks to our cell phones, wearables, laptops, ipads and ubiquitous access to the internet, many of us have the good fortune to be able to quickly conduct Google searches on topics of interest to us. Subsequently, should we remain curious about the topic after a bit of preliminary research, we may double down and engage in strategic searching and become more familiar with the current status of the scholarly conversation.
Empirical Research
(AKA Primary Research, Scientific Research)

When we find that published research isn’t available on our research question or we distrust or disagree with a purported knowledge claim, then we may conduct Empirical Research.

Empirical Research practices are guided by ethical standards, principles, and practices. When investigators conduct empirical investigations, they may focus on Qualitative Research Methods, Quantitative Research Methods, or Mixed Methods.

Research Methods & Mindset

How deeply we engage in Informal Research, Textual Research, or Primary Research is tied to our mindset as an investigator, the importance of the occasion and exigency, and our judgment as to whether it’s the best possible kairotic moment.

Our engagement with research methods is also tied to our training. In high schools and colleges in the U.S., students learn about information literacy perspectives & practices and write with sources. Additionally, some fortunate students learn to conduct lab experiments in high schools. But it really isn’t until college — and, for some, graduate school — that students receive training from experts in empirical research methods.

Our information seeking behaviors are also shaped by the seriousness of the occasion to ourselves and others. For instance, when COVID-19 virus became a pandemic in the spring of 2020, many scientists from throughout the world dropped what they had been working on and turned to finding a vaccine or medications to ameliorate the virus.

Additional articles on Research-methods:

  1. A Guide to Textual Analysis

    As a reader, a developing writer, and an informed student and citizen, it is extremely important for you to be...

  2. Corpus Linguistic Analysis, A Bird’s Eye View of Writing

    How we (usually) read and write If you are like most people in the United States, you read and write...

  3. Rhetorical Analysis in the Real World: A Useful Thinking Tool

    As a citizen and a scholar, I use rhetorical analysis to sort out questions about politics and relationships. In everyday...