Empirical Methods

Learn when and how to conduct field research.

Some research question(s) cannot be answered by consulting print or Internet sources. Field research allows you to generate knowledge that otherwise would not exist. This section introduces three common modes of conducting field research: interviews, surveys, and ethnographic observations (of communities, performances, or laboratory experiments).

Writing Commons Empirical Research

College students are often surprised by how much they enjoy conducting field research: Field research provides writers with the satisfaction of knowing that they are doing original work. Clearly, clever minds can develop innovative ideas based on printed and Internet sources. Yet interviewing others, developing questionnaires, or making first-hand observations can feel more dynamic, more original. Many students find they enjoy developing methods to answer research questions on topics of interest.

Particular disciplines—such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, journalism, or literary criticism—have very specific expectations about how to conduct field research. Certain professions stick to established procedures for conducting research so that other experts in the discipline can conduct follow-up studies and better evaluate the validity of results. Part of your apprenticeship in a discipline involves becoming sensitized to what constitutes an acceptable methodology. Whenever you are writing for specialized audiences, you will need to account for their expectations if you hope to have them take you seriously.


  • Informed Consent: Informed consent form and links to informed consent resources
  • Surveys: Develop knowledge that is otherwise unavailable by developing an effective survey
  • Ethnography: Create powerful, telling stories
  • Interviews: Become an effective listener and interviewer. Interview authorities, conduct slice-of-life stories, and author oral histories

Do your best to construct the tightest possible methodology, and recognize that our current goal is to give you an opportunity to experiment with field-based methods. Rather than expecting yourself to produce a flawless study, consider your current attempt to be a pilot study—a best-effort attempt. As a beginning researcher, you need to play, not overwhelm yourself with unreasonable expectations.

Frequently, writers use a variety of research methods to develop a project. For example, a student interested in environmental issues could employ library research, Internet research, interviews, and surveys.

Conducting field research requires many of the same skills as reports based on print and Internet sources. Because authors of reports based on field research often cite the ideas of other scholars and the results of other researchers, they also need to be familiar with how to research information in a library. Before conducting field research, many writers like to find out what has been said about the subject in the past. In addition, field researchers may still

    1. Focus on one specific purpose
    2. Refer to previous scholarship or research to support controversial claims
    3. Follow an accepted form of documentation to acknowledge the scholars and researchers who have informed their work
    4. Establish the credibility of the references that they cite