A free, comprehensive, peer-reviewed, award-winning Open Text for students and faculty in college-level courses that require writing and research.

Research Methods & Methodologies

While "research" is central to "the writing process" (typically referring to the process of searching the open web or library databases), “research” may also refer to different methods for data collection and data analysis.    

Consult the Research Primer to understand why different academic disciplines, professions and businesses use different research methods. Learn the conventions of textual research methods and empirical research methods, including informed consentsurveys, case studies, and ethnographies.   To expedite searching on the open web and library databases, check out Library & Internet Research. Then, to better understand how college faculty want you to integrate evidence into you texts, avoid inadvertent plagiarism and “patch writing,” review Integrate Evidence as well as Summarize and Paraphrase Sources.

Research Primer

Review the Research Primer to learn more about the ways that various academic disciplines conduct research. While important differences exist between academic disciplines regarding what constitutes a valid research methodology, broadly speaking, we can define two dominant forms of research: Textual Research and Empirical Research. As discussed below, textual research is based on dialogues and interpretations of texts whereas empirical research is based on formal observation. Interestingly, these two methods grow out of two distinct intellectual traditions: writing and authorship conducted by humanists and scientific study conducted by scientists and social scientists.

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).

Develop effective interview questions.

Ask Open, Closed, Hypothetical, and Mirror Questions

The questions you will ask are determined by the purpose of your research. As a result, be very clear in your own mind about what you hope to discover as a result of conducting the interview. The best way to develop solid questions is to freewrite as many as possible. By refining the purpose of your research and by sharing your questions with other people, you will be able to identify the ones that are most apt to uncover the information you need.

Research is defined by many academic disciplines, such as English or History, as primarily a textual process.  In other words, some researchers (commonly called "scholars") focus on texts—that is, on responding to them, critiquing them, or in rereading them with a particular theory in mind, such as Capitalism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, Deconstruction, Modernism, Postmodernism. Additionally, scholars can develop their work in response to everyday experiences, issues in the popular culture, the media, and the Internet. Beyond debate and logic, scholars lack a way to prove one idea or approach is superior to any other.

If you are doing more than writing an essay that relies on sources, then you can benefit from understanding why there are different research methods.  Learn more about how academic and professional researchers employ diverse research methods.  Understand the philosophical assumptions that inform researchers in different disciplines.

Academic disciplines—for example, mathematics, psychology, physics, engineering, or business—have different ways of conducting and evaluating research. 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.

Critique research myths that may be impairing your ability to locate, evaluate, and use information.

If you are like most people, you have some definite ideas about what research is. You may envision a pale figure in a white lab coat bent over a microscope or a beaker of bubbling liquid. Perhaps you imagine this isolated and humorless figure engaged in tedious procedures, carefully recorded on graph paper or reduced to inscrutable formulas scrawled in notebooks. Given a few moments, you might expand this vision of research to include a khaki-clad archaeologist digging for relics in the desert or a tweed-jacketed professor studying musty manuscripts in a dusty corner of the library.

Sources for a research essay can be seen as a web of people talking to each other. Although sources may not seem alive to you, they represent their authors' unique identities and opinions, which makes conversations among them not only possible but also lively. Similar to people who may have different types of conversation, sources may converse with each other: they may support, complement, conflict with, or attack each other's opinions. 

Identify the ethical responsibilities of authors. Understand intellectual property and copyright.

In order to avoid inadvertent plagiarism or academic dishonesty, you must understand intellectual property and copyright. In our digital age, where users can easily download information, we must consider these issues from an ethical perspective as well.

Writers do not make their claims in an enormous blank room where no one else is and nothing else has ever happened. Writers make their claims in the real world where people with other opinions, values, beliefs, and experiences live. To make a claim is to enter into a conversation with these people.

The rhetorician Kenneth Burke once famously described this as a parlor or a party to which you have come late to find out that people are already in heated discussions about a topic.

Learn about three opposing assumptions about knowledge that underlie contemporary methodologies: Positivism, Postpositivism, and Scholarship.

Different ideologies underlie research methodologies. In other words, different research communities have opposing ideas about what knowledge is and how it is produced. Scholars produce scholarly knowledge by participating in the never-ending debate. Surveyors, scientists, formalists and most clinicians hope to produce positivistic knowledge. Ethnographers and some clinicians focus on producing postpositivistic knowledge.

By definition, critical readers are skeptical. They do not take the results of research as the final word on the subject, but instead look for flaws in the reasoning; or if it is an empirical study, critical readers look for flaws in the research design. As a result, when you introduce an outside source, be sure to spend a moment clarifying the source's credibility.

For example, when reading the following excerpt on the greenhouse effect, what questions do you believe a skilled reader would raise?

The greenhouse effect is likely to change rainfall patterns, raise sea levels 4 to 7 feet by the year 2100, and increase the world's mean temperature 2.7 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2050 (Brown and Flavin 6, 16).

Here are some of the standard questions that academic readers ask when reviewing research reports:

Here are some of the standard questions that academic readers ask when reviewing research reports:

  1. Is the source a first-hand or second-hand account? That is, are the authors reporting results of their own research or reviewing someone else's work?
  2. Is the source of publication credible? (For example, an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine would influence most physicians' opinions about a surgical procedure far more easily than an essay in a biweekly community newspaper.)

Learn how to manage the interview successfully.

Since the interviewee is kind enough to set some time aside to meet with you, you in turn need to be flexible about where and for how long you meet and whether or not it is acceptable for you to tape-record the session. In general, you should try to conduct the interview away from as many distractions as possible. Establishing a climate of trust and support is difficult when the interviewee is bombarded with the daily distractions of professional life—such as phone calls, piles of messages, and pages of "to do" lists.

Learn to write effective survey questions.

After defining the population, surveyors need to create an instrument if a proven survey instrument does not exist. As discussed in more detail below, survey creation parallels the computer axiom "GIGO"--Garbage In—Garbage Out. A well-designed, accurate survey is an excellent way for researchers to gather information or data about a particular subject of interest. When prepared in an unprofessional manner, surveys can also become an inaccurate, misused, misunderstood conveyer of misinformation.

Analyze research practices from a community perspective, and learn about the methodological assumptions of scholars, surveyors, scientists, formalists, clinicians, and ethnographers.

Researchers in workplace and academic settings have diverse and sometimes opposing ways of researching and making knowledge claims. In general, researchers in the natural sciences tend to prefer positivistic methodologies and researchers in social and behavioral sciences have increasingly used postpositivistic methods. Knowledge-makers in the humanities—history, philosophy, religious studies, English, and modern languages—prefer to articulate their research as "scholarship."

When you synthesize your research, part of what you’re doing is deciding how much you accept, question, or reject the claims that your sources make—in other words, you’re finding your position in an ongoing conversation. When you start to write about that research, you need to figure out how to show that position, even as you quote, summarize, or paraphrase from your sources.

Enrich your ethnographic interpretation by accounting for community artifacts.

Archeology is the study of past civilizations based upon artifacts, physical objects that are characteristic of a particular culture. We are all familiar with the Egyptian tombs and Roman ruins. These artifacts provide a great deal of information about ancient civilizations and help to recreate a picture of what life was like for these people.

Understand common interview types.

The design of your interview is determined by your goal. Below is an overview of common interview formats.

Writers conduct interviews for many reasons. Interviews can play a role in helping you develop all of the projects presented in this book. Researchers employ interviews to achieve multiple purposes:

  • Oral histories; interview people who can tell stories about life in the past.
  • Expert testimonies; interview experts, such as famous inventors, entrepreneurs, political leaders, or trend-setters

Develop knowledge that is otherwise unavailable by developing an effective survey.

Surveys are a series of questions, which are usually presented in questionnaire format. Surveys can be distributed face-to-face, over the phone, or over the Internet.

Developing, Designing, and Distributing Surveys

Surveys are usually developed to obtain information that is otherwise unavailable.

Broaden your understanding of ethnographic research tools.

The ethnographer's eyes and ears are two very important tools for collecting information, but documentation is key. Any instrument that can record, store, or sort information is of primary use to the ethnographer. Tape recorders, cameras, and note pads are some of the most commonly used tools for ethnographic research.Recording interviews with key informants is more preferable than taking notes; by listening to recordings over and over you will discover important details that you might otherwise miss if you simply take notes.

Wisely choose key informants and triangulate the informants' perspectives.

When conducting an ethnography, the researcher closely observes the key informants in a particular culture because they tend to define the qualities of their group. Every culture includes leaders and followers.

When choosing key informants, you may not necessarily want to select group leaders. Other members of the community may serve as more effective key informants because they are more accessible or more willing to share information or more observant.