Empirical Research Methods

Related Concepts: Positivism; Research Methods; Research Methodologies

What are Empirical Research Methods?

Empirical research refers to methods that investigators use to test knowledge claims and develop new new knowledge through direct or indirect observation and experimentation. Empirical methods emphasize collecting data systematically and rigorously to ensure reliability and validity. Investigators observe phenomena, conduct experiments, and gather measurable evidence to support or refute hypotheses, allowing for the objective analysis and interpretation of results.

There are three major types of empirical research:

  1. Quantitative Methods
    • e.g., numbers, mathematical equations).
  2. Qualitative Methods
    • e.g., numbers, mathematical equations).
  3. Mixed Methods (a mixture of Quantitative Methods and Qualitative Methods.

Investigators use empirical research methods

  • to create new knowledge (e.g., Basic Research)
  • to solve a problem at work, school, or personal life (e.g., Applied Research).
  • to conduct replication studies–i.e., repeat a study with the same methods (or with slight variations, such as changes in subjects and experimenters).

Empirical research aims to be as objective as possible by being RAD

  • Replicable
    • (sufficient details about the research protocol is provided so the study can be repeated)
  • Aggregable
    • (the results and implications of the study can be extended in future research)
  • Data supported

Informally, as humans, we engage routinely in the intellectual strategies that inform empirical research:

  • we talk with others and listen to their stories to better understand their perceptions and experiences,
  • we make observations,
  • we survey friends, peers, coworkers
  • we cross cultures and learn about difference, and
  • we make predictions about future events based on our experiences and observations.

These same intellectual strategies we use to reason from our observations and experiences also undergird empirical research methods. For example,

  • a psychologist might develop a case study based on interviews
  • an anthropologist or sociologist might engage in participant observation to write an ethnographic study
  • a political science researcher might survey voter trends
  • a stock trader may project a stock bounce based on a 30-day moving average.

The main difference between informal and formal empirical research is intentionality: Formal empirical research presupposes a Research Plan, which is sometimes referred to as as Research Protocol. When investigators want their results to be taken seriously they have to employ the research methods a methodological community has for vetting knowledge claims.

Different academic communities (e.g., Natural Sciences, Social Science, Humanities, Arts) have unique ideas about how to conduct empirical research. Professionals in the workplace — e.g., geologists, anthropologists, biologists — use entirely different tools to gather and interpret data. Being credentialed in a particular discipline or profession is tied to mastery of unique methodological practices.

Across disciplines, however, empiricists share a number of operating assumptions: Empiricists

  • develop a research plan prior to engaging in research.
  • seek approval from Ethics Committees when human subjects or animal testing is involved
  • explain how subjects/research participants are chosen and given opportunities to opt in or opt out of studies.

Empiricists are meticulous about how they collect data because their research must be verifiable if they want other empiricists to take their work seriously. In other words, their research plan needs to be so explicit that subsequent researchers can conduct the same study.

Empirical Research is a Rhetorical Practice

Empiricists develop their research question and their research methods by considering their audience and purpose. Prior to initiating a study, researchers conduct secondary research–especially Searching as Strategic Exploration–to identify the current knowledge about a topic. As a consequence of their deep understanding of pertinent scholarly conversations on the topic, empiricists identify gaps in knowledge.


What is the role of textual research in empirical work?

Investigators conduct empirical research when the answers to research questions are not readily available from informal research or textual research, when the occasion is kairotic, when personal or financial gains are on the table. That said, most empirical research is informed by textual research: investigators review the conclusions and implications of previously published research past studies—they analyze scholarly conversations and research methods—prior to engaging in empirical studies.

Textual research plays an important role in empirical research. Empiricists engage in some textual research in order to understand scholarly conversations around the topics that interest them. Empiricists consult archives to learn methods for conducting empirical studies. However, there are important distinctions between how scholars weight claims in textual research and how scientists weigh claims in empirical studies.

Unlike investigators who use primarily textual methods, empiricists do not consider “claims of authority, intuition, imaginative conjecture, and abstract, theoretical, or systematic reasoning as sources of reliable belief” (Duignan, Fumerton, Quinton, Quinton 2020).

What epistemologies inform empirical work?

Empirical research is informed by two key philosophical foundations:

  • Empiricism: This philosophy assumes that knowledge is grounded in sensory experiences—what can be seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. Empiricism emphasizes the importance of evidence derived from observation and experimentation.
  • Positivism: This philosophy assumes that the universe is an orderly place where events have causes and occur in regular patterns. Positivism holds that these patterns can be discovered through systematic observation and that scientific inquiry can reveal objective truths about the natural world.


Duignan, B., Fumerton, R.,  Quinton, A. M., & Quinton, B. (2020). Empiricism. Encyclopedia Britannica.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/empiricism

Haswell, R. (2005). NCTE/CCCC’s recent war on scholarship. Written Communication, 22(2), 198-223.

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