Empirical Research Methods

Sometimes seeing is believing. Photo Credit: Moxley

Alternative Article Title: Primary Research, Scientific Research, or Field Research.

  • Empirical Research may be called Primary Research, Scientific Research, or Field Research. People who conduct empirical research are typically called investigators, but they may also be called knowledge workers, scientists, empiricists, or researchers.

Empirical research is a research method that investigators use to test knowledge claims and develop new knowledge.

Empirical methods focus on observation and experimentation.

Investigators observe and conduct experiments in systematic ways

is largely determined by their rhetorical contexts. Different workplace contexts and academic disciplines have developed unique tools and techniques for gathering and interpreting information.

professions and business organizations—i.e., discourse communities, especially methodological communities.

Professions and workplaces develop unique tools and technique

Empirical research is informed by

  • empiricism, a philosophy that assumes knowledge is grounded in what you can see, hear, or experience
  • positivism, a philosophy that assumes the universe is an orderly place; a nonrandom order of the universe exists; events have causes and occur in regular patterns that can be determined through observation.

Investigators and discourse communities 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).

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).

Instead of relying on logical reasoning and Following Most contemporary empiricists would acknowledge that any act of observation and experimentation are somewhat subjective processes.

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.

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

Key Terms: positivism; research methods; research methodologies.

As humans, we learn about the world from experience, observation and experimentation. Even as babies we conduct informal research: what happens when we cry and complain? If we do x, does it cause y? Over time, we invariably learn from our experience that our actions have consequences. We sharpen our abilities to identify commons patterns (e.g., whenwe write a lot, we are more creative). Invariably, as we evolve during our lives, we come to trust our experiences, our senses, and our procedural knowledge and declarative knowledge evolves.

In work and school settings, systematic engagement at efforts of observaion are called empirical or scientific research.

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.

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.

Works Cited

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.