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Cover Research Methods in the Social Sciences: An A-Z of key concepts

Research Question  

Irene Wieczorek and Piergiuseppe Parisi

This chapter looks at research questions, which identify what the researcher wants to find out or understand. They are a crucial component of any study and are connected to all parts of the research. Depending on the type of study, the research question may either serve as the starting point of the entire research or change in response to the research design. A research question should naturally be formulated in an interrogative manner and should be a query to which the answer is not known at the outset of the research process. Research questions have a twofold purpose: they define the boundaries of a research project, thus guiding the investigation, and they are meant to spark the reader’s interest.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

8. Ethics  

Ethics play a vital part of the research process. They provide a set of value-based principles that enable research to be conducted in an appropriate manner. Research ethics help ensure that the relationships built during the process of conducting social research are respectful and constructive, and that the student’s project does not endanger either the student or those he or she comes into contact with. This chapter provides an introduction to the practice of ethics in social research. It provides an outline of basic ethical practice, before discussing the nature and purpose of ethical review boards. It demonstrates how ethical rules of thumb are often more complicated when encountering them ‘in the field’. Finally, it explores how ethics also informs the process of writing up research.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

2. The Social Research Process  

This chapter outlines some of the basic features of social research. It introduces students to the notion that social research is a process, helps to clarify the reasons for reearch, and explores the relationship between theory and research. Using the analogy of a voyage, it demonstrates that specific tasks associated with for carrying out social research tend to be ordered, but not always orderly. There are dynamic points of issue that need to be negotiated to move a dissertation project toward completion, or otherwise there is a risk of being blown off course. By understanding what is meant by the research process, and how theory can be used in social research, readers can begin to explore, describe, and explain the human world with greater confidence.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

17. Writing Up  

After going through the process of planning, designing, and carrying out research, the student needs to write up the project. Writing is an extremely important part of the research process as a poorly written dissertation will constrain the student’s ability to communicate findings and limit the final mark he or she can achieve. This chapter discusses the basic elements of writing a dissertation and introduces the structures, forms, and styles that are commonly used to create one. Emphasizing the importance of developing an argument to connect the pieces of the dissertation together, it takes each element of the dissertation in turn and demonstrates how it is ‘built’.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

9. Writing a Research Proposal  

Before starting a dissertation, it is common practice to have to write a research proposal. Not only does a research proposal help make sense of the student’s own project and what it will look like, it also allows he or she to connect research idea to a wider audience so that other people can give advice about whether, and how, it makes ‘research sense’. Often submitted alongside an ethics application, the research proposal is sometimes a requirement of the dissertation process, needing ‘approval’ before undertaking the research project. This chapter details what research proposals look like and why they are important, before outlining the requirements of a typical research proposal.

Chapter

Cover Political Research

10. Historical Research  

This chapter focuses on the distinctions between historical research and social scientific research, and how these are being challenged by scholars in pursuit of a genuinely ‘historical social science’. It begins with a discussion of historical approaches in Politics and International Relations, including historical events research, historical process research, and cross-sectional comparative research. It then examines three approaches for addressing temporality as the sequential active unfolding of social action and events: historical institutionalism, process tracing, and event structure analysis. It also explains how to locate essential historical information and evaluate various types of sources, and what special considerations need to be made in using documents, archival sources, and historical writing as data in historical research.

Chapter

Cover Political Research

4. Asking Questions: How to Find and Formulate Research Questions  

This chapter deals with the first step of the research process: the formulation of a well-crafted research question. It explains why political research should begin with a research question and how a research question structures the research process. It discusses the difference between a topic or general question, on the one hand, and a focused research question, on the other. It also considers the question of where to find and how to formulate research questions, the various types of questions scholars ask, and the role of the ‘literature review’ as a source and rationale for research questions. Finally, it describes a tool called the ‘research vase’ that provides a visualization of the research process, along with different types of questions: descriptive, explanatory, predictive, prescriptive, and normative.

Chapter

Cover Research Methods in the Social Sciences: An A-Z of key concepts

Operationalization  

From the Concepts to the Data

Anne-Laure Mahé and Theodore McLauchlin

This chapter describes operationalization, which refers to the intellectual operations the researcher undertakes to decide how to observe a concept in reality. This is a crucial step of the research process, as many concepts in the social sciences are too abstract to be immediately observed. The most important criteria of a successful operationalization are consequently the consistency between each step of the research design, from theory formation to data collection, and the degree to which the indicators effectively allow the researcher to gather observations that work well in the context under study. One way to synthesize these points is that operationalization should enable the researcher to respect the principle of double adequacy. First, the researcher’s conceptual argument and the operationalized data should correspond. Second, there is a need for adequacy between those data and the ‘reference reality’.

Chapter

Cover Political Research

3. Objectivity and Values  

This chapter focuses on a key debate in the philosophy of social science: whether it is possible to separate facts and values in social science research. It first considers normative and empirical theory in political research before discussing the ways in which the values of the researcher influence the research process. It then examines Thomas Kuhn’s arguments concerning paradigms and how they change through scientific ‘revolutions’, along with their implications for the possibility of value-free social inquiry. It looks at an example of how the notion of ‘paradigm’ has been applied to a specific area of inquiry within politics: the study of development. It also compares Kuhn’s paradigms with Imre Lakatos’ concept of ‘scientific research programmes’.

Chapter

Cover Research Methods in the Social Sciences: An A-Z of key concepts

Descriptive, Explanatory, and Interpretive Approaches  

Louis M. Imbeau, Sule Tomkinson, and Yasmina Malki

This chapter assesses descriptive, explanatory, and interpretive approaches. ‘Description’, ‘explanation’, and ‘interpretation’ are distinct stages of the research process. Description makes the link between what is to be described and a concept and its empirical referent. It defines a way to understand empirical reality, as variations, significations, or processes. Description refers to the ‘what’ question, as the first step towards explanation. When it comes to answering the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, some social scientists differentiate between explanation and interpretation. For them, the aim of social sciences is to ‘understand’, that is, to uncover the meanings of individuals’ or groups’ actions through the interpretation of their beliefs and discourses, whereas the aim of natural sciences is to ‘explain’, that is, to establish causality and general laws. The chapter presents an approach which offers a broader perspective for the social sciences, advocating an explanatory pluralism that allows for a more ecumenical approach.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

11. Collecting Quantitative Data  

This chapter discusses the basics of collecting quantitative material. It outlines the nature of quantitative data in the context of the research process, before exploring the differences between primary and secondary data. In doing so, it highlights some of the benefits of using secondary data sets for the purposes of dissertation-based research. The chapter then examines the relationship between research questions, concepts, and variables, before exploring how quantitative data can be measured at different levels. Finally, it offers some useful tips and advice concerning one technique that is particularly common in student projects — the questionnaire — and demonstrates the different ways in which questionnaires can be developed and administered.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

6. Reviewing the Literature  

The literature review is a key component of a dissertation. It serves to contextualize the aims and objectives of the project, and in terms of the research process it helps to sensitize issues of interest that the student might want to direct their attention towards when they begin collecting and analysing data. This chapter provides an introduction to the literature review and examines its purpose in relation to the research process. Beginning with a short exploration of the nature of a literature review and its relationship with theory, the chapter goes on to examine the different types of review before detailing the key content. By the end of the chapter, students should have a good understanding of the role of the literature review in research and how it informs every aspect of the research process.