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

Nomothetic and Idiographic Methods  

Nicky Hayes

This chapter looks at nomothetic and idiographic methods. Knowing the purpose helps the researcher define the scope conditions of the research, and will also reveal whether the research should be nomothetic or idiographic. Nomothetic research aims to identify laws about human behaviour — the Greek word ‘nomos’ means ‘law’. It assumes that it is possible to discover regularities of influence or behaviour, allowing experts to predict the likely outcomes of possible actions or innovations. As such, it looks for general principles, not special cases. Idiographic research, by contrast, is all about exploring individuality or uniqueness. Idiographic research tends to focus on a single example, which might be a person, an event, a phenomenon, or an organization, and to analyse that example in-depth. As a result, idiographic methods are often used in case studies, and are characteristic of ethnographic research.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

4. Developing a Research Idea  

Social research is concerned with developing defensible knowledge about people and all of the things that they do. This means that the landscape for social research is both wide and varied. In some cases, the research gaze will be directed by disciplinary interests, in others it will be much more open. This chapter discusses techniques that can help students identify their research interests, develop project ideas, and build a rationale for research. It also considers how research is evaluated and explores the idea of quality in research. It begins by dealing with a question that many students ask — what makes a good dissertation project? To answer this question, the idea of research quality is discussed.

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Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

7. Building Your Project  

Once students have developed an idea, outlined a rationale for their research, and found the relevant literature, they then need to start mapping out what their project will look like. To do this, they will need to make some decisions about how they will answer their research questions. Research can be approached and conducted in many different ways. Broadly speaking, there are four interrelated stages of building a social science dissertation: research strategy: the type of data under investigation (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods); research design: the framework through which that data will be collected; research methods: the methods associated with collecting the type of data selected; and type of analysis: the techniques through which the data will be analysed. This chapter focuses on the decisions that students can make in relation to the first two stages: research strategy and research design.

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

Survey Research  

Jean-Frédéric Morin, Christian Olsson, and Ece Özlem Atikcan

This chapter discusses survey research. Surveys are a very common method of data collection used by many social researchers. As such, they are used in public opinion polls to gauge political trends and trait, but also in marketing research examining consumer behaviour and feedback. Surveys are also a common data collection method in many social research projects. They are further used to evaluate needs, processes, and outcomes. Importantly, surveys are a unidirectional communication approach to collect data, which is very different from observational methods, semi-structured and structured interviews, or other types of data collection where the researcher takes an active role. Specifically, using surveys, participants are presented with a set of instructions and predetermined questions. The researcher is not expected to engage in any participatory interaction or in-depth conversation with participants.

Chapter

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

Triangulation  

Jean-Frédéric Morin, Christian Olsson, and Ece Özlem Atikcan

This chapter looks at triangulation, which is classically defined as looking at one research object from different perspectives. However, this large and consensual definition masks different approaches to triangulation and ignores its historical evolution since its emergence in social sciences literature. To gain a better insight into its current definitions, the chapter first proposes a brief historical overview and highlight its different meanings. It then illustrates how triangulation can be used in a research design in order to gain extra knowledge. Finally, the chapter talks about mixed-methods research and its relationship with triangulation. In the context of the tensions opposing qualitative and quantitative research, triangulation is used by mixed-methods research to justify that qualitative and quantitative methods should systematically be articulated.

Chapter

Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

16. Evaluating Your Project  

Critical reflection is a key part of evaluating the research project, and a dissertation that demonstrates this is likely to achieve higher marks. However, one of the first things to recognize is that the process of evaluation does not necessarily begin at the end of the project. Instead, issues of research quality are implicitly embedded in all parts of the research process and all sections of the dissertation. This chapter introduces some key criteria that will help students evaluate their project and think critically about the research process. It discusses the importance of originality, rigour, and significance in research, and provides key questions students can ask about their project. Collectively, these questions will help students to assess and evaluate their 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.

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Cover How to do your Social Research Project or Dissertation

5. Conducting a Literature Search  

Today, the world of research is quite literally available through the touch of a few buttons via online resaerch. But this increase in access and availability is not without its challenges. With ‘hits’ that can run into millions, unless the student knows how to search effectively and efficiently, the information that he or she finds can quickly become overwhelming. This chapter guides students through the process of literature searching for their dissertation. It outlines how to develop a successful search strategy and what to do with the literature once it is discovered. Topics covered include what counts as literature; different ‘types’ of literature searching; how to develop a literature search strategy; and common problems associated with literature searching.

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

V. Variables  

A Matter of Kind and Degree

Jean-Frédéric Morin, Christian Olsson, and Ece Özlem Atikcan

This chapter explores variables, which are measurable representations. As such, they are located at the interface between theoretical constructs and empirical observations. Deductive research identifies variables by operationalizing abstract concepts, while inductive research typically constructs variables from the observation of units. Irrespective of whether the research is deductive and theory-driven or inductive and empirically driven, variables occupy a central position in research methodology. One of the key features of variables is that they vary across units; any variable can have at least two distinct values (also called attributes). The chapter distinguishes dependent and independent variables before introducing other types of variables and presenting different types of values. It also discusses the epistemological assumptions underlying the notion of variables.

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.

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

Ethics in Research  

Laurence Marquis and Mark Daku

This chapter studies ethics in research. Ethics play an important role in scientific inquiry, beyond cases of plagiarism, fraud, and misconduct. Importantly, there is a difference between ethical research and ethical researchers. While principles of ethics in research stem mostly from the biomedical field, they have also been adapted to apply to the social sciences. These principles are generally addressed through three common principles: voluntary participation, informed consent, and confidentiality. Researchers themselves must be wary of a number of other factors that can influence their project and role, such as the supervision of students, or other situations where there is a relationship of authority. Similarly, researchers must be careful not to make misrepresentations to subjects about the project or the related risks, or fail to disclose any conflict of interest. Researchers must take steps to ensure their neutrality so that no preconceptions or personal bias can risk influencing the results or subjects. The chapter then looks at ethics review boards and the emergent ethical issues.

Chapter

Cover Comparative Politics

3. Comparative research methods  

Paul Pennings and Hans Keman

This chapter examines the ‘art of comparing’ by showing how to relate a theoretically guided research question to a properly founded research answer by developing an adequate research design. It first considers the role of variables in comparative research, before discussing the meaning of ‘cases’ and case selection. It then looks at the ‘core’ of the comparative research method: the use of the logic of comparative inquiry to analyse the relationships between variables (representing theory), and the information contained in the cases (the data). Two logics are distinguished: method of difference and method of agreement. The chapter concludes with an assessment of some problems common to the use of comparative methods.

Chapter

Cover Comparative Politics

3. Comparative Research Methods  

Paul Pennings and Hans Keman

This chapter examines the ‘art of comparing’ by showing how to relate a theoretically guided research question to a properly founded research answer by developing an adequate research design. It first considers the role of variables in comparative research, before discussing the meaning of ‘cases’ and case selection. It then looks at the ‘core’ of the comparative research method: the use of the logic of comparative inquiry to analyse the relationships between variables (representing theory), and the information contained in the cases (the data). Two logics are distinguished: Method of Difference and Method of Agreement. The chapter concludes with an assessment of some problems common to the use of comparative methods.

Chapter

Cover Political Research

1. Political Research  

This text provides readers with the analytic skills and resources they need to evaluate research findings in political research, as well as the practical skills for conducting their own independent inquiry. It shows that empirical research and normative research are not independent of each other and explains the distinction between positivism and interpretivism, and between quantitative and qualitative research. Part 1 of this edition discusses key issues in the philosophy of social science, while Part 2 presents a ‘nuts and bolts’ or ‘how to’ guide to research design, such as how to find and formulate a research question. Part 3 evaluates different methods of data collection and analysis that can be used to answer research questions, along with the variety of considerations and decisions that researchers must confront when using different methods.

Chapter

Cover Political Research

11. Surveys  

This chapter discusses the principles of survey research as well as the issues and problems associated with different stages of the research design process. In particular, it examines questionnaire design, sample design, and interviewing techniques, along with the common sources of error that affect survey research and what can be done to try and avoid or minimize them. Although surveys have several weaknesses, they are widely used in political research to investigate a wide range of political phenomena. They combine two things: obtaining information from people by asking questions and random sampling. When done well, surveys provide an accurate and reliable insight into what ordinary people think about politics and how they participate in politics. The chapter considers the elements of a survey that need to be addressed, namely: questionnaire design, measurement error, sampling design, sampling error, and interview mode.

Chapter

Cover Political Research

6. Research Design  

This chapter focuses on the basic principles of research design. It first considers different types of research design, including experimental designs, cross-sectional and longitudinal designs, comparative designs, and historical research designs. It also discusses two types of research validity: internal validity and external validity. The chapter proceeds by describing various methods of data collection and the sort of data or evidence each provides, including questionnaires and surveys, interviewing and focus groups, ethnographic research, and discourse/content analysis. Finally, it examines six issues that must be taken into account to ensure ethical research: voluntary participation, informed consent, privacy, harm, exploitation, and consequences for future research.

Chapter

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

Introduction. An Introduction to Research Methods in the Social Sciences  

Ece Özlem Atikcan, Jean-Frédéric Morin, and Christian Olsson

Introducing research methods in the social sciences is not an easy task given how complex the subject matter is. Social sciences, like all sciences, can be divided into categories (disciplines). Disciplines are frequently defined according to what they study (their empirical object) and how they study it (their particular problematization of the object). They are, however, by no means unitary entities. Within each discipline, multiple theories typically contend over the ability to tell provisional truths about the world. They do so by building on specific visions of the nature of the world, reflections on how to generate scientific truth, systematic ways of collecting and analyzing data (methods) and of justifying these methods as part of a coherent research design (methodologies).