75 Demystify Research Methods

“Demystify Research Methods” was written by Joseph M. Moxley

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

man's back while readingIf 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.

These visions of imaginary researchers probably seem disconnected from your personal experience with research. Your first encounter with the term “research” may have been in the form of an English class assignment that required you to write a paper of a specified number of words in which you referenced a minimum number of sources using correct bibliographic citations. You may have spent a few uncomfortable hours in the library searching for material that had some bearing on the topic of your paper, then tried to collect bits and pieces from these sources into a more-or-less coherent whole without committing an obvious act of plagiarism. As you struggled with the apparently contradictory requirements to base your paper on the work of others but say something new, you probably wondered what this assignment had to do with “research.”

Five Misconceptions About Research

None of these visions accurately represent the research process. Most people have a distorted picture of what researchers do. They tend to view research as tedious, repetitious, dull, and irrelevant to most of our immediate practical concerns. In fact, research should be the opposite. In order to envision research as interesting, exciting, and fun, you may need to dispel some common misconceptions about where research is done, who does it, and what it entails.

  • Misconception #1: Research is conducted in a laboratory.
  • Misconception #2: Research is for eggheads.
  • Misconception #3: Research has little to do with everyday life.
  • Misconception #4: Researchers across disciplines agree about what constitutes effective research.
  • Misconception #5: Researchers think, research, and then write.

Misconception #1: Research Is Conducted In A Laboratory

Whether we realize it or not, most of us have acquired our understanding of research from the images presented by popular culture. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, has provided one of the most dramatic and enduring representations of laboratory research. Contemporary films like Outbreaksuggest an updated version of the researcher, still white-coated but now isolated from normal social contact by the need for extraordinary anticontamination precautions. Perhaps because it is unfamiliar and, therefore, potentially dangerous, the laboratory offers a more dramatic setting for fictional accounts than other, more accessible research environments.

Of course, some kinds of research require the controlled environments that laboratories provide. The medical research that developed the antibiotics and pain relievers your doctor prescribed that last time you had the flu was conducted in a laboratory. And most of the commercially produced consumer products you use every day–from paint to cereal to hand lotion–undergo testing and refining in some sort of laboratory. But laboratory research is only one particular kind of research.

In reality, research is conducted everywhere. You may have noticed an amiable young person with a clipboard stopping shoppers in the local mall to ask questions about their buying preferences. That person was conducting research. The best-selling account of Lewis and Clark’s explorations is the result of research, as is the Thursday night lineup of your favorite TV shows, the design of your computer desk, the pattern of the traffic flow through your neighborhood, and the location of the nearest restaurant. None of the research that produced these results was conducted in a laboratory.

If, for example, you are interested in investigating how people behave in natural situations and under normal conditions, you cannot expect to gather information in a laboratory. In other words, the questions researchers are trying to answer and the methods they select for answering these questions will determine where the research is conducted. Research is carried out wherever researchers must go to collect the information they need.

Misconception #2: Research Is for Eggheads

Just as images from popular culture have influenced our ideas about where research is conducted, pop culture has also created some persistent stereotypes of researchers. In addition to the rather demonic Dr. Frankenstein, you may also think of friendlier, if slightly addled eggheads like the professor on Gilligan’s Island, the Jerry Lewis or Eddie Murphy version of The Nutty Professor, or the laughable Disney character, Professor Ludwig von Drake. These images all reinforce the notion of researchers as absentminded eccentrics, engrossed in highly technical, specialized projects that most of us cannot understand.

However, just as research can be carried out almost anywhere, anyone can be a researcher. Asking questions about your friend’s new romance, gathering evidence of who she was seen with, making deductions based on her new style of dress, and spreading the word about your conclusions is a form of research. These activities don’t sound like research to most people because they have not been expressed in academic language. But what if the activities were organized into a research project titled “The Psychosocial Determinants of Gender Relations in Postmodern Dating Culture: A Psychoanalytic Approach”? The point, of course, is not to suggest that gossip qualifies as legitimate research but rather that everyone employs the investigative and exploitative elements of research to make sense of their lives. Research is not just for “eggheads.”

Misconception #3: Research Has Little to Do with Everyday Life

While the first two misconceptions concern where research is done and who does it, the third misconception misrepresents the subject matter of research. Because some research focuses on very narrow questions and relies on highly technical knowledge, people often assume that all research must be hard to understand and unrelated to everyday concerns.

However, research need not be difficult to understand, and research is an activity that is defined by its method, not by its subject. In other words, it is true that some significant research is difficult for nonspecialists to understand. Yet all research is valuable to the extent that it affects everyday life.

Research takes many forms, but it always entails a search, conducted carefully and diligently, aimed at the discovery and interpretation of new knowledge. Thus, how you go about gathering information, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and sharing results determines whether your activities qualify as research. Sometimes these activities will be informal, spontaneous, and intuitive, as when you infer that your friend has a new romance or when you read reviews in a computer magazine before purchasing new software. In school and in the workplace, where results are disseminated and evaluated by others, research is likely to be more formal. Regardless of its final form, however, whenever you systematically gather information for the purpose of generating new knowledge, you are conducting research.

Misconception #4: Researchers Across Disciplines Agree About What Constitutes Effective Research

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. Even within a particular academic discipline, researchers may disagree over what makes good research.

Not only do people disagree about appropriate methods of research, but their ideas may change over time. Conceptions about knowledge, available technologies, and research practices influence each other and change constantly. For example, capturing gorillas and studying them in cages might have been considered good research in the 1920s. The work of later researchers like Dian Fossey, however, demonstrated how animals might be better understood in their natural environment. Today, research based on observations of wild animals in captivity would gain little support or interest.

Because no one way of doing research is equally acceptable to all researchers in all academic disciplines, researchers must select the methodology that will be most persuasive to their readers.

Misconception #5: Researchers Think, Research, and Then Write

When you first begin a research project, you are wise to integrate writing activities with research activities. Unfortunately, many people wrongly separate the research process from the writing process. They naively assume they should first think about a topic, identify a research question, research it, and then—after all of the excitement is drained from the project—write it up. Rather than using the generative power of writing (that is, our ability to generate new ideas by writing) to help define and energize a research project, some people delay writing until after they have completed the research. Waiting to write about a research project until you’re done researching may waste your time and can result in dull, listless prose.

You can save time and ensure that your research is focused by writing summaries of others’ research, by writing handwriting drafts of your research goals, and by writing about the results you hope to find before you find them. In the process, you will eliminate vague or contradictory ideas you may have about your project.

Incorporating writing into your research activities helps you identify your rhetorical situation and define your readers’ priorities. Writing about your project in its early stages gives you time to develop ways of describing your research that are comprehensible and interesting to your audience. As you redraft and revise, your writing—and your thinking—will become clearer, more precise, and thus more credible.

We can all take a lesson in the importance of making your research your own from Gary Starkweather, who built a laser printer that made billions of dollars for Xerox and helped change the way business is done all over the world. The experience taught him several things:

It’s better to try and fail than to decide something can’t be done and not try at all. Research is a place where failure should be, if not encouraged, at least viewed as a sign that something’s happening. Uncertainty is bad for manufacturing, but essential for research.

Believe in your own ideas and don’t trim your sails just to be popular with your colleagues. Howard Aiken, inventor of the first digital computer, said: “If it’s truly a good idea, you’ll have to jam it down their throats.”

Be open to suggestion. Often someone who hasn’t stared at a problem until they went cross-eyed has the fresh view that can solve it. The best way to a breakthrough is constant small improvement — those waiting for the big break are just lazy; they’re waiting to be teleported to the top of the hill instead of walking.

Source: Gary Starkweather Profile

You might want to try some of the following:

In a couple of paragraphs describe a research project or a paper you have written in the past that you felt was interesting, fun, or successful. Try to identify what made the project appealing. Why did it spark your interest? Did you develop the idea yourself, did someone help you, or was it assigned? How did your readers respond to your work? Why do you think they acted that way? Do you feel it might be worthwhile to build on the work you completed earlier by digging deeper into the subject? In what ways did your attitude influence the way you conducted and wrote your research? How can you take advantage of your experience in order to enjoy future projects? What additional misconceptions about research can you identify?

To develop a better understanding of the research process, maintain a journal of your activities and thoughts while you conduct a research project.


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