What is research? How do you do it?

A previous post announced that a group of folk at CQUniversity are about to embark on a project/exercise with the aim of helping people develop ideas for research and turn them into publications.

Any such process should probably talk about answers to two questions (amongst many others)

  1. What is research?
  2. How do you do it?

The following provides some simple answers to those questions that will form the basis for the react2008 process.

Disclaimer

This is not to suggest that these are the only answers, or potentially even good answers. However, the claim is that they are sufficiently useful for the purpose of react2008 and reasonably defendable.

The aim is to ensure that the workshop participants have some sort of common understanding of answers to these questions that they can use as a starting point for conversation. Some level of common understanding is important.

What is research?

Generally, research aims to address important problems, or provide answers to difficult questions through the application of a disciplined process that generates new and useful knowledge. That knowledge is expressed in the form of theory.

The question of what is theory is left to later.

How do you do it?

Answers to these questions often come down to battles between research paradigms. Are you a positivist or interpretivist (or some other sort of “ist”)? The answer to this question governs how you do research, what you think it is etc.

Mingers (2001) identifies three perspectives on how to handle the question of paradigms. These include:

  1. Isolationism – where paradigms are seen to be based on mutually exclusive and contradictory assumptions and where individual researchers should or do follow a single paradigm.
  2. Complementarist – where the no paradigm is superior, but that different approaches are more or less suitable for particular problems or questions and that there should be a process of choice.
  3. Multi-method – where paradigms are seen to focus on different aspects of reality and that a richer understanding of a research problem can be gained by combining several methods, particularly from different paradigms.

The approach for react2008 will be somewhere between/inclusive of the complementarist and multi-method approaches. In short, it ignores (and probably thinks unimportant) questions of “ists”. This view has close similarities to the view suggested by Sandy’s paper (Behrens, 2008) on the use of Vaihinger’s theory of fictions as a basis for looking at information systems research. It’s used in an attempt to unite the usually battling factions of positivists and interpretivists.

Instead, it goes for a simple process of doing research (which is not seen as simply sequential), including the following steps

  1. What is the research problem and/or the research question that is of interest? Why is it important?
  2. What type of theory is most appropriate for the type of knowledge you need to answer the question?
    What types of theories there are will be outlined below.
  3. What is the most appropriate process(es) to use to develop this type of theory?

Types of theory

Arising out of the second question is the notion of what is theory, what type of theories there are and what structure should they take. Questions that are taken up by Gregor (2007) and which I draw on briefly and poorly below. Especially in the following table that attempts to summarise the 5 types of theory identified by Gregor.

Theory Type Attributes
Analysis “What is”. Analyses and describes a phenomena but no causal relationshihps are made nor predictions generated
Explanation “What is”, “how”, “why”, “when”, “where”. Aims to explain, but not predict with any precision. No testable propositions.
Prediction “What is” and “what will be”. Provides predictions and has testable propositions but does not have a well-developed justificatory causal explanation.
Explanation and prediction “What is”, “how”, “why”, “when”, “where” and “what will be”. Provides predictions and has both testable propositions and causal explanations
Design and action “How to do something”.

Gregor (2007) was writing within the information systems discipline. Consequently, this appropriation into the “e-learning” field may not be entirely appropriate. However, I would argue that there is a great deal of overlap between the two disciplines.

References

Behrens 2008
Gregor 2007

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