Research Skills
Dr Ben Kotzee
Department of Geography, Environment
and Development Studies
What is research?
There are many different kinds of research:
• Scientific (or, more broadly), ‘academic’ research
• Technological research (e.g. the development of
technology, medicines)
• Commercial research (e.g. market research,
product development)
• Political research (e.g. polls)
Research is just ‘finding stuff out’
A definition (Webster’s)
Main Entry: 1re·search
Pronunciation: \ri-ˈsərch, ˈrē-ˌ\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French recerche, from recercher to go about
seeking, from Old French recerchier, from re- + cerchier, sercher to
search — more at search
 Date: 1577
 1 : careful or diligent search
2 : studious inquiry or examination; especially : investigation or
experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts,
revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or
practical application of such new or revised theories or laws
3 : the collecting of information about a particular subject
Two questions
If research is just finding stuff out, why do scientists/academics
think they’re doing something special?
If research is just finding stuff out, why do we need a subject like
‘research methods’?
Scientific method distinguishes scientific research from just
‘finding stuff out’ (but something like this method can be
applied in many non-scientific contexts too!)
We can use the term ‘research
methods’ at three levels:
The levels of:
• Epistemology or methodology (the study of
how we know things)
• Research design (e.g. do an experiment or
conduct interviews)
• Research procedure or technique (what kind
of sample to use in a survey; how to construct
an interview, etc.)
What you will learn during the course
of your research methods training
• What is counted as ‘knowledge’ in your discipline
and how such knowledge is arrived at, proven or
• What sort of research is typically conducted in
your discipline and how are studies designed
• What are the procedures or techniques used in
your discipline and how to use software and tools
commonly used in your field
In short, you will learn how to be scientific in your
Some misconceptions regarding science
(and social science, for that matter)
• A space craft or a computer isn’t science – it’s
technology or the application of science
• Science is not a specific body of knowledge – it’s
a collection of (changing, developing) methods
(and ‘methods’ just means standardised,
systematic ways of posing and answering
• Not just scientists do science – we all do
Being scientific
This entails being:
• Systematic (applying consistent methods)
• Empirical (in the sense of ‘drawing conclusions
based on the evidence’)
• Rigorous (being thorough and precise)
• Sceptical (being aware of possibility of
• Ethical
…and probably other things too, but it’s a start!
Why bother being scientific?
• We are assaulted every day by a mass of opinions regarding
how the world works
• The challenge is to know which ones of these we should
• In approaching a question scientifically, we attempt to take
superstition, prejudice and guess-work out of this problem
and provide systematic grounds for why our conclusions
should be believed
• To count as ‘scientific’, our conclusions need to be (i)
compelling and (ii) communicable
Attention will be given both to how you make your
conclusions as compelling as possible and also to how you
communicate them
The Natural Sciences and the Social
The approach to research methods training will
depend on your field of study
• Natural Sciences: e.g. physics, chemistry, biology
• Social Sciences: e.g. politics, economics, sociology
But what about, for instance, psychology?
A cartoon of the natural sciences
• The natural sciences discover the world through conducting
• Deductive nomological model: universal laws of how
physical objects behave can explain physical phenomena
Massive objects attract each other with a force proportional to their masses and
inversely proportional to the square of their distance apart
The ball and the earth are massive objects
Therefore: the ball will be attracted to the earth (it will fall!) if nothing else overcomes
the attractive force
A cartoon of the natural sciences (2)
Science strives to find these universal laws
Universal laws are found through application of the hypotheticodeductive method:
• Hypotheses are generated
• Hypotheses are tested through experimentation
I’ve been saying ‘cartoon’ all along, because this is a very simplified
way of describing what scientists do…scientists are often
criticised for it and often unfairly (because it is a simplification).
Research in the social sciences
How is social science different from the natural
• Explains the behaviour of people (not things) and of
social systems or groups of people
• Seeks causal relations between social phenomena
and tries to understand the mechanism by which
one social phenomenon causes another
• But seeks also to understand social phenomena
(not just what causes what).
The quantitative/qualitative divide
What kind of research you do is influenced by your
discipline and what you are studying
• Quantitative research:
proceeds by counting or measuring; most often
expressed in numbers
• Qualitative research:
proceeds by communicating with people (talking
to them, reading what they write); most often
expressed in words
Depending on your field you will learn both
Good academic research
What is truly good research is hard to say, but here
are some ideas:
• On topic
• Rigorous
• Generalisable
• Valid
• Testable
• Reliable
• Replicable
Good academic research (2)
Good academic research
• Avoids bias (personal interest)
• Avoids prejudice
• Avoids muddle-headedness
Stages of a research project
• Planning
• Library research
• Writing the literature review
• Design of instruments
• Data-collection
• Data-analysis
• Working out findings and discussion
• Writing up
We will try and help you by explaining each step of
the process