What does “research” mean and are you doing it?

Whenever I ask the question ‘what is research, and are you doing it?’, be it in a workshop, or in teaching, or when someone is describing a planned study to me, there’s a very common reaction.

“EVERYONE knows what research means!”

For some areas of work, knowing what ‘research’ is (or how it differs from and/or is assumed ‘better’ than things not considered research) is very important. In other areas hierarchies are less of an issue. Whatever your position, people generally do not interrogate exactly what ‘research’ really means within their own work or practice.

In the rush to teach research methods or to do our own studies there’s very little time set aside for reflection. Let alone for something so basic as asking whether you are actually doing something called research. You may resist asking the question for fear it might hold up the important business of getting on with stuff.

However, it is a really good idea to ask ourselves – and those we are working with – what we think the word ‘research’ means. Because it can alert us to all kinds of potential trip wires and difficulties we might be encountering later on in our research journey. Also, as I hope to convince you, it’s actually interesting to explore.

What’s in a word?
If you look at how research is defined by research organisations, in methods books or teaching guides you will find a variety of definitions and descriptions. There is no one agreed upon term that sums up what research is.

American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston supposedly stated “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose”. You can extend from that definition a whole selection of descriptions commonly used to define or explain ‘research’ including:

Systematic. Organised. Develops or tests ideas or theories. Replicates. Expands on what we already know. Questions. Challenges. Scrutinises. Observes. Collects. Tests. Measures. Analyses. Discusses. Reflects. Solves Problems. Looks at how things work. Asks others what they think/believe/want. Checks if things are effective or fit for purpose. Ethical. Practical. Emancipatory. Intentional. Leads to change. Deliberates. Purposeful. Focused. Critical. Thoughtful. Respectful. Involves activism. Advocates. Randomises. Creates knew knowledge. Standardises. Innovates. Evaluates. Changes. Finds out what you should be doing. Novel. Broadens horizons. Advances knowledge. Collects data/information. Proven. Published.

Exercise One – A personal definition
Read through the list above and note what words sum up what research means FOR YOU. If using in a group activity you may want to share with others what terms appealed to them. Individually or collectively you may want to reflect on why particular words signify research for you, which ones definitely do not fit your idea of research, and whether there are terms or phrases that summarise research that are not on this list. You may also want to consider how many terms on the list describe what research ‘is’, while other terms refer to what research ‘does’.

Exercise Two – Like With Like
Using the list above, group together particular words or phrases that seem similar. Having done this can you see if they match any particular method or approach within different areas of the social sciences, health or development research? Some words of phrases may seemingly contradict each other, or may suit certain methodological, pedagogical or philosophical approaches more than others. If you see ‘research’ a particular way how might that influence the method(s) you choose to undertake any studies (or vice versa).

Exercise Three – Clarifications and Wider Meanings
Thinking about all the people involved in the research you might be undertaking, can you match the different words in the list above to the different characters that will be part of your study? From this do you note any tensions where particular individuals or groups might have one view of research, and how others might define or view it? How is that going to affect any work you might undertake? Some of these issues are explored further in this paper I co-wrote with colleagues Sara Shaw and Trisha Greenalgh (see p.497).

A cautionary tale of why definitions are important
Albert Einstein (and not Batgirl as the photo above might suggest) famously quipped “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” This summarises, for me, the idea how often in research we are unsure of what we are looking for or expecting to find out. But it can equally apply to us not always agreeing on what ‘research’ means.

Here’s how a situation where nobody quite knew what they were doing led to big problems.

I was once commissioned to run a piece of ‘qualitative research’. That was the phrase used was in the job advert, job spec, interview, and repeated at every steering group meeting. The steering group and funders wanted me to interview people, which I dutifully did. So far, so good. We were all in agreement ‘qualitative research’ involved interviews and that was what they wanted and I was doing.

I talked to lots of people, taped our conversations, transcribed them, used discourse analysis to identify narratives and counter narratives, and different issues affecting all the players within the project. Towards the end of the study period I presented, with pride, a lengthy report that wove a story of all the experiences and positions and life events affecting everyone within the research, extensively referenced existing research, allowing me to make recommendations for policy change.

The day of this draft presentation to the steering group began badly and soon got worse. Everyone was baffled by what I had done. ‘We asked you to do interviews’ they said, making no effort to hide their disappointment and irritation. Their idea of ‘qualitative research’, it transpired, was for me to talk to some people, and to sum up either in short paragraphs or better still bullet points, what those people’s views were. And from that they, the steering group, would decide what recommendations might be made.

My contribution, of quotes, and stories and intermingling ideas and contradictions, all sewn together with references and recommendations was, in their view, absolutely NOT ‘qualitative research’. Their past experience of commissioning research had always resulted in brief summaries of interviews. They found this very useful in commissioning new services, being aware of key stakeholders and issues, and for changing policies and practices. Yet all I’d been taught about qualitative research suggested this kind of summarizing and stripping out of agency, voice and narrative was poor practice and potentially unethical. I concluded they knew nothing about ‘qualitative research’. The drew exactly the same opinions about me.

If we look back over this story what we can actually see is everyone had ideas about what ‘research’ meant and what ‘qualitative’ meant. They had commissioned research, certainly, and I had signed up to do it. Because none of us stopped to ask ‘what are you expecting from this work?’ and ‘what does research mean to you?’ we ended up at cross-purposes, with hurt feelings. They ended up getting far more than they had paid for, but were not remotely glad of it. And I ended up doing far more than necessary for what I was paid for and produced a piece of work that wasn’t, on this occasion, useful to those who had commissioned it.

Avoiding misunderstandings
If you are planning a study, or have started on research or are teaching methods in the social/health sciences or development, one way to avoid a crisis like the one covered above is to ask:

  • What is research?
  • Who does research?
  • Am I a researcher? (and does it matter?)
  • Who (or what) am I researching?

You cannot assume that what you think research is will be a view shared by others you encounter during your work or studies. Including funders, ethics committees, wider communities, media and colleagues. So it is always a good idea to check very early on what people think you’re doing – and to keep coming back to this as your work progresses.

This can be particularly important with participants who may very well not understand what research is, or necessarily fully comprehend any research they have agreed to be part of. They may have their own ideas of what research involves or motivations for being in your study and an awareness of all these can ensure people are not exploited or misled in your work, but are also to check you’ve invited the right people into your study.

Does it matter if we are doing research or not?
Noting if what you are doing is research is more than just an exercise in linguistics. While some disciplines have a broad view of what might constitute research, others are specific about what it entails. Quantitative, experimental and medical research tend to fall into more of the latter category, and often the delineation of work here is about identifying what kind of work you will be doing, what sort of method(s) you will use, and whether or not you require ethical approval.

Audit, service development and evaluation are often separated from research (although not always so it is good to check with your funder, local ethics committee or colleagues if you are not sure). The MRC have a tool that helps you work out if what you want to do qualifies as ‘research’. Although as a further teaching/reflection exercise it is worth working through this tool to see what things fall under than banner of research, what don’t, and what kind of activities are legitimized as ‘research’ through this process. You may also want to link this to the exercises above, thinking about what definitions of ‘research’ in the list you studied match the medical/scientific/positivistic view of ‘research’ – and what methods, approaches, people, philosophies and practices this leaves out?

Within health and social care, education and development people may engage in activities, events, programmes, service improvements or performances where they do work as usual and consider documenting this to be research. Or try to change or enhance their work but do not record the process by which they went about this. Sometimes we fail to note what we are doing as research, or do not enhance or strengthen our activities through reflection, using theory, or assessing what we have done.

Another good reason to consider if you are doing research is to avoid limiting your practice, and to ensure if you have tried something out, that you can describe and explore what happened so others might learn from what you have done.

– Research may be defined, interpreted and understood in many different ways
– Research can happen in many disciplines and locations
– Research is not simply something you do to end up as a publication in a peer reviewed journal
– What you think research means may vary widely from others you are working with
– Definitions of research can introduce particular perspectives, prejudices and in turn influence what approaches you take in choice of method and approach to participants
– Reflecting on what all stakeholders think research means can save problems within a study
– Asking your students (or yourself) to consider what the term means may be an important part in becoming more aware of the work that you plan to do, and ensure it proceeds carefully, critically, ethically and effectively.

Future posts will be looking at how we follow on from thinking about research to defining a study question, selecting a method, and considering the needs of those who might be involved within our work.

Before then, this presentation by Dr John Schulz (Southampton) looks at what makes something into research, with a focus on how theory can help us do this

If you have further thoughts on how we define research, how this can impact on the work you do in the social or health sciences or development, or whether you have anxieties about how research has been discussed here defined feel free to add them in the comments.

Further reading
Becker HS. 1998. Tricks of the Trade: How to think about your research while you are doing it. University of Chicago Press.
Hewitt Taylor J. 2011. Using research in practice. It sounds good, but will it work? Palgrave Macmillan.
Remme JHF et al. 2010. Defining Research to Improve Health Systems. PLoS Medicine. 7 (11) e1001000
Rhedding Jones J. 2005. What is research? Methodological practices and new approaches.
Smith R. 1992. Audit and Research. British Medical Journal. 305. pp.905-6.
Wade DT. 2005. Ethics, audit and research: all shades of grey. British Medical Journal. 330. pp. 468-73.

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