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Authors: Marianne Franklin

understanding research


Successfully completing a research project is a major milestone in most university degrees, and the cornerstone of an academic career. This text is an accessible, real-time guide to conducting academic research in international and cross-cultural settings.

It provides advanced undergraduates and graduate students practical and theoretical guidance on how to begin, execute, and then communicate the outcome of research projects undertaken at the intersection of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Understanding Research

explores the decision-making process at all points of a research project and the implications of these decisions in the longer term;
outlines the practical and philosophical conundrums around specific techniques for gathering and analysing material;
examines moments of disconnect, overlap, and potentially mutual benefit for researchers working at different points along the quantitative–qualitative divide that underscores popular and scholarly debates about the relevance of academic research;
explains how to cope with a divide that is both real and imagined, in all its experiential, institutional, and conceptual variations.

Focused explicitly on the needs and experiences of students and including a wealth of practical tips, this work is an essential resource for all students embarking on a research project.

M. I. Franklin
is Reader and Convener of the Global Media and Transnational Communications programme at Goldsmiths (UK). Previous books include
Resounding International Relations: On Music, Culture, and Politics
Postcolonial Politics, the Internet, and Everyday Life: Pacific Traversals Online.


Coping with the
quantitative–qualitative divide

M. I. Franklin

First published 2013
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN

Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada
by Routledge
270 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

© 2013 M. I. Franklin

The right of M. I. Franklin to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Franklin, Marianne, 1959-
Understanding research : coping with the quantitative - qualitative divide /
M. I. Franklin.
   p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Political science—Research—Methodology—Textbooks. I. Title.
JA86.F69 2012

ISBN 13: 978–0–415–49079–5 (hbk)
ISBN 13: 978–0–415–49080–1 (pbk)
ISBN 13: 978–0–203–11886–3 (ebk)

Typeset in Garamond by
Keystroke, Station Road, Codsall, Wolverhampton


List of illustrations


1   Introduction

Aims and objectives

Who should read this book

Using this book in context

What is

On divides – real and imagined

Key concepts and their various uses

Chapter organization


2   Putting research into perspective


Key elements of a research project

Looking ahead: milestones, destinations, and expectations

Getting started and deciding a topic

Theory and method – of carts and horses

Concluding comments

3   Research in practice: designing a research project


Main stages in a research project

Work-plans and proposals

From research topic to
research question

On science, worldviews, and other brainteasers

Other practical matters: limits, ethics, and codes of practice

Methodological coping strategies – plotting a course

Concluding comments

4   The politics of research: living with and defending our choices


Doing research today: ‘location, location, location’

Literature searches and the
literature review

Historical and philosophical note

Purpose and categories of literature reviews


Sources and resources that matter

Research communities and (multiple) disciplinary identities

Concluding comments: living with your choices

5   Online research and web-resourcing skills


Setting the record straight

Back the future: a quick prequel

The internet as resource

Digital tools for online data-gathering and analysis

Online research: fields, relationships, ethics

Web-analysis: sites, maps, and hypertexts

Summing up


6   Doing research – gathering data

Preamble: introduction to Part 2

Chapter aims and organization

Data-gathering techniques – review

Surveys and questionnaires


Focus groups

Ethnographic fieldwork and participant-observation

Summing up: repositioning the divide?

7   Doing research – analysing findings


What is

Working with texts

Deductive and inductive paths to knowledge

Behaviouralism and its discontents: a worldview in action

Data-gathering as process

Concluding comments

8   Writing it all up and going public


What is

Writing formalities: citation and style guides

Feedback: examinations and going public

Procrastinations and prevarications

Coping and moving on – creatively

Revising and editing – what to look for

The final cut – what to remember

9   Conclusion

Reappraising divides imagined and real

To the exit and afterlife of a research project

Appendix 1: informed consent form template

Appendix 2: guidelines for internet research/researching cyberspace

Appendix 3: sample (master-level) ethics form


Literature list



1.1   Academic research objectives

3.1   Supervisors and supervisees

A2.1 Guidelines for internet research/researching cyberspace


1.1   How we/cats see the world, Nina Paley

1.2   Post-doc presentation, Vadlo

1.3   Differences between the humanities and social sciences, Jorge Cham

3.1   Ways of seeing, Len Munnik

3.2   View from Greenwich, UK, M. I. Franklin

3.3   View of lighthouse, Castlepoint, New Zealand, M. I. Franklin

3.4   Urban renewal, M. I. Franklin

3.5   Valid and invalid claims schedule, Fran Orford

3.6   Human–machine ethics, Nina Paley

4.1   All the authors?!, Vadlo

5.1   Information superhighway, Chappatte

5.2   Screenshot (i)

5.3   Screenshot (ii)

5.4   Spam, Chappatte

5.5   Map of the internet, xkcd

5.6   Cyberpolice!, Chappatte

5.7   Welcome to the medium of the future, Nina Paley

6.1   Surveys – a waste of time, Fran Orford

6.2   Don’t have a category for that, Joseph Farris

6.3   I can prove or disprove it . . ., Vadlo

7.1   Surrealist painter meets surrealist plumber, Dan Piraro

7.2   Measuring climate change, Josh

8.1   Student workout, Jorge Cham

8.2   You need some boundaries, Nina Paley

8.3   How not to act like an artist, Nina Paley

8.4   Gatekeepers, xkcd

8.5   Views and reviews, Vadlo

8.6   How to act like an artist II, Nina Paley

8.7   You are here, Chappatte

8.8   Help! I’m trapped in a hole, Nina Paley


2.1   Key elements of an academic research project

2.2   Climate change or global warming?

3.1   The main stages in a research project

3.2   Elements in a research proposal/outline

3.3   Examples of hypotheses

3.4   What is science?

4.1   Self-assessment – what is a literature review really?

4.2   Literature reviews in action – a working example

4.3   Wikipedia – a necessary evil?

5.1   Frequently un-asked questions about online research

5.2   Try out – another search engine?

5.3   Boolean search terms

6.1   Current web-based survey tools and resources

6.2   Overview – modes of survey administration

6.3   Checklist before taking off

7.1   Philosophical research

7.2   Composite approaches to complex realities – working example

7.3   Sex, gender and chromosomes

8.1   What kind of writer are you?


Is there really ‘no such thing as a stupid question’? Maybe not. However, budding researchers quickly learn to avoid looking ‘stupid’ at all costs, so leaving many questions about the research process frequently unasked. In this sense, borrowing from that erudite social commentator Woody Allen, this book could well be entitled
Everything You Wanted To Know About Academic Research But Were Afraid To Ask
, or afraid to answer. My first acknowledgement is to other authors in the methods and research skills literature that informs this project:

Closer to home, this book has been the product of a particular sort of collaboration. A number of people have shared with me their own experiences, wisdom, teaching material and, in some cases, let me watch them first-hand conveying some of the insights presented here; thanks to Susan Banducci, Chris Berry, Niko Besnier, Terrell Carver, Tim Crook, Matt Davies, the late Alex Fernandez, Des Freedman, Julian Henriques, Jeannette Hoffman, Jeff Karp, Harry Kunneman, Laurens ten Kate, Meryem Marzouki, Liz Moor, Hans Radder, Philippe Rekacewicz, Anne Sisson-Runyan, Richard Smith, Susan Stocker, Kent Wilkinson, and Sally Wyatt. Thanks to Pasi Väliaho, my ‘partner in crime’ in developing a department-wide research module at Goldsmiths.

Others took time to read various versions of the manuscript, in whole or in part; offering concrete advice and suggestions from their own point of view, contributing examples and substantive material as well. First and foremost I’d like to thank Susan Banducci for her contribution, not only for the part she played in the genesis and development of the book’s rationale but also her input on specific topics: the nuances of quantitative research, supervision, ways of coping, research design, and politics. Her unflinching eye as dispassionate reader of a substantial part of the manuscript early on and her generous sharing of teaching resources and her own research experience have been formative and inspiring. The wit, pragmatism, and perspicacity she has brought to our conversations about these matters over the years are also greatly appreciated. I hope that the book does justice to these ongoing discussions.

My gratitude also to Zeena Feldman, Zab Franklin, Zlatan Krajina, Marieke Riethof, and Yu-Kei Tse for their invaluable reading of the final draft; whose observations, editorial suggestions, and quizzings made a big difference just in time. A number of colleagues along with former and current research students provided an equally important input to the development of my thinking and writing. To James Curran, Nick Couldry, and David Morley my thanks for the institutional-level
support for the book’s approach and the spirit in which it is written. My thanks to Asad Asaduzzaman, Kath Geraghty, Jowan Mahmod, and Dong-Hyun Song for raising important issues during their Ph.D. research. Thanks as well to Keith Hubbard for all those weird and wonderful web-links, and to Marcia Pacheco and Richard Mulindwa-Kavuma (M.A. cohort 2010) for their pertinent inquiries and encouraging words along the way.

To Pierre Florac, Zab Franklin, Taka Hosoda, Jochen Jacoby, David Reynolds (my ‘let’s get writing’ pal), Pollyanna Stokoe, Belinda Watt, and Claire Young, I am very grateful for all the on-the-hoof input, positive energy, and attention to my well-being. My gratitude to Tadgh O’Sullivan for his intuition and indexing services that went beyond the call of duty. And a very special thanks to all those artists who have generously allowed reproduction of their cartoons and strips for our enjoyment.

Sections in
Chapter 3
Chapter 5
draw on previously published material: Franklin, M. I., 2010, ‘Media Research in the 21st Century’, in
Journalism: Cutting Edge Commentaries on the Critical Issues Facing Journalism at the Practical, Theoretical and Media Industry Level
, Paul Lashmar (ed.), London: Henry Stewart Talks Ltd,
; Franklin, M. I., 2009, ‘Sex, Gender and Cyberspace’, in
Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations
, Laura Shepherd (ed.), London and New York: Routledge, 328–49.

Finally, I dedicate this book to all my students – past, present, and future.

Without their questions, crises, disappointments, challenges, relief and satisfaction on completing their various research projects, this book would never have got off the ground let alone written.

26 August 2011


Thanks are due to the following copyright holders for permission to reproduce their work: Nina Paley, for
Figures 1.1
, for
Figures 1.2
, for
Figures 1.3
; Len Munnik, for
Figure 3.1
; Chappatte, for
Figures 5.1
; xkcd (
), for
Figures 5.5
; Dan Piraro (
), for
Figure 7.1
; Cartoons by Josh, for
Figure 7.2
; M. I. Franklin, for
Figures 3.2
; Fran Orford, for
Figures 3.5
; Joseph Farris, for
Figure 6.2.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders for their permission to reprint material in this book. The publishers would be grateful to hear from any copyright holder who is not here acknowledged and will undertake to rectify any errors or omissions in future edition of this book.


Topics covered in this chapter:

Aims and objectives
Who should read this book
Using the book in context
What is
On divides – real and imagined
Key concepts and their various uses
Chapter organization

Successfully completing a research project is a major milestone in a postgraduate, and many an undergraduate university degree. It is also the cornerstone of an academic career. Research in the round is both process and product; it has an important temporal element (starts and finishes), practical limitations (know-how and want-to) and intellectual puzzles (why), which together have cumulative benefits that reach beyond more pressing requirements to get the end-result out the door. In traditional academic terms, the objective is often the successful completion of an academic dissertation. More advanced research projects are disseminated as published and accredited research reports, conference papers, journal articles, books or, increasingly these days, in web-based formats. At various stages progress – and outcomes – also need to be communicated, formally and informally in oral or written form, to various audiences. Designing and then getting through a piece of research seldom proceeds in a tidy straight line upwards. Success is defined as much by our
completing the project (at all if not on time) as well as how others rate the outcome of our efforts.

This book treats these at times conflicting demands in four respects. First, it looks at those decisions we all need to make along a certain path that has a point of destination in mind and the implications of these decisions in the longer term where apposite. Second, it unpacks these issues as they emerge at key points in the execution and production of a research project; specific techniques and tools for gathering and then analysing the ‘data’, broadly defined, and how bringing these two aspects together in some sort of coherent way relate to philosophical and practical issues; the ‘theory–method relationship’; intellectual allegiances; and shifts in our own research identities for instance.

Third, the book identifies key moments of disagreement, overlap, and potentially mutual benefit for students working at different vantage-points along the
quantitative–qualitative divide
underscoring popular and scholarly debates about the social relevance of academic research. This dividing line weaves its way through and between departments, disciplines, and institutional geographies in various ways. What counts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ science, the right way of conducting a research project, and the best way to communicate the outcomes frequently pivot on conflicting ideas about the role played by ways of gathering and presenting quantifiable (the ‘power of numbers’) or qualitative (the ‘power of ideas’) sorts of knowledge.

These disagreements also pepper methods textbooks, fuel ongoing theoretical debates, inflect employment and funding opportunities, and underscore reiterations of the ‘war of the worlds’ and related
paradigm shifts
in the history of western science.
The corollary division made between qualitative and quantitative modes of research lies at the heart of much confusion and frustration for researchers, experienced and starting-out, during the life-cycle of a research project. Talking about
research encompasses ways of thinking, general skills, and specialized techniques for gathering and analysing material, the formative role played by worldviews, and academic idioms. It means coming to terms with such divides; in their stricter and more flexible formulations as well as their interdisciplinary and
disciplinary contours.

What all approaches have in common nevertheless is an awareness of the varying pressures of time factors (all those deadlines), practical obligations (‘do I
to?!’), and intellectual genealogies (whose ideas count, and why) confronting any researcher in any setting. Completing small and larger research projects, as a novice or experienced researcher, seldom proceeds snag-free. Progress is more often measured in fits and starts, clarity of thought and precision of the knowledge produced looking more like a spiral that is, hopefully, not a downward one. Onlookers and new arrivals to academic research often assume that on the other side of this entry-threshold all research unfolds in the same way; once you complete the first project, theory or methods course to good effect, all subsequent ones will fall into place. Working realities soon prove this assumption to be wrong, particularly for those looking to advance up a degree level.

So, in a fourth respect this book is about developing ways of
with a divide that is both real and imagined; its experiential, institutional, and conceptual variations. And, where possible, finding sustainable ways of building bridges along the way
by treating research in a holistic and not simply compartmentalized way; understanding the professional and personal dimensions in a wider context whilst working to complete a project in the immediate term in a satisfactory way and with a sense of achievement.


A key premise of this book is that no matter what your educational background, intellectual identity, or hands-on skill-base may be (e.g. in market research), the way this divide works for and against effectively completing an academic piece of independent research is useful to consider from both sides. A second premise is that all research undertakings entail a degree of adaptation, adoption, flexibility, and pragmatism in actual practice. The book has been conceived as a real-time ‘rough guide’ to academic research. Both theoretically informed and consciously pragmatic, it is a companion volume to the diverse generalist and specialist literature on ways to conduct research in contemporary academic settings. To this end, it provides research students – and their supervisors – both commentary and practical advice on how to deal with seemingly intractable differences about the best way to begin, execute, and communicate the outcome of a research project at the intersection of the arts, humanities, and social sciences; differences that can be passionately defended on a personal and institutional level in everyday research practice.

the keyword for these broad aims, the main goal of the book is to enable you to complete a research project in good time and in such a way that you can do so to the best of your abilities and as far as your own personal ambitions allow. This breaks down into the following objectives:

Describe, contextualize, and update key distinctions and overlaps between
approaches to academic research in historical context.
Unpack and analyse these distinctions, and intersections with respect to the tightrope that spans theoretical debates, everyday research practicalities, and the milestones you need to get through to complete a research project; e.g. choosing a topic, constructing a research question, doing the ‘empirical’ part, analysing, and presenting the findings.
Develop a holistic and pragmatic approach to creative thinking and puzzle-solving when faced with the diversity of methods – ways of gathering and analysing your ‘data’; as self-contained or consciously combined methods.
Provide explanations of specific research skills (how to) with the analytical tools (understanding why) necessary for scenarios where competing approaches can have consequences for seminar presentations, job placements, research funding, and publication.
Outline existing and emerging ethical issues around the research process, formal and unwritten codes of conduct. Understanding methods, along and despite this divide requires a greater awareness of ethical considerations for doing research in increasingly computer-mediated and international – viz.
– research settings.

A caveat: this book is not setting out to trivialize what are diverging research paths in many oter respects or provide a comforting drop-down menu of methods, as if these decisions can be made in a vacuum, de-linked from institutional as well as sociocultural, political or economic considerations. Rigorous scholarship, by any standards, and supermarket-shopping are not one and the same thing. What it does provide is a focused and open-ended approach to understanding research as both process and product.

Even when both feet are firmly in one disciplinary or methodological camp or another, where their respective ways of doing things and value hierarchies set the priorities, this book can help student researchers keep a sense of perspective. It will help you articulate what your research is about in ways that make sense to you and your supervisor or examiners, adhering to mandatory assessment criteria yet resonating with more philosophical conversations accordingly. The point is to provide ways of working through rather than be stumped by entrenched positions on divisions that can and do matter to the successful completion of an original piece of research.


Students undertaking independent research projects as part of a degree programme, from undergraduate through to Ph.D. level, bring to this task previous education and even work experience based on a variety of approaches to gaining knowledge. Some have had technical training or experience in statistical (i.e. purely quantitative) analysis whilst others may come with characteristically qualitative educational backgrounds in literature, the performing arts, and anthropology for instance. Others, particularly from the US, have received exclusively, or a combination of, liberal arts and social science education; others again arrive well versed in western and non-western philosophical thought.

Primarily this book is tailored for any student undertaking an original research project, from final year bachelor, through master-level dissertation students, through to Ph.D. students, with various degrees of previous knowledge, experience, and confidence levels.
There is a second readership in mind: research supervisors and tutors, some of whom may also be students completing research for advanced qualifications, or teaching staff striking out in new research directions of their own.

To students
: The book speaks to you in two respects, whether or not you classify yourself as an ‘absolute beginner’, ‘dummy’, or ‘advanced postgraduate’. It provides practical clues for those of you who may be well versed in broader, more abstract philosophical or theoretical frameworks but who are struggling with practical decisions about how to get these off the ground in terms of the ‘what’ of research let alone
to go about it. Second, it is aimed at those of you who, whilst you have a clear object of inquiry, case-study, issue-area and even ‘method’ of choice, start to come unstuck when you need to communicate, make sense of your choices for others in practical and, by association, conceptual terms.

At the same time I will be alerting you to some of the tough debates residing between the lines, particularly in light of how quickly student researchers identify with one approach, over-hastily putting unfamiliar techniques or ideas into the ‘not
thing –
thing’ or ‘no-can-do’ box; staking claims for ‘newness’ or transcendental critiques of the ‘mainstream’ by recourse to
ad hominem
The book provides a way forward in what is a competitive context for obtaining university degrees in such a way that enhances your ability to remain intellectually curious and not afraid of collaboration; both of these tend to be penalized if they are recognized at all.

To supervisors
: The aim here is to provide support, and additional pointers for getting around the daily impasses, misunderstandings, and frustrations that can arise when advising students in mixed departments, those where references to research skills or methods is either a highly contentious issue or a deceptively non-existent one. The book articulates some of the often unspoken conundrums of the supervision process itself and our role as working researchers, supervisors, and teachers looking to enable students to get on with their research, and ways to get on with our own work. It provides a handy reference to familiar key issues, the latest literature, and intellectual support that affirms as well as informs you in your own research or when supervising others.

Based on a ‘dialogic’ understanding of teaching and learning (see Franklin and Wilkinson 2011), the discussions and puzzles presented here do tend to assume a certain ‘ideal type’ of research project and model research student. However, it would not be unfair to note that many students completing university-level research projects today simply want to tick the boxes, and get the project over and done with. Likewise that many supervisors want their research students to think for themselves and indeed ‘get on with it’. For both readerships, this book provides you with the basis for ticking those boxes and getting on as well as a look into some of the rich debates, challenging ideas and specific challenges that are also an integral part of effective and satisfying academic research work.


This section outlines very briefly the methods/research skills literature at large. It is not a comprehensive survey or the sort of critical discussion that characterizes the
literature review
element of research dissertations (see
Chapter 4
). These texts have inspired and influenced me during the course of writing and consulting with others on this book so they will be referred to where appropriate along the way.

Marketing mechanisms in the publishing industry and the way publishing catalogues are designed often sees books categorized along disciplinary lines; reproducing the quantitative–qualitative divide in all its various guises accordingly. That said, this is a large and diverse range of titles that is constantly in a state of renewal yet also rooted in oft-cited classics; from those that encapsulate a particular philosophical position or side of an ongoing theoretical debate, or epitomize a particular methodological approach for a disciplinary mainstream, or its critics.

Navigating this complex and wide-ranging literature is often not a job many students see as their first task when setting out on a research project; students who are often introduced to this literature either through prescribed or recommended reading. Which texts are preferred depends on the discipline, the predominant
methodological approach (media studies and economics are different enterprises for instance) or the particularities of how methods training vis-à-vis research skills are treated as educational elements in degree programmes. Moreover, as we will be discussing later on in several ways, there is often a gap between our expectations of the sorts of answers any literature can provide to our particular quandaries and how they actually end up making sense for a project (your dissertation, this book) in the long run. Managing this disconnect often means realizing that there will never be an exact fit between what various authors have to say, the examples they draw upon, and what we think – need – to know; ‘the catch in all research – making the switch from the literature at hand and our material’.

For these reasons, methods books have a idiosyncratic role in our work. They are often consulted either too early, or too late, assuming they are consulted at all. Moreover, the way they can help us make a distinction between the more general questions we might ask of a particular literature (theoretical or more practical) related to a field of inquiry and the particularities of the
research question
we need to develop to guide the project on hand is too often overlooked.
Paradoxically this is often because learning by doing, trial and error, is integral to understanding research. A lot of information this sort of literature can provide at the time we need it most does not really sink in until later for this reason. Nonetheless, being able to get research done effectively also generates its own research needs; we need to learn about the principles, procedures, and wider implications of this process on its own terms.

Which book for what purpose?

The literature can be roughly divided into more or less comprehensive how-to sorts of books that cover various
methods; an important cluster in its own right. A second category focuses on the practicalities of getting through a project, guides on how to write academically, or books focusing on specific skills such as literature reviews.
There is a substantial category of books nowadays that look at both aspects; this one included. Underwriting all of these, are those books dealing with more abstract discussions of issues arising from particular tensions within an approach, topics from the philosophy or history of science, and disciplinary interventions looking to challenge methodological orthodoxies or present new visions. These are closely related to philosophical treatments and public debates about the relationship between science, culture, and society.
The latter contributions often only start to make sense once you have actually done some sort of research, acquired some hands-on knowledge of certain data-gathering techniques, or come out the other end of your ‘theory’ or ‘findings’ chapters.

Along these axes, the literature then diversifies. First, books speaking to or from within discrete disciplines where the methods presented – or critiqued – are grist to debates or divides within said discipline.
These titles stressing social and political research contrast with those referring to ethnography, cultural studies, or history
on the one hand, and those with terms such as ‘interpreting’, ‘re-imagining’, or the prefix ‘post’ on the other.
A second diversification is into specific
books with a wider purview. This is the aforementioned corner of the how-to methods market
and one that some titles above fit into as well. These titles take a more eclectic approach to methods in order to achieve some level of coverage, applicable for either qualitative or quantitative methods courses.
Then there are those texts that are unapologetically either quantitative or qualitative. These sort of books can, by definition, go a lot deeper into the nuances of those methods covered in ways that more general, more synthetic approaches cannot.

Then there are those that can be clustered together as critiques, and radical alternatives. Here I would include those working from critical, feminist and postcolonial standpoints either within or across disciplines.
These are books that look to overturn longstanding working assumptions and lacunae in terms of the politics of doing research, and knowledge-production from the geographical ‘periphery’ of the Global South vis-à-vis the richer regions in the ‘centre’ of the Global North.
This includes alternative frames for undertaking research into non-western societies that engage with many issues broached here drawing on postcolonial and feminist critiques assessing mainstream western academic research from outside, along with corollary inflections from debates within academe by its own internal critics. Such titles are self-contained, working across our concerns here yet influential resources nonetheless. As these are advocatory approaches that aim to improve if not reinvent academic research practice from the ground up, they are mostly more meta-level interventions.

New issues, new approaches

The above literature has been diversifying of late in the wake of previous decades’ focus on interdisciplinary methods, literary turns, postcolonial, feminist and post-structuralist critiques in the social sciences, borrowing heavily from the humanities in doing so. Another, more recent impact on methods texts is the impact of ‘new technologies’ or ‘new media’;
information and communication technologies
(ICTs), the internet, the web, and automated data-gathering and analytical tools, and electronic databases. This time-sensitive and growing literature roughly corresponds in terms of the tripartite division outlined so far; how-to books, discipline-based, or more abstract methodological exegeses.

All aim to guide research students through what is an emergent terrain circumscribed by various digital media (the web, ‘social media’, mobile communications devices, and older computer-mediated communications like email and discussion forums), the impact of ICTs on conventional research practices (automated research tools, web-mapping and data-mining software for searching the web, general-purpose search engines), and even new notions of the research field (virtual or cyberspatial domains), research subjects and topics (avatars to computer games, to simulations), to specific sorts of internet-based research tools and digitalized research techniques. Not only have these developments re-opened older methodological debates, but they have also upped the ante here in terms of the appropriate role, added value, and scientific status of the internet, ICTs, virtuality, and other mediated fieldwork scenarios in academe.
Chapter 5
looks at these issues in more detail.

Because the point of the exercise is not to reinvent the wheel, this book traces a path through this rich literature, referring the reader to conceptual and practical
insights provided by others where apposite. In that spirit the next sections tackle some key concepts, both practical and more abstract. First we take a look at what is actually meant when we talk about
research. This moves us into a more complex discussion about what is at stake when talking of a quantitative–qualitative divide. From there we can tackle some specific terms of reference that crop up in the preparation and the execution phases of an academic research project.


Set aside for the moment any current notions you have about the social relevance of academic pursuits; old hands are often as cynical as onlookers in this respect – of how research
be done or for what purposes. Step ‘outside the box’ for a moment As others eloquently note, good research is not confined to academe (Creswell 2009, M. Davies 2007, Gray 2009, Morley 2006: 87
). Research, that is
and methodically finding out about something by consulting various information sources, is something people do everyday. In academe research is of a different order, however. Emphasis is laid on formalized procedures, presentation formats, spoken and written idioms, codes of practice alongside informal conventions around the production and communication of one’s knowledge; all of which have to withstand
scrutiny over time.

Academic practitioners aim – indeed they are required – to produce work that engages with that of others and in such a way that allows all aspects to be eventually authenticated, replicated, or developed further. From philosophy through to experimental psychology to astrophysics, our work is constantly held under the magnifying glass. These ‘others’ can be our direct mentors or colleagues, co-practitioners in a discrete research group, sub-discipline, or part of a broader ‘epistemic community’ that shares a ‘set of normative and principled beliefs’ – and disagreements – about the matter at hand (Haas, cited in Cinquegrani 2002: 779).

That is the theory in any case. Criticism is the life-force of all scholarly work. We are bound to disagree: dispute resolution or 100 per cent accuracy, even in the most quantitative or scientifically adamant of corners, is an ideal rather than a given.
Yet as students we learn very quickly that affirmation is the Holy Grail; being caught off-side in a methodological or philosophical war of words is a common and discomforting occurrence. How different researchers handle and articulate these margins is where the most potent differences lie.
As Niall Ó Dochartaigh points out, in academic settings research

is not simply about finding the answer to a question. It involves learning about the main issues in a particular area and identifying the central arguments made by those on all sides of the ongoing debates. . . . The research process is not only about generating a piece of work. It is also about becoming an expert [in relative terms] on the sources and on the literature in a specialized area whose boundaries you help to define [even modestly] in the course of your research. This expertise is one of the most valuable outcomes of the research process.

(2009: 1–2)

This is why academic knowledge and thought processes are of a different genre to ‘common sense’, general knowledge, or even intuition; though a good dose of all three certainly comes in handy in the research lab, the field, and examination. Nor does it communicate outcomes – these are the research results – in the easy-to-read digests of popular science publications, science television documentaries, or investigative journalism. That said, all these genres of knowledge production draw on academic scholarship and vice versa, depending on the setting. So whilst there are many points in common, academic research-work requires paying explicit attention to articulating the
act of thinking
itself, as a specialized practice; the design, format and argumentation are as important as the outcome of your work. This includes making your sources and affiliations transparent, explicating the steps taken in gathering and processing evidence and linking them to an articulated and annotated conceptual rationale, presenting the results and then offering conclusions; all of which then gets wrapped up in a particular format and idiom for a particular audience.

The various ‘planning regulations’ for completing a research dissertation as part of a university degree, philosophical eddies, data-gathering technicalities, and written presentation formalities have all developed over time in a zigzag fashion; behind the scenes and in the crucible of intense debates amongst not only researchers but also other interested parties. That aside, and contrary to archetypes of how (usually male) genius works, from Galileo to Einstein, or what many students think, academic work is not a hermetic act; it does not take place in either a sociocultural, political, or economic vacuum even when you are locked in your room with the hand-in deadline looming. Inspiration and benefiting from social interaction are virtues in academic research life as well.

That said, self-sufficiency, fastidiousness, and developing an eye for detail are also indispensable; the life-blood of academic research as they manifest themselves across the disciplinary spectrum. The ensuing infinitude of discussions around meaning on the one hand and empirical – evidential – nuances on the other, all ‘purely academic’ – pedantry in other words – is often a source of exasperation for students starting out. These attributes of contemporary academic practice, ‘knowing an awful lot about not much at all’ are also the target of radical critiques of its role in ethnocentric, ‘western’ dogma about what counts as scientific knowledge.

Perhaps this is why academic work and ensuing publications are often perceived as far removed from everyday life, only good for arcane debates within the hallowed halls of the ivory towers of the university (a standard image in film and television costume dramas in the UK, including the
Harry Potter
franchise) or barely read journals. These hallowed halls exist and, to be frank, the latter archetype of academic publishing is true enough even if it were true that subscription numbers were all that counted here!

This other divide, separating ‘town’ from ‘gown’ does not mean to say that the downstream effects of academic research, from the natural to the social sciences to the arts, and humanities, are negligible or irrelevant; hair-splitting at the sidelines of major events. Far from it, as successive generations of
critical, postcolonial, feminist
, and other alternatives to research conventions continue to argue.
This notion of there being an irrevocable disconnect between academic and ‘real life’, so to speak, is considerably more permeable in practice. For instance many academic practitioners
sit on advisory councils or policy think-tanks. Others have come to academe after careers in the public and private sectors. The point is that public imaginaries and internal debates around the social relevance of academic knowledge wax and wane in any case; as do the socio-economic stakes, cultural ramifications, and geopolitics.

Whatever your misgivings may be of the point of academic ways of working
grosso modo
, the point to note right now is that these practices and ideas did not come ready-made. Even the most widely accepted analytical frameworks within which an object of analysis is studied and understood have changed over time; e.g. planetary movements as codified in Aristotle’s cosmology vis-à-vis how they have come to be charted and understood in contemporary astronomy and astrophysics since then. As philosophers of science tell us, advances (and retreats!) in knowledge of the world around us occur less as giant leaps – the cliché known as the ‘Eureka!’ moment – but rather in more incremental steps. Such
paradigm shifts
in the history of western science take place over time, if not hundreds of years (see Chalmers 2004, Kuhn 1962). The furore over challenges to the widely-held belief in mediaeval western Europe that the sun revolved around the earth is another well-discussed case in point. The current stand-off in some parts of the world between the, once maverick (‘heretical’) and now orthodox view of the origins of the human species, evolutionary theory (‘Darwinism’) along with its core concepts (‘natural selection’) and corollary disciplines (e.g. palaeontology, primatology) and the rise of theories that question its underlying precepts (‘Creationism’, or ‘Intelligent Design’) is another example.

More about just how the legacy of these sorts of debates matter for our purposes in the next chapter. First we need to present the ideas and conventions of academic research practice into perspective and in their own right.

Academic research: aims and objectives

Let’s take a step back and look at how two broad traditions of quantitative and qualitative research line up if we strip things back to fundamental statements of intent; a discussion of what these terms mean for this book is below. First, consider
Table 1.1
, which distils a range of characterizations of what various modes of research state as their intention. Reflect for a moment; what do you consider to be the
objective of
or, if you prefer,

Your initial answers need not mean you are confined to either side with no way out. Nor does this schematic resolve other thorny issues around the definition and relative importance attached to terms that these two broad bands have in common, or how researchers are engaging in more than one sort of activity, spending time in the other camp at any one time; e.g. a critique may well be in the context of a project aiming to empower a sector of the population, recommendations ensue from making predictions, or generalizations, objects of inquiry may require the application of statistical and linguistic modes of analysis.

Table 1.1
distils are oft-repeated ways of characterizing the object of the exercise from either side of this working divide. Look more closely though at those terms they have in common. For instance, in practice all researchers are
their ‘data’ or ‘findings’, making a case based on the ‘empirical’ evidence or form of reasoning – argumentation. In this respect analysis and interpretation are primary concerns shared by all researchers in some way or other (Radder 2006, Ulin 1984, van Zoonen 1994). Moreover,
is a primary motivation and objective in common. For instance, research drawing on German generations of
critical theory
(Burchill et al. 2001) or the Anglo-American pragmatist tradition of empirical research such as
critical realism
(Burnham et al. 2004) are also as preoccupied with explanation – ascertaining cause and effect – as are experimental traditions in cognitive psychology, or their counterparts from Freudian, Jungian, and Lacanian schools of psychoanalysis.

Table 1.1
Academic research objectives

Qualitative researchers
act on the data by
in order to
the phenomena
the object of analysis
social/political debates ideas/debates
knowledge groups/communities
cause and effect
truth/s & laws
Quantitative researchers
act on the data by
in order to
Testing hypotheses
Make causal inferences

The visual and written means by which an explanation is made, thought processes by which a conclusion is reached, however, is where paths diverge; between and within these broad bands. For example, interpreting – or analysing statistical evidence based on a statistical
reduction analysis
of the data arrayed as numerical values, is quite different from interpreting – or ‘reading’ the written word or visual images by applying a form of

Take a discipline such as history as another example; explaining historical events by consulting people’s diaries, private correspondence, government archives, personal memoirs, travelogues, or charting agrarian or industrial output figures over a given period of time all use different sources, requiring different ways to gather and make sense of the empirical material, residing in official archives or community libraries; coming up with competing explanations of the same historical moment as they do
so. Philosophers of history duly diverge in their view of ‘the’ archive as the only reputable source for empirical research, the relationship between
sources, and what counts as a source when it is a recording of someone speaking.

The ante is upped when quantitative data is integral to prediction; stronger still when predictions have implications for macroeconomic policy decisions by governments, corporate R&D, and households. Economics is an example of one discipline, firmly embedded in quantitative methods, recently put on the defensive as it became apparent that obscure statistical ‘financial instruments’ (e.g. futures) used by stockbrokers and investment banks had no small part to play in the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath (see Lanchester 2010).

Apart from these overlaps in how all researchers are engaged in analysis, interpretation, and explanation in varying degrees, quantitative and qualitative modes line up with and against one another in a number of other ways:

All would concur that successfully completing any research
, large or small, calls upon intertwined skill-sets – analytical, hands-on, and organizational – in upwardly spiralling levels of intricacy and demands on the researcher’s patience, time, and material resources.
Conducting an ‘independent’, ‘original’ piece of research according to certain ‘criteria of excellence’ and within a certain time frame is a major part of successfully completing a research dissertation across the board. It bears pointing out that in the workplace too, academic-level research is also conducted under strict time-pressures; by journalists, political lobbyists, NGOs, central and local governments, think-tanks, PR and marketing firms, and businesses.
That said, what sets the latter sorts of – applied – research apart from academic work, deadlines aside, is a lively but also enervating tension. On the one hand academic qualifications have the satisfactory completion of an independent piece of research as one of the formal requirements for a university degree. They both entail certain expectations about what the key elements (see
Box 2.1
) are in a research project.
On the other hand, where they diverge from other sorts of research is the stress laid on explicating the theory–method interrelationship and in the degree to which they engage with wider debates as noted above. For any research tradition such pressures are as much philosophical inquiries as they are dry technicalities and organizational hassles. This includes conflicting ideas over what counts as acceptable, what not, and then how the respective
is best passed on to the next generation. Differences about this relationship become pressing for research students, even before they have settled on a topic.
Another aspect in common, albeit less readily admitted, are respective ebbs and flows in fundamental thinking about research, as both a practical and reflective pursuit. Sea-changes in research practice and conventions are more incremental; once highly regarded ways of conducting research become superseded, returning again in the wake of disenchantment with the once-new trends that supplanted them.

It would be tempting to characterize all aspects of these debates as a stand-off between the new and the old. Whilst there appears to be a chronological progression in
narratives, it is more of a dialectic in that new and old co-mingle; intellectual fashions work in this sense both ways. Much of the time, though, would-be new and so-called old co-habit departments and faculties, sometimes amicably and sometimes less so.

Time now to consider what is at stake when speaking of divides; particularly the one ostensibly marking out quantitative and qualitative research territories for student researchers in the first instance, but also in the theory and practice of everyday research, supervision, and assessment.