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Research & Writing Help

What is Research?

The first thing to know about research is that it's messy. Breaking down research into clear, linear step-by-step rules is challenging because mamy aspects of research activities overlap.

So what is research? Research is a systematic investigation of a particular topic or phenomenon with the purpose of generating new knowledge, building on existing scholarly work, and solving many social and environmental issues we face. Not all research is about generating universal truths. In fact, it is often not possible because nature and humans are incredibly complex, but we are able to identify trends and patterns.

Research is a fundamental activity in all academic and scholarly disciplines. Areas of scholarly inquiry are typically divided into three interconnected areas: humanities (such as philosophy, language, performing arts, visual arts), social sciences (such as psychology, linguistics, communication, business, anthropology), and natural sciences (such as chemistry, biology, physics, engineering).

Examples of research questions and methods:

  • How do bilingual middle school children develop literacy in their home language without formal instruction? 
    • This type of question might be answered through community/home observations, interviews, and other ethnographic work in the community depending on the purpose and context of the study. If it was a question about formal language instruction, classroom observations would be appropriate as well.
  • What metaphors are used in discourses about women's voting rights before and after 1920 in the United States? 
    • This type of question can be answered through archival work by examining publicly available newspaper articles, books, and journals that have been archived by local libraries or official government archives and libraries. Many newspapers and magazines are not available digitally, and researchers use microfilm (or microform) to read old newspapers.
  • In what ways has hip hop as a genre influenced the emergence of other genres from a cross-cultural standpoint since the emergence of social media platforms like YouTube?
    • This might be answered by examining popular music from various countries to examine the interactions and migration of hip hop. Methods could include discourse analysis of publicly available documents, analysis of lyrics, but also interviews with artists and different audiences from various geographical locations or digital spaces.
  • How have discourses about young adulthood shifted over time in young adult fantasy novels between 1990-2020? 
    • This type of work would require the researcher to collect YA novels and document how young adults are described and conceptualized.
  • How has the portrayal of queer identities in the entertainment industry evolved in relation to civil rights developments between 1960-2024.
    • Entertainment provides a window into how humans understand and conceptualize different identities. While fictional, they are grounded in human perceptions and understandings. Examining movies and television shows from multimodal discursive perspectives would provide insights into how conceptualizations of identities have shifted over time. 

Choosing a Topic

Choosing a topic will be different depending on the course. Some instructors will encourage you to choose something you're passionate about, while others have more specific parameters the project needs to follow. Regardless of what type of class you're in, think about the purpose of research, that is, what type of problem could your work potentially help solve? What is it that we should know more about but know very little about? 

Designing Research Questions

Figuring out what your research questions are is an important step. So how do you do it? As noted earlier, research is messy and many "steps" are intertwined. In order to create research questions, you need to have some background knowledge of your topic. You need to know what the conversations and debates are in order to figure out how you can join the conversations and debates with your project. Things to ask yourself:

  • What has been said about the topic before?
  • What has been researched? 
  • What has not been explored as much?
  • Which methods have been commonly used to research this topic? Which methods have been underutilized?
  • What might you be able to contribute with by using a different methodology or researching the same phenomena in a different context among different populations? 
  • What is the gap or underexplored area?

In order to answer these questions, you need to read some literature (previous research) on the topic. Take notes while you're reading. Some people have spreadsheets or tables to organize the information. For instance, articles that review or summarize the trends and developments in a field can be helpful. 

When you have a decent understanding of what's been done, you can start formulating your questions and thinking about what kind of data can answer your question(s). Think about designing questions that generate complex answer, so avoid asking yes/no questions. For instance, "is it challenging for English language learners who have kids to learn English?" will probably not result in interesting findings. However, reformulating the question to something like "in what ways do parents navigate structural challenges as they develop their English language literacy in community-based programs?" will likely result in complex answers depending on the parents and their individual situations. The research project should strive to fill the gap you identify and support the development of solutions to various urgent social issues.  

Methods & Types of Data

To answer your research questions, you need to select the more suitable method. The method you select depends on the questions you ask.

Research methods are often placed in two categories: quantitative and qualitative. The method you use depends on what your research questions are. Choose your method after you have identified your research questions rather than making the method fit a project. Common ways of collecting data and conducting research include:

  • Archival research (examining and analyzing documents)
  • Interviews and oral histories (these can be structured, semi-structure, or unstructured depending on the purpose)
  • Observations (these take place in classrooms, hospitals, community sites and so on depending on the needs of the study)
  • Ethnography (this is an immersive method where researchers spend a lot of time on-site. This method includes many ways of collecting data: observations, interviews, potential participation in activities in the community, archival work and so on)
  • Surveys (these can range in scope in terms of location, e.g., these can be regional but also national and international)
  • Experiments with control groups (for instance, testing out the effectiveness of a particular teaching method)
  • Experiments in labs to examine (for instance, reactions and compounds)

Spoken and interactional data require the researcher to transcribe the interviews/interactions verbatim. Transcripts need to be as accurate as possible, not only in terms of what was uttered, but also how they were uttered to accurately represent the voices of the participants. Using software to organize the data is helpful when the data set is large or consists of many different components. Examples of software that can do this include NVivo and Atlas.ti, and R (this is a programming language, unlike the other programs that are mentioned). Note that these are tools to support the researcher. These programs do not analyze or interpret the data for researchers. This is particularly useful for coding purposes when the data set consists of different types of primary sources. 

Research Prep & Study Design

Having a well thought-out research plan is an essential part of the research process. A research matrix can help you design a solid plan. It helps researchers visualize what they will do and how they might need to pivot as their research progresses. Critical questions to answer prior to starting your study include: 

  • What will you do?
  • How will you do it?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • When will you do it? 

Having a plan is great, however, it is common (if not the norm) that an unplanned event happens that requires you to alter your plans. Learning how to pivot is part of the process. Research is messy and not a linear path from point A to B because it is an iterative process. Common challenges:

  • During the early stages of a research project, it is very likely that your topic is too broad or too narrow. Shift your focus to one area. Narrow it down and revise your research question(s). You might also discover a more interesting aspect of your topic that you want to explore. This is okay! 
  • Stay flexible and always create alternative plans, just in case (e.g., political disruptions, global health crises, financial constraints, difficulty in recruiting participants and so on can all significantly shift research plans). Do you need to collect additional data? Do you need to find additional data sources and participants? Do you need to modify your analytical approach? 

Selecting a Method or Data

Always let your questions and purpose guide your choice, rather than forcing a method to fit your work.

  • If you're interested in understanding how students develop their literacy in a second language in order to develop more supportive pedagogical practices, a qualitative approach that focuses on classroom observations, interviews, and the analysis of assignments would be more helpful as they provide you with deep insights into the connections of teaching and learning.
  • If you're interested in a large group of students' experiences, you might want to use a survey to collect as much data as possible, and possibly combine it with a couple of interviews. Again, it depends on your research questions and purposes.
  • Or maybe you want to try a specific teaching approach, then an experiment with control groups would be more suitable.