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The Nature of Research


What is research?

Research is essentially an elastic term because different fields, researchers, and methodological communities have unique and distinct ideas or methods about what it means to conduct research. An engineer has quite different research methods from a teacher, lawyer, anthropologist, and so on. Even researchers of the same field who are investigating the same topic may employ different methods depending on their intention, their purpose, and the paradigm they’re operating from within. Mackey and Gass (2016, p.2) accentuate, “Research is not monolithic.” For instance, an English teacher who is curious about the effectiveness of using English songs to develop students' pronunciation can conduct an experimental study by teaching English pronunciation using songs in a group of students and using drill techniques in another group. After some sessions, she tested both groups' performance and compares the results. Another teacher might be interested to see whether students like using English songs to develop pronunciation. To investigate it, she can survey the students by employing a questionnaire or interviews.

The elasticity of the meaning of research is illustrated by the following definitions. In the field of psychology, research is viewed as a scientific activity aimed to describe a phenomenon or a process that has previously been inaccessible or only vaguely understood (McQueen & Knussen, 2013, p. 5). In the context of Business study, Saunders et al (2007) define research as something that people undertake to find out things in a systematic way, thereby increasing their knowledge. Gratton & Jones (2009), in the perspective of sports studies, research is ‘a systematic process of discovery and advancement of human knowledge’. Seeing from the educational field, Creswell (2015, p.3) defines research as ‘a process of steps used to collect and analyze information to increase our understanding of a topic or issue’. Additionally, In the field of Applied Linguistics, Perry (2011, p.8) states that ‘Research is the process whereby questions are raised and answers are sought by carefully gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data.’

Although research can be carried out by anyone and in any field so that it covers a broad meaning and includes various methods, most research is viewed as a systematic process to find a solution to a problem and that solution helps in discovering new understandings of various topics or phenomenon needed to advance knowledge. The new understandings can be either new theories/concepts development or the advancement of existing knowledge and theories that lead to a new understanding previously not known. In this context, research refers to a movement from the known to the unknown for discovering a new understanding. Research is indeed a journey of discovery.

Research as a journey of discovery for advancing knowledge is feasible because it is supported by our instinct of inquisitiveness—usually called “the mother of all knowledge”. When we are confronted by problems or something unknown, we not only wonder. Driven by our inquisitiveness, we also raise questions, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions. Further, the new conclusions can drive us to form new questions which require new data collection and analysis and conclusion drawing. By going through these processes, we attain solutions to the problems or a full and fuller understanding of the unknown.

To understand unknown events or phenomena, besides research, there are some alternatives we can use. Taking an armchair reflection, doing an introspective approach by using one’s experience and self-knowledge, and undertaking an intuitive approach using beliefs and feelings, are some common ways people take. Since they are so frequently used, they might not be bad. However, due those approaches are flawed, subjective, and judgmental. Although they may get us by on a day-to-day basis, they are not designed to accurately describe, explain or predict. A more rigorous, systematic, and scientific approach is needed to understand the world, i.e. research.

The above description indicates that the main purpose of research is to further understand the world and to learn how the newly obtained knowledge can be applied to enhance everyday life. Thus, research is an integral part of problem-solving. For instance, a teacher who finds that her students learning achievement is low can investigate why the problem occurs. Identifying the reasons, she can research to find more effective teaching techniques, materials, or media to help the students improve their achievement.

Characteristics of Research

Based on the discussion above, some characteristics of research can be identified. First, research is usually carried out to study a problem. Second, research is a systematic (stage by stage) process and, therefore, to conduct research, an appropriate process must be followed. Third, research is objective, unbiased, and logical. Fourth, research is rigorous or it should employ a strict quality control to make the results valid, reliable, generalizable, and authentic. Fifth, research is empirical as it is based on observation or the researchers’ direct experience. Sixth, researchers must do an in-depth and critical analysis of all the collected data to ensure that the interpretation is errorless.

Types of Research

Research has various types as they can be classified based on their objective, depth of study, data analysis, the time required to study the phenomenon, and other factors. It's worth mentioning that a research project cannot be limited to one type of research but will likely use several.

Figure 1. Types of Research

Basic vs Applied. Basic (or fundamental or pure) research focuses on generalizations and the formulation of a theory. Thus, it is mainly concerned with determining or creating the fundamental relationships within a discipline without paying attention to any practical applications to the real world. In contrast, applied research focuses on finding a solution for an immediate problem facing a practice, organization, or society. Thus, it is usually conducted to solve a particular and concrete problem. In the educational field, a popular form of applied research is classroom action research.

Descriptive vs. Analytical. Descriptive research is conducted to describe a phenomenon or the state of affairs as it exists at present. It covers surveys and fact-finding inquiries of different kinds. This type of research is often used in social sciences, education, and business research. Descriptive research is proper to use to investigate students' attitudes and interest in using short stories to develop reading skills or the procedures of using short stories to improve reading performance. Different from descriptive research which focuses on describing the 'what' of a phenomenon, analytical research concentrates on the ‘why’. In other words, analytical research is concerned with cause-effect relationships. If a researcher aims to study whether short stories use is effective or not to develop reading skills or how short stories use will affect students' reading performance, he should conduct analytical research. In doing so, the researcher has to collect factual information and analyze these to make a critical evaluation of the material.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative. Quantitative research is based on the measurement of quantity or amount so that it applies to phenomena that can be expressed in terms of quantity. Research employing experimental or correlational design is quantitative research. In contrast, qualitative research deals with a qualitative phenomenon, i.e., phenomena relating to or involving quality or kind. If a researcher is interested in investigating human perception and behavior, he will use qualitative research.

Conceptual vs. Empirical. Conceptual research focuses on the concept or theory that explains or describes the phenomenon being studied (Enago Academy, 2019). It is conducted by observing and analyzing already present information on a given topic. Thus, the researchers do not conduct any practical experiments. Philosophers and thinkers have long used it to develop new concepts or to reinterpret existing ones. In contrast, empirical research relies on primary data obtained from the researchers’ direct experience or observation. The collected data may be compared against a theory or hypothesis, or secondary data from a literature review are used to form the theoretical background, yet the results are essentially based on the primary data gathered. 

Figure 2. Conceptual vs Empirical Research


Cross-Sectional vs Longitudinal. Cross-sectional (one-time research) and longitudinal research are differentiated based on the time viewpoint. Cross-sectional research is carried out at a given point in time, while longitudinal research is conducted over several time periods. Thus, cross-sectional research is relatively quick to conduct, whereas the time to complete longitudinal studies may vary from a few years to even decades. 

Field-setting vs laboratory vs simulation research.  This classification is based on the environment in which research is carried out. Field research refers to the study conducted in a natural (or outside of the laboratory) setting. The researchers collect the data directly from the participants or objects while they are in their ordinary environment. In contrast, Laboratory research is done inside a controlled environment (i.e. Laboratory). The environment is purposively controlled to avoid other variables' interference so that the theories can be precisely tested and the finding’s reliability is ensured. Simulation research refers to any research or development project in which researchers or developers replicate the context of some authentic phenomenon to create a ‘virtual world’ through which data are collected. Since the elements of the virtual world are precise representations of the real world, the experiences of the research participants or objects are similar to what they would experience in the real world. Natural disasters drills like a tornado, earthquake, or fire drill carried out in many societies are examples of simulation.

Research vs Scientific Method

Many people believe that research and scientific method are just the same. Although they are two closely related terms, they are fundamentally different. As stated earlier, research is a systematic process directed to further understand the world and to learn how the newly obtained knowledge can be applied to enhance everyday life. Scientific Method concerns with how scientific research is conducted. It is essentially a method or a ‘guide’ for doing research which includes the steps of making observations, formulating a question about what has been observed, establishing a hypothesis, conducting experiments to collect data, presenting the results by analyzing and interpreting the data, and drawing the conclusion. 

Figure 3. The Scientific Method Steps


As a method for doing research, the exact scientific method is specifically applied in experimental research. In studies where direct experimentation is not possible, the exact scientific method is not applicable. Philosophy, religious studies, and literature are some fields that employ non-experimentation research. Researchers in these fields automatically modify scientific method. The modification can be done by skipping one or more steps, repeating certain steps, or going back and forth between a set of steps. Consequently, there are as many versions of the scientific method as research undertakings.



Creswell, J. W.   (2015). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (5th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Enago Academy (2019). Conceptual vs. Empirical Research: Which Is Better? Retrieved 25 March 2020 from

Gratton, C. & Jones, I. (2009). Research methods for sports studies, 2nd edition, London: Routledge

Mackey, A. & Gass, S.M. (2016). Second language research. New York: Routledge

McQueen, R.A. & Knussen, C. (2013). Introduction to research methods and statistics in psychology (2nd ed.).  London: Pearson Education Ltd.

Perry, F.L. (2011). Research in applied linguistics: Becoming a discerning consumer (2nd ed.).New York, NY: Routledge.

Saunders, M., Lewis, P., & Thornhill, A. (2007) Research methods for business students, 4th edition, UK: Pearson Education Limited


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