Research approaches

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Academic writing consists of contents that can be (1) informative or descriptive, (2) analytical, and (3) argumentative or persuasive (also called ‘rhetoric’). [1] Academic writing is generally both informative and/or analytical, but also argumentative; this is true for most fields. A researcher publishes not only new information and ideas, but also attempts to persuade readers about some point, such as:

  • This theory, hypothesis or idea is correct, or is better than other proposals
  • The data support or prove a particular hypothesis
  • Theory X can be applied to a new domain or to solving a problem
  • This experiment shows us something interesting and worthwhile
  • These data are worthwhile

Propositions or claims made – the arguments or points, in other words – require some kind of support or evidence. It may be either of a primary source (from the author’s own research or analysis) or secondary (information cited from another source besides the author). Depending on the kind of academic research or writing, it can consist of some of these types of support below. Often these might fall into broad categories of quantitative or qualitative data; in some fields, the argumentation may be primarily theoretical.

1 General research approaches

Papers that make heavy use of statistical data, experimental data, or statistical analysis of comparative data are typically what we call quantitative research – following strict scientific criteria. Such research is common in science, engineering, and social science fields. Other papers may rely on observational data (including ethnographic data) and the researcher’s own interpretation of the data. This is qualitative research, which is common in humanities and social science fields. What kinds are prevalent in your field, particularly in its academic writing? Why would these be preferred?

The general type of research, and the specific research methods, affect the structure and style of the whole text. Various research methods fall under one or more of the following categories.

1. Quantitative data

This is data that can be easily quantified, counted, and reported – measured and counted, as by numerical and statistical means. This is often the type of data in science, engineering, and some social sciences (e.g., how many electrons are in a given space? how much do Canadians spend per year on maple syrup? how much does teaching method X help students learn, as measured by test scores?). This would include various kinds of experimental and statistical evidence, including experimental and statistical comparison of groups.

2. Qualitative data

This refers to information that is observed, and is not so easily counted or quantified; the researcher makes decisions about how to classify things, or examine them holistically. This type of evidence is common in education and some social science fields (e.g., how do children behave in a certain stressful situation? do students interact with peers or teachers more enthusiastically under teaching methods A or B?). This would include observational studies and subjective or theoretically based interpretation of observational data. Common examples of this are seen in ethnographic research, where one observes individuals or people, how they interact, etc., such as work by some anthropologists, sociologists, language researchers, and education researchers.

3. Theoretical arguments

Some arguments may be primarily theoretical, based on logical argumentation1 of ideas and facts, with limited reference to empirical data (qualitative data such as observational data or actual case examples; or quantitative data), except maybe hypothetical examples or examples from the writer’s own mind or experience. Examples include philosophy, some area of math, and theoretical linguistics.

4. Critical / evaluative

A data set, situation, or phenomenon is analyzed and evaluated according to a set of norms or standards, often those established by a particular academic viewpoint or theory. For example, a particular educational program might be evaluated to assess its effectiveness, according to the standards of a particular sociological or educational model.

5. Interpretive

A theory or model is used to interpret a data set, situation, or phenomenon, to provide insights or analyses that would not be so apparent otherwise. For example, a set of data about a social problem in a city’s educational system might be interpreted according to a sociological theory to yield deeper theoretical insights into the issue.

2 Support

Support refers to the evidence, details, or explanation for the main ideas of body paragraphs, as well as for the main idea or thesis of the whole paper. Support for main ideas in papers and body paragraphs may be quantitative (statistical or experimental data, and/or statistical comparisons), qualitative (e.g., descriptive examples, observational data), theoretical, or some combination thereof, depending on the academic field, the researchers, or the particular type of research area.

  • statistical comparisons and results
  • detailed numerical data
  • experimental data
  • computer simulations
  • comparison data (e.g., conclusions from statistical comparison of two groups)
  • quasi-experimental data: comparison of two classroom or pedagogical environments, where full control of variables may not be possible
  • surveys with closed-ended questions, e.g., yes/no questions, or rating on a Likert scale (a numerical scale, e.g., rating attitudes on a scale of 1-7)

  • observational data
  • ethnographic data, i.e., observational data of people, e.g., social interactions, or classrooms[2]
  • case studies
  • examples
  • anecdotes
  • historical evidence
  • historical narrative, or background
  • quotations
  • authority of other scholars
  • summaries

  • legal (forensic) argumentation
  • theoretical analysis or discussion
  • syllogism (e.g., in philosophy) or other logical argumentation
  • mathematical proofs or arguments
  • logical inferences
  • analogy, metaphor
  • more subjective inferences, arguments, impressions, etc.

The interpretive, evaluative, and critical frameworks may draw from a mixture of qualitative and theoretical methods and data, or occasionally, quantitative.

3 See also

  1. Genre
  2. Academic writing genres
  3. Academic versus non-academic writing
  4. Paragraph styles

3.1 Notes

  1. Non-academic writing forms may have elements that are creative, subjective, personal, informal, or otherwise non-academic.
  2. From the Greek word ethno- meaning 'people; here it can refer to observing and recording data (‘-graphic’) about individuals or several people, e.g., when an anthropologist observes people in their daily lives and social interactions, or when an observer records what happens in a classroom.