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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

1. Basics

1.14 The research process
1.14.1 Feasibility
1.14.2 Literature search and review
1.14.3 Referencing
1.14.4 Dating and organising material
1.14.5 Planning and timing
1.14.6 Disasters

The Guide is designed to give you specific help in developing research practice and each chapter deals with specific approaches in detail. There are, however, some general things about undertaking sociological research that are worth bearing in mind whatever technique you are using and these are outlined in the following sections.

In addition to the considerations below, there are also ethical issues to take into account, see Chapter 10 on ethical and moral issues.

The primary consideration before setting out on any research is to have a clear purpose in mind. Why are you doing the research?

Do not start with a vague notion, such as, 'It would be a good idea to collect data on horseracing.' Why would it? What do you think you might be able to say about the subject? What are you trying to prove, reveal, interpret or understand?

Similarly, do not start with a method. 'I'll do a survey of churchgoers'. Why? What for? What do you hope to show? Why use a survey rather than attend a church and observe?

In short, have a goal in mind and think about how you would best acheive it. Think holistically, not just choose a topic and hope something will emerge or a method and hope that the data collected will somehow miraculously tell you something.

A clear purpose is necessary before starting a research project.

Having a clear purpose is not the same as formulating a precise research question. In some cases, when undertaking an experiment, for example, a clear purpose may be closely linked to a research question and consequent method. In others, such as naturalistic research (participant observation or discursive psychology, for example) the research question often evolves from the fieldwork. Potter (2010, p. 21) suggested that:

with discursive research much of the discipline comes from working with a set of naturalistic materials—records of people living their lives in a particular setting. And many of the questions formulated for more traditional research have a causal form—what is the effect of X on Y—which is rarely appropriate for discourse work. Rather than posing a question the focus is often on attempting to explicate the workings of some kind of social practice that is operating in the setting, perhaps with the ultimate aim of making broader sense of the setting as a whole. And this often means that questions are continually refined in the course of a programme of work and a study within that programme.
One of the benefits of working with naturalistic materials is that they throw up their own challenges that lead to novel questions. They often feature actions or occurrences that are unexpected or not easily understood with the repertoire of explanatory concepts available in contemporary psychology. This can provide an exciting start point for analytic work.

1.14.1 Feasibility
It is important, when doing a research project, that you do not attempt to do too much. There is tendency to overestimate how much you can do in the available time. This is not just an issue for new researchers, even experienced researchers frequently overestimate what is possible.

Students new to research sometimes have big ideas about how they can change social theory as a result of their research. You are unlikely to do this but your research project should greatly improve your own theoretical understanding and may also add to the sociological corpus.

New researchers also tend to think that they will be able to gain access to almost any area that they want to research. This is not so. You might, for example, think it would be interesting to do research into youth custody centres. No doubt it would, but you are extremely unlikely to obtain clearance from the appropriate authorities, such as the Home Office in the UK, to get access to a detention centre to do the research. Even if you got clearance it would take a long time, involve a considerable amount of bureaucratic paperwork and, on top of that, you would probably be expected to sign the Official Secrets Act, which would limit what you could report.

In short, you need to be realistic about what you can research. If you do not have much time (less than a year) you should stick to areas to which you already have some access or where access is easily gained.


1.14.2 Literature search and review
New researchers also tend to underestimate how much research and theoretical writing already exists in the areas in which they are interested. You should, thus, spend time tracking down and getting acquainted with the theoretical and empirical research that has already been done.

It is important to discover what has been written about the topic you are researching. A literature review is a process of exploring the existing theoretical insights and empirical research on the subject of your study. Taylor (undated) of the University of Toronto, writes that:

A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers.

The Emerald (undated) web site expands this as follows:

A literature review is a description of the literature relevant to a particular field or topic. It gives an overview of what has been said, who the key writers are, what are the prevailing theories and hypotheses, what questions are being asked, and what methods and methodologies are appropriate and useful. As such, it is not in itself primary research, but rather it reports on other findings.

Literature reviews may include just published material (with an ISBN or ISSN reference number) or it may include 'grey literature', which is work in progress, unpublished reports, institutional reviews, conference contributions and other similar documents that have limited circulation. For the University of Canberra (2012) :

Literature' covers everything relevant that is written on a topic: books, journal articles, newspaper articles, historical records, government reports, theses and dissertations, etc. The important word is 'relevant.

A literature is more than a catalogue of what has been written on the topic, it also includes a critical appraisal of the existing literature. This appraisal might identify inconsistencies in outcomes, gaps in knowledge, suspect methodologies, inadequate samples or other deficiencies that would warrant further investigation. On the other hand the critical appraisal might reveal competing theories or hypotheses and your study may attempt to provide evidence for or against one of the competing propositions.

A review that simply lists all the work that can be found on a topic is a bibliography (in effect, a database). A review that lists the work and adds a comment on what the work is about is usually referred to as an annotated bibliography. A literature review is more than a list. As Taylor (undated) says:

A literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list. Organize the literature review into sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory. You are not trying to list all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question.

Taylor recommends that you ask yourself questions like these:

1. What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?
2. What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research (e.g. on the effectiveness of a new procedure)? qualitative research (e.g., studies )?
3. What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)? What discipline am I working in (e.g., nursing psychology, sociology, medicine)?
4. How good was my information seeking? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I've found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I've used appropriate for the length of my paper?
5. Have I critically analysed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
6. Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
7. Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful?

However, as the University of Canberra (2012) points out:

A critical literature review is a critical assessment of the relevant literature. It is unlikely that you will be able to write a truly critical assessment of the literature until you have a good grasp of the subject, usually at some point near the end of your thesis.

Literature reviews are, broadly, of three types: convenience, incremental or systematic.

Convenience reviews, which are widespread, especially in journal articles under the heading 'literature review', tend to report the literature that the journal article author is aware of, sometimes topped up by a quick search or as a result of suggestions of people who have read early drafts, not least journal referees and editors. These convenience literature reviews are used to provide a context or legitimate the problem that the article addresses. In some cases the review provides the basis for hypotheses to be tested.

Incremental reviews involve several layers starting with general material on a topic and then focusing on a specific aspect and then looking for material that elaborates a specific issue. For example, Zimmerman's (1985) thesis on army personnel development used an incremental literature review described as follows:

After gaining a broad understanding of the FSC [Forward Support Company], the review focused on the problem statement and [then] information was gathered and organized by the three subordinate problems:
1. Which SKBs [skills, knowledge and behaviours] are most important for the FSC support operations officer to successfully perform his duties?
2. Which tactical logistics functions should the professional development plan focus on to develop the SKBs that will best assist the FSC support operations officer to successfully perform his duties?
3. Which of the three Army leader development pillars (institutional, operational, or self-development) should be used as the primary means to train CSS lieutenants in the desired SKBs before they serve as the support operations officers in the FSC? The concept of the literature review was to gain knowledge from a broad perspective to more precise ones. This concept educated the researcher on general logistics then migrated to more specific information on the three subordinate problems of this study.

A somewhat different notion of incremental review is one that continues to grow as new material becomes available. Thus, Carneiro (2010) pointed out that: 'Experimental results keep being produced, and therefore continuous and incremental literature review is required to gain a better understanding of the process'.

Systematic reviews are designed to be as comprehensive as possible, trying to ensure that all work relating to a subject area is taken into account and analysed. This usually applies when the subject of the research is a broad area and there are a large number of facets to be considered.

Wu and Li (2013), for example, undertook a review of community-based HIV/AIDS interventions. They explained their search process as follows:

The literature search was conducted in the following electronic databases: JSTOR, PsyInfo, PubMed, Proquest, Sociological Abstracts, and Social Work Abstracts. Each database was searched by using combinations of the following search items to identify relevant articles: HIV, AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STI), communitybased, psychological, psychosocial, intervention, participation, prevention, and evaluation. Additional articles
were found by searching the references cited in relevant articles.
According to these criteria, a total of 28 research studies were identified in the review, including 19 published journal articles and 9 unpublished policy reports. Out of 28, 22 studies were quantitative and 6 were qualitative. In the following sections of this paper, these articles are reviewed in terms of study location, participant characteristics, study design, intervention strategies, outcome indicators, and intervention findings.

In another example, Harvey and Drew (2006) undertook a systematic review of research, reported in the previous twenty years, that addressed the experience of first-year students in higher education. This is a broad are and covers inter alia learning, teaching, assessment, socialising, accommodation, enculturation and finance. The review collected and assessed hundreds of research reports, articles, books both published and grey literature. The aim was to be as definitive as possible and to bring together a disparate literature to help focus future research endeavours and to suggest improvements in the learning and teaching environment for first-year students.

There are many guides to how to write a literature review but surprisingly few on how to find the literature to go in the review. The following is the account that Harvey and Drew (2006) provided of the sources for their systematic review:

The published literature was identified in several ways.
1. A systematic search of the Higher Education Abstracts database from 1960–2000. From a detailed review of one year, it became clear that titles of articles or keywords did not necessarily identify all the articles that addressed the first-year experience. Therefore, the database of abstracts was searched for the words 'first' and 'fresh'. These enabled all abstracts, from 1986, that dealt with first-year (or 'freshman' year) issues to be identified. Pre-1986 items that seemed particularly expansive or were referred to be other papers were explored.
2. A variety of internet searches were undertaken using appropriate keywords in combination. These generated a variety of material ranging from small-scale reported studies (otherwise unpublished) through institutional websites dealing with first-year issues to journals, monograph series and bibliographies about the first-year experience or aspects of it, notably retention and induction.
3. Journal sites on the internet were searched where possible.
4. The British Library on-line catalogue was also searched.
5. Snowballing was used to follow-up references in articles, particularly review articles, usually via internet searches, including tracking of authors to see if they had produced any other published or grey literature.
6. Requests were made to colleagues. This led, for example to the identification of a relevant PhD and paper with extensive bibliographies that were explored.
7. A further search was then carried out using the British Educational Research Association (BERA Education-Line) database, with a particular focus on items published after 2000.

The University of Leicester (undated) suggests the following general ways of finding relevant material:

Electronic sources: Searching electronic databases is probably the quickest way to access a lot of material....
References of references: If you can find a few really useful sources, it can be a good idea to check through their reference lists to see the range of sources that they referred to. This can be particularly useful if you find a review article that evaluates other literature in the field.
Hand searching of journals: No electronic literature search can be 100% comprehensive, as the match between search terms and the content of articles will never be perfect. An electronic search may throw up a huge number of hits, but there are still likely to be other relevant articles that it has not detected. It is therefore probably worth allocating some time to sitting in the library, with issues from the last year or two of the most relevant journals for your research topic, and reviewing them for anything of relevance.

Blaxter et al. (1996:103) recommend this method, in addition to other more systematic methods, saying: 'Take some time to browse, serendipity is a wonderful thing'.

The University of Leicester (undated) also suggested that you keep a record of the search strategy you used to avoid duplicating effort and so that you can be explicit about your search process when writing up your research: often this is difficult to recall at a later date.

At all times keep a record of the sources, see Section 1.14.3 and make sure that if your notes are direct quotes that you ensure the source is matched with the quote, to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.

You also need to decide when enough is enough. Collecting material can become obsessive and you need to ensure that new material adds something to your research and isn't just duplicating what you have already established (unless of course you are setting out to demonstrate a large body of evidence pointing in a single direction). So, when you think your research will not benefit further and that you have a body of relevant material to work with, don't go looking for yet more material unless your research suggests new directions and you want to check whether this has been examined before.

In short, be flexible but don't think that you can cover absolutely everything that has ever been written on a subject area. Apart from anything else, there will always be new material appearing while you are doing your own research. Conversely, a few random studies that you happen to stumble across is not sufficient for a research literature review.


1.14.3 Referencing
It is very important that you reference your research. Do it as you go along and don't attempt to reconstruct the references later. A point reinforced by the University of Canberra (2012):

Write down the full bibliographical details of each book or article as soon as you find a reference to it. This will save you an enormous amount of time later on.

So keep a database reference of every thing you read, either in hard copy on file cards or, more likely, in an electronic database, making sure to keep a backup.

Ensure that the reference is complete, including author and initials, name of the article, book or report, where it was published and who published it, any website location and the date the website was accessed. You may also want to record the ISBN or ISSN or DOI numbers.

Do not worry about which particular style of referencing you use but be consistent and comprehensive from the outset as this will also save time later. The final choice of referencing style will in part be determined by external factors such as institutional requirements and publishing house style, in the event that you publish your research.

When making notes on reading you do, ensure that you put the reference on the front page of the notes and when writing out quotes, ensure that you note the page number.


1.14.4 Dating and organising material

Make sure that you date everything. Put a date on completed interview schedules, the date you got a mailed questionnaire back, put the date on every page of field notes you write, date video and tape recordings and newspaper cuttings. This will help when you are sorting things out at the analysis stage.

Potter (2010, p. 18) argued that data management is important and it saves time in the long-run to establish a system from the outset.

As research projects evolve data management becomes increasingly important. Much of this is focused on systems of folders that collect together recordings in different forms, different forms of transcript, and analytic notes. Such a system can facilitate data sharing...and can assist full backup of data and analysis. Encryption and secure storage may be required depending on the agreements with participants and the sensitivity of the materials. This is also a prelude for data reduction and involves the systematic building of a particular corpus that is of a size small enough to be easily worked with but large enough to be able to make appropriate generalizations .


1.14.5 Planning and timing
It is important that you plan the research carefully. You should have a specific focus to the research, especially if you have a limited time in which to do it. As far as possible, have a clearly stated aim and make sure that the data collection, analysis and reporting of your research relate to it.

Once you have identified what you are aiming to do, identify some operational objectives or some intended outcomes. Then work out the best way to collect evidence to fulfil these objective or intended outcomes and thus achieve your aim.

The rest of this Guide is about approaches to research: method, methodology and epistemology and how they relate to different social scientific perspectives.

Timing is crucial and we suggest that you should think of a research project as made up of three, approximately equal, time periods:
1. planning (including preparation and background);
2. data collection;
3. analysis and write-up.

So, for example, if you have six-months to do a project you should spend the first two months planning the research, the next two collecting data and the last two analysing the data and writing up.

It is very tempting, if you are doing a six month project, to think that you only need a couple of weeks to plan what you are going to do and then you can get on with the data collection.

Researchers also underestimate how long it takes to analyse data and write up a report. New researchers tend to think that it will only take a couple of weeks to write the report and are thus tempted to carry on with the data collection for far too long.

It is important that you decide in advance what your data collection deadline is and then stick to it. Do not be tempted to collect just a little more data, or wait for a few more questionnaires to come back, or just go and talk to a couple of other informants. You will need every day of the analysis and write-up time.

In practice, there is a big gap between knowing what you ought to do and having the time and resources to be able to do it. This is why we have put the detailed breakdown in the concluding chapter of the Guide, rather than overwhelm you with it at this stage. You may want to familiarise yourself with different methodological approaches before considering the step-by-step details

When doing a project the important thing is to do what you can and make the most of it.


1.14.6 Disasters
Never forget that the best-laid plans can backfire. This book describes how to do research but there is no way that it can possibly document all the ways in which things can go wrong. No research project goes smoothly from start to finish, as the various accounts of the research process testify (Hammond, 1964; Bell and Newby, 1977; Bell and Encel, 1978; Roberts, 1981).

So do not get disheartened when your questionnaire gets printed with the pages in the wrong order, you get no answer to your letters, your respondent isn't in when you call, the meeting you have gone to observe is cancelled, the DVD recorder is set to the wrong channel, or the voice recorder fails after five minutes of an hour-long, in-depth interview. Do not despair when you cannot find the books and articles that are 'vital' for your background research, or your computer can't connect to the internet. Don't scream with frustration when you realise that you have incorrectly coded half your data or you get in a muddle when you try to work out the statistics you need. Don't get suicidal when you accidentally erase the final electronic version of your report, which you haven't backed up.

Make the best of what you have been able to do. Write up a report, however little data you end up with. Document the problems and limitations as well as the successes. Keep a research diary to record the research process. Make a note of your ideas as the research proceeds and record the ups and downs of your work. A research project is a learning experience. No one expects you to come up with stunning new revelations unless you're doing a doctoral thesis or are a professional researcher. So, as a student, when writing up your research show what you have learned. In particular, show how what you have found out relates to theory.


Next 1.15 Triangulation