Introduction to Types of Research Inquiry
Panel Discussion: Banikanta Mishra, Bibhu Prasan Patra, Prahlad Mishra, Sandip Anand, Rahul Thakurta (Moderator)
Faculty Members, XIMB, India
Note. This is a report on the panel discussion held at XIMB (Bhubaneswar, India) on June 26, 2010, which was organised as the opening event of the Research Training Seminar (RTS) series for the academic year 2010-2011.
The Research Training Seminars (RTS) organised by XIMB provide a forum for the doctoral scholars to learn about various facets of research. It provides an opportunity to interact with research-active academicians and other professionals. These interactions assist the scholars with a basic understanding of the What, Why, and How of research and, in the process, prepare them to think beyond the textbooks.
The panel discussion began with a brief introduction to the notion of research. Doing research can be likened to sailing on the sea, both in terms of challenges and excitements. There are possibilities of getting lost, shipwrecked, or attacked by predators. Careful preparation is required before one decides to embark on the voyage. A doctoral programme prepares scholars to face the challenges of doing research. Successful completion of the doctoral programme can thus be seen as receiving a license to enter into the sea.
Although research is often expected to answer our questions, the research process involves not only answering but also raising and framing new questions. Three kinds of question were discussed: (a) “What” questions: these questions look into the categories we use to make sense of our perceptions and experiences (e.g., What is “home”?), (b) “Why” questions: these seek to explain the various phenomena we perceive around us (e.g., Why is there homelessness?), and (c) “How” questions: these explore the world of action, so that we can achieve some intended outcomes (e.g., How can we eliminate homelessness?). Of course, there can be other kinds of question too in research.
Given that there can be different kinds of research question, clearly researchers can pursue different purposes. Depending upon the purpose, researchers choose appropriate processes to carry out the research task. In the research process, researchers often build and use “models.” Four different kinds of model were discussed: (a) abstract, (b) theoretical, (c) conceptual, and (d) empirical.
Abstract models are driven purely by “intellectual pursuit” and are for intellectual fun. Such models are not usually backed by any specific expected or observed behaviour of individuals or entities. These assist us in identifying physical processes that drive the evolution or origin of certain concepts, and thus provide clarity to our process of reasoning. For example, several “hollow Earth” models of the planet, although contradicted by evidence, have continued to inspire imagination. When supported by evidence, an abstract model can lead to one or more theoretical models.
Theoretical models are formulated with an intention to explain something one has observed, but has not paid enough attention to its existence or has totally ignored it. An example involving theoretical models would be a research that aims to explain user acceptance of a particular technology. Of course, there can be multiple explanations, hence multiple theoretical models too. Researchers are often interested in establishing criteria by which theoretical models can be compared with each other in terms of their quality.
Conceptual models address fundamental questions at the conceptual level, for example, What is “risk”? What should the field of accounting study? Such models are not meant to be mere commentaries or opinions, but are expected to provide a sense of coherence among related ideas, experiences, and domains, over time and space.
Finally, empirical models seek to describe specific phenomena using information collected through direct observation or experience (i.e., empirical data, rather than systems or theories). Such models are often helpful in demonstrating (or questioning) the empirical validity of other kinds of model described above. Accordingly, in the course of a research project, different combinations of such models may be used.
With such diversity in terms of purpose and scheme, research often assumes different forms and characteristics, addressing issues at different levels and with different aims in mind. The panellists discussed the following forms of social research: (a) macro-study, (b) field study, (c) applied research, and (d) action research. Although these labels refer to different forms of social research, there tends to be a degree of overlap among them in practice.
Macro-studies usually address broader socio-economic issues, with a view to inform policy debates. An example of a macro-study is “Agriculture and mining in Orissa in the post-liberalisation era.” It is their broad (i.e., “macro”) socio-economic focus that characterises such studies. Sometimes, such studies may include a number of field studies within them. Field studies involve visits to particular locations and interaction with the persons associated with the topic of study. An example of a field study is “Experience of broadband users in Bhubaneswar.” Naturally, field studies tend to have a narrower scope compared to macro-studies, but that allows a more detailed engagement with the field under investigation.
Applied research involves the application of specific knowledge and tools, with a view to demonstrate or test those knowledge and tools in specific circumstances. An example of applied research is “Developing touch-screen applications for education.” Action research aims specifically at practical improvements in personal, professional, or organisational performance, as well as the recovery and reconstruction of local knowledge. An example of action research is “Reinforcing the strategy process at ABC Company Limited.” The conceptual distinction between applied research and action research may be blurred in practice where both forms of research can get interwoven.
Sometimes research is driven by the intellectual interests of a particular research community, for example, researchers in a particular discipline or field of study. This can be referred to as disciplinary research. Sometimes researchers from different disciplines and fields work together on a subject that is of general interest, for example, energy crisis, global warming, or the recent financial meltdown. Such work, at times referred to as subject-matter research, is likely to be multidisciplinary. Occasionally, new interdisciplinary ideas and methods may develop in such work. Sometimes research focuses on specific problems faced in specific circumstances, for example, the problem of declining market share of a company or the problem of rising crime in a city. This is referred to as problem-solving research. Multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are called for in such cases too.
A researcher’s perspective is shaped by factors such as academic training, professional experience, theoretical or methodological preferences, and opportunity for interaction with other researchers. It also depends on the circumstances one is in, the clients (or beneficiaries) for whom the work is being done, stakeholders’ expectations, and the overall purpose.
There were deliberations on the impact research may have on society. Often it is not easy to ascertain this impact. Panel members were of the opinion that although research may not always contribute to society immediately, it tends to have some long-term impact. Viewed through different time scales, different forms of research would seem to be interconnected with each other, each providing the context and the impetus for the others to develop over time. Being alert to this dynamic interconnection helps a researcher appreciate the complex dynamic between theoretical knowledge and practical action.