Role of Applied Research in Development Arenas

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This paper aims to discuss the relevance of applied research in the development world. It is divided into four sections. The first section discusses the contributions of applied research in the development arena; the second explores issues concerning epistemology and boundary setting; the third examines and provides the advantages/strengths as well as disadvantages/weaknesses of quantitative and qualitative methods; and the last deals with what constitutes rigour in research and presents the different perspectives on validity.

Applied research, as opposed to basic research, is the application and use of established theories, knowledge and methods for a specific purpose. It deals mainly with finding solutions to practical problems, and is generally empirical (Wikipedia). Similarly, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development- Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) defines applied research as an investigation conducted to obtain new information with a specific objective in mind. Applied research employs quantitative and qualitative methods, whereas development, as pointed out by Debraj (1998), is much more than economic development or growth in the country's income. It also includes the human development aspect which accounts for basic social services such as food, water, housing, education, health and sanitation. Recent United Nations documents include human development that encompasses all aspects of a person's well-being from health to economic and political freedom. The definition of development has evolved from merely concerning economic measures to human development and values.

Applied research, through policy investigations, has been and continues to be valuable in the development arena. As Thomas (1998) points out, it influences policies and public actions, particularly in policy conceptualization, improvement of the quality of policy decisions, and policy changes. It also provides inputs to policy makers, development managers, and other relevant actors that serve as basis in the evaluation of proposed (ex-ante), ongoing or completed (ex-post) programs and projects, and determining root causes of problems. It has been beneficial in addressing problems concerning agriculture, education and health in several countries through policy recommendations.

Epistemological Issues and Boundary Setting in Development Research

Kanbur and Shaffer (2007) define epistemology as the study of the truthfulness and validity of knowledge claims while epistemological approaches depend on the position of the researcher, whether it is empiricism/positivism, hermeneutics/interpretivism or social constructivism. According to empiricism/positivism, reality exists and is observable, thus empiricists/positivists tend to use quantitative methods, since these produce tangible, numerical and measurable data. Moreover, this philosophy is more concerned with validating theories than producing new ideas. Hermeneutics/interpretivism, on the other hand, entails interpreting realities based on a person's perspective, and is discourse-based while social constructivism argues that knowledge is created through a social process. Development research depends primarily on both (positivist) observable and measurable information as well as (constructivist) non-quantifiable information.

Potter and Subrahmanian (1998) argue that "different types of policy measures require different types of information and different skills to gather this information" (Thomas et al., 1998:19). Before gathering information, the first and sometimes the most difficult step in any research, is the identification of the research topic/question or the policy question in the context of development. With this clearly stated, the researcher could then determine the type of information to acquire (objective or subjective), epistemological approach (positivist or constructivist), and method (quantitative or qualitative or both) to use in order to answer the question.

In the course of determining the type of information to be collected, a researcher has to be analytical on which information should be included in the research because not all information is relevant. Relevance of information depends on the researcher's purpose, thus it is important to set clear boundaries at the beginning of any research to separate what is internal and external to the system or simply recognize what is relevant from what is irrelevant. Moreover, it is critical to know that boundaries are set by the stakeholders and relevant actors in the research (Blackmore and Ison, 1998). Furthermore, Checkland (1981) points out that boundary setting is an essential tool in understanding that human actions are contextual and perspective-based.

Boundaries, which may be physical or conceptual, basically provide the scope and limitations of a research study. In the development work, boundaries may involve identifying the geographical boundaries of a new project or policy, determining the stakeholders involved (e.g. policy makers, beneficiaries), establishing limits of the role of the researcher, recognizing the likely effects of interventions, and defining responsibilities and accountabilities of stakeholders (Blackmore and Ison, 1998).

Furthermore, Ultrich (1987) identifies critical boundary setting questions that should be addressed in development as follows: (1) the theories to be used; (2) the actors involved; (3) authority who determines the purpose; and (4) the context and perspective of understanding (Blackmore and Ison, 1998). It is very challenging to obtain answers to these questions, and frequently, stakeholders have different responses.

"[…] When the policy changes, the core question at the centre of related policy investigations also changes and also necessitates the change in method" (Thomas et al., 1998: 19). As pointed out, boundary setting is a continuous process. Boundary setting in development work should always be an open system wherein boundaries are kept open, flexible and allowed to change. Sometimes, in the course of discussions or negotiations among stakeholders, new issues and opportunities, views/interests and processes may emerge, which affects policies.

Knowing that stakeholders and key actors are responsible for setting boundaries, it is clear that boundaries are very much influenced by perceptions/perspectives. Stakeholders think and act differently because they have varied beliefs, values, and experiences. Furthermore, it is difficult for the researcher to communicate a message recognizing that human communication is a complex process. It involves interpretation of the message using one's own perspective. Therefore, it would be crucial to design an effective communication strategy between the researcher, concerned policy makers, and other stakeholders.

Choice of Research Method: Quantitative or Qualitative?

Research methods play a significant role in development research, it is indispensable. In choosing which research method to use, whether quantitative or qualitative, one cannot claim that one metho­d is better than the other. Each approach has its own strengths/advantages and weaknesses/limitations, and the choice of method depends primarily on the purpose, type of research question to be answered, setting, and time and resource constraints. However, recent literature suggests and provides a strong basis for the combination of both methods.

In general, quantitative research methods basically answer the "what" and "where" questions, while qualitative research methods deal with the "why" and "how" questions. Mikkelsen (1995) cites that quantitative methods respond to descriptive and explanatory type of research questions, while qualitative methods deal with interpretive research questions (Sumner and Tribe, 2004). Quantitative methods are usually associated with measurement, while qualitative methods are linked with process.

Quantitative research is believed to be more representative of the population, more reliable, and less subjective due to observable and numerical data. Kanbur and Shaffer (2007) point out that quantitative method would be appropriate if research was challenged with time and budget constraints, and standardization considerations. In conducting surveys to a large group or to geographically dispersed respondents, it would definitely be easier to administer and less time-consuming to conduct surveys than using interviews or focus group discussions to the whole population. Of course, quantitative research also has its weaknesses/limitations. Rao and Woolcock (2003) argue that quantitative research is not effective in dealing with process issues and is weak in generating information that concerns sensitive issues like income, morality and politics. The techniques are usually pre-determined and fixed so it is difficult to modify once it has started.

Qualitative research is considered to be more in-depth and valid because information is substantiated and validated by the respondents themselves through case studies, interviews or focus group discussions. Qualitative research methods are effective in generating information that concerns beliefs, values, and experiences which are not observable and measurable. Furthermore, qualitative methods are effective in dealing with sensitive issues unlike quantitative methods. However, it also has its drawbacks. Qualitative methods do not generate information that is representative of the population, since the sample size may be too small. There is lack of transparency and reporting of methods used that makes it difficult to validate and replicate.

Quantitative and qualitative methods have their advantages as well as disadvantages. Each method addresses questions that are particular to them. Some argue that quantitative and qualitative methods are not stand-alone methods but can be actually integrated to reinforce each other. "Combination of these two methods or triangulation may be done to overcome the validity weakness of quantitative methods and the reliability and representative weakness of qualitative methods" (Sumner and Tribe, 2004:14). Moreover, Hammersley's (1996) asserts that multiple methods of research are corroborative, facilitative and complementary.

In an ex-post evaluation conducted by the National Economic and Development Authority and the Japan International Cooperation Agency on the Metro Manila Rail Transit Project (Light Rail Transit II) in the Philippines in 2009, a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods was used to assess the impact of the project. In determining the effect of the rail project on traffic congestion, and cost and time savings among others, information was collected from the Department of Public Works and Highways. A survey and interview was also conducted to passengers riding the train to obtain their perceptions on the efficiency and effectiveness of the train, impact of the train on their cost and time savings, and comments/suggestions on the facility/services. The survey and interview was very useful in validating information especially on the cost and time savings of passengers and in obtaining their comments/suggestions about the project. The evaluation done generated a satisfactory rating for the project in terms of relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability. Moreover, based on the survey/interview, there is a great demand for extending the existing line to other destinations. With this, there is an ongoing conduct of a feasibility study in extending the line to certain destinations.

Rigour in development research (perspectives on validity)

As Thomas (1998) points out, rigour is being able to support one's conclusions with sufficient evidence and that counter-evidence is found to be weak. Rigour in development research means "it is necessary to distinguish between misinterpretation or omission which arises deliberately to bias the results in a direction which serves the purposes of the researcher (this being absolutely unacceptable), and acceptable, or acknowledged bias in values (such as recognizing that poverty is a multi-dimensional concept) or data (where biases can be systematically identified)" (Sumner and Tribe, 2004:7).

Rigour can be infused at every stage of the research process, from the identification of the research problem, to the research design and choice of method for data collection up to the analysis of findings and conclusion. Sumner and Tribe (2004) assert that rigorous research questions are aligned to the research problem, clearly stated, focused, feasible, and verifiable. In development research, research questions should be relevant to policies. In terms of research design, rigour entails selecting the appropriate epistemological approach and methodology in answering the research question. Rigour means minimizing bias, and ensuring the reliability and validity of data in the data collection stage. Finally, rigour in the analysis of findings implies that data collected is relevant to the research question, there is transparency in the reporting of data and methods used, and the researcher can defend the choices made.

Rigour is very much associated with the concept of credibility and validity. Validity is the truthfulness or credibility of a conclusion or knowledge claim (Maxwell, 2005) and it only approximates the truthfulness of an inference (Shadish et al., 2002). Moreover, Shadish et al. (2002), Maxwell (2005) and other authors agree that validity is not absolute but rather relative to reality. It is simply determining whether what we claim to know is true or not. Brinberg and McGrath (1985) assert that no method or technique guarantees validity (Maxwell, 2005). Przeworski and Salomon (1998), and Bosk (1979) identify validity questions that should be addressed as "how will we know that the conclusions are valid?" and "why should we believe it?" (Maxwell, 2005).

In quantitative research, Campbell (1979) classifies validity into two types, and these are internal validity, which is more related to the causality between the intervention and the outcome, and external validity, which is about generalization of the causality over diverse persons, settings, and intervention variables (Shadish et al., 2002). Cook and Campbell (1979) further refine the classification and introduce two more types of validity such as statistical conclusion validity, which is the correlation between the intervention and outcomes, and construct validity, which is similar to external validity but uses representative sampling (Shadish et al., 2002).

In determining the validity of a claim, a key concept we should understand is validity threats, which are often identified as alternative explanations or "rival hypothesis" as Huck and Sandler (1979) term it (Maxwell, 2005). The researcher's subjectivity and respondent's reaction to the researcher's presence are identified by Miles and Huberman (1994) as the two major threats to qualitative research (Maxwell, 2005). As previously discussed in boundary setting, that thinking and action are products of beliefs, theories and past experience; thus it is impossible to eliminate a researcher's bias. However, it is emphasized that validity does not mean total elimination of the researcher's subjectivity and influence, since perfect validity is non-existent, but actually means understanding how these threats impact conclusions, and how to reduce their negative consequences.

Conclusion

Conducting development research is difficult, challenging, and complex. It is not as simple as gathering information or applying theories into practice, and then making conclusions about it. Since, research is a logical and integrated process, the choice of research question, epistemological approach, method and validity techniques to be used should be thought of thoroughly. These critical factors should be taken into consideration because an improperly conducted research will generate inaccurate conclusions. Furthermore, the quality of research done is crucial since information collected and conclusions made serve as basis for policy recommendations and public actions that will impact the welfare of the citizens of a country.

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