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The term Research is an often misused term. Its usage in everyday language is very different from the strict scientific meaning. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines it as "the study of materials and sources in other to establish facts and reach new conclusions".
The term Research is a multi-faceted concept that has attracted numerous views. It is both a process and an outcome. But no matter the dimension, it should lead to understanding of an outcome.
Research refers to "empirical data collection in the pursuit of scientific endeavour usually in the form of an experiment, survey or evaluation" (Australian Psychological Society, Code of Ethics).
According to Osuala (2005), Research is simply "the process of arriving at dependable solutions to problems through the planned and systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of data". Research is a most important tool for advancing knowledge, for promoting progress, and for enabling man to relate more effectively to his environment, to accomplish his purposes, and to resolve his conflicts.
Another school of thought defines research as 'the process of investigation, an examination of a subject from different points of view. It is not just a trip to the library to pick up a stock of materials, or picking the first hits from a computer search, but the hunt for the truth. It is also getting to know a subject by reading up on it, reflecting , playing with the ideas, choosing the area that interest you and following up on them. In other wards it is a way you educate yourself' (Denscombe, 1998).
Creswell (2003) identifies research as 'the systematic process of collecting and analyzing information to increase our understanding of the phenomenon under study'. It is therefore the function of the researcher to contribute to the understanding of the phenomenon and to communicate that understanding to others.
From the above definitions of the concept and from my own judgment, I can state from a broad sense of the word that research include the gathering of empirical data, information and facts for the advancement of knowledge. It also involves a dedicated system of scientific methodology that can be used by researchers to arrive at the right conclusion.
The three definitions above are not entirely different from my point of view because Denscombe, 1998, seem to explain that research involves an in depth inquiry about a subject to make an informed judgment. Creswell, 2003, agrees with me that data or information obtained and process leads to an increase in knowledge of the subject. However, research is not only about the pursuit of scientific endeavours as stated by the Australian Psychological Society, Code of Ethics, (2001), but a social event as well. The limitation of scientific method must, however, be thoroughly understood. For example, science cannot deal directly with values. It can define some of the issues involved in making value-judgments, but the judgment themselves are outside the scope of science. Research is a tool for studying social events and learning about them and their interconnections so that general causal laws can be discovered, explained and documented. Knowledge of events and social laws allows society to control events and to predict their occurrence and outcomes. Research is oriented towards the discovery of the relationships that exist among the phenomena of the world in which we live. It is devoted to finding conditions under which a certain phenomenon occurs and the conditions under which it does not occur in what might appear to be similar circumstances.
From the above discussions research is a series of linked activities. According to Atkinson and Bouma (1995) research processes has three main phases. These are phase one: Essential first steps
Selecting, narrowing and formulating the problem to be studied.
Selecting the research design.
Designing and devising measures for variables.
Setting up tables for analysis.
Selecting a sample.
Phase two: Data collection
Collecting evidence or data about the research question.
Summarizing and organizing data.
Phase three: Analysis and interpretation of data. This involves
Relating data to the research questions and hypothesis.
Assessing the limitations of the study.
Solution to the problem in the form of recommendation
Making suggestions for further research.
What Research is not
Research does not include what is already known, but is reserved for activities designed to discover facts and relationships that will make knowledge more effective.
Attempts to classify types of research pose a difficult problem (Best and Khan, 1993). This is because various textbooks suggest different systems of classification. These are classifications by: purpose of research; Method used in the research; and paradigm of the study.
Research can be classified into two broad categories namely scientific or experimental research and social science research. For the purpose of my study I wish to explain research under social science. Social science research, irrespective of its type and nature, entails a degree of measurement. This involves categorizing and assigning values to concepts, and is diverse in nature and levels of operation. It is also a very useful procedure because it serves to ensure high quality in research.
Diversity in research reflects diversity in the parameters that guide it. More precisely, it means diversity in the Ontology and epistemology that underlie the methodology, which in turn guide the research. Simply, methodologies produce different research designs, because they follow in their theoretical structure different ontological and epistemological prescriptions.
Critique of my definition of research
Concerns with the definition of research in my opinion may be raised by what I referred to as 'gathering of empirical data, information and facts for the advancement of knowledge', hence a critique of my definition.
Flaws or weaknesses in my definition.
There has been considerable interest in recent years in the role of philosophical assumptions and paradigms in doing research. During the 1970s and 1980s prominent concerns were raised about the limits of quantitative data and methods often associated with positivism, the prevailing paradigm. Positivism assumes an objective world which scientific methods can more or less readily represent and measure, and it seeks to predict and explain causal relations among key variables. 'However, critics argued that positivistic methods strip context from meanings in the process of developing quantified measures of phenomena' (Guba and Lincoln, 1994: 106).
The issue therefore of empirical approach to research has been justified by its success in measuring quantitative research. However, in more recent years, scientists have been challenged to explain phenomena that defy measurement and their inability to quantitatively measure some phenomena and the dissatisfaction with the results of measurement of other phenomena which have led to an intense search for other approaches to study human phenomena. This interest has led to an acceptance of qualitative research approach which does not need empirical data to discover knowledge. One cannot help but to stuck by the "success of qualitative research methods in the marketplace of academic ideas" (Atkinson, 1995, p. 117). The background of using qualitative methods to study human phenomena is rooted in the social sciences. This tradition came about because aspects of human science were unable to be described fully using quantitative research methods. More recently, the practice of qualitative research has expanded to clinical settings because "empirical approaches have proven to be of limited service in answering some of the challenges and pressing clinical questions, especially where human subjectivity and interpretation are involved" (Thorne, 1997, p. 28).
However, the use of qualitative research has its own flaws as well. It is unable to study relationships between variables with the degree of accuracy that is required to establish social trends.
Empirical scientists who support the Cartesian framework believe that if objective measurement cannot be assigned to a phenomenon, then the importance and thus the existence of the phenomenon may be in question. Many contemporary scientists and philosophers question the value of this system, particularly in situations that include humans and their interactions with other humans.
Data quality is very important for the research purpose and if care is not taken often, critics think the nature of data collection could lead to the production of large amounts of useless information. Empirical data should not be the approach of investigating social actions to interpret and understand the actors' reasons for social actions, but to subject their action into reality.
Information and facts
Others may say that what may be a piece of information to one researcher may be irrelevant to another. Therefore how do we determine relevant information or facts for research? Quantitative research methodology has its weaknesses, among other things for the way in which it perceives reality, validity and the methods it uses as well as the relationship it establishes with the researched.
Qualitative research methodology has been criticized, among other things for not being able to cope with demands related to reliability, objectivity, representativeness and the value of collected data.
Advancement of Knowledge; Again, critiques think that in research people may omit evidence that may not agree with their opinion and could produce inadequate information which does not represent the facts. In other words, beliefs may be established on insufficient evidence. Therefore improper conclusions or inferences owing to personal prejudices may be drawn.
The common response to these criticisms is that, these concepts are strengths and not weaknesses of my definition. With the underlying terms or concepts that I have used in my definition, let me consider the following;
Empiricism. Empirism goes back to the writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is directly associated with the work of Francis Bacon (1651-1626), John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776). Empiricism supports the view that knowledge come through experience mediated through the senses and insight can only be achieved through pure experiences. Empiricism assigns a high value to experience and gives primacy to facts. Hence, observation and experience offer the basis of knowledge. For Hughes, (1990), opinions are reflections of our impressions of reality.
In a more radical form, empiricism argues that only things that can be verified empirically exist. What cannot be verified does not exist; truths that are not based on experience are meaningless.
Quality of data. Often, data collection is essential for a reliable and valid research. Data collection entails decisions and action regarding the collection of the information required to address the research question. Data processing entails grouping, presentation, analysis and the interpretations of the findings. Examine and compare data after which data should be conceptualized and analyzed qualitatively or quantitatively. Empirical data are generally relevant for analysis.
Research Information here refers to any relevant material that is useful for and during the study. They may include key informants, study groups, events and methods of data collection and assistants.
Ways of Gaining / advancing Knowledge
The means by which man seeks knowledge to his problems can be classified under broad categories; tenacity, authority, and science.
The Method of Tenacity; under this situation people hold firmly to the truth, that they know to be true because they hold firmly to it, because they have always known it to be true. Frequent repetition of such "truths" seems to enhance their validity. People also infer new knowledge from propositions that may be false.
The Method of Authority; this method establishes belief. 'If the Bible says so, it is so. If a mother says it, it is true. Life could not, in fact, go on without the method of authority' (Osuala, 2005).
The Method of Science; Francis Bacon (1561-1626) planted the seeds of acquiring modern scientific knowledge. He suggested that conclusion should be based on observed facts. The triangulation of both inductive and deductive reasoning gave birth to the scientific method. This method has self-correction aspects which it is believed no other method of attaining knowledge has. There are built-in checks all along the way of this method. These checks are so conceived and used that they control and verify the scientist's activities and conclusions to the end of attaining dependable knowledge outside himself. A scientist does not accept a statement as true even though the evidence at first looks promising. Dependable knowledge is attained through science because science ultimately appeals to evidence; propositions are subjected to an empirical test.
Conclusion: From the above discussions research in my opinion is a process by which we come to know what we want to know. It is a series of linked activities but should not be seen as a set of rigid steps to be followed. The obvious function of research is to add to existing store of knowledge and sometimes remove inappropriate or inapplicable theory. The three definitions and my personal own on research all go to add to further clarify the meaning of research as being purposive in the solution of a given problem, demands logical and objective approach, involves gathering data from primary and secondary sources. It also demands accurate and adequate knowledge about what already exist and how others have tackled it.