Understanding the Research Process


Paul Oliver

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    About the Author

    Paul Oliver is a principal lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Development at the University of Huddersfield. He is currently course leader for the Doctor of Education programme. As such he teaches social science research methods, and supervises doctoral research students. His own doctorate was in the area of religious studies, and he also teaches that subject at first degree and postgraduate levels. He has written books in the areas of philosophy, comparative religion and research methods. A previous book for SAGE was Writing Your Thesis (2008, 2nd edn). His books have been translated into seven languages.


    This book is designed to help you understand the process of social science and educational research, by exploring the nature of the terminology used in research. Most academic subjects have developed a specialist terminology to employ when discussing their ideas and concepts. Very often the majority of that terminology has been developed within the parameters of that subject. In some cases, however, where a subject area is inter-disciplinary or multidisciplinary, terms are drawn from a range of subject areas. This is true of social science research, which employs terminology from a range of single disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, sociology and mathematics. Where social science research methods are then applied to a discipline such as education, further terms are sometimes introduced from that subject. The same is true where research methods are applied to management studies or social work for example. There are various consequences which derive from this situation.

    The first consequence is perhaps that this diversity of terms makes the subject of research methods very interesting and stimulating. The synthesis of ideas and concepts drawn from such a broad area results in a discipline which is very diverse and which can be applied in very many different situations. On the other hand, there are some consequences which can sometimes cause slight difficulties. The integration of terms from a wide range of subject areas can occasionally create confusion for students and researchers. Perhaps even more complicated is a situation where there exist different terms in different disciplines for approximately the same idea. This can be very confusing for students when reading textbooks and journal articles, or listening to lectures. Moreover, it is not always easy to understand exactly how to employ terms. Some concepts may be used to express a degree of certainty about something, whereas other concepts may express the provisional nature of reality. Students and researchers need to acquire linguistic skills to use with different types of research concepts. In addition, whatever the original discipline studied by a student, they need to develop a basic competence in subjects such as sociology and philosophy in order to be able write effectively about social science research methods.

    Having outlined the situation, I hope that this book will help you to do some or all of the following. It should help you to use the specialist terminology of social science research in an appropriate context. It should also help you to understand the meaning of research terms, and to distinguish between the appropriate and inappropriate uses of research terminology. Finally, the book should help you in writing lucidly about research topics, and to disseminate your own research in a good academic and scholarly style.

    The book tries to achieve this by identifying as many as possible of the key words and terms which are employed in social science research. These are then grouped into thematic areas such as ‘the scientific method’ or ‘questions of ethics’. These themes form the basis of the chapters of the book. At the beginning of each chapter you will find a list of the key terms discussed in that chapter. It is perhaps worth pointing out that it is generally preferable to avoid defining research terms as if we could summarize them in a brief dictionary-style definition. These are usually far too complex to define in such a succinct way. If we try to do so, we will often lose much of the subtlety and nuance of a term. It is far better to look at examples of the way terms are actually used. In this way we can begin to get a feeling for the sense and meaning of a term. To this end, the book cites many examples of journal articles in which you will find practical examples of the use of concepts. I hope that you find this book useful, and that it helps you to make progress with your studies and research.

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