Welcome to SAGE Knowledge

Research Skills

Explore the fundamentals of planning and carrying out successful research projects.

By: Pam Denicolo, Editor-in-Chief

Welcome to the adventure of exploring your world in more detail!

In this Module you will feed your curiosity by learning to use research approaches and methods that will take you beyond the obvious and taken-for-granted views about the world to find evidence to support or refute assumptions. Some of these approaches and methods you will already have used in some way in your everyday life, so you will simply need to refine them for use in formal research projects. You will also be introduced to some other methods that will give you new perspectives on the world around you.

You will already have conducted some research, at least in informal ways. Perhaps you have sought advice from other people or used the internet or brochures, magazines, and books to help you choose something to buy, explore where you might like to take a holiday, investigate a course you would like to study, or find out more about a person who may impact your life. "Exploring," "investigating," and "finding out more about" are other ways of saying "researching" while the advice and information you find in the process is the evidence, or information, on which decisions will be based. This Module is intended to help you to develop your skills in information or evidence seeking so that you can make better decisions yourself in everyday life but also be able to provide more sound, credible advice to other people about a specific research topic.

Information-seeking skills include looking for patterns, solving puzzles or problems, or generally engaging in a bit of detective work; so if you enjoy doing those sorts of things, we are sure you will appreciate researching in the more formal sense through project work. However, there are many kinds of puzzles-you may be excellent at solving sudoku, Rubik’s cubes, crosswords, or word searches, each one appealing to different interests. So it is with research-there are many kinds of puzzles to choose from.

Further, while many writers have suggested that research is like detective work, there are, as you know from films, TV, and books, many kinds of detectives, each using different approaches and methods. There are those who are great at observing people, who understand how relationships influence what people do; there are those who are good at using "their little grey cells," working out logical links between things; there are those who look for patterns in material evidence, looking at bones or fingerprints or chemically analyzing substances to trace their origins. A glance through a list of TV shows will show you the wide range of detective skills that can be brought to bear to solve mysteries, again each appealing to various individual or teams of investigators. The detective skills and modus operandi displayed in episodes of CSI Miami, Bones, Sherlock Holmes, or Columbo could not be more diverse, yet they are equally effective in producing evidence to identify miscreants.

Fortunately for those of us who like to solve mysteries (that is, do research), there are an infinite number of puzzling things out there waiting to be solved and many different tools to help us do so. In this Module, you will be guided through the basic and most important aspects of research as a process as well as be introduced to a range of practical approaches and methods. By working through this information, with examples and activities to consider and try out, you will be able to evaluate more effectively the research of others and consider more carefully the significance, or otherwise, of assertions expressed personally or via the media. Further, by engaging with the wide range of research skills presented in the Module, you will have the knowledge to competently select and then use those most appropriate for you, your situation and circumstances, and the research purposes you have in mind.

You will see that, before embarking on the exciting task of collecting data, there are important aspects to consider to ensure that the data you collect are relevant and useful. Therefore, even if you already have some research experience, revisit sections on, for instance, planning and ethics and certainly refresh your knowledge about the methodology debates because building a secure foundation for your research and choosing the most appropriate approach are critical to success. Indeed, in justifying your choice of approach and methods you should be able to say why you rejected other possible ones.

Also crucial in the early stages of a project is choosing a topic that is practically implementable within your range of available resources, including your own time and stamina. We help you with those initial decisions in the first Skill, Beginning Your Research, which not only describes the general research process, with its potential joys and challenges, but also begins the process of helping you choose a relevant, interesting area for research that can be honed down into a realistic or feasible topic.

The Reviewing Literature Skill is the section that will help you to focus down on a topic. Finding how to discover what is already known about a topic, which literature to search, who did the research and how, is key to that process. Further, the skill of reviewing the literature includes evaluating previous work, identifying what could be done better, and using previous research reports to support your arguments for topic, approach, and methods choices. So far, so theoretical. Next, you must consider the practicalities of doing research.

Planning Research, the subject of the third Skill, involves thinking through what engaging with your research will require, what order activities need to be done in, what resources you will need and when, who you will work with and who needs to give permissions and be kept informed, and so on. You then should construct this information into a framework, a draft research proposal, that will be populated in more detail as you work through the rest of the Module. This Skill also involves reflection on how to keep positive other people impacted by or involved in your research as well as how to keep yourself motivated when things, inevitably, do not turn out exactly as you had hoped.

Important aspects of working with other people are ensuring that what you do is ethical, respectful of people’s rights and culture, while paying attention to everyone’s safety, including yours as a researcher. The Doing Ethical Research Skill carefully leads you through these challenging features of research-in-action. These features include avoiding harm to all involved, preserving your data securely, and making clear links between practice and theory.

How your research relates to contemporary theory, how it might refine or dispute that theory, and what potential your research might have for contributing to theory development is the focus of the Selecting and Developing Theoretical Frameworks Skill. Drawing on what you found in your literature review, this section takes you through how to select a theoretical perspective, with its identified key concepts and assumptions, from the range available to act as a framework for your research.

The theme of exploring philosophical assumptions is explored in-depth in Choosing an Appropriate Research Methodology, in which you will be introduced not only to significant alternative views on how research should be conducted and why, but also to important definitions of key research terms. Becoming familiar with different approaches to research and the language used to discuss them will stand you in good stead in your decision-making about what kind of data to collect and how, from whom and why, what to do with data once you have it, and what assumptions and consequences are related to your results.

Having worked through the main defining features of research, you then need to consider how they might be best combined in your project. Designing Your Research Project guides you through the project design process, showing how research theories, approaches, and philosophies thread through from start to finish as you combine intentions and methods into an action plan that, while flexible enough to cope with inevitable unpredictable factors, nevertheless can be accomplished within the time and other resources available. The next two Skills provide detail about how to collect data within two broad approaches.

Collecting, Analyzing, and Interpreting Qualitative Data deals with the further detail of methods used for collecting data from people, helping them to articulate how they see their worlds and share their views with you as researcher. It describes how these methods are used, their strengths, and their limitations, so that you can make the best selection from them for your project. It also explains how the resulting qualitative data can be analyzed and interpreted to draw credible, authentic conclusions about people’s meaning systems and how they influence behavior in specific circumstances.

Similarly, Collecting, Analyzing, and Interpreting Quantitative Data focuses on the benefits and weaknesses of methods used to collect quantitative data and how to implement them. The various ways of sharing the resulting data with others and indicating their significance using statistical analysis are included so that conclusions about validity, reliability, and generalizability of the results and their implications can be drawn.

The final skill, that of sharing your research with others, is addressed in Writing About and Disseminating Your Research. However, do not assume from its place in this Module that considering the key points made in it can be left until last. Indeed, there will be points throughout the process when you will benefit from advice contained in this Skill, from the notes you make about initial interests and assumptions (Beginning Your Research) and how these later are refined as you read (Reviewing Literature). You’ll also find Writing About and Disseminating Your Research helpful when you go on to consider theories that might usefully apply (Selecting and Developing Theoretical Frameworks), bearing in mind ethical and safety issues (Doing Ethical Research), to how you select a methodology (Choosing an Appropriate Research Methodology), how you plan and design your project (Planning Research and Designing Your Research Project), and how you should present your fieldwork, lab work, or desk work (Collecting, Analyzing, and Interpreting Qualitative Data and Collecting, Analyzing, and Interpreting Quantitative Data) and its results and conclusions. Indeed, all the aspects of a research project link together and interact in different ways so that the numerical sequence is only a name rather than a fixed order.

Throughout the Module, top tips and caveats will be provided and you can engage in activities that will contribute to your understanding of the complexity of research while emphasizing the enjoyment that can be derived from it.

Depending on your preferred study mode, you may find it helpful to quickly read through the whole Module to get a view of the whole process before delving into the details of specific Skills. Alternatively, you may feel more confident by working step-by-step through the Skills, though recognizing that you occasionally may need to go back to check on details in previous sections or to refine general decisions made at earlier stages. However, you might already be familiar with some aspects so that you can skip rapidly through those sections using them as mere reminders. You can use the Module Self-Assessment to help you judge which Skills you need to invest the most time in getting to grips with so that you can not only produce a good project but also enjoy the process.

Like all professions, research has produced its own specific vocabulary, terminology that aids concise and precise communication between researchers. In the Skills there are numerous words that, while common amongst researchers, may not be familiar to those new to the field. Some key words are provided in a Glossary for you to look up their meaning when you need to. The Glossary is available for download in the Beginning Your Research Skill.

Suggested Reading
  • Crotty, M. (1998).The foundations of social research. Sage Publications.
  • Denicolo, P., & Becker, L. (2012). Developing research proposals. Sage Publications.
  • Black, T. R. (2002). Understanding social science research. Sage Publications.
  • Robson, C. (2007). How to do a research project- A guide for undergraduate students. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Ruane, J. M. (2005). Essentials of research methods. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Gray, D. E. (2009). Doing research in the real world (2nd ed.). Sage Publications.
Page citation: Denicolo, P. (2022). Research skills. SAGE Skills: Student Success. https://sk.sagepub.com/skills/student-success/research-skills