Keeping Track Of The World

Research Methods for Regular People

Archive for the category “Research Methods”

What the Drive to Big Data can Teach us about Good Research

Most researchers will have very little access to big data. Nonetheless, the popularization of big data does bring up issues of concern to all researchers such as who controls data, the need for some expertise in analysis, and how to use research in a way that makes a positive contribution to society.

The article Big Data. Big Obstacles discusses these concerns.

Learning a New Way of Learning

Most of the research I am currently involved in, and that which I encourage my students to pursue, aims not just at information collection and analysis but also at social change.

I often encounter the assumption that changing people’s perceptions or giving them new knowledge will change their actions. If we could just get people to think right social change would naturally follow. While that can and does happen the discontinuous change of the contemporary world means that any approach to social change must have the ability to adapt to the changes in its context. Furthermore, a knowledge based approach assumes that we know what we need to know before getting involved in the context.

It is for this reason that I advocate action research and its personal compatriot action learning.

Craig Van Gelder does a good job explaining action learning and why it is important for social change today:

Learning a New Way of Learning.

Pollsters and Journalists vs. Big Data

The Rise of the Poll Quants or, Why Sam Wang Might Eat a Bug – Percolator – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This article is of value because it challenges some of the ways in which we make our decisions. We are more persuaded by personal story than by data. We like a good story over a complicated story. We project our own preferences onto how we read data.

While we can never be without bias we can be aware of some of the bias’ we hold which, hopefully, will lead to us becoming careful researchers.

Don’t miss the comments section which points out some of the limitations of contemporary political polling.

Polls are descriptive not prescriptive so there is always a chance that people will choose to do something different than they say they will do. Thus, it was possible that I would be explaining why the big data pollsters got it wrong. But they didn’t. In fact, they were frighteningly accurate:

The Poll Quants Won the Election

The take away for research and data analysis is that the more data one has, from more different sources, collected in different ways that point the same direction the greater confidence you can have in the analysis.

Book Note: Action Research (Stringer)

Every once in a while I run across a methods book that I think applies broadly to people doing certain types of research. For some time now I have been advocating the use of Action Research for individuals or groups who are researching their own organizations. One of the most mentioned texts on the topic is Stringer’s Action Research (2007). In this post I am going to explain why I think anybody doing research on an organization in which they are involved should take a look at this book.

This is the third edition of the classic work in the field of action research. It is focused on community-based action research with particular attention to the involvement of interest holders in the research itself. That is, if the aim of the research is to improve some aspect of some community’s life then those affected by the changes should be involved in the research. By involved in the research Stringer does not just mean that we consult a few key leaders. Rather he argues that we need a process for getting as many of those affected involved as possible. To adapt an example provided by Stringer: we would not think of making a man in charge of a women’s organization so why do we not consult parents when we make decisions that affect their children. Or to extend it further why do we do things to young people rather than with young people.

All this said, Stringer is not trying to be provocative. Quite the opposite. He is dealing with a contemporary world where our attempts at top down social planning have had limited positive outcomes at best. In an organizational context we need only look at the large number of outside programs that flow through our organizations. Some of them stick and make a positive difference but many of them just flow right through with little discernible long-term positive effect. Stringer’s book provides us with the tools to not only collect data about our current context but also to change it in positive ways.

Action Research begins with a discussion of why an action research approach to research makes sense and what it looks like in practice. Stringer focuses on working principles like relationships, communication, participation and inclusion that will resonate with many different organizations. From there he moves on to figuring out how to talk with people and how to understand the context in which you are operating. These sections are accompanied by excellent charts that summarize his main points and regular illustrations from his own work in community-based research. Having looked at the context Stringer then provides a number of helpful frameworks for collectively thinking about and analyzing what you have observed. This section illustrates the highly practical nature of Stringer’s recommendations. A practically which extends into his section on how to move into the action phrase of action research. His suggestions for how to agree on action and how to assure that everyone carries through with their commitments and are adequately supported in their action(s) are excellent. He even includes a section on resolving complex and common problems such as finding a unifying vision and an appropriate organizational structure to support the action. A section on reporting on the results further emphasizes what is modelled in this book. Communication only happens when the intended audience understands what is communicated. In view of this he provides some helpful suggestions on language, format and even medium. At one point he gives an illustration of how short videos proved to be the most effective way to communicate. Finally, Stringer provides a theoretical framework for action research for those who question is scientific validity.

This is an excellent book. It is written in language that is accessible to the practitioner without insulting the academic researcher. It is highly recommended as a first stop for anyone researching a community-based organization of any kind.

Reference List:
Stringer, Ernest T. 2007. Action research. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

What makes Research Ethical? The Tri-Council Policy Statement

Different disciplines and jurisdictions have policies on ethics that pertain to the specific circumstances of their contexts. They share concern for free and informed consent, respect for persons, minimizing harm and maximizing benefits. Such concerns are the standard categories of ethical review policies (Herr and Anderson 2005, 114).

The applicable ethical statement in a Canadian context is the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010). That policy’s categories of respect for persons, concern for welfare and justice will be used to describe ethical research in this post (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 8ff). The following section provides a summary of the concerns of these three areas with particular attention to the ethical concerns of participant researchers. This will provide the language and ideas for discussion of key ethical issues that arise in field research.

Respect for Persons
Respect for persons refers to the need to recognize “the intrinsic value of human beings and the respect and consideration that they are due” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 8). This involves assuring that research is free, informed and ongoing. Participants should have a full understanding of the potential risks and benefits of their involvement. They should also be able to freely choose involvement or non-involvement without coercion or fear of repercussions. In particular, they should not fear alienating those in authority over them. In participant research this could be a concern for both research participants and participant researchers.

Concern for Welfare
Concern for a participant’s welfare requires attention to “the quality of that person’s experience of life in all its aspects” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 9). This would include an individual’s “physical, mental and spiritual health” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 9). This encompasses free and informed consent and adds the additional concerns of privacy and participant control over their own information. It also includes concern for the welfare of the entire group as this has a direct affect on individual welfare. Thus, considerations of risks and benefits must take into account individuals and groups. Such considerations lead the Tri-Council Policy Statement to advocate a participatory approach to research design. The policy explains that, “[e]ngagement during the design process with groups whose welfare may be affected by the research can help to clarify the potential impact of the research and indicate where any negative impact on welfare can be minimized” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 10).

Attention to Justice
Justice is a reference to “the obligation to treat people fairly and equitably” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 10). The objective is to ensure that “benefits and burdens of research participation” are distributed equitably throughout the research population. Equitable does not always mean equal as different segments of a population have different privileges and vulnerabilities. Particular attention should be paid to vulnerable populations. Of particular concern is the potential imbalance of power between the researcher and the participants that must be adequately understood and addressed appropriately. As abuse of power-over relationships are well represented in the history of research specific attention to this issue is warranted.

First time researchers sometimes treat the ethical review as an annoyance to be dealt with in a perfunctory way to get into the real work of research. However, careful attention to the requirements of the Tri-Council Policy Statement not only protects researchers and and those being researched but also provides helpful guidelines for researching in a manner that shows respect for people and groups as humans not just as subjects.

Reference List
Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 2010. Tri-council policy statement: Ethical conduct for research involving humans.

Herr, Kathryn., and Gary L. Anderson. 2005. The action research dissertation: A guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

5 Tips for Creating an Online Survey

Some good general tips for designing an online survey.

5 Tips for Creating an Online Survey.

This short article is inadequate for teaching you everything you need to know but it does a good job of helping the beginning researcher get a sense of the whole process and some of the main issues in survey design.

Social Research Methods Online Textbook

Some of the best resources on the web are free. Here is one that I have referred to often.

Social Research Methods.

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