There are numerous types of research design that are appropriate for the different types of research projects. The choice of which design to apply depends on the nature of the problems posed by the research aims. Each type of research design has a range of research methods that are commonly used to collect and analyse the type of data that is generated by the investigations. Here is a list of some of the more common research designs, with a short explanation of the characteristics of each.
This aims at a systematic and objective evaluation and synthesis of evidence in order to establish facts and draw conclusions about past events. It uses primary historical data, such as archaeological remains as well as documentary sources of the past. It is usually necessary to carry out tests in order to check the authenticity of these sources. Apart from informing us about what happened in previous times and re-evaluating beliefs about the past, historical research can be used to find contemporary solutions based on the past and to inform present and future trends. It stresses the importance of interactions and their effects.
This design relies on observation as a means of collecting data. It attempts to examine situations in order to establish what is the norm, i.e. what can be predicted to happen again under the same circumstances. ‘Observation’ can take many forms. Depending on the type of information sought, people can be interviewed, questionnaires distributed, visual records made, even sounds and smells recorded. Important is that the observations are written down or recorded in some way, in order that they can be subsequently analysed. The scale of the research is influenced by two major factors: the level of complexity of the survey and the scope or extent of the survey.
This design is used to examine a relationship between two concepts. There are two broad classifications of relational statements: an association between two concepts – where there is some kind of influence of one on the other; and a causal relationship – where one causes changes to occur in the other. Causal statements describe what is sometimes called a ‘cause and effect’ relationship. The cause is referred to as the ‘independent variable’, the variable that is affected is referred to as the ‘dependent variable’. The correlation between two concepts can either be none (no correlation); positive (where an increase in one results in the increase in the other, or decrease results in a decrease); or negative (where the increase in one results in the decrease in the other or vice versa). The degree of association is often measurable.
This design is used to compare past and present or different parallel situations, particularly when the researcher has no control over events. It can look at situations at different scales, macro (international, national) or micro (community, individual). Analogy is used to identify similarities in order to predict results – assuming that if two events are similar in certain characteristics, they could well be similar in others too. In this way comparative design is used to explore and test what conditions were necessary to cause certain events, so that it is possible, for example, to understand the likely effects of making certain decisions.
Experimental research attempts to isolate and control every relevant condition which determines the events investigated and then observes the effects when the conditions are manipulated. At its simplest, changes are made to an independent variable and the effects are observed on a dependent variable – i.e. cause and effect. Although experiments can be done to explore a particular event, they usually require a hypothesis (prediction) to be formulated first in order to determine what variables are to be tested and how they can be controlled and measured. There are several classes of experiment – pre, true, quasi, etc. which are characterized by the amount of checking and control involved in the methods.
Simulation involves devising a representation in a small and simplified form (model) of a system, which can be manipulated to gauge effects. It is similar to experimental design in the respect of this manipulation, but it provides a more artificial environment in that it does work with original materials at the same scale. Models can be mathematical (number crunching in a computer) or physical, working with two- or three-dimensional materials. The performance of the model must be checked and calibrated against the real system to check that the results are reliable. Simulation enables theoretical situations to be tested – what if?
This descriptive type of research is specifically designed to deal with complex social issues. It aims to move beyond ‘just getting the facts’,by trying to make sense of the myriad human, political, social, cultural and contextual elements involved. There are a range of different approaches of evaluation models, for example, systems analysis – which is a holistic type of research looking at the complex interplay of many variables; and responsive evaluation – which entails a series of investigative steps to evaluate how responsive a programme is to all those taking part in it. A common purpose of evaluation research is to examine the working of projects from the point of view of levels of awareness, costs and benefits, cost-effectiveness, attainment of objectives and quality assurance. The results are generally used to prescribe changes to improve and develop the situation.
Essentially, this is an ‘on the spot’ procedure, principally designed to deal with a specific problem found in a particular situation. There is no attempt made to separate the problem from its context in order to study it in isolation. What are thought to be useful changes are made and then constant monitoring and evaluation are carried out to see the effects of the changes. The conclusions from the findings are applied immediately, and further monitored to gauge their effectiveness. Action research depends mainly on observation and behavioural data. Because it is so bound up in a particular situation, it is difficult to generalize the results, i.e. to be confident that the action will be successful in another context.
Ethnological research focuses on people. In this approach, the researcher is interested in how the subjects of the research interpret their own behaviour rather than imposing a theory from outside. It takes place in the undisturbed natural settings of the subjects’ environment. It regards the context to be as equally important as the actions it studies, and attempts to represent the totality of the social, cultural and economic situation. This is not easy as much of culture is hidden and rarely made explicit and the cultural background and assumptions of the researcher may unduly influence the interpretations and descriptions. Moreover there can be confusions produced by the use of language and the different meanings which may be given to words by the respondents and researcher.
This is more of a perspective than a research design that involves theory and analysis that highlight the differences between men’s and women’s lives. Researchers who ignore these differences can come to incorrect conclusions. However, everyone is male or female, so value neutrality is impossible as no researcher practises research outside his or her system of values. No specific methods are seen to be particularly feminist, but the methodology used is informed by theories of gender relations. Although feminist research is undertaken with a political commitment to identify and transform gender relations, it is not uniquely political, but exposes all methods of social research as being political.
Many of the prevailing theoretical debates (e.g. postmodernism, poststructuralism etc.) are concerned with the subjects of language and cultural interpretation. Cultural research provides methodologies that allow a consistent analysis of cultural texts so that they can be compared, replicated, disproved and generalized. Examples of approaches to the interpretation of cultural texts are: content analysis, semiotics and discourse analysis. The meaning of the term ‘cultural texts’ has been broadened from that of purely literary works to that of the many different forms of communication, both formal such as opera, TV news programmes, cocktail parties etc., and informal such as how people dress or converse.