3 What counts as research?
This fundamental question sounds straightforward but is not an easy question to answer. So let us begin with a minimal definition of research as ‘a process of systematic and critical enquiry’. To develop this definition further, we could say that research is underpinned by a carefully planned strategy for investigation and is motivated by a desire to understand or discover something. This theme is addressed in more detail in the following sections.
Quantitative and qualitative research
There are various approaches to choose from when planning a research study that are underpinned by research paradigms. A research paradigm is a set of beliefs which shapes how a study is designed and carried out to address questions or explore children’s and young people’s lives, for example to understand them better. Historically, research paradigms have tended to be grouped into two broad categories: quantitative (dealing with data mostly in the form of numbers) and qualitative (dealing with data mainly in the form of words). Each has particular strengths and weaknesses.
Activity 3 develops this theme by examining the views of three academic researchers who discuss their experiences of conducting qualitative and quantitative childhood and youth research.
Listen to the following recording of a three-way discussion between Dr Samantha Punch, Professor Jane Aldgate and Professor William Pickett. The speakers talk about what research means to them and describe the kinds of research in which they have been involved.
Transcript: What is research?
As you listen, make notes following the headings in Table 1 on the similarities and differences in their individual approaches. How do they describe their research interests and the contexts in which they carried out their research? What qualitative and quantitative aspects to their research did they identify? What roles did children and young people play in their studies?
|Researchers||Research interests and contexts||Qualitative and quantitative elements||Children and young people’s roles in the studies|
The researchers discuss different approaches to their research, reflecting their diverse backgrounds in education, social care and health, as well as the distinct objectives of their research. Punch reflects on the value of working in partnership with children and young people, and developing methods which are effective in capturing their views. Note how this differs to the approach adopted by Aldgate, who has conducted a wealth of research within care contexts which are tightly bounded by policy frameworks. Pickett describes his own research background in epidemiology with an interest in adolescent health risks. In each case, it is interesting to consider the position of children and young people within the research process, which in turn reflects the investigative approach taken. Punch describes how research can help us develop our knowledge and understanding, whereas for Aldgate research provides opportunities to inform policy and practice. Pickett talks about using quantitative survey analysis, in contrast to Punch and her description of qualitative research. Aldgate emphasises the importance of research being grounded in theory and facilitating opportunities for researchers to test new ideas and ways of thinking.
Rather than dividing different methodological approaches into two distinct fields, we view different methods as sitting along a qualitative–quantitative continuum. How research is designed to explore, measure or test, for example, is underpinned by the research paradigm. When conducting research, the first priority is to clarify the question or hypothesis being investigated, and then decide which approach or approaches will provide the kind of data needed to construct robust evidence which will answer that particular question/hypothesis. This will involve decisions about the role of the researcher and participants within the process. In the next section, we will consider the researcher’s role in practitioner research.