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Explain How Research Progresses From the Original Idea

Explain how research progresses from the original idea - Every research project has to start somewhere; typically, the starting point is an idea. The big question, however, is how to go about finding an idea that will serve as a good launching point to a research project. For some students, this genuinely is the most difficult part of the research process. Actually, many people arrive at their research ideas simply by taking stock of themselves and looking around. For example, a nurse might observe a coworker coming to work under the influence of alcohol and begin to think about how alcohol would influence nursing care. From this initial thought, the idea for researching impaired nurses might arise. A counselor at a delinquency detention center might notice that many of her clients have been battered or abused prior to their run-in with the law. From her observation, she might wonder how abuse might be linked with delinquency and how she could investigate this linkage.

In some situations, ideas derive from information you hear but may not actually experience yourself. For instance, you’re sitting at home listening to the news, and you hear a report about three people from wealthy families who have been caught burglarizing houses. You wonder: Why on earth did they do something like that? What motivates people who don’t need money to steal from others? Or, you read in the newspaper that a man living around the corner from you has been arrested for growing marijuana in his garage. You think back to the times you passed this man’s house and smiled a greeting at him. And you wonder: Why didn’t I realize what he was up to? Who was he going to sell the marijuana to anyhow? From these broad curiosities, you might begin to think about how these questions could be explored or answered and how you might research these phenomena. Or you might think more generally about how we define particular forms of crime as “urban” as though they couldn’t occur in the suburbs, from which you might define research questions about why some people receive long prison sentences and others short ones for the same crimes

The preceding examples serve two important purposes. First, they point out how ideas promote potential research endeavors. Second, and perhaps more important, they suggest a central research orientation that permeates this book. This orientation is the attitude that the world is a research laboratory and that you merely need to open your eyes and ears to the sensory reality that surrounds all of us to find numerous ideas for research. In fact, once you become familiar with this orientation, the biggest problem will be to filter out all the many possible researchable ideas and actually investigate one!

Most experienced qualitative researchers will agree that if you drop an investigator into any neighborhood, he or she will manage to identify a research idea, develop a research plan, and project potential research findings before lunch. I sit on a morning commuter train and look around me. The difference between the crowded rush-hour trains and the sparsely populated later trains is extreme. How did we come to define “work hours” in such a regimented fashion? How is this changing as more people are able to “telecommute”? If the manufacturing sector is shrinking in the United States, while service work is growing—and service work is increasingly done around the clock—why is rush hour still so crowded? And what about other parts of the world where manufacturing is increasing? Are these places experiencing greater rush-hour traffic than before? How will they choose whether to build more roads for private cars or more train lines for mass transit? And finally, why do people making private phone calls in public places, like trains, talk so much more loudly than everyone else? I could spend the rest of my career trying to understand this train.

This notion is likely to contrast dramatically with the inexperienced researcher’s fear that he or she cannot even think of anything worthwhile to research. There may be considerable truth to the optimistic view of experienced researchers. This does not mean, however, that all research ideas will be equally easy or interesting to research

Some ideas will be more difficult to investigate than others. This is because those who control access to a given location—what the literature calls gatekeepers—or the subjects themselves may be reluctant to cooperate. Gatekeepers are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 6. Also, some ideas may initially seem extremely interesting but become rather plain or uninspiring on further investigation. Some ideas are interesting to think about but impractical, unethical, or even impossible to study in a rigorous fashion. The impacts of emotional trauma, for example, can be inferred through many case studies of trauma victims, but you cannot test these inferences in an isolated experimental setting without deliberately inflicting trauma on your research subjects. Some students understand research in relation to findings that they have been taught in other sociology classes. For example, the research question “Do advertisements represent women in a sexually exploitive fashion?” was once an important question to look into. Now, after years of study, we know the answer is yes, and until something changes in the advertising field to call that into question, it is much less useful or interesting to conduct new research just to show that it’s still the same. Similarly, many sociology texts like this one have, for years, used presumably familiar examples of research questions pertaining to binge drinking on campuses or peer pressure in high schools that we may have collectively contributed to the impression that these are urgent social problems that require active research immediately. Yet, unless you have something truly innovative to add to these frequently discussed subjects, there is little benefit to running around campus asking people how much they drink.

So, you begin with an idea. But how is this related to theory? Many research projects begin with formal statements of the ideas and theory on which the empirical research is to be based. This has been called the theory-beforeresearch model (Frankfort-Nachmias & Nachmias, 2007). This orientation has been nicely described by Karl Popper (1968), who suggested that one begins with ideas (conjectures) and then attempts to disprove or refute them through tests of empirical research (refutation). And yet, theory is based on data. Research must occur before theory can be developed. This research-before-theory orientation was expressed by Robert Merton (1968), who emphasized that research was an integral part of every stage in the development and testing of theory. In other words, research may suggest new problems for theory, require theoretical innovation, refine existing theories, or serve to challenge past theoretical assumptions

The approach offered in this book views theory before-research and research-before-theory perspectives as highly compatible, and most researchers move comfortably between them. Realistically, we often adopt an approach that encompasses both models. The research process is conceived as spiraling rather than linear in its progression. You begin with an idea, gather theoretical information, reconsider and refine your idea, begin to examine possible designs, reexamine theoretical assumptions, and refine these theoretical assumptions and perhaps even your original or refined idea. Thus, with every two steps forward, you take a step or two backward before proceeding any further. What results is no longer a linear progression in a single, forward direction. Rather, you are spiraling forward, never actually leaving any stage behind completely. This spiraling approach is drawn here


To simplify understanding of the individual elements of this model as I discuss them, let’s redefine the stages slightly, as follows:

Ideas ➞ Literature Review ➞ Design ➞ Data Collection and Organization ➞ Analysis and Findings ➞ Dissemination 

As illustrated, you begin with some sort of rough idea for a research study. The next stage in the process is to begin thinking and reading about the topical idea. As you begin reading related and relevant literature on the topic, you should also start turning this idea into a research question or even a set of researchable foci. As suggested by the fluidity of the spiraling approach offered in this chapter, your research idea should flow into a potential research question that may continue to shift, change, and take form as the research process unfolds. Even though your research question(s) may change as you proceed through the research process, it is important to establish a focus for your research question or a series of research aims.