Session 1: Monday 1st June11:00-13:00 Room 731     

Research Strategies

Professor Paul Dowling

I want to start by making a distinction between the theoretical and empirical fields in which research is practiced (see Dowling & Brown, 2010). The former, then, comprises general claims about the way the world may be conceived that may be explicit, implied, or inferred. The empirical field consists of local instances of practice. Metaphorically, the theoretical field might be represented by the library, and the empirical field by everything else (although the library as well involves local instances of practice, of course). At any point in the research process, attention may be concentrated on either the theoretical or the empirical and, in particular, we might distinguish between research that begins with or that places considerable emphasis on the theoretical—theoretically driven research—and research that begins with the empirical. Most commonly, the latter kind of research will move into the theoretical at some point in order to formulate some kind of generalisation, of its own setting and/or beyond. Some research resists this move and relies on, for example, the accumulation of cases to stand for generalisation. Some research stops at the point of information gathering and so also remains in the empirical. Similarly, some research—what we might call ‘think pieces’—begins and remains in the theoretical. For the most part, this course is concerned with research that moves between both the theoretical and the empirical.


We might think of the analysis of data in a particular research project as the deployment of a theoretical technology in the reading of a text—the data—to produce a commentary—the findings. This might look to be an exclusively theory driven model, but the theoretical field also incorporates methodological technologies, including approaches to data collection and analysis and it’s difficult to imagine a research project that does not deploy some form of methodological technology. In the case of theory generating research, much of the theoretical technology emerges with the findings as the product of the research.


Research should also be conceived as a process. The process begins with a research interest of some kind. In some cases, but by no means all, this may be in the form of a question. In the case of some ethnographic work the question may be as vague as, ‘what’s going on?’ (ie in a particular cultural setting). In other cases the research interest may not be formulated as a question: one of my MA students, for example, was interested in exploring challenging student behaviour in the elementary school; another was concerned with the nature and potential productivity of dialogue in a Japanese school writing centre; a doctoral student (currently on the point of submission) was interested in a change in the Advanced Level economics curriculum and subsequently added to this an interest in change in a school ritual in an elite independent school and, finally, an interest in changes to the rules of foil fencing (fencing being a sport taught at the same school). Interesting in this latter case is that it has the appearance of a potentially fragmented study, which would fail to meet the criterion of coherence for a PhD thesis. Two elements hold it together, however, firstly the elite independent school setting, and secondly the general theoretical approach that is deployed and developed in the thesis. If your research interest initially seems discontinuous in this kind of way, you are going to have to think carefully about how you are going to develop a coherent thesis rather than what could look like an edited anthology!


Having established a research interest, the process usually continues by reviewing the relevant research literature. Ultimately, the originality of the thesis—the other principal criterion that a doctoral thesis must satisfy—must be established in relation to extant research in the field, the nature of the field itself being constructed in the review of research. I should mention that the exponents of classic grounded theory resist the preliminary literature review for reasons that will be discussed in the session on grounded theory (GT). Generally, though, the production of a preliminary and critical literature review is regarded as the second phase in the research process. Two points should be emphasised. Firstly, the term ‘critical’ refers to the recognition of the problematic nature of knowledge: the kind of literature review that simply summarises and organises the findings in the literature will not pass muster at doctoral level. This does not mean that the review should constitute an evaluation, as such, of research. One way of thinking of a critical approach is that it involves identifying some of the regions of uncertainty, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically, some of which your own research will aim to address, though in doing so, also inevitably opening up further regions of uncertainty. The second point is that at this stage the literature review can only be a preliminary review, especially if it is produced for the purposes of a proposal for a funding bid or for research registration. The literature will need to be re-visited once the findings of the empirical project have been established and, indeed, it’s a good idea to keep up-to-date with the literature throughout the research process.


The (preliminary) literature review will conclude with a re-statement of the research interest or question in relation to the region of uncertainty that has been identified in the extant research literature. This will now be more sharply delineated so that preliminary decisions on how the interest or question is to be addressed empirically. These are decisions concerning the manner of obtaining access to a suitable site for the research, the approach to sampling and data collection and methods of analysis; consideration will also have to be given to ethical issues—there is no such thing as a research project that does not raise ethical issues—and, of course, an anticipation of potential contingencies, such as sample mortality and other unexpected changes in the site.


At this point, if the immediate task is the production of a research proposal, then consideration should be given to a rationale for the research. The main argument for conducting the research will relate to the region of uncertainty that has been identified in the research literature, but the topicality of the research—for example, in addressing and issue that is high on the current political agenda—may also constitute and important element of the rationale as will the personal and/or professional relevance of the research to the researcher. A proposal will also generally include a predicted timeline for the completion of the project, including writing up. In respect of the timeline, it should be noted that in qualitative research, data analysis will generally commence at the same time as data collection, but will continue long after data collection has been completed; this is the most extended part of a qualitative research project in terms of time.


A research proposal is generally a fairly concise document, so the review of literature will be illustrative rather than comprehensive. As the production of a proposal is part of the application process for research registration at the Institute of Education, all of the above issues will or should have been addressed before registration for a research degree begins, but addressed in preliminary form. Now, having registered and unless they have been recruited to a pre-defined research project, the research student will probably be expected to begin again the process defined above in discussion with their supervisor(s). I generally ask students to work on a more extended review of the research literature that will constitute the first draft of a chapter of the thesis. On the production of this review, we—the student and I—will have a good sense (theirs usually much better than mine) of the extant research in the area of the student’s research interest and this will enable a sharper delineation of the research interest that will enable the production of an actual plan of action and an ethical review; the latter must be approved before any data is collected if this involves human participants. Further thought will also need to be given to the general approach that is to be adopted and, in particular, the approach to data analysis and this will involve further reading into relevant theoretical and methodological literature.
Then you can get started …

In this session, we will consider these and other ways of conceptualising research in terms of, for example, the mode of logic used in argumentation and the field of validation of claims. We shall also consider research design in a classic, theory-driven piece of research by Alexander Luria, which is summarised in the preliminary reading.

Preliminary Reading

DOWING, P.C. & BROWN, A.J. (2010). Doing Research/Reading Research: re-interrogating education. London. Routledge. cc. 1-3 & c. 9.

Further Reading

GEORGI, A. (2009). The Descriptive Phenomenological Method in Psychology: A modified Husserlian approach. Pittsburgh. Duquesne University Press. c. 3

LURIA, A. R. (1976). Cognitive Development: its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.