Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Conceptualizing a research project

In my work as a supervisor of dissertations, whether BSc, MSc or PhD, I have developed an approach to help with research design and developing an outline of research.

The first question that needs to be settled is, what kind of science does the student want to do? Incidentally, social science is a kind of science in my mind. Who are the key researchers in the field that this students wants to base his/her work on? Some kind of conceptual model is usually required to make clear how the main concepts connect. The main concepts would be drawn from the research literature on the topic.

Second, where is the data from and how will it be analysed? Many students begin the dissertation process with a description of the kind of observations they wish to make, but this can only be part of the research design if it is placed in the context of the conceptual model, which itself is based on a theoretical position.

Third, if someone is working in a well-trodden academic discipline with a clear theoretical tradition that underpins it, then they typically do not explain their theoretical position, since understanding that is taken as a basic tenet in the discipline. So it is fair to expect that many papers will be silent about their theoretical perspective, even though it can be implied from the kind of question they are dealing with. In a multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary field like construction management, it is important to be explicit about the theoretical position. This does not always need a whole chapter. It is sometimes a few lines in the early part of the dissertation.

Following these three aspects, the initial work will rely heavily on literature review and will set up theory-concept-observation as an axis that leads to the research design. I tend to insist on a clear explanation of the connection between theory-concept-observations. Every dissertation student, I think, needs this to be clear in the write-up. This initial setting up will eventually form approximately half of the thesis followed, of course, by the second half; analysis-discussion-conclusions, which acts as a kind of mirror to the first half. These may be translated approximately into chapters: introduction, literature, methods. And it is useful to think how the analysis reflects the methods; the discussion reflects the literature (and conceptual model); the conclusions reflect the introduction.

With this conceptual model of a research dissertation in mind, I find supervision becomes much more transparent and students tend to see better where they are headed. There is no strict recipe for a dissertation, of course, and each student will change this initial framework as their confidence grows. But I find it forms a good starting point. Many different kinds of research can be covered by adapting this model to fit the kind of research.

I sketch this out frequently when talking to students, annotating it with keywords and ideas that relate to their specific interests and type of research. Sometimes it needs significant changes in order to make sense. But it still forms a good starting point for the early discussions when the student does not really understand what it means to do research and the supervisor does not really understand what the student wants to do. I have not yet had time to prepare a nice graphic with drafting software, but a pen-sketch is good enough:

The diagram shows how the conclusions relate back to the theory, how the discussion chapter relates to the conceptual model and how the analysis relates to the observation. It also shows how the aims inform the theory, the theory informs the objectives, the objectives drive the literature review to provide the conceptual model, the conceptual model leads to the research design and so on. Finally, we can see how the general issues lead to increasingly specific issues in the first half, and the second half involves moving back to generalized statements for the conclusions.

It must also be noted that not all research goes through this sequence. Ethnographic methods are often highly appropriate for construction management research, especially for those who have experience in practice. It is not always necessary to behave as if you have no experience or as if you were an outsider to the industry. If you are an insider, then look at ethnographic methods. These often involve immersing oneself in the field and then developing theory from the experience. For part-time MSc students, in particular, this is a very powerful way of construction a piece of valid research.

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