Research is a very general term for an activity that involves finding out, in a more or less systematic way, things you did not know. A more academic interpretation is that research involves finding out about things that no-one else knew either. It is about advancing the frontiers of knowledge. Research methods are the techniques you use to do research. They represent the tools of the trade, and provide you with ways to collect, sort and analyse information so that you can come to some conclusions. If you use the right sort of methods for your particular type of research, then you should be able to convince other people that your conclusions have some validity, and that the new knowledge you have created is soundly based. It would be really boring to learn about all these tools without being able to try them out – like reading about how to use a plane, chisel, drill etc. and never using them to make something out of a piece of wood. Therefore courses in research methods are commonly linked to assignments that require these methods to be applied – an actual research project that is described in a dissertation or thesis, or a research report. In the workplace, it is often the other way round. When there is a perception that more information and understanding is needed to advance the work or process of work, then ways are sought how research can be carried out to meet this need.
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
Face-to-face interviews can be carried out in a variety of situations: in the home, at work, outdoors, on the move (e.g. while travelling) and can be used to interview people both singly and in groups. Using visual signs, such as nods, smiles etc., helps to get good responses. Focus groups can be seen as a type of group interview, but one that tends to concentrate in depth on a particular theme or topic with an element of interaction. The group is often made up of people who have particular experience or knowledge about the subject of the research, or those that have a particular interest in it e.g. consumers or customers.