Structure of Research

Most research projects share the same general structure. You might think of this structure as following the shape of an hourglass. The research process usually starts with a broad area of interest, the initial problem that the researcher wishes to study. For instance, the researcher could be interested in how to use computers to improve the performance of students in mathematics. But this initial interest is far too broad to study in any single research project (it might not even be addressable in a lifetime of research). The researcher has to narrow the question down to one that can reasonably be studied in a research project. This might involve formulating a hypothesis or a focus question. For instance, the researcher might hypothesize that a particular method of computer instruction in math will improve the ability of elementary school students in a specific district. At the narrowest point of the research hourglass, the researcher is engaged in direct measurement or observation of the question of interest.

Once the basic data is collected, the researcher begins to try to understand it, usually by analyzing it in a variety of ways. Even for a single hypothesis there are a number of analyses a researcher might typically conduct. At this point, the researcher begins to formulate some initial conclusions about what happened as a result of the computerized math program. Finally, the researcher often will attempt to address the original broad question of interest by generalizing from the results of this specific study to other related situations. For instance, on the basis of strong results indicating that the math program had a positive effect on student performance, the researcher might conclude that other school districts similar to the one in the study might expect similar results.

Components of a Study

What are the basic components or parts of a research study? Here, we’ll describe the basic components involved in a causal study. Because causal studies presuppose descriptive and relational questions, many of the components of causal studies will also be found in those others.

Most social research originates from some general problem or question. You might, for instance, be interested in what programs enable the unemployed to get jobs. Usually, the problem is broad enough that you could not hope to address it adequately in a single research study. Consequently, we typically narrow the problem down to a more specific research question that we can hope to address. The research question is often stated in the context of some theory that has been advanced to address the problem. For instance, we might have the theory that ongoing support services are needed to assure that the newly employed remain employed. The research question is the central issue being addressed in the study and is often phrased in the language of theory. For instance, a research question might be:

Is a program of supported employment more effective (than no program at all) at keeping newly employed persons on the job?

The problem with such a question is that it is still too general to be studied directly. Consequently, in most research we develop an even more specific statement, called an hypothesis that describes in operational terms exactly what we think will happen in the study. For instance, the hypothesis for our employment study might be something like:

The Metropolitan Supported Employment Program will significantly increase rates of employment after six months for persons who are newly employed (after being out of work for at least one year) compared with persons who receive no comparable program.

Notice that this hypothesis is specific enough that a reader can understand quite well what the study is trying to assess.

In causal studies, we have at least two major variables of interest, the cause and the effect. Usually the cause is some type of event, program, or treatment. We make a distinction between causes that the researcher can control (such as a program) versus causes that occur naturally or outside the researcher’s influence (such as a change in interest rates, or the occurrence of an earthquake). The effect is the outcome that you wish to study. For both the cause and effect we make a distinction between our idea of them (the construct) and how they are actually manifested in reality. For instance, when we think about what a program of support services for the newly employed might be, we are thinking of the “construct.” On the other hand, the real world is not always what we think it is. In research, we remind ourselves of this by distinguishing our view of an entity (the construct) from the entity as it exists (the operationalization). Ideally, we would like the two to agree.

Social research is always conducted in a social context. We ask people questions, or observe families interacting, or measure the opinions of people in a city. An important component of a research project is the units that participate in the project. Units are directly related to the question of sampling. In most projects we cannot involve all of the people we might like to involve. For instance, in studying a program of support services for the newly employed we can’t possibly include in our study everyone in the world, or even in the country, who is newly employed. Instead, we have to try to obtain a representative sample of such people. When sampling, we make a distinction between the theoretical population of interest to our study and the final sample that we actually measure in our study. Usually the term “units” refers to the people that we sample and from whom we gather information. But for some projects the units are organizations, groups, or geographical entities like cities or towns. Sometimes our sampling strategy is multi-level: we sample a number of cities and within them sample families.

In causal studies, we are interested in the effects of some cause on one or more outcomes. The outcomes are directly related to the research problem – we are usually most interested in outcomes that are most reflective of the problem. In our hypothetical supported employment study, we would probably be most interested in measures of employment – is the person currently employed, or, what is their rate of absenteeism.

Finally, in a causal study we usually are comparing the effects of our cause of interest (e.g., the program) relative to other conditions (e.g., another program or no program at all). Thus, a key component in a causal study concerns how we decide what units (e.g., people) receive our program and which are placed in an alternative condition. This issue is directly related to the research design that we use in the study. One of the central questions in research design is determining how people wind up in or are placed in various programs or treatments that we are comparing.

These, then, are the major components in a causal study:

  • The Research Problem
  • The Research Question
  • The Program (Cause)
  • The Units
  • The Outcomes (Effect)
  • The Design