Richard F. Taflinger, PhD
WHAT IS RESEARCH?
Research is finding out what you don't already know. No one knows everything, but everybody knows something. However, to complicate matters, often what you know, or think you know, is incorrect.
There are two basic purposes for research: to learn something, or to gather evidence. The first, to learn something, is for your own benefit. It is almost impossible for a human to stop learning. It may be the theory of relativity or the RBIs of your favorite ball player, but you continue to learn. Research is organized learning, looking for specific things to add to your store of knowledge. You may read SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for the latest research in quantum mechanics, or the sports section for last night's game results. Either is research.
What you've learned is the source of the background information you use to communicate with others. In any conversation you talk about the things you know, the things you've learned. If you know nothing about the subject under discussion, you can neither contribute nor understand it. (This fact does not, however, stop many people from joining in on conversations, anyway.) When you write or speak formally, you share what you've learned with others, backed with evidence to show that what you've learned is correct. If, however, you haven't learned more than your audience already knows, there is nothing for you to share. Thus you do research.
THREE TYPES OF RESEARCH
There are three types of research, pure, original, and secondary. Each type has the goal of finding information and/or understanding something. The difference comes in the strategy employed in achieving the objective.
Pure research is research done simply to find out something by examining anything. For instance, in some pure scientific research scientists discover what properties various materials possess. It is not for the sake of applying those properties to anything in particular, but simply to find out what properties there are. Pure mathematics is for the sake of seeing what happens, not to solve a problem.
The fun of pure research is that you are not looking for anything in particular. Instead, anything and everything you find may be joined with anything else just to see where that combination would lead, if anywhere.
Let's take an example. I was reading a variety of books and magazines once. There were a some science fiction novels, Jean Auel's THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, Carl Sagan's BROCA'S BRAIN, several Isaac Asimov collections of science essays and two of his history books, ADVERTISING AGE and AD WEEK magazines, some programs on PBS, a couple of advertising textbooks I was examining for adoption in my class, and several other things I can't even remember now. This was pure research; I was reading and watching television for the sake of reading and watching about things I didn't know.
Relating all of the disparate facts and opinions in all of these sources led me to my opinions on stereotyping and pigeonholing as vital components of human thought, now a major element in my media criticism and advertising psychology classes. When I started I had no idea this pure research would lead where it did. I was just having fun.
Original, or primary research is looking for information that nobody else has found. Observing people's response to advertising, how prison sentences influence crime rates, doing tests, observations, experiments, etc., are to discover something new.
Orginal research requires two things: 1) knowing what has already been discovered, having a background on the subject; and 2) formulating a method to find out what you want to know. To accomplish the first you indulge in secondary research (see below).
For the second, you decide how best to find the information you need to arrive at a conclusion. This method may be using focus groups, interviews, observations, expeditions, experiments, surveys, etc.
For example, you can decide to find out what the governmental system of the Hittite Empire was like on the basis of their communication system to determine how closely the empire could be governed by a central bureaucracy. The method to do this original research would probably require that you travel to the Middle East and examine such things as roads, systems of writing, courier systems without horses, archeological evidence, actual extent of Hittite influence (commercial, military, laws, language, religion, etc.) and anything else you can think of and find any evidence for.
Secondary research is finding out what others have discovered through original research and trying to reconcile conflicting viewpoints or conclusions, find new relationships between normally non-related research, and arrive at your own conclusion bas ed on others' work. This is, of course, the usual course for college students.
An example from recent years was the relating of tectonic, geologic, biologic, paleontologic, and astronomic research to each other. Relating facts from these researches led to the conclusion that the mass extinctions of 65 million years ago, including the dinosaurs, was the result of an asteroid or comet striking the earth in the North Atlantic at the site of
. (For a full explanation see THE GREAT EXTINCTION by Michael Allaby and James Lovelock.) Later research based on the above has found a potential crater for the impact on the Iceland . Yucatan Peninsula
Secondary research should not be belittled simply because it is not original research. Fresh insights and viewpoints, based on a wide variety of facts gleaned from original research in many areas, has often been a source of new ideas. Even more, it has provided a clearer understanding of what the evidence means without the influence of the original researcher's prejudices and preconceptions.