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Empirical Research: Defining, Identifying, & Finding

What is empirical research, how do you recognize it, and how can you improve your searches to find it?

Defining Empirical Research

What is Empirical Research?

Calfee & Chambliss (2005) (UofM login required) describe empirical research as a "systematic approach for answering certain types of questions."  Those questions are answered "[t]hrough the collection of evidence under carefully defined and replicable conditions" (p. 43). 

The evidence collected during empirical research is often referred to as "data." 

Characteristics of Empirical Research

Emerald Publishing's guide to conducting empirical research identifies a number of common elements to empirical research: 

  • research question, which will determine research objectives.
  • A particular and planned design for the research, which will depend on the question and which will find ways of answering it with appropriate use of resources.
  • The gathering of primary data, which is then analysed.
  • A particular methodology for collecting and analysing the data, such as an experiment or survey.
  • The limitation of the data to a particular group, area or time scale, known as a sample [emphasis added]: for example, a specific number of employees of a particular company type, or all users of a library over a given time scale. The sample should be somehow representative of a wider population.
  • The ability to recreate the study and test the results. This is known as reliability.
  • The ability to generalize from the findings to a larger sample and to other situations.

If you see these elements in a research article, you can feel confident that you have found empirical research. Emerald's guide goes into more detail on each element. 

Quantitative or Qualitative?

Empirical research methodologies can be described as quantitative, qualitative, or a mix of both (usually called mixed-methods).

Ruane (2016) (UofM login required) gets at the basic differences in approach between quantitative and qualitative research:

  • Quantitative research -- an approach to documenting reality that relies heavily on numbers both for the measurement of variables and for data analysis (p. 33).
  • Qualitative research -- an approach to documenting reality that relies on words and images as the primary data source (p. 33).

Both quantitative and qualitative methods are empirical. If you can recognize that a research study is quantitative or qualitative study, then you have also recognized that it is empirical study. 

Below are information on the characteristics of quantitative and qualitative research. This video from Scribbr also offers a good overall introduction to the two approaches to research methodology: 

Characteristics of Quantitative Research 

Researchers test hypotheses, or theories, based in assumptions about causality, i.e. we expect variable X to cause variable Y. Variables have to be controlled as much as possible to ensure validity. The results explain the relationship between the variables. Measures are based in pre-defined instruments.

Examples: experimental or quasi-experimental design, pretest & post-test, survey or questionnaire with closed-ended questions. Studies that identify factors that influence an outcomes, the utility of an intervention, or understanding predictors of outcomes. 

Characteristics of Qualitative Research

Researchers explore “meaning individuals or groups ascribe to social or human problems (Creswell & Creswell, 2018, p3).” Questions and procedures emerge rather than being prescribed. Complexity, nuance, and individual meaning are valued. Research is both inductive and deductive. Data sources are multiple and varied, i.e. interviews, observations, documents, photographs, etc. The researcher is a key instrument and must be reflective of their background, culture, and experiences as influential of the research.

Examples: interviews, focus groups, case studies, grounded theory, ethnography, discourse analysis, narrative, phenomenology, participatory action research.

Citations

Calfee, R. C. & Chambliss, M. (2005). The design of empirical research. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. Jensen (Eds.), Methods of research on teaching the English language arts: The methodology chapters from the handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 43-78). Routledge. http://ezproxy.memphis.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=125955&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

How to... conduct empirical research. (n.d.). Emerald Publishing. https://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/how-to/research-methods/conduct-empirical-research.

Scribbr. (2019). Quantitative vs. qualitative: The differences explained [video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-XtVF7Bofg.

Ruane, J. M. (2016). Introducing social research methods : Essentials for getting the edge. Wiley-Blackwell. http://ezproxy.memphis.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1107215&site=eds-live&scope=site.