In my last post I wrote about how I think the terms ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ are fairly useless for describing research: at best, they might describe methods of data analysis. My biggest concern with the terms is that they encourage a new researcher to think ‘so, I am a qualitative researcher, therefore my research needs to look like this.’
The problem with this critique is that researchers – particularly those starting out – need clear guidelines, frameworks and examples to follow in order to start researching. My main issue with the terms ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ is that, although they purport to provide this guidance, they obfuscate rather than assist. A far better approach, I would argue, is to begin by asking what the academic discipline is within which you are working. If you are not sure as to what I mean by ‘discipline’ then I have written about it here and here.
The key starting point here is not to ask ‘am I doing qualitative or quantitative research’ or ‘am I a positivist or a relativist’, but instead to ask ‘what is the thing that I am studying’. If you define your object of study as clearly as possible, then you can proceed by immersing yourself in the disciplines that have emerged over time as the primary means by which that object is researched.
If you are writing about how pupils learn, for example, then you are most probably writing in the field of educational psychology. Many teachers who do masters research want to focus on the process and quality of pupil learning, often asking questions about the effectiveness of certain classroom strategies. This is a research area for psychologists. The good news here is that many, many people have tried to answer similar questions before, and they have developed a wide range of theories in order to explain what you are trying to explain. You will most definitely not need to begin from a blank slate. The bad news is that this is a body of knowledge that you will need to master if you are to do research in this area.
If you are writing about the relationship between pupils and wider social structures such as socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity and so on then you are most probably writing a work of sociology. This is another popular area on which teachers want to write, usually because they see something going on in their classrooms (boys underachieving, children from comfortable backgrounds getting better marks) and they want to know why this is the case. Again, the good news here is that a great deal has already been researched and written on these questions. In order to answer similar questions, you will need to immerse yourself in this discipline to gain the knowledge that you need in order to contribute to such questions yourself.
A quick note on interdisciplinary work. It certainly is true that some of the most novel work happens at the boundaries of disciplines, and it is quite possible that you might find yourself in this position due to education being an interdisciplinary field. The same principles apply: find similar work that addresses questions similar to your own, and examine how different disciplines have interacted in order to answer such questions. Necessarily such work is more difficult as it requires you to have some grounding in more than just one discipline, and this might be too much to take on if you are doing a part-time course.
Having adopted the disciplinary framing that you need, it then becomes appropriate to start asking questions about the theoretical basis on which your own study might be built. Every discipline has its own internal arguments about the nature of the thing being studied and how we can access that as researchers. If you are conducting a psychological study, then you need to be looking at where the main areas of agreement and disagreement are between psychologists. If you are conducting a sociological study, then you need to be look at where sociologists agree and disagree. After reading widely in the discipline – which may require a few forays into more philosophical works – then and only then will you be in a position to make a judgement about the theoretical models underpinning your research and the methodology and methods that you can use to address your question. Importantly, the theoretical perspectives with which you operate, the methodology and methods you adopt, are derived from the discipline.
It is in this way that – when we approach research – we are standing on the shoulders of giants.
 I would particularly recommend Patrick Baert’s book Philosophy of the Social Sciences as a highly accessible introduction to this.