5 Misconceptions About Research

None of these visions accurately represent the research process. Most people have a distorted picture of what researchers do. They tend to view research as tedious, repetitious, dull, and irrelevant to most of our immediate practical concerns. In fact, research should be the opposite. In order to envision research as interesting, exciting, and fun, you may need to dispel some common misconceptions about where research is done, who does it, and what it entails.

  • Misconception #1: Research is conducted in a laboratory.
  • Misconception #2: Research is for eggheads.
  • Misconception #3: Research has little to do with everyday life.
  • Misconception #4: Researchers across disciplines agree about what constitutes effective research.
  • Misconception #5: Researchers think, research, and then write.
Misconception #1: Research Is Conducted In A Laboratory

Whether we realize it or not, most of us have acquired our understanding of research from the images presented by popular culture. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, has provided one of the most dramatic and enduring representations of laboratory research. Contemporary films like Outbreaksuggest an updated version of the researcher, still white-coated but now isolated from normal social contact by the need for extraordinary anticontamination precautions. Perhaps because it is unfamiliar and, therefore, potentially dangerous, the laboratory offers a more dramatic setting for fictional accounts than other, more accessible research environments.

Of course, some kinds of research require the controlled environments that laboratories provide. The medical research that developed the antibiotics and pain relievers your doctor prescribed that last time you had the flu was conducted in a laboratory. And most of the commercially produced consumer products you use every day–from paint to cereal to hand lotion–undergo testing and refining in some sort of laboratory. But laboratory research is only one particular kind of research.

In reality, research is conducted everywhere. You may have noticed an amiable young person with a clipboard stopping shoppers in the local mall to ask questions about their buying preferences. That person was conducting research. The best-selling account of Lewis and Clark’s explorations is the result of research, as is the Thursday night lineup of your favorite TV shows, the design of your computer desk, the pattern of the traffic flow through your neighborhood, and the location of the nearest restaurant. None of the research that produced these results was conducted in a laboratory.

If, for example, you are interested in investigating how people behave in natural situations and under normal conditions, you cannot expect to gather information in a laboratory. In other words, the questions researchers are trying to answer and the methods they select for answering these questions will determine where the research is conducted. Research is carried out wherever researchers must go to collect the information they need.

Misconception #2: Research Is for Eggheads

Just as images from popular culture have influenced our ideas about where research is conducted, pop culture has also created some persistent stereotypes of researchers. In addition to the rather demonic Dr. Frankenstein, you may also think of friendlier, if slightly addled eggheads like the professor on Gilligan’s Island, the Jerry Lewis or Eddie Murphy version of The Nutty Professor, or the laughable Disney character, Professor Ludwig von Drake. These images all reinforce the notion of researchers as absentminded eccentrics, engrossed in highly technical, specialized projects that most of us cannot understand.

However, just as research can be carried out almost anywhere, anyone can be a researcher. Asking questions about your friend’s new romance, gathering evidence of who she was seen with, making deductions based on her new style of dress, and spreading the word about your conclusions is a form of research. These activities don’t sound like research to most people because they have not been expressed in academic language. But what if the activities were organized into a research project titled “The Psychosocial Determinants of Gender Relations in Postmodern Dating Culture: A Psychoanalytic Approach”? The point, of course, is not to suggest that gossip qualifies as legitimate research but rather that everyone employs the investigative and exploitative elements of research to make sense of their lives. Research is not just for “eggheads.”

Misconception #3: Research Has Little to Do with Everyday Life

While the first two misconceptions concern where research is done and who does it, the third misconception misrepresents the subject matter of research. Because some research focuses on very narrow questions and relies on highly technical knowledge, people often assume that all research must be hard to understand and unrelated to everyday concerns.

However, research need not be difficult to understand, and research is an activity that is defined by its method, not by its subject. In other words, it is true that some significant research is difficult for nonspecialists to understand. Yet all research is valuable to the extent that it affects everyday life.

Research takes many forms, but it always entails a search, conducted carefully and diligently, aimed at the discovery and interpretation of new knowledge. Thus, how you go about gathering information, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and sharing results determines whether your activities qualify as research. Sometimes these activities will be informal, spontaneous, and intuitive, as when you infer that your friend has a new romance or when you read reviews in a computer magazine before purchasing new software. In school and in the workplace, where results are disseminated and evaluated by others, research is likely to be more formal. Regardless of its final form, however, whenever you systematically gather information for the purpose of generating new knowledge, you are conducting research.

Misconception #4: Researchers Across Disciplines Agree About What Constitutes Effective Research

Academic disciplines—for example, mathematics, psychology, physics, engineering, or business—have different ways of conducting and evaluating research. An anthropologist’s account of kinship patterns in a tribe of Native Americans bears almost no resemblance to a cognitive psychologist’s investigation of sensory responses to light stimuli. Even within a particular academic discipline, researchers may disagree over what makes good research.

Not only do people disagree about appropriate methods of research, but their ideas may change over time. Conceptions about knowledge, available technologies, and research practices influence each other and change constantly. For example, capturing gorillas and studying them in cages might have been considered good research in the 1920s. The work of later researchers like Dian Fossey, however, demonstrated how animals might be better understood in their natural environment. Today, research based on observations of wild animals in captivity would gain little support or interest.

Because no one way of doing research is equally acceptable to all researchers in all academic disciplines, researchers must select the methodology that will be most persuasive to their readers.

Misconception #5: Researchers Think, Research, and Then Write

When you first begin a research project, you are wise to integrate writing activities with research activities. Unfortunately, many people wrongly separate the research process from the writing process. They naively assume they should first think about a topic, identify a research question, research it, and then—after all of the excitement is drained from the project—write it up. Rather than using the generative power of writing (that is, our ability to generate new ideas by writing) to help define and energize a research project, some people delay writing until after they have completed the research. Waiting to write about a research project until you’re done researching may waste your time and can result in dull, listless prose.

  • Source: Gary Starkweather Profile