"Research" is sometimes an ambiguous word. Here are three different views:
1. The inquiry view usually follows the following steps:
identify the significant problem, issue, hypothesis, or need,
gather information, often information directly from the field,
analyze it in some way (that is, relate the information to a solution to the problem),
draw a conclusion that addresses the initial problem, issue, hypothesis, or need, and
In some cases, of course, this is done in an academic framework and the whole process is written down. In many cases, however, the entire process is very informal with most steps done in collegial discussion using anecdotal information and staying very close to implementation.
2. Creative research means that you have a good idea and then set out to prove it. By testing your idea you are doing research. Of course, you need to allow the possibility that your idea might be incorrect. Beware of finding something only because you looked for it, when you could have looked for and found a very different conclusion.
3.Information gathering simply means that one gathers and collates information that already exists. It isn't really research in the same sense as those above.
What is not research?
It's not research if you only need to collect and report information. A researcher needs to think about (analyze) the information to achieve a purpose. It might be that somebody else has done the research, and your job is simply to locate and compile it. For example, you might get information from a library. Fieldwork is not necessarily research either if you're just collecting and collating information.
It's not research if you can look up the answer in a book. You are not doing research if your topic only requires you to restate what is already written. However, it is possible to use existing literature and put it together very differently or apply ideas in an innovative way.
It's not research if you could adequately solve the problem just by getting the advice of a practicing professional. It's not really research if experts already know the solution although they didn't write it down.
It's not research if you are just putting together some steps or writing a practical handbook. For this reason, many purely practical problems are not good research topics. (However, if you want to figure out how to do something, model-building is a valid means of research, and might be right for you.)
Research as a frontier
Once upon a time, a powerful race came to a new land. They made settlements on the coast and established farms. They soon spread, displacing indigenous people and building towns and then cities.
They faced a frontier. They had explored the mountains and rivers far into the hinterland and used pockets of natural resources. The edge of what they knew was a frontier. Farther than that was still a mystery; they just didn't know what was there.
Just as they did not need to re-explore the nearby hinterland, a researcher doesn't need to write on topics that are already known. Researchers often start by finding out how much is already known, which they normally do though a literature search. That's like knowing exactly where the frontier is.
However, explorers really need to go past the frontier and into the wilderness or the jungle or the desert or the savannah. A less ambitious explorer might make a small trip. A great explorer accomplishes long expeditions far into the unknown. So, as a researcher, you need to make an expedition into the unknown, whether small or large. You cannot do it on the comfortable side of the frontier.
So what is original exploration?
The questions are then, "What is original exploration? and "What is an original finding?" That will vary a great deal with the area of study, the kind of research and the methods in use. Just for starters, though, many original findings are:
new understandings of how things work
new approaches to a problem, producing different answers
new explanatory descriptions of something never before described
a concept that explains lots of things that didn't make sense before
an new structure of a field of study, based on a revised relationship between its parts
There is also a lot of difference between having a good look and actually finding something.
Some research conclusions sound obvious in hindsight, and you might think the research was a waste of time. The reader finds that everything makes good sense and naturally leads to the conclusion. Don't be disappointed. If the topic was good, there could have been other conclusions and the "obvious" one was not really obvious at the beginning.
Theory and practice
What is the answer when people want less theorizing and philosophizing and more emphasis put on practical questions, methods, or issues?
This is the relationship between theory and practice, on which too much to review here has been written over the years. For the purposes of some groups, theory is good to discuss provided it has a clear relationship to practice. Other groups are more interested in either theory or practice.
It is possible to spread research over a continuum from most practical to most theoretical. The middle ground (sometimes called technology or applied science) explores the interaction between relevant theory and implementation.
Utilitarian research for practitioners.
Local relevance only; the literature review could be superfluous in some cases.
Often focussed on practical improvements
Primarily theoretical, oriented toward theory change
Literature review is a core component
It may be descriptive, but analysis and critique is the goal of description.
Views on "theory versus practice" depend on individual and group temperament. What some people say is very practical, others say is too theoretical. It is also a function of role: a practitioner on the field will normally want to do different research from a career academic.
Some theoretical research topics, though well-grounded in reality, are not very helpful for most practitioners.
However, many theoretical topics aren't directly practical themselves but have wide-reaching implications in many practical contexts. Consequently, if you are concerned with "big picture" questions you'll have to face the theory questions sooner or later. But if you are concerned with "how-to-do-it" questions, then you might never delve much into theory.
In any case, you should be clear in your mind where you belong on the continuum when you apply for a qualification. Be prepared to defend your position.
As an aside, some practical research is two-step; the researcher first figures out how to do something and then develops a theoretical model of what is done.
Working with others
Research is done best when you have other people with whom you can discuss your ideas. You will find strengths and weaknesses in them that were not otherwise visible simply by articulating them clearly. Use conference times to share ideas in a forum atmosphere.
Some colleagues will synergize with you, push your ideas much further along, direct you to new books and articles, and really encourage you. Others will ask you difficult questions and try to prove you wrong. At least they are pushing you to do better in thinking through your ideas.
You also need ways of accountability. You can do more and better if you are accountable to someone. They can keep you encouraged, make deadlines, and keep you on track.
However, sometimes you will be accountable to leaders who are unsupportive. They don't have researcher temperaments and don't understand your project. They think it is too technical, obscure, academic, rationalistic, or time-consuming. They might be practical people who want to get things done even if they make preventable mistakes. It may be best to seek someone else as the main person to whom you will be accountable.
On the other side, accept that research is largely a solitary occupation. You cannot do it without spending time alone in reading, writing, and thinking. And you alone are responsible for the work you submit and keeping motivated.
Learning to do research
Not only do different cultures seem to have different conceptions of research, but different people have different expectations of how to learn it. Some students prefer a strictly sequential approach. They want to follow a set of steps, getting each step right before learning about the next.Others are more conceptually and holistically driven. They want to understand the idea as a whole before starting. Steps are not tightly defined and tend to overlap.
The problem is that when you're doing an earlier step you'll needs to consider later steps. For example, when selecting topics, you'll need to think about whether the appropriate methodology is feasible. As another example, you'll need to envisage the outline and main issues to estimate probable length when selecting topics.
This works in favor of the holistic learners, but against sequential learners.
So what helps? Reducing the whole process to watertight steps is not really possible, but using steps is a good way to learn if you're new and it also helps you plan your time. But browse around all the steps before you start. Get a feel for them and see how they work together.