Preparing for Research


This chapter is about the things that go on before data are collected and analyzed. I’ll take you through the ideal research process and compare that to how research really gets done. Then I’ll discuss the problem of choosing problems—how do I know what to study?—and I’ll give you some pointers on how to scour the literature so you can benefit from the work of others when you start a research project.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the ethics of social research in this chapter—choosing a research problem involves decisions that can have serious ethical consequences—and a lot more about theory, too. Method and theory, it turns out, are closely related.


Despite all the myths about how research is done, it’s actually a messy process that’s cleaned up in the reporting of results. Figure 3.1 shows how the research process is supposed to work in the ideal world:


How research is supposed to work.

  • 1. First, a theoretical problem is formulated;
  • 2. Next, an appropriate site and method are selected;
  • 3. Then, data are collected and analyzed;
  • 4. Finally, the theoretical proposition with which the research was launched is either challenged or supported.

In fact, all kinds of practical and intellectual issues get in the way of this neat scheme. In the end, research papers are written so that the chaotic aspects of research are not emphasized, and the orderly inputs and outcomes are.

I see nothing wrong with this. It would be a monumental waste of precious space in books and journals to describe the real research process for every project that’s reported. Besides, every seasoned researcher knows just how messy it all is, anyway. You shouldn’t have to become a highly experienced researcher before you’re let into the secret of how it’s really done.

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