Demystifying the research process

Research is one of the least understood areas of academia. When you start studying you think that you are there to learn a specific subject and soon find yourself sitting, having to do research into a topic. But what is research and how does it work? Why do we do it? We aim to show briefly how to attack this important area of your studies.


What is research?


Research is a systematic method of finding answers to questions. It is systematic because it is a process broken up into clear steps that lead to conclusions.


Research is only successful if we find answers, whether we like these answers or not. If there are no questions, there can be no research.


So why do research?


There are many questions in this world – some profound and some interesting. Do we know what causes government, business, institutions, labour, organisations and society in general to function efficiently and effectively?


It is important that the decisions that get made are based on valid and reliable information and thorough analysis. The search for this information is referred to as the research process. There maybe an existing body of evidence (prior research, studies etc.) that can inform a course of action, or that predicts what will happen if a certain set of circumstances occur.


If the outcome of a set of circumstances is not known, then there is a need for research.


How is research used?


As indicated above, the primary purpose of research is to find answers to questions. Research allows us to find solutions to key issues by providing facts that will help us to analyse the problem, testing the feasibility and the impact of programmes; and finding better solutions to the same challenges.


Often people have firm beliefs about particular issues, but when they have to argue their case they lack reliable information to back up their beliefs. Research helps to clarify and strengthen beliefs especially in the face of opposition and doubt from others. Whilst research can confirm your views, it is important that the researcher remains open-minded and impartial even when the results fail to confirm the views that were originally anticipated.


What are the benefits of research?


  • Research creates views and arguments substance.


  • Research produces hard facts that support arguments and beliefs.


  • Research gives new information.


  • Research often throws up other facts that may not have been easily accessible and helps to strengthen, or even change arguments and beliefs. These facts make it easier to plan programmes and ensure that interventions are effective.


  • Research can show what action is most likely to address an issue successfully.


  • Research may provide key information that will enable the development of clear strategies.


  • Research can provide clear cases and examples that describe specific phenomena and use cases.


  • In addition to providing statistics, research provides you with real life experiences that are more convincing than statistics organised into graphs and tables. For example, parts of a research report on poverty in a rural community can deal with actual case studies that will have a great impact on readers.


  • Research allows you to make cost-benefit arguments.


  • Often people are convinced that a programme or project justifies high amounts of money being spent. Research can confirm if this is correct or suggest other ways for the money to be spent.


Different types of research


There are different types of research activities than can assist you in undertaking research. In this section we touch on some basic methods:


Desktop research refers to seeking facts, general information on a topic, historical background, study results, etc., that have been published or exist in public documents. This information can be obtained from libraries, newspaper archives, government, university, websites, NGOs and CBOs etc.


Interviews and conversations are used when the problem is unknown, undefined and different aspects needs to be explored in more depth.


Surveys are used if you want to know a standard set of about a population, for purposes of comparing between different factors.


The information that is collected through these methods is either quantitative or qualitative in nature. Quantitative research depends on numbers and statistical procedures.


Information can also be qualitative – based on observations of behaviour, participants’ reports of how a specific factor has changed.


Some studies seek to understand cause and effect – what causes something else to happen or the connection between two factors.


Some studies are conducted to find answers to very specific questions and as such are more commonly referred to an enquiry as it enquires about a specific event, phenomena or set of circumstances.


Community investigation involves going to an area to establish facts about a specific problem or state of affairs.


Case studies that describe the experience of individuals or groups affected by an issue can be very effective for research that aims to change a situation or influence decision-makers.


How to do research?


Below are guidelines and steps for a general research process, no matter the type or method or research being undertaken.


Step 1: Identify and define the issue or question


This step assists in identifying the problem or issue that requires research.


  • What is the issue?
  • Why is it necessary to research this issue?
  • What do we want to find out?
  • What information/evidence already exists?



Step 2: Deciding direction by identifying a focus and refining the question


In this step we set out the aims and objectives of the research.


  • What will be the aim and focus of the research?
  • What questions need to be answered?


Step 3: Organising the work plan to answer the questions


This step entails organising the work and choosing the methods that will be used to conduct the research. A terms of reference (ToR) should be drawn up that that spells out the work needed.


  • What sort of information is needed to answer the questions? Where will it be found (sources)?
  • What would be the best research methods to use?
  • Who is best suited to do this research?
  • What are the tasks and who will do what?
  • When does the work need to be completed?


Step 4: Collecting information to help answer the question


This step entails the actual collection of information. This may require fieldwork as per the research design that was put together earlier. It is important that the source of the information can be identified and traced as follow-ups may be required.


Step 5: Organise the information collected and discard what is not needed


This phase entails organising and analysing the information gathered in the previous step. To analyse means to make calculations, such as adding up the different responses so as to get a full picture of the situation.


The analysis may be in the form of tables, graphs, percentages, etc. Similarities or patterns may emerge. There may be obvious gaps or subtle interactions. This is the stage in which data starts turning into information.


Step 6: Drawing conclusions


This step entails discussing the findings and drawing conclusions.


Findings are often in table, graph, numeric or percentage form. The discussion involves using words to describe the findings. The discussion section is where the researcher gives opinions based on the findings of the research. The researcher then draws conclusions and may make recommendations based on the findings.


Step 7: Writing a research report


The writing of a report is important as it leaves a body of evidence that can be used by different users and future researchers. A report generally has six sections:

  • Introduction,
  • Literature review,
  • Methodology,
  • Research results,
  • Discussion, and
  • Conclusions and recommendations.


Step 8: Reflecting on and evaluating the work done


This step entails reflection to decide on what action is needed and what steps should be taken to use the research effectively. This may include a plan for communicating the research results. More research may also be needed to answer new questions thrown up by the research done.




Research is a rewarding process of answering questions. Often it seems daunting when we set out to answer a question, but in the process – we also find out much more than was originally anticipated. We may find that others have gone before us and solved similar problems and learn from this. The key to completing a research report is to follow a simple process and to learn in the process.