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From research questions to data collection

From research questions to data collection
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

The three steps in this activity are all about where you should go after producing your research questions.

The first issue to consider is how you will actually answer your research questions or test your hypothesis. To do this you need to consider the information that you need to collect and where you are going to get this from – the process known as data collection.

Data collection

Data collection is a challenging but rewarding part of the research process. This is where you will have the opportunity to explore your research problem in more depth and when you are gathering information that no-one else will have and which should allow you to say something distinctive.

Before we look at some techniques for collecting data, let’s consider your strategy – otherwise known as a methodology. This is a complex and multi-layered issue, but for now, we’ll highlight the basic binary choice that you have between either a qualitative or quantitative approach.

Qualitative

Qualitative methodologies involve collecting data that emphasises quality over quantity and, in basic terms, words over numbers. This means that it will involve an in-depth examination of an issue over a smaller population and will draw on the language used by key stakeholders to describe a problem. Qualitative research often gives a more explicit role to the researcher in the form of conducting a face-to-face interview and it also does not rely on replicating the same questions for each participant.

Quantitative

Quantitative methodologies involve collecting data that emphasise quantity over quality; simplistically, numbers over words. The strength of this strategy is that it involves collecting data across a much wider population and in a way that responses can be readily translated into a numerical form to allow for statistical analysis.

Quantitative research does not give such an explicit role to the researcher but it does rely on each participant answering the same questions so that a comparison can be drawn between responses.

Primary and secondary sources

A further decision you need to make in the data collection process is whether you collect primary or secondary data.

Primary data collection refers to data collected for primary use within your study. This means that the data will be unique to your study and, most likely, you will have been central to collecting it. For example, you will have designed the survey or will conduct the semi-structured interviews so will be able to ensure that this is directly related to your research questions.

Secondary data collection is the process of gathering and using data that has already been collected for other purposes but which can still be used in your study. For example, many organisations run annual staff surveys which contain data on engagement, commitment and other attitudinal variables that you may be able to access. There are also different large scale national surveys which have open data sources such as the Workplace Employment Relations Survey or the British Social Attitudes Survey. There are even international studies such as the Globe Project, which draw on a wide range of surveys to analyse leadership and organisational behaviour.

You can collect both primary and secondary within either quantitative or qualitative methodologies, although the specific pattern of your data collection will, as always, depend on what you need to answer your research questions and also what is available, something we will return to in Step 2.8.

Data collection method

The final thing to consider with data collection is the method that you are going to use to collect your primary data. This is different from your methodology which is a broader approach to your data collection. Think of your methodology as your toolbox and your research or data collection methods as the tools within it. There are numerous different methods for data collection and you will need to explore these in much greater detail when it comes to planning your own research. Here we will look briefly at the two most common methods:

  • Survey/questionnaire – a series of fixed questions often requiring answers on a numerical scale. Most often used in quantitative research to generate broad data from a large number of participants.

  • Semi-structured interview – a ‘live’ or face-to-face event where participants respond to similar questions and give detail about their perceptions and experiences. Most often used in qualitative research to generate rich data from a smaller number of participants.

It is important to stress that there are other options for data collection and your research questions may enable you to use these. However, these two are the most common because they can be adapted to many different types of research.

It is, of course, possible to use both through what we call a mixed-methods approach. This has the advantage of allowing you to capture a view from a large population but refine that through more detailed insight.

A word of caution: you need to make sure that it is feasible to pursue a mixed-methods approach, something we will look at in Step 2.8.

Your task

Return to the research questions you developed in Step 2.3 or the hypotheses in Step 2.4.
Can you list the type of information you need to be able to answer or test these?
How would you go about collecting that data?
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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