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Whys and Wherefores of Using Empirical Data

Many students doing a social science dissertation include empirical data (what you’ve found out) in their dissertation; some students analyse existing data; and a significant minority of students write theoretical papers, like an extended essay.

You may have an idea of what you want to research and a sense of the viewpoint you’re coming from, but now you need more specific questions to answer. This article suggests ways to narrow down your study and get to grips with exact and precise questions.

The sort of data you need to gather is closely linked to the type of question you’re asking:

  • A case study? If your study is about a specific case or a person’s particular experience you’re going to need data about the case study or the person’s views and ideas.

  • A general phenomenon? If your study is about what’s happening generally you’re going to be making a survey and needing statistics or centrally produced information covering a wide range of people.

  • A policy? If your study involves examining a policy: this is an evaluation. You’re going to need evidence of the policy in practice or at least the views of experts in the area of study to find out if the policy is successful.

  • A comparison? Are you trying to decide which of two methods is better suited to a specific problem? Your data is going to be around the results of each approach and perhaps the underlying principles.

Whatever type of topic you’re researching you need data of some description, but a particular topic may require more specific data than others. The policy question, for example, can be answered by a non-empirical library-based study. The other topics need empirical data to answer the research question.

Dissertation research: Don’t overlook the secondary data

Secondary data is data that’s already been collected and recorded by another researcher. It’s up to you to dig out, compare, relate and interpret the data for your dissertation topic. The census is an example of data that’s collected nationally and if you make use of data from the census in your dissertation that’s a review of secondary data.

Any journal or newspaper article you read is an example of secondary data. But you need to be discerning about what you read, hear and see – if you’re not reading critically you can end up with some dodgy ‘facts’. The key with secondary data is to be scrupulous about the sources.

If you’re planning to carry out any of the following, you’re going to be evaluating secondary data (this is a tiny selection of the kinds of projects – but you get the idea):

  • Reviewing policy documents

  • Analysing statistical data

  • Looking for patterns within national data

  • Evaluating major research project or initiatives

  • Interpreting survey results

  • Comparing national or international concerns

Dissertation research: Meeting the methods that help you find your answers

Before starting to collect any empirical data you need to have an idea of the kinds of information you may require so that you can decide if your research question is feasible. If you suddenly realise that your question requires you to post 250 letters asking for information, you’re quickly going to find that the postage costs are prohibitive and you may need to find another research topic.

For now, be aware of the following commonly used methods for collecting information (this list is just a guide):

  • Questionnaires

  • Interviews

  • Observations

  • Measuring or recording something

  • Diaries or reflective journals

  • Taking part in an event or activity

The data you collect from using the methods in the list is called primary data (data you’ve collected yourself). In everyday life, what you’re experiencing through your senses is primary data, but when you’re doing research you need to record what you find so that you can carry out your analysis; so your primary data consists of documents, observations, measurements and summaries.

Dissertation research: Empirical or non-empirical?

Collecting your own data means using empirical methods. You’re going to be designing surveys or some method of observation. If you choose to do an empirical dissertation you’re likely to be analysing secondary empirical data (involving no collecting of primary data).

If you’re choosing to do a non-empirical dissertation you’re conducting an argument (or series of arguments) sustained over the length of the dissertation. Be sure you understand the main differences between empirical and non-empirical dissertations.

Whether you’re choosing to do an empirical or non-empirical dissertation your choice needs to match the research question – your research question governs your method of research.

Make sure that you’re absolutely clear about the nature of your research question and the data you’re going to need so that you know where to look for help and how to plan and carry out your work.

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