UNDERSTANDING THE FIVE ‘WS’
Introduction to Research Methods a practical guide for anyone undertaking a research project by Catherine Dawson
THINKING ABOUT YOUR PROJECT
Many research projects fail because people don’t take enough time to think about the issues involved before rushing to start the work. It is extremely important to spend time thinking about your project before you move on to the planning stage. Through careful thought you should stop yourself wasting time and energy on inappropriate methods as your research progresses. Consider the following example:
EXAMPLE 1: JAMES James wanted to find out about students’ experiences of housing in his university town. He designed and sent out a questionnaire to 1,000 students. When the replies started to come in, he realised that the questionnaires weren’t generating the type of information in which he was interested. When he talked through his concerns with his tutor, it emerged that James was really interested in attitudes towards, and experiences of, rented accommodation. Instead, he was only finding out about how many students lived in private rented accommodation and whether they had had ‘good’ or ‘bad’ experiences. The questionnaire left him unable to delve deeper into what these experiences were, how students coped with them and how these experiences affected their attitude towards private rented accommodation. His questionnaire had been poorly designed and was not generating this type of information. James had to scrap the questionnaire and construct another which he combined with a number of one-to-one interviews to get more in-depth information. He had spent three months designing and administering a questionnaire which had not produced the type of information he required. If he had spent more time thinking about the research, especially coming to terms with the difference between qualitative and quantitative research, he would have saved himself a lot of time and energy.
UNDERSTANDING THE FIVE ‘WS’
When you start to think about your research project, a useful way of remembering the important questions to ask is to think of the
five ‘Ws’: What? Why? Who? Where? &When? +How?
Once you have thought about these five ‘Ws’ you can move on to think about how you are going to collect your data.
What is your research? This question needs to be answered as specifically as possible. One of the hardest parts in the early stages is to be able to define your project – so much research fails because the researcher has been unable to do this.
Why do you want to do the research? What is its purpose?
Okay, you might have been told to do some research by your tutor or by your boss, but there should be another reason why you have chosen your particular subject. Reasons could include the following:
- You are interested in the topic.
- You have identified a gap in the literature.
- You want to obtain funding for a particular service or enterprise and you need to find out whether there is a demand for what you are proposing.
- You need to conduct some research to aid decision making. Whatever your reason, think very carefully about why you are doing the research as this will affect your topic, the way you conduct the research and the way in which you report the results. You should consider the following points:
- If you’re conducting the research for a university dissertation or project, does your proposed research provide the opportunity to reach the required intellectual standard? Will your research generate enough material to write a dissertation of the required length? Will your research generate too much data that would be impossible to summarise into a report of the required length?
- If you’re conducting research for funding purposes, have you found out whether your proposed funding body requires the information to be presented in a specific format? If so, you need to plan your research in a way which will meet that format.
- How to Define Your Project Speak to as many people as possible about your research, including tutors, fellow students, colleagues or friends. Tell them why you have chosen the project and ask them for their thoughts. This will help you to reflect upon, and develop, your own ideas.
Who will be your participants? (In this book, people who take part in research will be called participants or respondents, rather than ‘subjects’, which is a term that I have never liked.) At this stage of the research process, you needn’t worry too much about exactly how many participants will take part in your research as this will be covered later . However, you should think about the type of people with whom you will need to get in touch and whether it will be possible for you to contact them. If you have to conduct your research within a particular time scale, there’s little point choosing a topic which would include people who are difficult or expensive to contact. Also, bear in mind that the internet now provides opportunities for contacting people cheaply, especially if you’re a student with free internet access.
Where are you going to conduct your research? Thinking about this question in geographical terms will help you to narrow down your research topic. Also, you need to think about the resources in terms of available budget and time. If you’re a student who will not receive travel expenses or any other out of pocket expenses, choose a location close to home, college or university. If you’re a member of a community group on a limited budget, only work in areas within walking distance which will cut down on travel expenses.
Also, you need to think about the venue. If you’re going to conduct interviews or focus groups, where will you hold them? Is there a room at your institution which would be free of charge, or are you going to conduct them in participants’ own homes? Would it be safe for you to do so? Would you be comfortable doing so? If you’ve answered ‘no’ to either of these last two questions, maybe you need to think again about your research topic. In 20 years I have encountered only one uncomfortable situation in a stranger’s home. It can happen and you must never put yourself in a dangerous situation. Think very carefully about whether your chosen topic and method might have an influence on personal safety.
When are you going to do your research? Thinking about this question will help you to sort out whether the research project you have proposed is possible within your time scale. It will also help you to think more about your participants, when you need to contact them and whether they will be available at that time. For example, if you want to go into schools and observe classroom practice, you wouldn’t choose to do this research during the summer holiday. It might sound obvious, but I have found some students present a well-written research proposal which, in practical terms, will not work because the participants will be unavailable during the proposed data collection stage.
SUMMARISING YOUR RESEARCH
Once you have thought about these five ‘Ws’, try to sum up your proposed project in one sentence. When you have done this, take it to several people, including your boss and/or tutor, and ask them if it makes sense. Do they understand what your research is about? If they don’t, ask them to explain their confusion, revise your statement and take it back to them. I can’t over emphasise the importance of this stage of the research process. If you get it right now, you will find that the rest of your work should flow smoothly. However, if you get it wrong, your problems could well escalate. The following exercise will help you to think more about these issues.
Once you have answered the five ‘Ws’ you can go on to think about how you’re going to do your research. The first thing you need to do is to think about your research methodology