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What are good primary research methods?

The time has come and you have to write a dissertation. You have a choice, you can see it as an exciting challenge and you can enjoy it or you can endure stress throughout it. In reality, the choice is easy, if you are organised and do your homework, you can take one step at a time and steadily work through something that can help your future career. Your first step can be reading this article and learning about primary research methods. Fundamentally, the more you read and understand the dissertation process, the easier it will be for you and the more you will enjoy it.


In this article, you will learn:

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You will hear the terms primary sources and secondary sources quite a lot during your time as a student and sometimes it can be confusing. However, it doesn’t need to be. In actual fact, the title primary source gives you a clue to what it means. Basically, a primary source is a piece of research that has been conducted first hand. This means that if you interviewed ten people about their experience of using the National Health Service and they told you how it made them feel, that is a primary source because you conducted the research yourself. This would be an example of qualitative research because you would be recording people’s attitude and feelings about an experience.

Another definition of a primary source would be if the government researched how many middle aged people were treated for depression on the National Health Service within six weeks of being referred by their general practitioner. However, it is usually only viewed as a primary source if this is the first time this data has been released. Incidentally, this would be referred to as quantitative research as it is measurable and a statistic.

Another form of primary source would be a refereed journal. This means that the author has had respectable colleagues check on the consistency of the sources.

A handy checklist for you to use: A primary source is:

  • Your own research that you have actually conducted. For instance, if you telephoned twenty people and questioned them on their bank charges.
  • Is as near to the situation as possible. For instance, if you have a diary written by a judge during the Raj in India, that would be a primary source because the man was actually there. However, if the judge’s great, great grandson wrote a family history article interpreting the man’s diary for a website today, that would be considered a secondary source even though the writer was a descendant of the judge. The reason for this is the distance from the situation.
  • It needs to be issued for the first time. For instance, the government release figures for the first time on how many children with special needs go on the study at A level.
  • Issued in a refereed journal. For instance, an expert on neuroplasticity gets other experts in her field to acknowledge her research as reliable.

When looking into primary research methods, it is useful to explore quantitative research. One good way of doing this is to use sampling. This means using a sample of the population to conduct your research. Let’s imagine that you want to explore whether school uniforms have a beneficial effect or detrimental effect on children and their parents. If you were using quantitative research, you may be looking at something that could be measured factually e.g. whether buying a uniform affects the family budget. To realise reliable results, you would have to ensure that your sample was big enough to be comprehensive but also little enough to be controllable. Added to that, you would also have to make sure that you covered a typical cross section of families.

Sampling can be divided in two groups – random sampling and non-random sampling. Random sampling can work very well, however, there are situations that need to be taken into consideration. Let’s imagine that you were out doing your research on the cost of school uniforms and you decide to hand out questionnaires at the school gates so that you can get large numbers. If you visit a school in an area that is struggling for employment, then the research will be invalid because you are not getting a cross section of society. Likewise, if you visited an expensive, private school, the chances are that you would be interviewing people that had similar financial backgrounds. All of this needs to be thought about before you embark upon your research.

Non Random sampling can be useful but it is difficult to know whether you are getting a general overview of the population. The reason for this is that you would use a list such as an election roll and choose every fifth name on the list. Can you see how this could be problematic because not every person that you will approach will have children that are in school? Obviously, if you could access a list of scout clubs or brownie groups that attracts children from different schools that would have more potential research value.

With both random sampling and non-random sampling, once you have got your sample of folks to research, you can either use questionnaires or interviews as mentioned earlier or you can test them. Testing would probably not work with the cost of the school uniform. However, if you were conducting how the effect of the school uniform worked on the psychological effects of the child, you might be able to use it. For instance, “do children respond better to tests when wearing the uniform or not?”

It is important to remember, when conducting your research and then writing it up that you must demonstrate that you’ve thought carefully about your research choices and why you have made them. You must also make it clear if you’ve recognised any weakness in your research and how it could be improved upon. This will demonstrate that you understand the research process and will help your marks.

Interviews – a method that is a primary source

Using interviews can be one the most productive and useful primary research methods. Interviews fall into three categories – structured, unstructured and semi structured.

  • Structured interviews. (This is what you would use if you decide to use the sampling method which we discussed earlier.)
  • All the interviewees would be asked the same questions and given a choice of answers.
  • These interviews can be done by handing out paper forms, telephone calls or over the internet.
  • The idea is to get a large numbers of responses so that you can quantify the data.
  • This method has its flaws because often only a very small proportion of the data can be collected because the interviewees don’t bother to answer the questions. The other problem is that often the questions are misinterpreted and the researcher has no way of understanding this. Another flaw in this system is that because the interviewee might only have a choice of four answers, it might not actually fit their experience and so they give the wrong reply so that they can give an answer.
  • A good insurance policy to take out for conducting structured interviews is to run a smaller pilot scheme first. This way you can find out what does and does not work. This may seem to be more work and more of your time being taken up but it can save both time, effort and heart ache overall.
  • Unstructured interviews. This is the direct opposite of the structured interview. Whereas structured interviews collect quantitative data, unstructured interviews assemble qualitative data.
  • The questions do not have closed choices but are open ended so that the interviewee can offer their opinions and feelings about the subject that you are researching.
  • It is obvious in these situations if the subject does not understand the question or is withholding information because of the use of body language. This is one of the main advantages of unstructured interviews. You can access more clarity over the subject’s views.
  • Questions needs to be designed very carefully to ensure that they are not leading the subject to please you or agree with you.
  • A great deal of time can be lost if the subject goes off on a tangent and the topic that you are researching is forgotten. It is wise, therefore, to have questions ready that will bring the interviewee back to what is being discussed.
  • When interpreting the interview, it is important that you don’t misunderstand the subject because of the regional accent.
  • Interviews need to be recorded or filmed. Unlike the structured interview that has a small selection of answers, there is a lot more data to be worked through and if it isn’t recorded, it will be lost.
  • Semi-structured interview – for some researchers, this is the route to go along because it is a mixture of tight questions and open questions.
  • It is a way to gain quantitative data.
  • It is also means that the more open questions might give you new ideas about your research.
  • Designing the questionnaire can take more time and skill because it is useful for it to be balanced.

Interviews are one of the best research methods that you can choose because you can vary them so that you can collect both quantitative and qualitative data. If you are worried about the planning your questions, you should not be. A very effective way to check whether your questions are useful is to write your list of questions down and then work through them one by one. With each question, you should ask yourself “why am I asking this question?” If you can clearly see how it will help your research, move onto the next question. If you come to a question and you can’t give yourself a good answer why you are asking question, try changing the question slightly. If you still can’t find a good research reason for asking that question, you should leave it out. There is no point in having questions that are merely fillers, they will take up your time and also muddy your research by adding information that isn’t needed.

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