Introduction to Research


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed times since 5 June 1996.

This is Part One of a Four Part series on doing research to support papers and speeches.

Information, ideas and opinions surround us, most of which we never question. In fact, we have to ignore most of them or suffer from brain burnout. However, when we do pay attention we usually accept it as it comes in from whatever source. Fo r example, do you ever wonder if you're getting the whole story from TV news shows or newspapers? Do you wonder what's been left out, if anything? Or why? However, if we wish to understand something, not just accept someone else's word for it but actually understand it, and in turn pass on our understanding to someone else, we must question opinion and assumption and theory and speculation. The purpose of the questions is to gather evidence.


Research is finding out what you don't already know. No one knows everything, but everybody knows something. However, to complicate matters, often what you know, or think you know, is incorrect.

There are two basic purposes for research: to learn something, or to gather evidence. The first, to learn something, is for your own benefit. It is almost impossible for a human to stop learning. It may be the theory of relativity or the RBIs of your favorite ball player, but you continue to learn. Research is organized learning, looking for specific things to add to your store of knowledge. You may read SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for the latest research in quantum mechanics, or the sports section for last night's game results. Either is research.

What you've learned is the source of the background information you use to communicate with others. In any conversation you talk about the things you know, the things you've learned. If you know nothing about the subject under discussion, you can neither contribute nor understand it. (This fact does not, however, stop many people from joining in on conversations, anyway.) When you write or speak formally, you share what you've learned with others, backed with evidence to show that what you've learned is correct. If, however, you haven't learned more than your audience already knows, there is nothing for you to share. Thus you do research.


There are three types of research, pure, original, and secondary. Each type has the goal of finding information and/or understanding something. The difference comes in the strategy employed in achieving the objective.

Pure Research

Pure research is research done simply to find out something by examining anything. For instance, in some pure scientific research scientists discover what properties various materials possess. It is not for the sake of applying those properties to anything in particular, but simply to find out what properties there are. Pure mathematics is for the sake of seeing what happens, not to solve a problem.

The fun of pure research is that you are not looking for anything in particular. Instead, anything and everything you find may be joined with anything else just to see where that combination would lead, if anywhere.

Let's take an example. I was reading a variety of books and magazines once. There were a some science fiction novels, Jean Auel's THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, Carl Sagan's BROCA'S BRAIN, several Isaac Asimov collections of science essays and two of his history books, ADVERTISING AGE and AD WEEK magazines, some programs on PBS, a couple of advertising textbooks I was examining for adoption in my class, and several other things I can't even remember now. This was pure research; I was reading and watching television for the sake of reading and watching about things I didn't know.

Relating all of the disparate facts and opinions in all of these sources led me to my opinions on stereotyping and pigeonholing as vital components of human thought, now a major element in my media criticism and advertising psychology classes. When I started I had no idea this pure research would lead where it did. I was just having fun.

Original Research

Original, or primary research is looking for information that nobody else has found. Observing people's response to advertising, how prison sentences influence crime rates, doing tests, observations, experiments, etc., are to discover something new.

Orginal research requires two things: 1) knowing what has already been discovered, having a background on the subject; and 2) formulating a method to find out what you want to know. To accomplish the first you indulge in secondary research (see below).

For the second, you decide how best to find the information you need to arrive at a conclusion. This method may be using focus groups, interviews, observations, expeditions, experiments, surveys, etc.

For example, you can decide to find out what the governmental system of the Hittite Empire was like on the basis of their communication system to determine how closely the empire could be governed by a central bureaucracy. The method to do this original research would probably require that you travel to the Middle East and examine such things as roads, systems of writing, courier systems without horses, archeological evidence, actual extent of Hittite influence (commercial, military, laws, language, religion, etc.) and anything else you can think of and find any evidence for.

Secondary Research

Secondary research is finding out what others have discovered through original research and trying to reconcile conflicting viewpoints or conclusions, find new relationships between normally non-related research, and arrive at your own conclusion bas ed on others' work. This is, of course, the usual course for college students.

An example from recent years was the relating of tectonic, geologic, biologic, paleontologic, and astronomic research to each other. Relating facts from these researches led to the conclusion that the mass extinctions of 65 million years ago, including the dinosaurs, was the result of an asteroid or comet striking the earth in the North Atlantic at the site of Iceland. (For a full explanation see THE GREAT EXTINCTION by Michael Allaby and James Lovelock.) Later research based on the above has found a potential crater for the impact on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Secondary research should not be belittled simply because it is not original research. Fresh insights and viewpoints, based on a wide variety of facts gleaned from original research in many areas, has often been a source of new ideas. Even more, it has provided a clearer understanding of what the evidence means without the influence of the original researcher's prejudices and preconceptions.


Research can be directed or non-directed. Non-directed research is finding out things for the sheer fun of finding them out. Reading a newspaper or the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, or asking several people how they feel about something is non-directed research. It has no specific purpose beyond increasing your store of knowledge about the world (or everything in general). Watching television is non-directed research, as is reading a magazine, science fiction, mysteries, historical fiction, or anything else. Everything you don't think of yourself contains information you don't have, and is thus research.

Directed research, on the other hand, is done with a specific purpose in mind. The purpose could be to make a point, write a paper or speech, or simply know more about a specific thing. It is directed since it deals with something specific, and someone decides what to try next. It simply doesn't have a specific outcome in mind. For example, directed research in microelectronics is not trying to achieve a specific goal. It does, however, deal specifically with microelectronics, be it the conducting properties of alloys and compounds, electron etching, or dual bonding. It does not concern itself with anthropology. There is also a researcher or project director who decides what is worth pursuing and what is not.

Directed research is what you want to do when you are preparing a report. You have a specific goal in mind, to communicate what you want your audience to know about your topic. Thus, you direct your research toward finding what you can about your topic, not to find out what there is to know about whatever you come across.


Research, pure, original or secondary, carries with it an inherent danger to those who are close-minded or comfortable in their preconceptions and prejudices. In case you're wondering, that includes everybody. However, there are people who, having arrived at a conclusion by whatever means, reject anything that contradicts, or at least doesn't support, their preconceptions and prejudices. Research has at its essence the shakeup of what you already know (if you already know it, it isn't research, it 's self-congratulation for perspicacity). Let's take a look at how this works.

Research may show that what you already know isn't correct. This is a hard thing for many people to accept. You will, on occasion, come across a piece of evidence that contradicts your a priori assumptions (those that you hold as self-evident, some thing is simply because it is), and that is at best disconcerting and at worst traumatic. For example, you may hold an a priori assumption "all men are created equal". You may then find an article that states "it is a basic fact of life that all men are inherently unequal" (people raised in the caste system in India would find that statement so true it wouldn't need to be said). Which statement is correct? Think about it for a moment.

. . .

If you've actually thought about it, you should have come to the conclusion that both statements, "all men are created equal," and "all men are unequal," are correct. They are also both incorrect. They are also both meaningless noises as evidence. They are, by nature, unprovable and thus not evidence.

What is evidence in this case? Your first step must lie in defining your terms.

What are "men"? Do you mean the male sex of the human species? Do you mean human beings in general: male, female, regardless of age, race, economic or social position, all socio-economic systems and governments?

What do you mean by "all"? All "men" (whatever that means) that are like you? That are not like you? That are like anything at all? The word "all" connotes "without limit". You put no limits on what are "men"? Are women "men"? Are children, whatever sex, "men"? Are you discussing sociology, biology, politics, historicity, economics? In what context? Are you discussing war, voting, pay rates, restrooms?

What do you mean by "created"? Born through biological processes? Through technological procedures (test tube babies, cloning, genetic engineering)? By some supernatural intervention with universal entropy? By government decree?

What do you mean by "equal"? Under the law? Under the sun? Under the divinity of your choice? Equal to what? You? Others?

If you find these questions confusing, good. You're thinking about them.

If you find these questions irritating and/or ridiculous ("everyone know what "All men are created equal" means!"), then you're being close-minded and will limit your research to only what agrees with your own prejudices and will discount or totally ignore anything that contradicts your own narrow ideas. (If you find the above sentence insulting, you either have an over-developed sense of empathy or you prove my point.)

Let us assume that you define "All men are created equal" as "Every human being, without exception, is born exactly the same as every other human being" ("all" as in totality, "men" as human beings, "created" as born, "equal" as in 2 + 2 = 4). Is that what you mean by "All men are created equal"? All humans are born physically, biologically, socially, economically, politically, geographically, intellectually, etc., the same? One needs only enter a maternity ward to realize that such a case is ridiculous.

Let us change the definition slightly. "Every human being, without exception, is spontaneously invented by God exactly the same as every other human being". The question becomes, "Which God?" Yahveh, the Christian God, Allah, Zeus, Wodin, Osiris, etc.? This definition also leaves the above questions intact.

Perhaps the word that needs defining is "equal". "Every human being, without exception, is born evenly balanced with every other human being." Does this mean that for every poor human there's a wealthy? For every fat human there's a thin? For every tall human there's a short? Is any of those what you mean by the phrase?

What has happened to the phrase "All men are created equal" as evidence to prove a point you wish to make? The answer to this question is, "It's disappeared." The sentiment is just that, a sentiment. Semantically, it's meaningless. Emotionally, it's extremely effective. As evidence, it doesn't exist.


The research you do is designed to give you the ammunition you need to back up what you have to say even with those that disagree with you and question what you say. That ammunition is evidence that your opponent can, or has no choice except to agree with.

You will, of course, have those that disagree with what you say; nobody agrees with anybody on everything. Thus, if you make a point, you must back it up with evidence that even those that disagree must accept. Such evidence must be what is termed objective; that is, evidence that even those that disagree can discover for themselves. For example, Galileo said that objects, regardless of their weight, fell at the same speed. Aristotle said that heavy objects fell faster than light objects. Giovanni Benedetti did experiments that demonstrated his ideas. Those that disagreed with him finally stopped arguing "common sense" and ran the same experiments -- and demonstrated Benedetti’s ideas. Such objective evidence could not be argued away and thus the evidence was accepted.


One thing that many people leave out of their discussions of just about anything is evidence. They often rely more on volume or force of personality rather than proof to back up their ideas. They shout down their less forceful opponents so opposing ideas or evidence are either not heard or disregarded. Imagine one of these people in a court of law: they say "that man is guilty". "Why?" "Because I say (or think or affirm) so." How about someone who says "The Holocaust never happened, because I don't believe it happened." Or "Blacks (women, Chicanos, whites, Jews, Catholics, Greeks, et cetera ad nauseam) are inferior because they are." Would you be willing to accept their statements, simply on the basis that they said them? I doubt it.

Nonetheless, people accept such statements all the time because getting evidence to support them is not typical. For example, if your friend (father, mother, teacher, etc.) tells you something, do you ask for evidence, or do you accept what they say? After all, why would or should they lie to you? When you consider that most of the information you get comes from friends (family, teachers, etc.), then the habit of demanding evidence or proof for statements is not formed. Nonetheless, the habit of demanding evidence is necessary to avoid making mistakes, being misled or duped, or passing errors on to others.

Ideas, opinions, beliefs, and theories abound. You merely need to stand around at a party to hear how everyone has an opinion about anything under discussion: politics, religion, the new TV season, Star Wars (movie or defense system), the skill (or lack of skill) of any team in any sport. Sometimes these discussions can reach a volume level only found in overpopulated animal shelters or auto wrecking yards.

However, how many of them are worthy of respect? How many should you agree with? For example, someone may say, "Women are inferior." Do you agree? Disagree? Why? Inferior how? Inferior to what? Define inferior. Define women. All women? Some women? Your mother? Your sister? Who says? What is their motive for saying that? What makes them think so? Why should you agree with them? Did they answer any of these questions? Finally, when you hear the sentence, "Women are inferior," do you ask yourself these questions? Do you ask any of these questions? Why? More, if you didn't, why not?

If you did ask the questions, congratulations: you're using your head for something besides keeping your ears apart. If you didn't, don't feel bad--you're like the majority who don't think about what they don't think about (why not? They don't think about it).

Evidence is also the key to understanding your subject. A way to understand something is to break it down into its component parts, examine each one, and put it back together.

For example, your subject is state income tax. First you break the subject down into the component parts: state budget, current tax base, current tax methods -- sales, property, excise, cigarette and alcohol, B&O, etc., and anything else you can think of.

Second, you find evidence, actual information about each component part. It might be the percentages of the total tax income provided by each method, how the tax base fluctuates according to economic conditions, and/or what budget elements are provided by which tax method.

Third, you put the subject back together again, only now with a full understanding of each component and how it relates to each other component. Thus you have a more complete understanding of your topic.

Finally, evidence is the key to having others accept your ideas. To communicate your understanding of a topic you give your audience the same evidence that you found to understand it yourself. Remember that if you don't give your audience any reasons why what you have to say should be believed, then there is no reason why they should believe you.

Go to Part Two: Evidence

Go to Part Three: Statistics

Go to Part Four: The Process of Research

Go to Taflinger's Home Page

You can reach me by e-mail at:

This page was created by Richard F. Taflinger. Thus, all errors, bad links, and even worse style are entirely his fault.

Copyright © 1996, 2011 Richard F. Taflinger.
This and all other pages created by and containing the original work of Richard F. Taflinger are copyrighted, and are thus subject to fair use policies, and may not be copied, in whole or in part, without express written permission of the author

The information provided on this and other pages by me, Richard F. Taflinger (, is under my own personal responsibility and not that of Washington State University or the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. Similarly, any opinions expressed are my own and are in no way to be taken as those of WSU or ERMCC.

In addition,
I, Richard F. Taflinger, accept no responsibility for WSU or ERMCC material or policies. Statements issued on behalf of Washington State University are in no way to be taken as reflecting my own opinions or those of any other individual. Nor do I take responsibility for the contents of any Web Pages listed here other than my own.