Language of research

Do you know what these terms really mean:

  • typology?
  • statistical probability? 
  • meta-analysis? 
  • inductive reasoning? 
  • epistemology? 
  • causal relationship?

Are you really expected to know what they mean? Would it be acceptable for you to have a vague idea of their meaning? Would it be all right for you to know what they mean but not use them? Check out the definitions at the end of this section. How close were you?

In the introduction to his book ‘Demystifying Postgraduate Research' (University of Birmingham Press 2001) Jonathan Grix writes:

"If you command the basic vocabulary of generic research, you are far more likely to choose the correct theories, concepts or methods to use in your work. By grasping the core tools used in research, much of the mystery that can surround it begins to disappear...

Although not a guarantee for good scholarship, knowledge of the ‘nuts and bolts' that make it up can go a long way to ensuring that the tools of research are used properly. If you have the right tools and you know how to employ them, the research process becomes a great deal easier and quicker."

The key is to source clear, unambiguous explanations or definitions of research terms to ensure that they are not a barrier. As Jonathan Grix states:

‘Fear of the unknown, the esoteric and the complex only hinders progress.'

Practical tips on research language

  • Ask your supervisors if they use words you don't understand.
  • Encourage them to use the words, but with a plain English definition 
  • Use any existing glossaries to build up your knowledge. 
  • Don't feel intimidated if others in the research community seem to use complex language confidently; at some point in their education they didn't know these terms. 
  • Share with your peers any concerns you have about subject terminology; as one of the researchers said, you will find you are not the only person who may struggle with the language of research. 
  • Keep a notebook  or word document in which you build up your own glossary of research terms. 
  • Add to any definition an example of how the word is used - a sentence which uses the word in its proper context.

Definitions of research terms

  • Typology: a classificatory system with which the researcher categorises data; frameworks with which to organise observations.
  • Statistical probability: how far it is possible to draw an inference from a sample and generalise it to a wider population. 
  • Meta-analysis: a statistical technique for combining and integrating the data drawn from a number of experimental studies undertaken on a specific topic; an analysis of a range of papers for a new or different attribute. 
  • Inductive reasoning: a logical process of reasoning used to develop more general rules from specific observations; it moves from the specific to the more generalised. 
  • Epistemology: theories of knowledge which may underpin academic disciplines, particularly relating to their methods and validation. 
  • Causal relationship: a relationship between variables where movements in one or more variable(s) are held to cause changes in the other(s).