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The raw materials of research

Historically the first tools of research were those derived from:

  • experience
  • the use of our senses, and
  • the human mind.

Although you may not find the term 'research' used much in pre-20th century publications, the people who were respected in their day for fulfilling a role comparable to the present-day researcher were:

  • those who recorded their own and others' experiences (historians, perhaps);
  • those who observed and recorded what was going on around them (sociologists, in modern parlance);
  • those who used their minds as tools for analysis (philosophers); and
  • those who expounded and argued for their beliefs.

A question for you to consider or discuss with your colleagues. Looking at those early raw materials of research, i.e. experiences, observations, beliefs and the output of philosophising, which ones are still in use in modern research? You might think about two lists, one for those still used and widely respected, and the other for those you would now be less likely to use or are less generally acceptable. When you have done this, click below to see how your views compare with those of the authors of this resource.

Still used and respected Less used and respected

However, while we may seek to be more objective in research, our personal ways of 'knowing' show less willingness to discard long tradition. It has been suggested that nurses gain knowledge in an empirical way (that is, through experience, observation and experiment), but also through aesthetics (meaning good taste), ethics and the personal self (or self-awareness).

As for modern research, what perhaps distinguishes it from the greater subjectivity of personal knowledge, is a commitment to what is often called 'scientific method' and to the central role now played by information, usually in the form of information technology.

Option 1

Still used and respected


One current approach to research is to identify and contact people who have experience and expertise in the subject area being researched ('key informants').


Another current approach is to carry out a systematic observation of a setting or process that to be researched, sometimes as a detached observed ('fly-on-the-wall'), sometimes as a person who is involved with what is being researched ('participant observer').


Option 2

Less well used and respected


Perhaps you may accept that there remains a role for the philosopher or theorist, but it is doubtful if you would accept a conclusion purely based on theory without either information or the results of an experiment to offer support.


As with a theoretical approach, supporting evidence now tends to be sought out. Perhaps it is also felt that people who base conclusions purely on beliefs are not being objective, but are inappropriately biased.


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