Selecting the Method of Descriptive Analysis

Methods of Normative Analysis are explained on another page.

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Analysis - Nucleus of the Research Project

Research project When selecting a method for analysis you have to consider the chain of operations that your work shall be part of, cf. Planning a Research Project. What is the "input", the theory and data from which the analysis shall start? Another important question is, how will you manage the analysis so that it produces the desired "output", the results which were intended and which can be used? All these links from the project outwards have to be taken into account when selecting the method of analysis, though the targets of the project may make some of them more important than the others.

The desired output will be a logical starting point for planning the method of analysis in the case that the project aims at finding knowledge that is needed for a specific purpose. Especially when the purpose is normative, i.e. to ameliorate the object of study or later similar objects, it will call for quite special methods of analysis, explained on a separate www-page Normative Analysis.

Likewise, also in descriptive study the output end of analysis can be decisive in the case that the project is seeking knowledge about a firmly defined question. Should this knowledge be produced in a certain format? On all fields of science the existing system of knowledge - theory - is arranged as a consistent logical pattern and new findings of research are expected to fit in this existing framework. Typical such patterns are descriptions of objects or phenomena, explanations of processes, and predictions on the future behavior of the object of study. When you are after one of these, you should try to plan the process of analysis so that you get what you are looking for.

Instead, if you just want to get more knowledge about an object, without thinking of any special use of this knowledge, you can well select your methods on the basis of the input side, starting from theory and available new data.

Theoretical input. When selecting the method of analysis it is advisable to consider whether you can base your work on a theoretical model that is already known. Sometimes a model, even a preliminary one, could help your work decisively, on the condition that you can handle it with a suitable method of analysis. Three usual approaches (which are discussed in more detail on the page Models in the Research Process) are:

If you choose an existing model as a starting point, its format will somewhat restrict your freedom in selecting the method of analysis. For example, written models are most easily handled with the methods of case study or comparison, while mathematical models consisting of variables require quantitative methods for analysis.

Data. Whichever aspects of the objects you have chosen to collect and analyze, your logical method and tools of analysis must be able to handle them.

Once you have chosen the population about which you want to get information - or in which your findings will be applied - and have perhaps opted on the principle of sampling, you will have an idea about the number of cases or specimens that have to be studied. In this respect there are two main approaches which require completely different methods of analysis:

Time perspective of the selected model and data also regulate the selection of analysis methods. The principal alternatives are:

Logical Structures of Descriptive Analysis

Among the options that were enumerated above, the most salient clues for selecting the method of analysis can be obtained by looking at the extent of data and at the time perspective. Once you have decided on these, you can find in the cells of the following table the most often used methods of analysis for each approach. The third taxonomy that was mentioned above, concerning the existence of earlier theory, is of minor importance and you can take it into account later when fine-tuning the method.

  Synchronic study (no time perspective): Diachronic study of change or evolution:
Intensive study of a few cases which are often studied holistically, noting all their characteristics: Case Study / Comparative Study / Finding the Typical. Analyzing Development
or evolution of people, social structures, products or fashions.
Extensive study of a large number of cases, of which usually only a few properties are registered and studied: Classification / Quantitative Analysis / Qualitative study of a selected property of the cases / Morphological study of the shapes of products. Study of Time Series / Morphological study of the evolution of shapes.

Remember, too, that once the analysis is finished, and before reporting its results, you should assess their validity.

Tools for Analysis

The goal of analysis is to arrange the collected material so that the answer to the initial problem of the project reveals itself. The problem dictates what kinds of information has to be analyzed, and on the type of information depends which tools can be used to handle it.

If you are doing descriptive research you can usually choose the problem to be studied, and select also the types of information you want to collect and analyze. If you want to stay out of difficulties you can select all the types of your material from only one row of the table below. The situation is different in normative research, i.e. when studying practical problems, you cannot omit "awkward" aspects if they are essential in the problem.

When a scientist today starts selecting tools for analysis in a new research project, almost inevitably the computer comes first in mind. Indeed, modern computers are powerful tools for analysis, but you have to remember that they have severe restrictions, too. What the machine demands, above all, is that the material it receives be suitable for electronic manipulations. For almost any type of information there are specific computer programs which can store and manipulate exactly that genre of information, but usually no other types of material. What is specially disappointing to a researcher, is that programs quite often refuse to analyze relations between different types of information, or they accept just some sorts of relationships for analysis, others not.

Usual classes of information that you will deal with in the research and development of products include:

"Language" or mode of information Computer programs suitable for analyzing information in this language of presentation Method of analyzing relations between facts given in different languages of presentation
1. Measurements,
in other words, quantitative study
Spreadsheet programs like Excel.
Statistics programs.
The researcher must first "operationalize" all the factors, making them measurable.
2. Classifications (presented often as codes or tabulations) Spreadsheet or data-base programs. Classification can handle all types of data, but their relationships only superficially.
3. Verbal (written or spoken) information,
in other words, qualitative study.
Word processing programs. These have scanty tools for analysis, but you can mark with codes recurring items in the text and then classify these like on line 2, above. Word processing does seldom help doing analysis, but it is excellent for reporting its results as text with illustrations.
4. Tacit knowledge and skill of the artisan or of the user of a product. Other mental patterns like attitudes and preferences. Choice of computer program depends on the language which you use when making explicit the tacit information. Usually it will be one of the first three above.
5. Shapes e.g. the visual forms of products. There are many computer programs for storing and manipulating images, but their abilities in analysis are poor. Make the analysis manually and report it as text with illustrations.
6. Patterns of action, e.g. the various ways a a product is used. You can use a computer program for storing and manipulating video strips, but it cannot do analysis. See also Developing an Activity Make the analysis manually and report it as text with illustrations.

As the table above already indicates, it quite often happens that you will find no computer program that could handle all the types of data that you want to analyze. In such a situation you should consider if you can "operationalize" or transform the inconvenient class of your material into one of those formats that your program of analysis can handle. This operation, which you normally have to do manually, means for example

Finally, do not forget the alternative of analyzing your data without a computer. Methods which work nearly always, include the following:

When contemplating the merits and weaknesses of various methods and tools the crucial point is certainly their ability in uncovering the hidden relationships, the invariances in the source data. Nevertheless you should not forget that the analysis tool must also present the findings that became revealed during the analysis. Many computer programs can present their results as beautiful logical models like graphs, trees or tables. However, if the analysis program is unable to produce graphics, or if you could not use a computer for the job at all, you perhaps can present the final results as diagrams made by hand or you can use a specific drawing program. Some word-processing programs also include simple drawing tools.

After the analysis phase most research projects include an important procedure: assessing the results, their factuality and perhaps also their usefulness. Quantitative statistics programs contain specific tools for this task. For qualitative analysis such tools do not exist, and the assessment is mostly done by contemplating standard lists of certain critical questions, some of which are presented elsewhere under the titles Assessing the Outcome of Literature Study, Assessing Qualitative Observations and Assessing Theoretical Output.

Some research projects include still special procedures like forecasting the future development of the object of study or developing an activity or an industrial product. Available tools for them are discussed on separate www-pages.

The final task in a research project, reporting, necessitates a word processing or publishing program because you will usually want to complement the results of analysis with lengthy verbal comments and explanations, and you will then need powerful tools for layout, cross-referencing, indexing, making the table of contents etc. Modern publishing programs accept the graphics produced by the usual analysis programs; if not, you can insert the illustrations eventually by hand.

WWW-links on analysis methods

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August 3, 2007.
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