|Teach Your Best - A Handbook for University Lecturers|
|CHAPTER 8 - RESEARCH AND PUBLICATIONS|
As a lecturer, you are expected to carry out your own research and assist students to do the same. Many of them will come to you without the foggiest idea about what they want to do. Indeed, they will expect you to suggest an area of study and even a suitable topic. It is important, therefore, that you should be equipped to deal with such a situation by fully understanding what research is all about.
What is research? A number of people define research with reference to a bespectacled, grey-haired, old man wearing a white coat and bending over a bench mixing foul-smelling chemicals in a dingy laboratory.
That perception has some elements of what constitutes research but it is not, thankfully, the total picture. Let us take a true-to-life situation. When the disease AIDS broke out in the United States, doctors had no clue at all what disease it was, what caused it or how to cure it. They were certain of only one thing: it seemed to attack the immune system of the victim. Given that situation, medical researchers set out to investigate the causes of the disease and to seek a cure. To date, a lot is known about this scourge because researchers have spent considerable resources in gathering information through observing patients and conducting experiments. Using this example, we can then take the word research to mean to investigate, repeatedly search or quest in an endeavour to discover answers to problems through reliance on empirical evidence. Note that empirical evidence is obtained through observation and experiments, both of which constitute the scientific method.
The term scientific method is here used in a special sense. It refers to the philosophy that is common to all research methods and techniques, irrespective of the branch of study. That is, its primary goal is the pursuit of truth as determined by logical considerations. In summary, research:
relies on empirical evidence;
utilizes relevant concepts;
is committed to objectivity;
adheres to ethical neutrality;
describes the methodology used;
aims at formulating theories.
You should note that, before you can gather empirical evidence, it is necessary to specify the purpose of the research. Some pertinent questions you should ask yourself are:
What exactly is to be studied?
What are the objectives of the study?
Is it worth studying?
Does it contribute to our general understanding of things?
In short, why am I doing this research?
Answers to these questions will provide a rationale for the study. It will indicate the value and purpose of the proposed research.
Research can be carried out with several objectives in mind. For example, as you walk down the streets of Nairobi, Harare or Kampala you may notice the presence of juvenile beggars, locally called 'parking boys', 'street kids' or 'bayaye'. This phenomenon may arouse your curiosity and make you want to find out more about them. Alternatively, you may wish to carry out a preliminary investigation to test the feasibility of undertaking a more detailed study at a later date. This type of investigation is called an exploratory study.
In Africa today, a major debate is going on about the desirability of multi-party politics. Imagine that one of your students is studying political science and is fascinated by the emotional outbursts exhibited by the protagonists. He is keen to understand how widespread the support for the introduction of multi-parties in the country is. To answer that question, it is necessary for him to carry out a survey either through interviewing people or asking them to complete a questionnaire. Such an exercise is called a descriptive study.
The case of AIDS, referred to earlier, provides us with the third purpose for research. We noted that medical researchers were baffled by the new disease which, for lack of a better term, they called AIDS. They carried out experiments with a view to determining or explaining its causes. This is what is called an explanatory study.
Source: Kazungu and Njeru, 1990.
You should also be familiar with two other terms that are commonly used. Indeed, your attention might have been caught by the debate over whether African universities should emphasize basic or applied research. Basic research is fundamental or curiosity-oriented, and is carried out without any concern for immediate utility. It is undertaken for the sole purpose of adding to our general knowledge rather than being prompted by a desire to provide answers to a specific and practical problem. In contrast, applied research is conducted for the express purpose of its practical application. Usually, it is in response to a specific problem which requires a solution. The attempt to get a cure for AIDS is a case in point.
Nevertheless, the two types of research are by no means mutually exclusive. For example, advances in bacteriology took place only after lens grinders managed to manufacture better microscopes. More recently, transistors were invented by applied scientists. As you no doubt know, they have now become part and parcel of many laboratory components and devices. The spin-off is that advances in scientific instruments have facilitated further discoveries in both applied and pure scientific research. You should, therefore, take note that basic and applied research are closely intertwined and interdependent.
Should your University engage in basic or applied research. Why?
Make a case for both types of research by listing the strengths of each as well as the contributions they have made to our knowledge.