The systematic search for answers to certain questions, often using empirical evidence but also using logical arguments and reflection on social understandings. The search may aim at discovering facts, putting forward theories, increasing understanding, and/or changing practice. Both the systematic search and the conclusions drawn are then made public and are subject to critical scrutiny. The primary purpose of education research varies from project to project and from researcher to researcher. The different purposes are indicated in terminology: ‘research on education’, ‘educational research’, and ‘educative research’. Research on education includes research carried out for academic purposes, regardless of its impact on the world of education—so‐called ‘blue skies’ research. It may be carried out by researchers who work in higher education departments of education but also in departments of cultural studies, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Educational research is intended to improve educational practices, though sometimes over the long term. Educative research is intended to enact educative relations—for those engaged in the project and those beyond. These three kinds of research may overlap, especially the second and third. All three may be called education research.
Education research has continuities with research in other disciplines, notably the social sciences and the arts and humanities. It may also take the form of action research and/or reflective practice which is also found in other professions such as nursing or town planning. Within all these areas there are controversies about epistemology and ontology: about what there is to be known, what can be known and, therefore, what counts as data, evidence, systematic inquiry, and argument—and what kinds of conclusion can properly be drawn from them. Therefore, researchers have to be able to give a rationale for the conduct of their enquiries. This rationale is termed ‘methodology’. A distinction is often made between methodology, methods, and techniques in research. Methodology refers to the overall rationale, and depends on the view taken of ontology and epistemology. Method is the strategy undertaken to fulfil the rationale; and the term ‘technique’ refers to the specific research tools used, such as large‐scale questionnaires, structured interviews, or video tapes.
Methodologies mirror the deep divisions found between different ontological and epistemological positions. These divisions are complex, multiple, and overlapping. They include positivist versus interpretivist, qualitative versus quantitative, and objective versus committed (feminist, social justice, anti‐racist, Marxian, etc.). Further distinctions can be made between methodologies aiming at practical wisdom and those seeking theoretical understanding, or between those methodologies seeking an illumination of practice against those which want to evaluate it against criteria. Any of the interpretivist, qualitative, and/or committed methodologies may be postmodern in outlook. In this context, ‘postmodernism’ is an umbrella term for a number of reflexive, ironic approaches to knowledge which see it as always already imbricated with power and which are sceptical towards any universal ‘grand narratives’ as accounts of reason, truth, and knowledge.
A positivist approach depends on an epistemology which takes the world as made up of facts and theories which can be falsified or verified through the testing of hypotheses. The interpretivist approach takes the world as made up of social meanings constructed by human beings. These can be interpreted and understood but measurement is relatively insignificant in doing so. Not surprisingly, then, quantitative research is often assumed to be positivist because it depends on measurement and may use statistical techniques. Similarly, qualitative research which uses data such as words and pictures is often assumed to be interpretivist. But this is too simplistic. Hypotheses need not be tested using statistics; meanings can be surveyed and counted. Complicating the picture even further, with the dimension of objective versus committed, research which is feminist, Marxian, or otherwise committed, etc. may also be quantitative or qualitative, positivist or interpretivist. Similarly for research which is aiming at objectivity. Moreover, some of these techniques and methods can be carried using a postmodern approach. Postmodern methodologies are particularly relaxed about combining different methods and techniques, viewing each one as giving only partial and provisional knowledge. The result of such combinations is sometimes called bricolage.