How to...
Conduct empirical research

Empirical research is research that is based on observation and measurement of phenomena, as directly experienced by the researcher. The data thus gathered may be compared against a theory or hypothesis, but the results are still based on real life experience. The data gathered is all primary data, although secondary data from a literature review may form the theoretical background.

What is empirical research?

Typically, empirical research embodies the following elements:

  • research question, which will determine research objectives.
  • A particular and planned design for the research, which will depend on the question and which will find ways of answering it with appropriate use of resources.
  • The gathering of primary data, which is then analysed.
  • A particular methodology for collecting and analysing the data, such as an experiment or survey.
  • The limitation of the data to a particular group, area or time scale, known as a sample: for example, a specific number of employees of a particular company type, or all users of a library over a given time scale. The sample should be somehow representative of a wider population.
  • The ability to recreate the study and test the results. This is known as reliability.
  • The ability to generalise from the findings to a larger sample and to other situations.

The research question

The starting point for your research should be your research question. This should be a formulation of the issue which is at the heart of the area which you are researching, which has the right degree of breadth and depth to make the research feasible within your resources. The following points are useful to remember when coming up with your research question, or RQ:

  1. The RQ should arise from your research stream, or topic of interest. This may come from:
    • your doctoral thesis;
    • reading the relevant literature in journals, especially literature reviews which are good at giving an overview, and spotting interesting conceptual developments;
    • looking at research priorities of funding bodies, professional institutes etc.;
    • going to conferences;
    • looking out for calls for papers;
    • developing a dialogue with other researchers in your area.
  2. To narrow down your research topic, brainstorm ideas around it, possibly with your colleagues if you have decided to collaborate, noting all the questions down.
  3. Come up with a "general focus" question; then develop some other more specific ones.
  4. Having come up with your RQs, check that:
    • they are not too broad;
    • they are not so narrow as to yield uninteresting results;
    • will the research entailed be covered by your resources, i.e. will you have sufficient time and money;
    • there is sufficient background literature on the topic;
    • you can carry out appropriate field research;
    • you have stated your question in the simplest possible way.

Let's look at some examples:

Bisking et al. examine whether or not gender has an influence on disciplinary action in their article Does the sex of the leader and subordinate influence a leader's disciplinary decisions? (Management Decision, Volume 41 Number 10) and come up with the following series of inter-related questions:

  1. Given the same infraction, would a male leader impose the same disciplinary action on male and female subordinates?
  2. Given the same infraction, would a female leader impose the same disciplinary action on male and female subordinates?
  3. Given the same infraction, would a female leader impose the same disciplinary action on female subordinates as a male leader would on male subordinates?
  4. Given the same infraction, would a female leader impose the same disciplinary action on male subordinates as a male leader would on female subordinates?
  5. Given the same infraction, would a male and female leader impose the same disciplinary action on male subordinates?
  6. Given the same infraction, would a male and female leader impose the same disciplinary action on female subordinates?
  7. Do female and male leaders impose the same discipline on subordinates regardless of the type of infraction?
  8. Is it possible to predict how female and male leaders will impose disciplinary actions based on their respective BSRI femininity and masculinity scores?

Motion et al. examined co-branding in Equity in Corporate Co-branding (European Journal of Marketing, Volume 37 Number 7/8) and came up with the following RQs:

RQ1: What objectives underpinned the corporate brand?

RQ2: How were brand values deployed to establish the corporate co-brand within particular discourse contexts?

RQ3: How was the desired rearticulation promoted to shareholders?

RQ4: What are the sources of corporate co-brand equity?

Note, the above two examples state the RQs very explicitly; sometimes the RQ is implicit:

Qun G. Jiao, Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie are library researchers who examined the question: "What is the relationship between library anxiety and social interdependence?" in a number of articles, see Dimensions of library anxiety and social interdependence: implications for library services (Library Review, Volume 51 Number 2).

Or sometimes the RQ is stated as a general objective:

Ying Fan describes outsourcing in British companies in Strategic outsourcing: evidence from British companies (Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Volume 18 Number 4) and states his research question as an objective:

The main objective of the research was to explore the two key areas in the outsourcing process, namely:

  1. pre-outsourcing decision process; and
  2. post-outsourcing supplier management.

or as a proposition:

Karin Klenke explores issues of gender in management decisions in Gender influences in decision-making processes in top management teams (Management Decision, Volume 41 Number 10).

Given the exploratory nature of this research, no specific hypotheses were formulated. Instead, the following general propositions are postulated:

P1. Female and male members of TMTs exercise different types of power in the strategic decision making process.

P2. Female and male members of TMTs differ in the extent in which they employ political savvy in the strategic decision making process.

P3. Male and female members of TMTs manage conflict in strategic decision making situations differently.

P4. Female and male members of TMTs utilise different types of trust in the decision making process.

Sometimes, the theoretical underpinning (see next section) of the research leads you to formulate a hypothesis rather than a question:

Martin et al. explored the effect of fast-forwarding of ads (called zipping) in Remote control marketing: how ad fast-forwarding and ad repetition affect consumers (Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Volume 20 Number 1) and his research explores the following hypotheses:

The influence of zipping
H1. Individuals viewing advertisements played at normal speed will exhibit higher ad recall and recognition than those who view zipped advertisements.

Ad repetition effects
H2. Individuals viewing a repeated advertisement will exhibit higher ad recall and recognition than those who see an advertisement once.

Zipping and ad repetition
H3. Individuals viewing zipped, repeated advertisements will exhibit higher ad recall and recognition than those who see a normal speed advertisement that is played once.

The theoretical framework

Empirical research is not divorced from theoretical considerations; and a consideration of theory should form one of the starting points of your research. This applies particularly in the case of management research which by its very nature is practical and applied to the real world. The link between research and theory is symbiotic: theory should inform research, and the findings of research should inform theory.

There are a number of different theoretical perspectives; if you are unfamiliar with them, we suggest that you look at any good research methods textbook for a full account (see Further information), but this page will contain notes on the following:


This is the approach of the natural sciences, emphasising total objectivity and independence on the part of the researcher, a highly scientific methodology, with data being collected in a value-free manner and using quantitative techniques with some statistical measures of analysis. Assumes that there are 'independent facts' in the social world as in the natural world. The object is to generalise from what has been observed and hence add to the body of theory.


Very similar to positivism in that it has a strong reliance on objectivity and quantitative methods of data collection, but with less of a reliance on theory. There is emphasis on data and facts in their own right; they do not need to be linked to theory.


This view criticises positivism as being inappropriate for the social world of business and management which is dominated by people rather than the laws of nature and hence has an inevitable subjective element as people will have different interpretations of situations and events. The business world can only be understood through people's interpretation. This view is more likely to emphasise qualitative methods such as participant observation, focus groups and semi-structured interviewing.

Quantitative methods: Qualitative methods: 
typically use numbers. typically use words.
are deductive. are inductive.
involve the researcher as ideally an objective, impartial observer. require more participation and involvement on the part of the researcher.
may focus on cause and effect. focuses on understanding of phenomena in their social, institutional, political and economic context.
require a hypothesis. do not require a hypothesis.
have the drawback that they may force people into categories, also it cannot go into much depth about subjects and issues. have the drawback that they focus on a few individuals, and may therefore be difficult to generalise.


While reality exists independently of human experience, people are not like objects in the natural world but are subject to social influences and processes. Like empiricism and positivism, this emphasises the importance of explanation, but is also concerned with the social world and with its underlying structures.

Inductive and deductive approaches

At what point in your research you bring in a theoretical perspective will depend on whether you choose an:

  • Inductive approach – collect the data, then develop the theory.
  • Deductive approach – assume a theoretical position then test it against the data.
The inductive approach: The deductive approach:
is more usually linked with an interpretive approach. is more usually linked with the positivist approach.
is more likely to use qualitative methods, such as interviewing, observation etc., with a more flexible structure. is more likely to use quantitative methods, such as experiments, questionnaires etc., and a highly structured methodology with controls.
does not simply look at cause and effect, but at people's perceptions of events, and at the context of the research. is the more scientific method, concerned with cause and effect, and the relationship between variables.
builds theory after collection of the data. starts from a theoretical perspective, and develops a hypothesis which is tested against the data.
is more likely to use an in-depth study of a smaller sample. is more likely to use a larger sample.
is less likely to be concerned with generalisation (a danger is that no patterns emerge). is concerned with generalisation.
tresses the researcher involvement. stresses the independence of the researcher.

It should be emphasised that none of the above approaches are mutually exclusive and can be used in combination.

Sampling techniques

Sampling may be done either:

  • On a probability basis – that is, each member of a given population has an equal chance of being selected, as when your population is the workforce of an organisation, and you select members from it:
    • On a random basis – a given number is selected completely at random.
    • On a systematic basis – every nth element of the population is selected.
    • On a stratified random basis – the population is divided into segments, for example, in a University, you could divide the population into academic, administrators, and academic related. A random number of each group is then selected.
    • On a cluster basis – a particular subgroup is chosen at random.
  • On a non-probability basis – the population does not have an equal chance of being selected; instead, selection happens according to some factor such as:
    • Convenience – being present at a particular time e.g. at lunch in the canteen.
    • Purposive – people can be selected deliberately because their views are relevant to the issue concerned.
    • Quota – the assumption is made that there are subgroups in the population, and a quota of respondents is chosen to reflect this diversity.

Useful articles

Richard Laughlin in Empirical research in accounting: alternative approaches and a case for "middle-range" thinking provides an interesting general overview of the different perspectives on theory and methodology as applied to accounting. (Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Volume 8 Number 1).

D. Tranfield and K. Starkey in The Nature, Social Organization and Promotion of Management Research: Towards Policy look at the relationship between theory and practice in management research, and develop a number of analytical frameworks, including looking at Becher's conceptual schema for disciplines and Gibbons et al.'s taxonomy of knowledge production systems. (British Journal of Management, vol. 9, no. 4 – abstract only).

Design of the research

Research design is about how you go about answering your question: what strategy you adopt, and what methods do you use to achieve your results. In particular you should ask yourself... 

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What's in the rest?

  • Continuation of 'Design of the research'
  • Methods of empirical research
  • Techniques of data collection & analysis
  • Reporting the findings of empirical research
  • Books & websites for further information

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