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Conceptual Framework No.2: Categories

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series devoted to tools and frameworks for researchers to plan better projects right from the start.  Read the first blog for an introduction to conceptual frameworks]

In a previous post I described the Practical Ideal Type framework that can be used to gauge a situation. However, we are not always at the stage of assessing a situation. In those cases our research starts with gaining a basic understanding of a situation. As Patricia Shields comments, “Classification is a powerful conceptual tool that is often not seen by practitioners”.

What is the Categories framework?

How many times have you read a descriptive research? How many times has this description failed to give a meaningful portrayal of a situation that allows you to synthetize it and carry out next steps? Descriptive research is a necessary step, but it does not have to be a boring one. A descriptive research can conceptualize and can give meaningful insights. It is not only a summary of events or a story. I think it can be better understood as the initial development of the tools necessary to understand what we are researching and setting the basis for impact.

Developing categories might sound like a rather simple task, but many times it is not carried out. Finding the right categories to group different aspects of a subject is not straight forward. A literature review can help identify familiar and useful categories. This is a good place to start, but it can also be more adventurous and creative to eventually develop new labels and categories to understand a subject.

Whether categories are borrowed from existing frameworks, or are developed specifically for that research process, the key aspect of categories is that they are a consistent set. Categories not only help to summarize information but they give a complete picture, allowing for an analysis of the categories and the relationships between them.

Here is one detailed example on the use of categories for the analysis of Guest Workers Programs. In it, categories are used to explore the literature and also to determine the questions in the survey that will be carried out with farmers. It is clear how categories are used throughout the research project for consistency and completeness.

When should you use it?

  • Not enough factual knowledge – Categories are a very useful approach when we face a messy topic, and when not enough research has been carried out. In those instances, categories help organize the messy reality.
  • Categories do not satisfy your concerns – Categories are powerful and they frame the issues. It may occur that research in a given field has focused on traditional categories and that a fresh look can change those categories. Many outstanding research has actually changed categories. Think about Amartya Sen’s capability approach and the new categories of development that he proposed and later inspired the Human Development Index.

Additional notes

  • Do not recount events. Doing a descriptive research does not have to be a simple reporting of actions or occurrences.
  • Categories can set the stepping stones for other types of research. Do not overlook having good categories, these can help to plan good data collection tools, develop better hypothesis for experiments and even develop a unique line of work.
  • Categories support your communicative efforts. Categories are useful to explain something complex to those who are not experts. This is why they can become a cornerstone of your communication efforts.

In the following posts, the other frameworks will be explored.

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