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How to link theory and practice for relevant research

[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.]

Researchers who seek to influence policies face the challenge to link theory and practice daily. However, thinking about our work in the traditional categories: empirical, theoretical, quantitative, qualitative, does little to help us in this endeavour. Is there a better way to categorize research projects and research questions? Could this help us plan better research projects from the onset?

I have found Patricia Shields and Hassan Tajalli’s work to be very useful. As I see it, she aids researchers in this process of connecting their research question with their ultimate goal and to keep that connection throughout the project. She bases her proposal on the views of philosophers as Dewey and Kaplan that hold that the process by which theory and practical inquiry connect should be ‘exposed to the light’. I interpret this as being much more conscientious about why we are doing what we are doing.

What she suggests – and I am oversimplifying here – is to base initial questions from empirical concerns, and then to find the right tools to explore such questions. She calls these tools micro-frameworks. In her work with researchers on public policies she suggests five frameworks, each with a different purpose that I summarize here:

Framework Purpose Examples
Working Hypothesis Exploration This is usually preliminary research, when little background knowledge is available.
Categories Description This research usually entails classifying a phenomena. Classification may seem irrelevant but it is key to understanding an issue’s dimensions.
Practical Ideal Type Gauging These projects compare what is currently occurring with what we are expecting and identifying the gaps.
Models of Operation Research Decision Making Research such as cost-benefit analysis that contrast different options to inform a decision.
Formal Hypothesis Explanation or prediction Research that explains why things happen. Think randomized control trials (RCT).

These concepts can help researchers understand the work that they are doing through categories that are more useful than the traditional ones. It can really help us make the link between what we want to achieve, the questions we propose, and the methods we use. The growing relevance given to RCT over other methods might mean that we are overlooking other types of inquiry valuable to tackle other types of questions.

Why do I suggest researchers we should carry out these reflections?  Well, often times I encounter myself and other researchers losing track quite easily about the reasons of our decisions. Let me share an example. Just recently, I was invited by a colleague to analyse some of the progress she had made on a cost-benefit analysis she produced for a ministry. After talking for a while we concluded that they should not have asked for such a study to begin with. Actually, they were in a more exploratory phase and had no real options to compare, which made the study quite meaningless for decision-making purposes. Maybe seeing the previous matrix might’ve help them to commission something fit for purpose?

I suggest reading Shield and Tajalli´s paper on intermediate theory that explores the application of these concepts to practical cases. In the future posts I will explore her frameworks in more detail.