What is Research?

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By Linda Fisher Thornton

What is research? The answer depends on your perspective. Some people believe the definition is very narrow, and only if you “do it right” in the scientific sense does it meet the requirements of proper research. Others believe that research includes paying attention to messages from all areas of our lives and using that information to achieve insight and understanding. I believe that there is merit in both interpretations. Here are some very interesting thoughts on how to define research:

“If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”    

Albert Einstein

“What is research but a blind date with knowledge?”    

Will Harvey

“In true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page-boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table talk – they are all part of the curriculum.”   

Michel de Montaigne

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying without a purpose.”

Zora Neale Hurston

“Research is creating new knowledge.”

Neil Armstrong

Why is this question important? I believe that we gain understanding of sub-parts and elements of a problem by doing formal scientific research. Limiting ourselves to formal research within one field, though, may not provide insights into solutions that work well with interconnected systems and globally compounded problems. 

When I was researching my book 7 Lenses, I didn’t find a clear definition of ethical leadership by looking within the discipline of ethical leadership. Only by looking across multiple disciplines and noticing patterns and trends was I able to find clarity. 

The word “research” originated in the late 1500’s and originally meant “to seek” or “to search” in Middle French (dictionary.com). I believe that we gain an understanding of the whole picture by taking in a broad array of information in the course of our lives. Without that kind of awareness, we are destined to understand the small pieces but miss the connections and the greater meaning. 

Think about how you would define “research.” Is your definition narrow, broad or both? 

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About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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