Definition of Terms

Applied research– effective and creative investigation that is usually hypothesis-based and provides information to:

  • support an Extension program area
  • expand the discipline’s knowledge base
  • address the needs of Maine people

This work should follow standard qualitative and quantitative research and statistical methods to evaluate the work as appropriate to the study design. UM policies and procedures related to research with humans (Human Subjects Institutional Review Board) and animals (Animal Care and Use Committee) must be followed.


  • You want to determine whether or not adoption of a particular nutrition principle you have been teaching to a specific group will lead to lower cholesterol levels. You set up a study comparing the participating group to a similar but non-participating group. The hypothesis is that the group with improved eating habits will have lower blood cholesterol levels. You monitor the groups, collect the data, do statistical analysis, and report your findings.
  • You want to determine the effective distance of pollen spread from genetically engineered (GE) corn. Your hypothesis is that the distance away from the GE corn affects degree of pollination. You have two fields of corn that are standard hybrids, one of which is GE. You sample corn in the non-GE field at set distances from the GE pollen source and grow the seed in the greenhouse. The plants are then sprayed with glyphosate and you measure the surviving plants. Statistical methods are used to determine how far the GE pollen spreads.
  • A new 4-H club has started, with members who attend the same school. You want to determine if participation in 4-H affects their self-esteem, grades, drug use, and so on. You work with the school to set up a comparison group of students who are similar but do not participate in 4-H. You use appropriate assessment methods to compare the 4-Hers to the control group over a period of time. Statistical methods are used to determine the significance of your results, and you publish them in the Journal of Extension.
  • A newly discovered aquatic organism (Dinoflagellus horribilus) is endangering the shellfish industry in a local bay. Town officials think that phosphorus runoff from a large dairy farm is contributing to the proliferation of this organism. Two other bays have reduced the incidence of the organism. To assess the effect of the farm, you and your assistants test the waters feeding the bays for storm runoff P levels over the course of the summer. Using appropriate statistical methods, you correlate the incidence of D. horribilus with the P levels in each bay and make inferences from the results. You present your findings to town and government officials at a marine conference.

Social Research – the systematic observation of social life for the purpose of finding and understanding patterns among what is observed. People interact with one another and create structures for those interactions. Social scientists (those who do social research) seek to discover the nature of human relations.

Research is organized around two activities: measurement and interpretation.

Measurement – conscious decision to observe; is equally deliberate about what will be observed; takes precautions against erroneous observations; and records observations systematically. What is measured is as important as how.

  • Quantitative (numerical) analysis
  • Qualitative (non-numerical) analysis

Interpretation – data analysis

  • Study people to understand variables that characterize or describe those people and the groups they live in. Often interested in the relationship among variables.
  • Involves more than measurement – rests on a logical understanding of why variables should be related (realm of theory).
  • Theory – an integrated network of general statements about the logical interrelations among variables.

Four kinds of social science research measurement techniques most common to Cooperative Extension:

  • Experiments – commonly referred to as a “controlled experiment.” This is a useful model for understanding the logic of casual social research. In simplest terms, you investigate the casual relationship between variables, speaking of independent variables that cause dependent variables.

Example: We design a simple experiment in which some students would study eight hours the night before the exam and others would watch TV. Then we would compare the grades of the two groups and see if those who studied did better. In this example, studying or not would be the independent variable and grades would be the dependent variable.

  • Survey research – administration of a questionnaire either by interview or through the mail to a sample of respondents. A central element is the standardized questionnaire.
  • Field research – going where the action is and observing it. One particular technique is participant observation.

Example: You are interested in studying the nature of political discussions among micro-brewery aficionados. You go underground at a random selection of local breweries and engage in discussions.

  • Evaluation research – Much social research is conducted for the specific purpose of evaluating programs of social intervention.

The state legislature votes several million dollars to institute a new rehabilitation program for convicts in the state prison. It would be nice to know if the program ultimately has the intended result: Does everyone get rehabilitated? You would need to begin by clarifying the specific intentions of the program and define specifically what “rehabilitation” means. Then you would need to know the normal rates of rehabilitation; that would give you something against which to compare the impact of the new program. Then you could design an evaluation pretty much in accord with the logic of the controlled experiment.

Qualitative Methods for Evaluation (Evaluation or Applied Research)

  • Evaluation – any effort to increase human effectiveness through systematic data-based inquiry.
    • When one examines and judges accomplishments and effectiveness, one is engaged in evaluation.
    • When this examination of effectiveness is conducted systematically and empirically through careful data collection and thoughtful analysis, one is engaged in evaluation research.
    • Empirical – based on observation or experience rather than theory or logic.
  • Evaluation can be applied research.
  • Purpose of applied research and evaluation is to inform action, enhance decision-making, and apply knowledge to solve human and societal problems.
  • Judged by its usefulness in making human actions and interventions more effective and by its practical utility.
  • Applied research is distinguished from basic academic research which generates theory and discovered truth and knowledge for the sake of knowledge; it is judged by its contribution to theory and explanations of why things occur as they do.

Excerpted and adapted from Judith Graham and Chris Reburg-Horton, Applied Research Seminar (2002)