Scholarly Research: The Paths to Answering Complex Questions

By Elena Mastors, Dean of Applied Research

When faced with a complex question for which we don’t have answers, we often turn to research.  In order to discover the best answers, it’s critical that we look at how we approach research—especially as scholars.

In academia, class research primarily involves consulting scholarly sources, such as books and peer-reviewed articles, to find answers on a variety of topics. It’s part and parcel to getting a degree. But, we first must ask ourselves—what type of research is best, basic or applied?  While both are important and have value, they serve different purposes.

 Basic research is conducted for the sake of knowledge building. For example, social psychologists interested in group behavior may want to know how groups behave toward one another when faced with scarce resources. In this case, existing theory posits that groups compete over real or perceived scarce resources; let’s use a hypothetical example to illustrate this basic dynamic. Social psychologists may set up a lab experiment using two test groups of college students. Their research findings—groups do in fact compete for scarce resources—bolster existing theoretical knowledge in the discipline regarding group behavior.

This basic research is fundamentally important to psychology. However, the information gained has cross-over value for related fields like business, sociology or political science, which are also vested in understanding group dynamics.

Applied research, in contrast to basic research, focuses on the application of findings to practical problems. In other words—how do research findings apply to a real-world setting?   We know from the previous experiment that groups compete for scarce resources, but want to know if this applies to budgetary decisions in the intelligence community. We would hypothesize that intelligence agencies would compete with each other over scarce resources. In order to test our theory, we research agency behavior during budget time and discover that competition is significantly ramped up.  Our findings advance knowledge in a real-world setting.  In addition, the case study on agencies bolsters the tenets of the theory tested in our basic research example.


Whatever type of research you choose, first think about what you want to achieve.  The answer to this question will help you focus on what type of research is best for you.

The International Council for Science (ICSU) is a reliable source of information on the concepts of basic research and applied research, as is the California State University’s Dept. of Psychology. For some historical background regarding the debate over applied vs. basic research, check out this article from the archives of the Chicago Tribune.

Dr. Elena Mastors is Vice President  & Dean of Applied Research at American Public University System. Dr. Mastors is an expert on political psychology as it pertains to conflict, terrorism and political leadership. She writes frequently on understanding leaders and group dynamics from a political-psychological perspective. She is also a frequent lecturer on the important role of individuals and group dynamics in armed groups. Her most recent books include Introduction to Political Psychology, The Lesser Jihad: Recruits, and the al-Qaida Network and Breaking al-Qaeda.

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