SW 505-50 Social Welfare Policies & Services

What is the difference between Empirical Research & Theory?

The empirical approach is firmly based on the scientific method. It is an evidence-based approach that relies on direct observation and experimentation. Using this approach, decisions are made based on the data derived from original experiments or observations.  Likewise, non-empirical research relies on non-systematic methods such as personal experiences and opinions. 

The theoretical approach typically functions as a rich source of hypotheses that can be examined empirically. Theories serve as a good source for research ideas. 

Source: Essentials of Research Design and Methodology (2005) by Geoffrey Marczyk, David DeMatteo, & David Festinger

The Elements of Empirical Research

Look for these elements:

  • A research question
  • A design for the research
  • Primary data, which is later analyzed
  • Methodology, such as an experiment or survey
  • A sample- a limitation of the data to a particular group, area, or time-scale
  • Reliability - the ability to recreate the study to test the results
  • The ability to generalize the finding to a larger sample

Source: Emerald Publishing guide to conducting empirical research

How Can I Tell if an Article is Empirical?

Look for some of the following in the article:

  • charts, graphs or statistical analysis
  • typically they will be longer in length (over 8 pages)
  • a methodology section
  • scholarly or peer review status
  • sections in the article: data, results, discussion

For a more detailed article review see here.

Search Tips

In some databases, like PsycINFO you can limit your search results to "Empirical Study" by selecting this option in the Methodology section.

In other databases, add a Keyword field to your search with one or more of these terms: empirical research, empirical study, quantitative method, qualitative method.