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What are empirical questions?

What are empirical questions?

Author: Jonathan Davis
  1. Be able to distinguish questions that can be answered with science
  2. Be able to develop a question that can be answered with science, given a non-empirical question.


Developing a research project really does start with a question, and I hope that you are developing curiosity about the topic that you chose for your literature review.  And remember, not all questions are equal in terms of what they can tell us.  Some questions can be answered by looking within oneself, at one’s own experience and judgment.  These questions are subjective. Other questions can be answered by looking out at the world, and making observations.  These answers also are confirmable by other people, who might have observed the same answers in the same way.  So, when we talk about the answers to these questions, other people can understand exactly what we mean.

So, how do you tell the difference between these types of questions?

One characteristic – that empirical questions are fundamentally those that can be answered by observation – is what separates empirical questions from others.  When you think about it, the things we consider to be objective really are defined by this one characteristic.  Objective things are things that many people can agree on, because they reflect many people’s experiences, or, in other words, many people’s observations.

And, because people’s experiences are so diverse, we, scientists, have to pay special attention to how we word our questions and how we define and measure our concepts, to make sure we are talking about the same thing.  To help us, scientists often are very concerned about the method, or the specific way in which an idea is clarified and measured.

Now, how do you get to a more empirical question if the ideas you have are only general ones?  For instance, how might you take a concept from your literature review, and create a methods section that uses that idea?

First, we go back to the fundamental idea: Empirical means “based on observation.” So, to make one of your ideas empirical, you have to connect it to an observation that is specific and precise. 

Well, this connection, the way in which we connect the idea to the observation, is fundamentally a question of thinking, and this is where many projects can become creative and original.  The connection depends upon logic, creating a rationale that connects the two.  The rationale should be something that you can explain and it should be reasonable. One way that people connect an idea to observation is by using a specific measurement tool.  Another way is to clearly define the group of people that one is sampling. 

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Empirical and non-Empirical questions

This video gives a few examples to help you distinguish empirical and non-empirical questions, and it also points out that developing empirical questions is a process involving logical assumptions to connect ideas to observation.

Slides for Video

This is a one-page PDF document that you may wish to print and take notes on, as you listen to the video lecture.