Environmental Studies Part 1: Empirical Research

Environmental professionals conduct research relevant to areas such as housing, planning, architecture and ecology. The methods of environmental research vary depending on the researcher, the funder and the information desired, but no matter the methodology employed, research is a staple of an environmental professional’s job.

As environmental social sciences move out of the ivory tower and into the mainstream, they impact the development of public policy, national security and economic stability around the world. Hence, the growing need for clear, definitive and accurate research is not to assuage academic curiosity but to inform national and international decision-makers. These leaders trust empirical research because it is based on direct and indirect observation and submits to the rigors of quantitative and qualitative analysis. Furthermore, since empirical research cannot be conducted in a laboratory, it is more reflective of the lived experience of people within the target audience.

Empirical research is one significant method by which environmental social scientists discover new information. The Pennsylvania State University library defines empirical research as “based on observed and measured phenomena and derives knowledge from actual experience rather than from theory or belief.” Typically, empirical research consists of a specific set of research questions asked of a defined target audience through a specific process. An example of empirical research in environmental studies might be a project on the possible population displacement effects of rising sea levels.

Defining Empirical Research

Empirical research includes three standard components: methods, results and discussion.

In empirical research, the term “methods” refers to the techniques researchers use to collect and analyze data. Method types include case studies, surveys, observation and ethnographic methodology. Most research methods can be broken down into quantitative or qualitative research methodologies. Quantitative methods are deductive, objective, use numbers, require a hypothesis. Qualitative methods, by contrast, are inductive, require participant involvement, use words and do not require a hypothesis.

“Results” refers to the raw data or evidence produced through an experiment. Results can be empirical, anecdotal, or logical. To be empirical, results must be based on observable evidence using one of the senses.

“Discussion” might also be seen as reporting the findings. In Writing Empirical Papers: Instructions for Beginners, Connie Wolfe of Muhlenberg College wrote, “A discussion section is about ‘what we have learned so far’ and ‘where we should go next.’” This section usually begins by restating the project’s topic and research question, and then it gradually broadens to reflect the paper’s introduction. The researcher notes if the results support the original hypothesis, mentions any limitations on the study and provides thoughts on the implications of this study for future research.

Many empirical research studies include more than these three components. Further breaking down the fundamental ingredients of empirical research in A Basic Guide for Empirical Environmental Social Science, author Michael Cox wrote:

There are four primary elements of a research project that need to be developed and carried out to address a research question. These include (1) the research design, (2) the sampling methodology used to target observations, (3) measurement protocols used to collect data on the chosen observations, and (4) the analytical techniques applied to the collected data.

Ultimately, an empirical research project should be specific, observable, logically tested and discussed in light of the wider body of knowledge in the subject.

How Environmental Professionals Use Empirical Research

To study topics like irrigation agriculture, rural industries and game parks, environmental social scientists may use empirical research methodologies, such as:

  • Planning regions
  • Analysis of population projections
  • Homogeneity analyses
  • Population density measurement

A collection of researchers in Wisconsin and Colorado, for example, used empirical research to study how one public high school achieved heightened conservation and sustainability. They published their findings in The Journal of Environmental Education.

Students at Rocky Mountain High School surpassed neighboring schools in an energy conservation project. Researchers asked two questions:

  1. How did one school surpass its peers to create record-setting energy conservation?
  2. How can the conservation and education practices at one school be replicated at others?

Case studies formed the major research method in this study, and most data collected was qualitative. The original study included two schools and nine focus groups through which researchers conducted interviews. The researchers’ results suggested four answers to their questions:

  1. School governance
  2. School facilities and operations
  3. Individual role models
  4. School culture

By including a defined methodology, results and a discussion of those results, the researchers assured that their project met the criteria for an empirical study.

Environmental social science research is growing increasingly important in global policy creation. By using empirical research, environmental studies professionals can provide data that influences private and public policies that affect business, migration, poverty, social justice and ecology. For a successful career in environmental studies, you need a broad foundation of knowledge in key areas like science, economics and how humans fit into the natural world. Virginia Wesleyan University’s online environmental studies degree is designed to give you a well-rounded education in a flexible format so that you can earn your degree on a schedule that works for you.