Fish, Meet Water: The Importance of Context in Research Design and Writing

by Frank Winter, Librarian Emeritus
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Issues of context are relatively under-examined in discussions of the research process but context is, I believe, critical to understanding and evaluating the results of research. In this sense the lack of context seems like a case of “Fish, meet water.” There are perhaps assumptions of personal and mutual understanding on all levels that might not survive a more critical examination.

There have been, however, a few direct discussions. One that I found particularly helpful is contained in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. A 2001 editorial specifically flagged the importance of addressing issues of context that authors, in the opinion of the editors, often left unaddressed or inadequately addressed in articles. They provided this helpful overview:

The term ‘context’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘to knit together’ or ‘to make a connection.’ Contextualizing entails linking observations to a set of relevant facts, events, or points of view that make possible research and theory that form part of a larger whole. Contextualization can occur in many stages of the research process, from question formulation, site selection, and measurement to data analysis, interpretation, and reporting.

They continue by noting that, “The need to contextualize is reinforced by the emergence of a world- wide community of organizational scholars adding ever-greater diversity in settings as well as perspectives.” (Rousseau and Fried, 2001, p.1) Unvoiced, shared understandings were no longer possible in such a widespread community. The same is true, I suggest, in librarianship.

When I read the literature of librarianship or think about my own research projects, I often have to remind myself to be explicitly mindful of context. Below, I briefly explore two aspects of context: how the researcher can think about the larger context of the design of the research question; and how the researcher can reflect issues of context in the report of the research.

Considerations in Research Design
“On or about December 1910, human character changed,” Virginia Wolff famously wrote (1924). She was writing about the emergence of the modernist movement in English literature but her formulation of “on or about… “has spawned a host of imitators. I contend the world of research libraries changed radically on or about January 2000. That was the date that many librarians realized that there was now a critical mass of full-text high quality digital scholarly journal literature easily accessible through various databases or via the open Web. This change meant that the workflows of scholars at all levels could now bypass the library, a process explored in detail by experts such as Lorcan Dempsey. The result of this is what I have described elsewhere as the Gone-Away World (Winter, 2014). When reading scholarly research about university libraries and librarians, I always assess whether the research reflects this new world. And of course, when reading research conducted prior to 2000, I have to be alert to the different context in which that research was conducted.

Issues of context at this level of research design involve consideration of innumerable historical, socio-economic, technological, legal, institutional, and other environmental factors that might affect the design. And implicitly underlying all of these factors is that of time. Widely used texts on research design such as Creswell’s Research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (2014) do not address the issue of context in these terms and provide little guidance on what should be included and what should be excluded.

Perhaps Flyvbjerg’s concise advice is as much as can be said: “The drawing of boundaries for the individual unit of study defines what gets to count as case as well as what becomes context to the case” (2011, p. 301).  Where the boundary is drawn is the responsibility of the researcher and should reflect expertise and familiarity with the field and the research method. At this stage, having a defined program of research will be very helpful in deciding what is relevant to context (Winter, 2015).

Considerations in Research Reporting
“Don’t try to write everything you know,” was helpful advice given to me by a colleague as I was struggling with a dissertation-length piece of writing. This advice is even more pertinent for shorter pieces of writing such as scholarly articles. Besides the word limits imposed by the journal itself there is the common sense need to shape a research report such that it is both coherent as well as interesting for its intended audience. Research reports that pack too much into their text are confused and confusing and, ultimately, irritating. How, then, can relevant issues of context be reflected in the text?

In the same issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior cited above, one of their peer reviewers critiques one of the articles using the perspective advocated by the editors. He notes that,

“understanding both substantive and methodological context permits the reader to put the entire research report in context. Both forms of context do this when they provide information relevant to the theoretical approach being used or to the intersection between this theory and the chosen method. Context for its own sake is to be avoided as non-sequitur” (Johns, p. 32).

Reflecting a bit on this guidance, perhaps issues of context can be directly reflected in the literature review, methods, and limitations sections of an article as well, perhaps, indirectly in the introduction. Johns provides many different suggestions. They do not need to be elaborated but there should be some sense that the researcher is aware of the larger environment.

The reader’s understanding of the context of the research is essential to an informed reception of the author’s work. Attention paid to issues of context at the design and the reporting stages will address this need.

Creswell, J.W. (2014). Research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2014.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2011). Case study. In N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln, (Eds.), SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. (4th ed., pp. 301 – 316). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Johns, G. (2001). In praise of context. Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Feb., 2001), pp. 31-42. Retrieved from

Rousseau, D. M. and Fried, Y.  (2001). Location, location, location: Contextualizing organizational research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Feb., 2001), pp. 1-13. Retrieved from

Winter, F. (2014). Traditionalists, progressives and the Gone-Away World.” Retrieved from

Winter, F. (2015). Forest, trees, and underbrush: Becoming the arborist of your own research. Retrieved from

Wolff, Virginia. (1924). Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. London: Hogarth Press.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.