Research can be defined as a careful way to find out something that is not known. This might mean a way to find out facts about a topic or to seek a deeper understanding and explanations for things that puzzle us. Research is seen as a scientific activity conducted by scientists, but it is also conducted by non-scientists, that is, people who work in the humanities, the arts, performance and in solving everyday problems.

Scientific research entails more definite meanings and the way it is conducted is described as the scientific method. Different disciplines or subjects use different research approaches. Ethnography is known as an anthropology-related research approach. Action Research is commonly used in research conducted by practitioners like teachers and nurses. These examples refer to research methodologies (approaches made to research), the understandings that govern the kind of research questions that are asked, and the general framework that will be used in research. The specific tools that are used - like an interview or a survey - are usually defined as the research methods.

Francis Danes (1990), a writer about research in psychology, defines research as a critical process for asking and attempting to answer questions about the world.” However, there are many definitions and many ways to carry out research. If you were to undertake a course on research in the social sciences, you will discover that the ways research is undertaken originate from understandings and theories that are held about the world, reality, and the role and behaviour of people.

Research attracts praise and criticism. It is used to make decisions by some and is ignored by others. Research is seen as a purposeful activity that scientists, explorers and discoverers have done to expand knowledge of the world and create technologies that have improved the condition of human beings, like the discovery of electricity. Another example is the development of navigation technology, enabling ships from Europe to sail greater distances from home and return for specific purposes.

Research with humans has also been controversial. While most research aims to improve the lives of humans and is seen as something 'good', some research has exploited certain groups of people as objects that could be sacrificed tothe greater good of the research. This has happened in Nazi Germany during World War II, when scientists conducted cruel experiments on human subjects. As a result of this kind of research, codes of ethics were developed starting with the Nuremburg Code, which led to a range of ethical codes within various disciplines and in government research. In New Zealand, many ethical committees have been established to protect human subjects and animals.

One area where research has been criticised in relation to groups of people who have been oppressed and marginalised by society. In the past, these groups included women, blacks and other ethnic minorities and indigenous people. By the 1970s this kind of research abuse was the subject of political protest that ultimately led to a re-examination by some groups of researchers about the nature of research involving marginalised and oppressed communities. From this work, new approaches to research arose, like feminist research, participatory action research, critical theory and critical pedagogy, indigenist research, and Kaupapa Māori research. Collectively, this kind of research is sometimes referred to as stand point theory, stand point research or as critical research methods.

Kaupapa Māori Research refers to an approach, framework or methodology for thinking about and undertaking research. It is about having a kaupapa to research. Kaupapa Māori research draws on a range of influences such as:

  • historical Māori experiences with, and perceptions about research,
  • Māori perspectives about the world,
  • Māori values and expectations around ethics,
  • Māori cultural values and practices,
  • Māori knowledge,
  • The place and status of Māori people, language and culture in society and the world.

Kaupapa Māori research is an approach especially for researchers who are Māori undertaking research with Māori. Why is that an issue? Historically all social science research methods assumed that the researcher was an outsider to the community being studied and that as an outsider, he or she would be objective and distant from the everyday, taken-for-granted life of the community. The researcher was a fly on the wall, studying without being a part of and influencing what they were studying.

A Kaupapa Māori approach forces a Māori researcher to think through ethical, methodological and cultural issues from all sides, before, during and after they have conducted their research. Unlike other similar approaches like participatory action research, Kaupapa Māori research focuses on  Māori culture, language, values, history, people and contemporary realities.

Kaupapa Māori research addresses issues of injustice and of social change. Writers who work in Kaupapa Māori research talk openly about research that is transformative emphasising the need to produce positive change, and not simply reproducing the same old same old status quo.