A key part of your dissertation or thesis is the methodology. This is not quite the same as ‘methods’.
The methodology describes the broad philosophical underpinning to your chosen research methods, including whether you are using qualitative or quantitative methods, or a mixture of both, and why.
You should be clear about the academic basis for all the choices of research methods that you have made. 'I was interested' or 'I thought...' is not enough; there must be good academic reasons for your choice.
What to Include in your Methodology
If you are submitting your dissertation in sections, with the methodology submitted before you actually undertake the research, you should use this section to set out exactly what you plan to do.
The methodology should be linked back to the literature to explain why you are using certain methods, and the academic basis of your choice.
If you are submitting as a single thesis, then the Methodology should explain what you did, with any refinements that you made as your work progressed. Again, it should have a clear academic justification of all the choices that you made and be linked back to the literature.
Common Research Methods for the Social Sciences
There are numerous research methods that can be used when researching scientific subjects, you should discuss which are the most appropriate for your research with your supervisor.
The following research methods are commonly used in social science, involving human subjects:
One of the most flexible and widely used methods for gaining qualitative information about people’s experiences, views and feelings is the interview.
An interview can be thought of as a guided conversation between a researcher (you) and somebody from whom you wish to learn something (often referred to as the ‘informant’).
The level of structure in an interview can vary, but most commonly interviewers follow a semi-structured format. This means that the interviewer will develop a guide to the topics that he or she wishes to cover in the conversation, and may even write out a number of questions to ask.
However, the interviewer is free to follow different paths of conversation that emerge over the course of the interview, or to prompt the informant to clarify and expand on certain points. Therefore, interviews are particularly good tools for gaining detailed information where the research question is open-ended in terms of the range of possible answers.
Interviews are not particularly well suited for gaining information from large numbers of people. Interviews are time-consuming, and so careful attention needs to be given to selecting informants who will have the knowledge or experiences necessary to answer the research question.
See our page: Interviews for Research for more information.
If a researcher wants to know what people do under certain circumstances, the most straightforward way to get this information is sometimes simply to watch them under those circumstances.
Observations can form a part of either quantitative or qualitative research. For instance, if a researcher wants to determine whether the introduction of a traffic sign makes any difference to the number of cars slowing down at a dangerous curve, she or he could sit near the curve and count the number of cars that do and do not slow down. Because the data will be numbers of cars, this is an example of quantitative observation.
A researcher wanting to know how people react to a billboard advertisement might spend time watching and describing the reactions of the people. In this case, the data would be descriptive, and would therefore be qualitative.
There are a number of potential ethical concerns that can arise with an observation study. Do the people being studied know that they are under observation? Can they give their consent? If some people are unhappy with being observed, is it possible to ‘remove’ them from the study while still carrying out observations of the others around them?
See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.
If your intended research question requires you to collect standardised (and therefore comparable) information from a number of people, then questionnaires may be the best method to use.
Questionnaires can be used to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, although you will not be able to get the level of detail in qualitative responses to a questionnaire that you could in an interview.
Questionnaires require a great deal of care in their design and delivery, but a well-developed questionnaire can be distributed to a much larger number of people than it would be possible to interview.
Questionnaires are particularly well suited for research seeking to measure some parameters for a group of people (e.g., average age, percentage agreeing with a proposition, level of awareness of an issue), or to make comparisons between groups of people (e.g., to determine whether members of different generations held the same or different views on immigration).
See our page: Surveys and Survey Design for more information.
Documentary analysis involves obtaining data from existing documents without having to question people through interview, questionnaires or observe their behaviour. Documentary analysis is the main way that historians obtain data about their research subjects, but it can also be a valuable tool for contemporary social scientists.
Documents are tangible materials in which facts or ideas have been recorded. Typically, we think of items written or produced on paper, such as newspaper articles, Government policy records, leaflets and minutes of meetings. Items in other media can also be the subject of documentary analysis, including films, songs, websites and photographs.
Documents can reveal a great deal about the people or organisation that produced them and the social context in which they emerged.
Some documents are part of the public domain and are freely accessible, whereas other documents may be classified, confidential or otherwise unavailable to public access. If such documents are used as data for research, the researcher must come to an agreement with the holder of the documents about how the contents can and cannot be used and how confidentiality will be preserved.
See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.
How to Choose your Methodology and Precise Research Methods
Your methodology should be linked back to your research questions and previous research.
Visit your university or college library and ask the librarians for help; they should be able to help you to identify the standard research method textbooks in your field. See also our section on Research Methods for some further ideas.
Such books will help you to identify your broad research philosophy, and then choose methods which relate to that. This section of your dissertation or thesis should set your research in the context of its theoretical underpinnings.
The methodology should also explain the weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to avoid the worst pitfalls, perhaps by triangulating your data with other methods, or why you do not think the weakness is relevant.
For every philosophical underpinning, you will almost certainly be able to find researchers who support it and those who don’t.
Use the arguments for and against expressed in the literature to explain why you have chosen to use this methodology or why the weaknesses don’t matter here.
Structuring your Methodology
It is usually helpful to start your section on methodology by setting out the conceptual framework in which you plan to operate with reference to the key texts on that approach.
You should be clear throughout about the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to address them. You should also note any issues of which to be aware, for example in sample selection or to make your findings more relevant.
You should then move on to discuss your research questions, and how you plan to address each of them.
This is the point at which to set out your chosen research methods, including their theoretical basis, and the literature supporting them. You should make clear whether you think the method is ‘tried and tested’ or much more experimental, and what kind of reliance you could place on the results. You will also need to discuss this again in the discussion section.
Your research may even aim to test the research methods, to see if they work in certain circumstances.
You should conclude by summarising your research methods, the underpinning approach, and what you see as the key challenges that you will face in your research. Again, these are the areas that you will want to revisit in your discussion.
Your methodology, and the precise methods that you choose to use in your research, are crucial to its success.
It is worth spending plenty of time on this section to ensure that you get it right. As always, draw on the resources available to you, for example by discussing your plans in detail with your supervisor who may be able to suggest whether your approach has significant flaws which you could address in some way.
Methodology is perhaps the most challenging and laborious part of research work. Essentially, the methodology helps to understand the broad philosophical approach behind methods of research you chose to employ for your study. This means that your methodology chapter should clearly state whether you chose to use quantitative or qualitative data collection techniques or a mixture of both. You will be required to provide justifications as to why you preferred a certain method over the others. If you are trying to figure out exactly how to write methodology or how to structure methodology of research or dissertation then this article will point you in the right direction.
It is imperative for students to make sure that deep down they know the academic basis for choosing certain methods of research. “I figured out or In my opinion” will not be an acceptable justification, and so you will need to come up with concrete academic reasons for your selection of research methods.
What Are the Typical Contents of Methodology
The methodology generally acts as a guideline or plan to exactly how you intend to carry out your research. This is especially true for students who are required to submit their methodology chapter before carrying out the research. Your methodology should link back to the literature and clearly state why you chose certain data collection and analysis methods for your research/dissertation project. The most common contents of methodology are research design, philosophical approach, data collection methods, research limitations, ethical considerations, and data analysis methods.
For those who are submitting their dissertation as a single paper, then their methodology should also touch on any modifications that they had to make as their work progressed. However, it is vitally important to provide academic justifications to all choices made by the researcher.
Choosing your Methodology and Research Design
As indicated previously, the theme of your methodology chapter should be related to your literature research and research questions.
You can visit your college or university library to find text books and articles that provide information about the most commonly employed methods of research. An intensive read of such books can help you to devise your research philosophy and choose the appropriate methods. Any limitations or weaknesses of your chosen research approach should also be explained as well as the methods to overcome them.
Regardless of the chosen research approach, you will find researchers who either support it or don’t. Use the arguments for and against articulated in the literature to clarify why you decided to choose this research design and why the research limitations are irrelevant in your research.
How to Structure Methodology Chapter of your Dissertation
The typical structure of the methodology chapter is as follows:
- Research Design & Strategy
- Philosophical Approach
- Methods of Data Collection & Data Analysis
- Ethical Considerations, Reliability, Limitations & Generalizability
Research Design and Strategy
According to USC-Research Guides (2017), the primary function of a research design is to enable the researcher to effectively and flawlessly answer the research questions through evidence. Generally, this section will shed light on how you collected your data. The researcher will have to justify their choice of data collection methods such as literature research, interviews, phone surveys, online surveys and so on. Moreover, choice of data sampling should also be clearly explained with focus on how you made the choice of ethnicity, group, profession and age of the participants. What type of questions you intend to ask to the respondents and how will they help to answer your research questions or how will they help to test the hypothesis of research? It is recommended to prepare these questions at the very start of your research; when you develop your research aim and questions. This approach can allow for you the room to change or modify research questions if your methods of data collection are not giving the desired results.
It’s a good practice to keep referring back to your research questions whilst planning or writing the research design section because this tactic will allow you to determine whether what you are planning to do would actually address the research questions you have set. In short, you will need to make sure that the data you are going to collect relates to the topic you are exploring. The complexity and length of research design section will vary depending on your academic subject and the scope of your research but any well written research design will have the following characteristics:
- Throw light on alternative research design options and provide justification as to why your chosen research design is the best to address the research problem.
- Include review of the existing literature as an integral part of the complete research strategy.
- Clearly specify the research questions that the research aims to address (hypotheses).
- Explain how the collected data will help to address the research problem and discuss the methods your research will employ to collect the data.
- Talk over the chosen methods of data analysis for testing of the hypotheses.
This will discuss your chosen philosophy to strengthen your research and the research model. The three most commonly employed research philosophies in the world of academia are interpretivism, positivism, pragmatism, constructivism and post-positivism although there several other research philosophies that you could adopt. The choice of the philosophy will depend on many factors including your academic subjective, and the type and complexity of research study. Regardless of what philosophy is employed, you will be required to make different assumptions about the world.
Once you have chosen your research philosophy, the next step will be to describe the context of your research in order to answer all the W questions including When, Where, Why, How and What. Essentially, as a researcher you will be required to make the decision whether you will be using qualitative method, quantitative method or a mix of both. The process of data gathering is different for each method. Typically, you would want to decide whether you are going to adopt the positivist approach; defining your hypothesis and testing it against reality. If this is the case then you will be required to take the quantitative approach; collecting numerical data at a large scale (from 30 or more respondents) and testing your hypotheses with this data.
The other option for you would be to base your research on qualitative approach which will point you in a direction where you will be investigating broader areas by identifying people’s emotions and perceptions of a subject. With a qualitative approach, you will have to collect responses from respondents and look at them in all their richness to develop theories about the field you are exploring. Finally, you can also use a mix of both qualitative and quantitative methods (which is becoming increasingly popular among the researchers these days). This method is particularly useful if you are interested in putting quantitative data into a real world context or reflect different perspectives on a subject.
Research philosophy in the ‘research onion’
Source: Saunders et. al (2012)
Methods of Data Collection & Data Analysis
This section will require you to clearly specify how you gathered the data and also briefly discuss the tools you used to analyse it. For example, you may choose to conduct surveys and/or interviews as part of the data collection process. Similarly, if you used a software such as Excel or SPSS to process the data then you will have to justify your choice of software. In this section of your methodology chapter, you will also have to explain how you arrived at your findings and how they are reliable. It is important to note that your readers or supervisor would want to see a correlation between your findings and the hypothesis/research questions on which you based your study at the very beginning. Your supervisor or a dissertation research assistant can play a key role to help you write the Methodology chapter to a First Class standard. So keep your supervisor in the loop to get their contributions and recommendations throughout the process.
Other important sections of your methodology are:
Always take into account how your research will influence other individuals who are beyond the scope of study. This is especially true for human subjects. As a researcher, you are always expected to make sure that your research and ideas do not harm anyone in any way. Discussion concerning the data protection, data handling and data confidentiality will also be included in this brief segment.
Is your research study and findings reliable for other researchers in your field of work? In order to establish yourself as a reliable researcher, your study should be both authentic and reliable.
Good dissertation writers will always acknowledge the limitations of their research study. Limitations in data sampling (did your research study used data that was collected from only one country?) can decrease the reliability of your results. A classic example of research limitation is collecting responses from people of a certain age group when you could have targeted a more representative cross-section of the population.
The conclusion chapter can either make or break the grade of your research/dissertation paper. So you should take your time when it comes to choosing the design and philosophical approach of your research. Always make use of authentic academic sources and discuss your plans in detail with your supervisor if you believe your research design or approach has flaws in it.
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