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Dissertations: Methodology

What are Methods and Methodology?

Methods

In order to appreciate what methods are, let us remember what research is about. Research can be summarised into three points (Cottrell, 2014, p9):

  1. A question
  2. Methods of arriving at an answer
  3. The answer

Thus, methods are the means to research and answer the research question. Methods include techniques and procedures used to obtain and analyse data (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2015, p4). Your methods can consist of primary and secondary sources, qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods, as illustrated in this page. 

Methodology

Methodology is sometimes used interchangeably with methods, or as the set of methods used in a research. More specifically, as the name would suggest, methodo-logy is the logos, the reasoning, on the methods. It is also referred to as the theory of how research should be undertaken (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2015, p4). This is why you normally would have a methodology, rather than methods, chapter in a dissertation. The methodology chapter is not simply a recollection and list of the methods used. Instead, it includes a reflection on the justification and limitations of the methods you used. 

First Steps

Consider your research aim and objectives

Before you decide on your research methods, consider your research aims, objectives, and research question or hypothesis. (If in doubt about these go to Starting the Dissertation.)

Think: what are you trying to achieve? Depending on your questions and the results you’re attempting to gain, your methods may vary greatly.

Check out, critically, the methods used in your field

Do some initial research around your topic and see what methods the existing literature has used. Be critical about it and question:

  • Is this a good method?
  • What makes it a good method?
  • Why have they chosen to use this method for their research?
  • Are there limitations?
  • Were any factors not taken into account?
  • Any biases?
  • Why would this work well - or not - for your research?

Do some reading on research methods

Use some research methods books and sources, preferably specific to your discipline, to guide you in the selection, implementation and discussion of your methods. In the section Bibliography and Further Reading, at the bottom of this page, we have some recommendations about books dealing with research methods. Throughout your methodology chapter you will need to support your discussion with reference to academic sources. 

Methodology Chapter Structure

Have you been given in your modules any indication as to the structure and content of your methodology? If so, stick to such guidance! 

If not, here we try to provide some inspiration. We present this structure: 

  1. Introduction
  2. Research philosophy
  3. Primary and/or secondary sources?
  4. Quantitative or/and qualitative method(s)?
  5. Procedural method
  6. Ethics
  7. Justification
  8. Limitations and delimitations
  9. Conclusion

This structure is purely indicative. You may not need all these sections!

The links below suggest alternative structures. 

1) Introduction

The methodology introduction is a paragraph that describes both the design of the study and the organization of the chapter. This prepares the reader for what is to follow and provides a framework within which to incorporate the materials.

This paragraph says to the reader, “This is the methodolgy chapter, this is how it is organized, and this is the type of design I used.”

In this introduction, you can also state: 

  • objectives of your research and/or
  • research question or hypothesis to be investigated 

2) Research Philosophy

Especially in social sciences and humanities, and especially at the postgraduate level, you may be expected to present the research philosophy of your dissertation. In these cases you will be asked to reflect on your beliefs and assumptions: to identify, explore, analyse, challenge, develop, and eventually declare them as your research philosophy. If you need to have a research philosophy section in your dissertation the handout attached below provides some guidance. 

3) Primary and Secondary Sources and Data

State what kind of secondary and, if applicable, primary sources you used in your research. Explain why you chose such sources, how well they served your research, and identify possible issues encountered using these sources. 

Definition 

There is some confusion on the use of the terms primary and secondary sources, and primary and secondary data. The confusion is also due to disciplinary differences (Lombard 2010). Whilst you are advised to consult the research methods literature in your field, we can generalise as follows: 

Secondary sources

Secondary sources normally include the literature (books and articles) with the experts' findings, analysis and discussions on a certain topic (Cottrell, 2014, p123). Secondary sources often interpret primary sources. 

Primary sources

Primary sources are "first-hand" information such as raw data, statistics, interviews, surveys, law statutes and law cases. Even literary texts, pictures and films can be primary sources if they are the object of research (rather than, for example, documentaries reporting on something else, in which case they would be secondary sources). The distinction between primary and secondary sources sometimes lies on the use you make of them (Cottrell, 2014, p123).

Primary data

Primary data are data (primary sources) you directly obtained through your empirical work (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2015, p316).

Secondary data

Secondary data are data (primary sources) that were originally collected by someone else (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2015, p316).  

Use 

Virtually all research will use secondary sources, at least as background information.

Often, especially at the postgraduate level, it will also use primary sources - secondary and/or primary data. The engagement with primary sources is generally appreciated, as less reliant on others' interpretations, and closer to 'facts'.

The use of primary data, as opposed to secondary data, demonstrates the researcher's effort to do empirical work and find evidence to answer her specific research question and fulfill her specific research objectives. Thus, primary data contribute to the originality of the research.   

4) Quantitative, Qualitative and Mixed Methods

State whether you used qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods. Explain why you chose such methods (also referring to research methods sources), how well they served the research, and possible problems you encountered. 

Quantitative research

Quantitative research uses numerical data (quantities) deriving for example from experiments, closed questions in surveys, questionnaires, structured interviews, published data sets (Cottrell, 2014, p93). It normally processes and analyses these data using quantitative analysis techniques like tables, graphs and statistics to explore, present and examine relationships and trends within the data (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2015, p496).

Advantages

Disadvantages

The study can be undertaken on a broader scale, generating large amounts of data that contribute to generalisation of results

Quantitative methods can be difficult, expensive and time consuming (especially if using primary data, rather than secondary data).

Suitable when the phenomenon is relatively simple, and can be analysed according to identified variables.

Not everything can be easily measured.

 

Less suitable for complex social phenomena.

 

Less suitable for why type questions.

 

Qualitative research 

Qualitative research is generally undertaken to study human behaviour and psyche. It uses methods like in-depth case studies, open-ended survey questions, unstructured interviews, focus groups, or unstructured observations (Cottrell, 2014, p93). The nature of the data is subjective, and also the analysis of the researcher involves a degree of subjective interpretation. Subjectivity can be controlled for in the research design, or has to be acknowledged as a feature of the research. Subject-specific books on (qualitative) research methods offer guidance on such research designs. 

Advantages

Disadvantages

Qualitative methods are good for in-depth analysis of individual people, businesses, organisations, events.

The findings can be accurate about the particular case, but not generally applicable.

Sample sizes don’t need to be large, so the studies can be cheaper and simpler.

More prone to subjectivity.

 

Mixed methods

Mixed-method approaches combine both qualitative and quantitative methods, and therefore combine the strengths of both types of research. Mixed methods have gained popularity in recent years. 

When undertaking mixed-methods research you can collect the qualitative and quantitative data either concurrently or sequentially. If sequentially, you can for example start with a few semi-structured interviews, providing qualitative insights, and then design a questionnaire to obtain quantitative evidence that your qualitative findings can also apply to a wider population (Specht, 2019, p138).

Doug Specht, Senior Lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, explains mixed methods research in the following video. 

5) Procedural Method

In this part, provide an accurate, detailed account of the methods and procedures that were used in the study or the experiment (if applicable!).

  • Include specifics about participants, materials, design and methods.
  • If the research involves human subjects, then include a detailed description of who and how many participated along with how the participants were selected. 
  • Describe all materials used for the study, including equipment, written materials and testing instruments.
  • Identify the study's design and any variables or controls employed.
  • Write out the steps in the order that they were completed.
  • Indicate what participants were asked to do, how measurements were taken and any calculations made to raw data collected.
  • Specify statistical techniques applied to the data to reach your conclusions.

You have to provide details to allow others to replicate the experiment and/or verify the data, to test the validity of the research. 

Some Types of Methods

There are several methods you can use to get primary data. To reiterate, the choice of the methods should depend on your research question/hypothesis.

Whatever methods you will use, you will need to consider the choice of sample, ethical considerations, safety considerations, validity, feasibility, recording, and, generally, procedure of the research. Check Stella Cottrell's book Dissertations and Project Reports: A Step by Step Guide for some succinct yet comprehensive information on most of these methods (the following account draws mostly on her work). Check a research methods book in your discipline for more specific guidance. 

Experiments

Experiments are useful to investigate cause and effect, when the variables can be tightly controlled. They can test a theory or hypothesis in controlled conditions. Experiments do not prove or disprove an hypothesis, instead they support or not support an hypothesis. When using the empirical and inductive method it is not possible to achieve conclusive results. The results may only be valid until falisified by other experiments and observations. On scientific method see for example http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/scientific_method.html  

Observations

Observational methods are useful for in-depth analyses of behaviours in people, animals, organisations, events or phenomena. They can test a theory or products in real life or simulated settings. They generally a qualitative research method. 

Questionnaires and surveys

Questionnaires and surveys are useful to gain opinions, attitudes, preferences, understandings on certain matters. They can provide quantitative data that can be collated systematically; qualitative data, if they include opportunities for open-ended responses; or both qualitative and quantitative elements.

Interviews 

Interviews are useful to gain rich, qualitative information about individuals' experiences, attitudes or perspectives. With interviews you can follow up immediately on responses for clarification or further details. There are three main types of interviews: structured (following a strict pattern of questions, which expect short answers), semi-structured (following a list of questions, with the opportunity to follow up the answers with improvised questions), and unstructured (following a short list of broad questions, where the respondent can lead more the conversation) (Specht, 2019, p142).

Qualitative Interviews: This short video discuss best practices and covers qualitative interview design, preparation and data collection methods.

Focus groups 

In this case, a group of people (normally, 4-12) is gathered for an interview where the interviewer asks questions to such group of participants. Group interactions and discussions can be highly productive, but the researcher has to beware of the group effect, whereby certain participants and views dominate the interview (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2015, p419). The researcher can try to minimise this by encouraging involvement of all participants and promoting a multiplicity of views.

Focus groups: This video focuses on strategies for conducting research using focus groups. 

Find attached below some guidance on online focus groups by Aliaksandr Herasimenka. 

Case study

Case studies are often a convenient way to narrow the focus of your research by studying how a theory or literature fares with regard to a specific person, group, organisation, event or other type of entity or phenomenon you identify. Case studies can be researched using other methods, including those described in this section. Case studies give in-depth insights on the particular reality that has been examined, but may not be representative of what happens in general, they may not be generalisable, and may not be relevant to other contexts. These limitations have to be acknowledged by the researcher.    

Content analysis

Content analysis consists in the study of words or images within a text. In its broad definition, texts include books, articles, essays, historical documents, speeches, conversations, advertising, interviews, social media posts, films, theatre, paintings or other visuals. Content analysis can be quantitative (e.g. word frequency) or qualitative (e.g. analysing intention and implications of the communication). It can detect propaganda, identify intentions of writers, and can see differences in types of communication (Specht, 2019, p146). Check this page on collecting, cleaning and visualising Twitter data: https://doug.specht.co.uk/twitter-research/ 

6) Research Ethics

In the research context, ethics can be defined as "the standards of behaviour that guide your conduct in relation to the rights of those who become the subject of your work, or are affected by it" (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2015, p239).

Thus, ethics relates to many aspects of your research, including the conduct towards:

  • The participants to your primary research (experiments, interviews etc). You will need to explain that participation is voluntary, and they have the right to withdraw at any time. You will need the participants' informed consent. You will need to avoid harming the participants, physically as well as mentally. You will need to respect the participant privacy and offer the right to anonymity. You will need to manage their personal data confidentially, also according to legislation such as the Data Protection Act 2018. You will need to be truthful and accurate when using the information provided by the participants. 
  • The authors you have used as secondary sources. You will need to acknowledge their work and avoid plagiarism by doing the proper citing and referencing.
  • The readers of your research. You will need to exercise the utmost integrity, honesty, accuracy and objectivity in the writing of your work.  
  • The researcher. You will need to ensure that the research will be safe for you to undertake.

Your research may entail some risk, but risk has to be analysed and minimised through risk assessment. Depending on the type of your research, your research proposal may need to be approved by an Ethics Committee, which will assess your research proposal in light of the elements mentioned above. Again, you are advised to use a research methods book for further guidance. 

7) Justification

Throughout your methodology chapter, and/or in a specific part of it, you should justify your methods:

  • State why you think the methods you are using are the most appropriate for the research question(s)/hypothesis(es).
  • Discuss not only the benefits of the methods used, but also the disadvantages or limitations, and how you overcame them.
  • Possibly acknowledge alternative methods that were considered for the research and why these were disregarded.
  • Include sources and references that support your choice of methods and procedures. 

8) Limitations and Delimitations

At some point in your methodology chapter you should mention the delimitation and limitations of your study.

Presenting delimitation and limitations is not a sign of weakness, rather, it's a sign of strength! It's very academic - and wise - to be aware of the limits of our own research, to know that there is only so much  we can say with certainty, and to appreciate that our insights may not be applicable and generalisable to other contexts. 

Delimitation and limitations can be described as follows: 

Delimitation = intentional choice of the researcher as to the boundary of the study - what it incudes and what it excludes. It can relate to population, location, sector, research objective, methods etc. 

Limitation = constraints that are outside the control of the researcher and will affect the outcome of the research in terms of generalisability, validity and reliability. 

See the handout "Assumptions, Limitations, Delimitations and Scope of the Study", attached below, for further guidance. 

 

Scope and delimitation of research

Video on scope, delimitation and limitations of research

9) Conclusion

In the concluding part of your methodology:

  • Summarise the main factors of your research method and how these will then be employed to the analysis of the results.
  • Be positive and address why, even with the limitations and weaknesses identified above, you have chosen this research method.
  • You could recommend how to improve the research method in future, or what could be done in future to further this research.
  • Offer a transition into the next chapter.

Tips on Methodology Writing Style

Lastly... find below some tips on the writing style for your methodology: 

  • Write clearly and concisely.
  • Do not stray into background info, interpretation, or irrelevant detail.
  • Write from your reader’s perspective. You won’t need to explain things they already know, but you will need to paint a precise picture of your methods.
  • Whilst not always possible, the methodology should be written in chronological order.
  • You should use the past tense.
  • Check with your supervisor if you can use the first person (“I” or “We”). Alternatively, you could state, for example “the researcher provided participants with…”

Bibliography and Further Reading

Cottrell, S. (2014). Dissertations and project reports: a step by step guide. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lombard, E. (2010). Primary and secondary sources. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(3), 250-253

Saunders, M.N.K., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2015). Research Methods for Business Students. New York: Pearson Education. 

Specht, D. (2019). The Media And Communications Study Skills Student Guide. London: University of Westminster Press.