Research methodology refers to the practical “how” of any research work. More specifically, it is about how a researcher systematically designs a study to ensure valid and reliable results that address the goals and objectives of the research. For example:
What data to collect (and what data to ignore)
Who to collect it from (in research, this is called a “sampling design”)
How to collect it (this is called “data collection methods”)
How to analyze it (this is called “data analysis methods”)
In a dissertation, thesis, academic journal article (or practically any formal research), you will find a chapter (or section) of research methodology that covers the aspects mentioned above. Importantly, a good methodology chapter in a dissertation or thesis explains not only what methodological choices were made, but also why they were made. In other words, the methodology chapter should justify the design options, showing that the methods and techniques chosen are those that best fit the goals and objectives of the research and will provide valid and reliable results. A good research methodology provides scientifically sound findings, while a poor methodology does not. We will look at the main design options below.
What are qualitative, quantitative and mixed methodologies?
Qualitative research refers to research that focuses on collecting and analyzing words (written or spoken) and textual data, while quantitative research focuses on measurement and testing using numerical data. Qualitative analysis can also focus on other “softer” data points, such as body language or visuals. It is quite common for a qualitative methodology to be used when the purposes and objectives of the research are exploratory in nature. For example, a qualitative methodology could be used to understand people’s perceptions of an event that took place or a candidate running for president.
In contrast to this, a quantitative methodology is typically used when the purposes and objectives of the investigation are confirmatory in nature. For example, a quantitative methodology could be used to measure the relationship between two variables (for example, personality type and the probability of committing a crime) or to test a set of hypotheses. As you have probably guessed, the mixed method methodology tries to combine the best of qualitative and quantitative methodologies to integrate perspectives and create a rich picture.
What are the main approaches to sample design?
Sampling design is about deciding from whom to collect the data. There are many sampling options, but the two main categories of sampling design are probability sampling and non-probability sampling. Probability sampling means that you use a completely random sample from the group of people you are interested in (this group is called the “population”).
By using a completely random sample, the results of your study will be generalizable to the entire population. In other words, you can expect the same results across the entire group, without having to collect data from the entire group (which is often not possible for large groups). Non-probability sampling, on the other hand, does not use a random sample.
For example, it could involve using a convenience sample, meaning that you would interview or survey people you have access to (perhaps your friends, family, or co-workers), rather than a truly random sample (which could be difficult to achieve due to resource constraints). With non-probability sampling, the results are generally not generalizable.
What are the main data collection methods in Research Methodology?
There are many different options in terms of how to collect data for your study. However, these options can be grouped into the following types:
Interviews (which can be unstructured, semi-structured, or structured)
Focus groups and group interviews
Surveys (physical or online surveys)
Documents and records
The choice of data collection method to use depends on the overall goals and objectives of your research, as well as practicalities and resource limitations. For example, if your research is exploratory in nature, qualitative methods like interviews and focus groups would probably be a good fit. Conversely, if your research aims to measure specific variables or test hypotheses, large-scale surveys that produce large volumes of numerical data would probably be a better fit.
What are the main data analysis methods?
The data analysis methods can be grouped according to whether the research is qualitative or quantitative. Popular data analysis methods in quantitative research include:
Descriptive statistics (for example, means, medians, modes)
Inferential statistics (for example, correlation, regression, structural equation modeling)
Again, the choice of data collection method to use depends on the overall goals and objectives of your research, as well as practicalities and resource limitations.
How do I choose a Research Methodology?
The purposes and objectives of your research have a great influence on the research methodology. Therefore, the starting point for developing your research methodology is to take a step back and look at the big picture of your research, before making decisions about the methodology. The first question to ask yourself is whether your research is exploratory or confirmatory in nature.
If the purposes and objectives of your research are primarily exploratory in nature, your research is likely to be qualitative, and therefore you might consider qualitative data collection methods (for example, interviews) and analytical methods (for example, analysis qualitative content). On the contrary, if the purposes and objective of your research seek to measure or prove something (that is, they are confirmatory), then it is very likely that your research is quantitative in nature, and you might consider quantitative data collection methods (for example, surveys) and analysis (for example, statistical analysis).
Designing your research and developing your methodology is an extensive topic, which we will cover in other publications. However, for now, the key takeaway is that you should always start with your research goals and objectives. Any decision on methodology will follow from that.
Step 1: explain your methodological approach
Begin by presenting your general approach to the investigation.
What research problem or question did you research? For example, were you trying to systematically describe the characteristics of something, explore a poorly researched topic, or establish a cause-and-effect relationship? And what kind of data do you need to achieve this goal?
Did you need quantitative data (expressed in numbers) or qualitative data (expressed in words)?
Did you need to collect primary data yourself or did you use secondary data collected by someone else?
Depending on the discipline and focus, you can also start with a discussion of the rationale and assumptions behind the methodology.
Why is this the best approach to answering your research questions?
Is this a standard methodology in your field or does it require justification?
Were there any ethical or philosophical considerations?
What are the validity and reliability criteria in this type of research?
In a quantitative experimental study, you may be aiming to generate generalizable knowledge about the causes of a phenomenon. Valid research requires a carefully designed study under controlled conditions that can be replicated by other researchers. In a qualitative ethnography, you can aim to produce real-world contextual knowledge about the shared behaviors, social structures, and beliefs of a specific group of people. As this methodology is less controlled and more interpretive, you should reflect on your position as a researcher, taking into account how your participation and perception could have influenced the results.
Step 2: Describe the data collection methods
Once you have introduced your general methodological approach, you must provide all the details of the data collection methods.
In quantitative research, to obtain valid generalizable results, you must describe the methods in sufficient detail that another investigator can replicate the study. Explain how you operationalized concepts and measured the variables; the sampling method or inclusion / exclusion criteria; and any tools, procedures, and materials you used to collect data.
Describe where, when and how the survey was conducted.
How did you design the questions and what form did they take (eg, multiple choice, Likert scale)?
What sampling method did you use to select the participants?
Did you conduct surveys by phone, mail, online, or in person, and how long did participants have to respond?
What was the sample size and response rate?
You may want to include the entire questionnaire as an appendix so your reader can see exactly what data was collected.
Provide all the details of the tools, techniques, and procedures that you used to perform the experiment.
How did you design the experiment?
How did you manipulate and measure the variables?
What tools or technologies did you use in the experiment?
In experimental research, it is especially important to provide enough detail so that another researcher can reproduce your results.
Explain how you collected and selected the material (such as publications or archival data) to include in your analysis.
Where did you get the material?
How was the data originally produced?
What criteria did you use to select the material (for example, date range)?
In qualitative research, since methods are often more flexible and subjective, it is important to reflect on the approach and explain the choices you made. Discuss the criteria you used to select participants or sources, the context in which the research was carried out, and the role you played in collecting data (for example, were you an active participant or a passive observer?)
Interviews or focus groups
Describe where, when and how the interviews were conducted.
How did you find and select the participants?
How many people participated?
What form did the interviews take (structured, semi-structured, unstructured)?
How long were the interviews and how were they recorded?
Describe where, when and how you conducted the observation or ethnography.
What group or community did you observe and how did you gain access to them?
How much time did you spend doing the research and where was it located?
What role did you play in the community?
How did you record the data (eg audiovisual recordings, note taking)?
Explain how you selected the case study materials (such as text or pictures) for the focus of your analysis.
What kinds of materials did you analyze?
How did you collect and select them?
Step 3: describe your analysis methods
Next, you must indicate how you processed and analyzed the data. You avoid going into too much detail; you should not start presenting or discussing any of your results at this stage.
In quantitative research, the analysis will be based on numbers. In the methods section, you can include:
How you prepared the data before analyzing it (for example, checking for missing data, removing outliers, transforming variables)
Software used to analyze the data (for example, SPSS, Stata or R)
Statistical tests used (for example, two-tailed t-test, simple linear regression)
In qualitative research, your analysis will be based on language, images, and observations (which often involve some form of textual analysis). Specific methods may include the following types of analysis:
Content: categorize and discuss the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences
Thematic: code and closely examine data to identify general themes and patterns
From discourse: studying communication and meaning in relation to its social context
Step 4: Evaluate and justify your methodological choices
You can acknowledge the limitations or weaknesses of the approach you chose, but justify why the strengths outweigh them. Laboratory experiments cannot always accurately simulate real-life situations and behaviors, but they are effective in testing causal relationships between variables. Unstructured interviews often produce results that cannot be generalized beyond the sample group, but they do provide a deeper understanding of participants’ perceptions, motivations, and emotions.
Tips for Research Methodology
Remember that your goal is not just to describe the methods, but to show how and why you applied them and to demonstrate that the research was carried out rigorously.
Focus on research questions and objectives
The methodology section should clearly show why your methods suit your goals and convince the reader that you chose the best possible approach to answer your problem statement and research questions. Throughout the section, relate your choices to the central purpose of your dissertation.
Cite relevant sources
The methodology can be strengthened by referring to existing research in the field, either to: Confirm that you followed established practices for this type of research. Discuss how you evaluated the different methodologies and decided on your approach. Show that you took a novel methodological approach to address a gap in the literature.
Write for your audience
Consider the amount of information you need to provide and don’t go into unnecessary detail. In any case, the methodology should be a clear and well-structured text that serves as the argument for your approach, not just a list of technical details and procedures.
Discuss the obstacles
If you had difficulty collecting or analyzing data, explain how you handled it. Show how you minimized the impact of any unexpected obstacles. Anticipate any major criticism of their approach and show that you did the most rigorous research possible.