(Last updated on: 06/04/2020)
Do want to write an awesome research methods chapter for your dissertation or research project? Of course you do!
Having written my own undergraduate dissertation, masters thesis, PGCE research project, PhD thesis and multiple other academic research projects, alongside supervising hundreds of undergraduate and post graduate students for their research projects… I have learnt a few things along the way!
So today I will give you my tips and advice on what to do to ensure that your research methods chapter is 1st class.
How to write an awesome research methods chapter
Many students sigh when they hear the term research methods. They think it’s dull or boring. Perhaps I am just a strange human being (probably so), but I really enjoy research methods!
But regardless of whether you enjoy it or not, your research methods or methodology chapter is fundamental to your research project. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that your research is credible. That the data collection method is valid. That you haven’t just made the whole thing up!!!
Here are my top tips to help you receive that 1st class grade for this section of your dissertation or research project:
1- Start by discussing the broad philosophical approaches of your research
Your research methods chapter ideally wants to start broad, focusing in on the more specific details as you go through. An ideal way to do this is to use the research onion approach, which I’ve written about here- The research onion for beginners.
To begin, you should outline the philosophical approaches that you take to your research, i.e. will your research be aligned with the scientific approach of things being black and white or true or false that tends to sit with quantitative research? Or will it take a more social approach taking into considerations aspects such as how and why? This is generally aligned with a qualitative approach.
This part of research methods can sound quite complicated and can put students off even attempting to address it! But the truth is that it doesn’t need to be… academics just love to make things more complicated than they need to be! I recommend that you invest in some of the introduction to research methods type texts to help you with this (and to give you those all-important references). Here are a couple that I recommend on Amazon- Social Research Methods by Bryman and Research Methodology: A Step by Step Guide for Beginners by Kumar.
For more detail on how to write this important section of your research methods chapter visit these posts- ‘Why do I need a research philosophy?‘, ‘what is ontology and epistemology?’ and ‘what is positivism and interpretevism?’
2- Discuss your choice of research approach (qualitative or quantitative or both)
You must have a detailed section in your research methods chapter outlining whether you intend to base you research on qualitative or quantitative research.
Quantitative research tends to focus on numbers and is often undertaken in the form of data collection through surveys. This approach is popular amongst scientists and is great for proving/disproving things. It is beneficial because it can allow you to collect large amounts of data, in turn making your research more valid and quantifiable. It is limited in that is does not account for aspects such as why or how.
Qualitative research, on the other hand, is all about the whys or hows. Generally associated with words, rather than numbers, qualitative data collection tends to provide a smaller sample size than quantitative research (one of the limitations of this research approach), however the data that it does yield is generally rich and meaningful. Qualitative research is great at providing understanding of social situations that are not easily measured using quantitative means.
There are lots of ways of collecting qualitative data including interviews, focus groups, observations and my favourite- netnography. (netnography is a contemporary research method involving analysing data collected from Internet sources such as social media platforms or online forums. You can see how I used netnography in my PhD research here).
Some researchers will choose to use both a combination of qualitative research and quantitative research. This is known as mixed methods. Generally the justification for using both approaches is so that the limitations of one can be offset by the other. i.e. the survey might not provide detailed explanations but does provide a large sample size so it is followed with interviews which provide details but the sample size is small.
Which ever approach you use, you need to clearly explain and justify it. It is the justification that is particularly important and this MUST be supported with academic references.
3- Analyse your chosen research method
Once you have explained your choice of qualitative or quantitative research, with references to relevant literature, you need to focus on the specific research methods that you intend to employ.
You should begin by explaining the research method broadly.
For example, if I explain that I will be using netnography in my research methods chapter I would begin by including a definition as prescribed by Kozinet (the seminal author on this topic- click here for a link to his book).
I would then explain the benefts and limitations of netnography according to various scholars e.g. Seale, Kozinet, Robson etc). I would then apply what said scholars state to my own research i.e. Robson says…. this is good for my research because….).
In other words, I would not only describe what research methods I plan to use, but I would provide a critical analysis of these methods, supported by academic literature.
Next is to focus on the finer details. If we take my example of netnography, now is when I would identify whether I plan to analyse blogs (as I did in my PhD research), tweets, Instagram photos, comments made in online forums, or any other approach that is suitable for my research.
If you are doing interviews you will explain whether these are structured or semi-structured, where they will be undertaken and why, how long they will be and why etc.
If you are doing surveys you will likely discuss whether these will be paper-based or online, what types of questions will be included (i.e. closed, scale etc) and what platform will be used to design them (e.g. Google Forms or Survey Monkey).
In this section of your research methods chapter you need to explicitly describe the details of your chosen method of data collection. You also need to discuss the benefits and limitations of using this method, supported by relevant academic references.
Note- Don’t be afraid to comment on the limitations (no method is perfect!), all you need to do is state why this limitation isn’t a huge deal for your research i.e. a limitation of qualitative blog analysis is that my sample size will be small… however as this is a relatively small research project (10,000 words), so this is not deemed to be a problem…
Lastly, you need to think about what you will do with the data once you have it. You should provide an explanation of analysis techniques and any software that you intend to use. This might include thematic coding using NVIVO for qualitative research for example, or descriptive statistics and tests for correlation using SPSS for quantitative data.
4- Be critical about your sampling techniques
The next thing that needs to be covered in your research methods chapter of your dissertation or research project is sampling.
In this section you need to clearly explain and justify who your research respondents will be and why.
Lets say, for example, I am doing an aviation research project on how noise pollution impacts local residents near Heathrow. I would need to describe which residents I will be using as my respondents and why.
Perhaps, in this case, I choose to select people who live within 5 miles of the airport. I would need to explain why I think this is appropriate. Lets say I plan on doing interviews with these respondents, I would need to state how many interviews would be appropriate and why.
All of this, of course, needs to be supported by theory! There are different sampling strategies available to you as a researcher and you need to identify which is most appropriate, along with the benefits and limitations.
Lets say, for arguments sake, I decide to knock on the doors of residents on a particular street because it is close to the airport. Many students would make the mistake of claiming that this is random sampling, when in fact it is not! For sampling to be random, there must be an equal chance of each possible respondent being selected i.e. every person who lives within a 5 mile radius of Heathrow has a chance of being selected for the research. But if I only ask people who live on one street, then this is not the case!
Instead, this would be an example on non-probability sampling; in other words- it is non-random.
This could be seen as an example of convenience sampling (because it is convenient to me- the researcher). There is a lot of literature around convenience sampling and so I would need to consult this in order to write this section of my research methods chapter. Here I would outline the benefits (i.e. it is less time consuming) and the limitations (i.e. I may only have access to a certain social demographic group who live on that particular street, which is therefore not representative of all people who live within 5 miles of Heathrow).
As I suggested earlier, books such as Social Research Methods by Bryman and Research Methodology: A Step by Step Guide for Beginners by Kumar can be really helpful in helping you to write this important section of your research methods chapter.
Once you have completed your research and collected all of your primary data you should revisit this section and update it with details of the response rate (how many people actually took part in the research) and any other relevant observations.
5- Be an ethical researcher
Lastly, it is important that your research is ethical.
Most universities/colleges will require you to obtain ethical approval before commencing any data collection. This is to ensure that you are complying with relevant university regulations and that your research is ‘fair’ and ‘just’.
In your research methods chapter you should provide a paragraph or so stating why ethical research is important (with academic references) and detail how your research is indeed ethical.
Things that you should do to ensure that your research is ethical include:
- Storing data in a secure place
- Changing the names of respondents
- Obtaining consent from respondents
- Not addressing any topics/issues that are deemed to be unfair, illegal, discriminatory etc
6- Don’t be afraid to be critical!
I can not emphasise strongly enough how important it is to be critical throughout your research methods chapter!
For every decision that you make you must consider both the positive and negative aspects, clearly identifying how you will overcome any negative parts. And all of this MUST be supported by relevant academic literature!
7- Use references, lots and lots of references
Another way to write an awesome research methodology is to master referencing!
Your research methods chapter is based around a combination of stating your methodological decisions and justifying them based on academic research. Therefore, you should have lots of references throughout!
There are many areas of research methods that are black and white, true or false. For example, qualitative research is great for finding our the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of a topic area. This is a statement that is pretty much undisputed. Where this is the case, you can be pretty confident that a number of academics are in agreement and so this is your perfect opportunity to use lots of cross referencing. This demonstrates that you have undertaken wider reading and that you are confident about the statements you are making.
One common mistake that I see students make is that they use lots of Internet-based sources for their research methods chapter. From a marking perspective, this just looks lazy! Most of said Internet-based sources are not credible sources and therefore should not be used. There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of research methods books available (of which I have recommended a couple to you in this blog post), so use these- they are credible and reliable sources!
You can also use journal articles, although these are often pitched at quite a high level and may provide more depth than you need for your research project. If you are studying at Masters or PhD level then dive straight in with the journal papers, but for undergraduate students I would advise sticking to the introductory research methods texts unless you are confident to look at these issues in further complexity.
So, I hope that helps you to write your own awesome research methodology and I wish you the best of luck with your work! Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share with your friends/ on social media!