I. Groups of Research Methods
There are two main groups of research methods in the social sciences:
- The empirical-analytical groupapproaches the study of social sciences in a similar manner that researchers study the natural sciences. This type of research focuses on objective knowledge, research questions that can be answered yes or no, and operational definitions of variables to be measured. The empirical-analytical group employs deductive reasoning that uses existing theory as a foundation for formulating hypotheses that need to be tested. This approach is focused on explanation.
- The interpretative group of methods is focused on understanding phenomenon in a comprehensive, holistic way. Interpretive methods focus on analytically disclosing the meaning-making practices of human subjects [the why, how, or by what means people do what they do], while showing how those practices arrange so that it can be used to generate observable outcomes. Interpretive methods allow you to recognize your connection to the phenomena under investigation. However, the interpretative group requires careful examination of variables because it focuses more on subjective knowledge.
The introduction to your methodology section should begin by restating the research problem and underlying assumptions underpinning your study. This is followed by situating the methods you will use to gather, analyze, and process information within the overall “tradition” of your field of study and within the particular research design you have chosen to study the problem. If the method you choose lies outside of the tradition of your field [i.e., your review of the literature demonstrates that it is not commonly used], provide a justification for how your choice of methods specifically addresses the research problem in ways that have not been utilized in prior studies.
The remainder of your methodology section should describe the following:
- Decisions made in selecting the data you have analyzed or, in the case of qualitative research, the subjects and research setting you have examined,
- Tools and methods used to identify and collect information, and how you identified relevant variables,
- The ways in which you processed the data and the procedures you used to analyze that data, and
- The specific research tools or strategies that you utilized to study the underlying hypothesis and research questions.
In addition, an effectively written methodology section should:
- Introduce the overall methodological approach for investigating your research problem. Is your study qualitative or quantitative or a combination of both (mixed method)? Are you going to take a special approach, such as action research, or a more neutral stance?
- Indicate how the approach fits the overall research design. Your methods for gathering data should have a clear connection to your research problem. In other words, make sure that your methods will actually address the problem. One of the most common deficiencies found in research papers is that the proposed methodology is not suitable to achieving the stated objective of your paper.
- Describe the specific methods of data collection you are going to use, such as, surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observation, archival research. If you are analyzing existing data, such as a data set or archival documents, describe how it was originally created or gathered and by whom. Also be sure to explain how older data is still relevant to investigating the current research problem.
- Explain how you intend to analyze your results. Will you use statistical analysis? Will you use specific theoretical perspectives to help you analyze a text or explain observed behaviors? Describe how you plan to obtain an accurate assessment of relationships, patterns, trends, distributions, and possible contradictions found in the data.
- Provide background and a rationale for methodologies that are unfamiliar for your readers. Very often in the social sciences, research problems and the methods for investigating them require more explanation/rationale than widely accepted rules governing the natural and physical sciences. Be clear and concise in your explanation.
- Provide a justification for subject selection and sampling procedure. For instance, if you propose to conduct interviews, how do you intend to select the sample population? If you are analyzing texts, which texts have you chosen, and why? If you are using statistics, why is this set of data being used? If other data sources exist, explain why the data you chose is most appropriate to addressing the research problem.
- Describe potential limitations. Are there any practical limitations that could affect your data collection? How will you attempt to control for potential confounding variables and errors? If your methodology may lead to problems you can anticipate, state this openly and show why pursuing this methodology outweighs the risk of these problems cropping up.
NOTE: Once you have written all of the elements of the methods section, subsequent revisions should focus on how to present those elements as clearly and as logically as possibly. The description of how you prepared to study the research problem, how you gathered the data, and the protocol for analyzing the data should be organized chronologically. For clarity, when a large amount of detail must be presented, information should be presented in sub-sections according to topic.
ANOTHER NOTE: If you are conducting a qualitative analysis of a research problem, the methodology section generally requires a more elaborate description of the methods used as well as an explanation of the processes applied to gathering and analyzing of data than is generally required for studies using quantitative methods. Because you are the primary instrument for generating the data, the process for collecting that data has a significantly greater impact on producing the findings. Therefore, qualitative research requires a more detailed description of the methods used.
III. Problems to Avoid
The methodology section of your paper should be thorough but to the point. Do not provide any background information that doesn’t directly help the reader to understand why a particular method was chosen, how the data was gathered or obtained, and how it was analyzed.
Unnecessary Explanation of Basic Procedures
Remember that you are not writing a how-to guide about a particular method. You should make the assumption that readers possess a basic understanding of how to investigate the research problem on their own and, therefore, you do not have to go into great detail about specific methodological procedures. The focus should be on how you applied a method, not on the mechanics of doing a method. An exception to this rule is if you select an unconventional methodological approach; if this is the case, be sure to explain why this approach was chosen and how it enhances the overall process of discovery.
It is almost a given that you will encounter problems when collecting or generating your data, or, gaps will exist in existing data or archival materials. Do not ignore these problems or pretend they did not occur. Often, documenting how you overcame obstacles can form an interesting part of the methodology. It demonstrates to the reader that you can provide a cogent rationale for the decisions you made to minimize the impact of any problems that arose.
Just as the literature review section of your paper provides an overview of sources you have examined while researching a particular topic, the methodology section should cite any sources that informed your choice and application of a particular method [i.e., the choice of a survey should include any citations to the works you used to help construct the survey].
It’s More than Sources of Information!
A description of a research study's method should not be confused with a description of the sources of information. Such a list of sources is useful in and of itself, especially if it is accompanied by an explanation about the selection and use of the sources. The description of the project's methodology complements a list of sources in that it sets forth the organization and interpretation of information emanating from those sources.
Azevedo, L.F. et al. "How to Write a Scientific Paper: Writing the Methods Section." Revista Portuguesa de Pneumologia 17 (2011): 232-238; Blair Lorrie. “Choosing a Methodology.” In Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation, Teaching Writing Series. (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers 2016), pp. 49-72; Butin, Dan W. The Education Dissertation A Guide for Practitioner Scholars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010; Carter, Susan. Structuring Your Research Thesis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Kallet, Richard H. “How to Write the Methods Section of a Research Paper.” Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004):1229-1232; Lunenburg, Frederick C. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Methods Section. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Rudestam, Kjell Erik and Rae R. Newton. “The Method Chapter: Describing Your Research Plan.” In Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. (Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2015), pp. 87-115; What is Interpretive Research. Institute of Public and International Affairs, University of Utah; Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Methods and Materials. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College.
Examples of method sections
An excerpt from the method section of a biology report
|Growth rates were determined by estimating the number of bacteria in a culture at zero time and after 1 hour of growth at 37°C. In order to make this estimation, a dilution series was performed by diluting aliquots of the bacterial culture, at each incubation time, by a factor of 10, 100, and 10 000 with nutrient broth, and then plating out 0.01ml of each of these dilutions onto quadrants of a sterile agar plate. Following one week’s incubation at 25°C, the colonies of the plate were counted manually.|
In this excerpt no amounts or descriptions of equipment have been included nor would they have been necessary, as someone wishing to repeat the experiment could change these and still get the same effect.
An example of a poorly written method section from a biology report
|We did a serial dilution by pipetting 0.9 ml broth into labelled tubes, then adding 2 drops (0.1ml) of the original culture to tube 1, 2 drops of tube 1 to tube 2, 2 drops of tube 2 to 3 and 2 drops of tube 3 to tube 4.Mix the tubes and spread a loopful (0.01 ml) of each tube onto a different quadrant of a labelled agar plate.||The personal pronoun we could have been avoided by using the passive voice (a serial dilution was carried out).|
Keep explanations as simple as possible.
Avoid unnecessary repetition.In the present tense, this reads like an instruction, not a description of what you did. The past tense should be used (The tubes were mixed…)
An excerpt from the method section of a psychology report
Twenty-two first year industrial trade students enrolled in a training course at a Sydney company participated in the experiment. The students were from a varied educational background but all had completed at least Year 10 of High School and all understood electrical principles at a basic level ….. Students who had completed further studies were excluded from the study. …..
The instructional materials used in the experiment consisted of information on three electrical safety tests that are performed on 240 volt electrical appliances using a volt meter…..
Subjective ratings were used in the experiment to measure cognitive load as they “provide a powerful …(measure of) the subjective experience of workload” (Gopher & Braune, 1984: 529; see also Paas & van Merrienboer, 1993; 1994) since students have little difficulty assigning a numerical value to the imposed mental workload…..A copy of the subjective mental load rating scale used in the experiment has been included in Appendix 4.
The test material consisted of test items and equipment for both written and practical tests. Each test item was designed to be objective and was marked as either correct or incorrect. The written test consisted of twenty three items. …..
All the students were randomly assigned to either the isolated-interacting elements instruction or the interacting elements only group with 11 students in each group. They were tested individually, in a quiet room. ….. At the completion of the study phase, the students were provided with a subjective mental load rating scale, the format of which was explained to both groups. They were asked to rate the mental effort involved in understanding all of the electrical tests described in their training booklet on the scale …..
The test section of the experiment followed. The students were asked to complete the written test, described in the materials section, …...
Participants section describes WHO was involved in the experiment
Materials section describes WHAT was used in the experiment.
Procedure section describes HOW the experiment was done and how the data was collected.
An excerpt from the method section of a scientific report from Education that used qualitative research methodology.
| The study originated from a need to explain the differences in participation rates between boys and girls in physical activity. In the present study, systemic functional linguistics and semiotic theory and methodology have provided the means to go beyond the earlier approach of identifying and quantifying the number and duration of different types of teachers and pupil behaviour (Good and Brophy, 1973; Cinclair and Coulthard, 1975). An approach combining systemic functional linguistics and semiotic theory and methodology meant the present research could take into account the complexity of meanings generated in lessons, including meanings, that operate at the unconscious as well as the conscious level of awareness. ….|
Systemic functional linguistics requires a detailed and systematic analysis of text….
Three schools were finally settled upon as the most appropriate sources for the variety of lesson situations required. This selection took into account the combinations of teachers and students most likely to be found in New South Wales secondary schools. One school situated in a semi-rural area had universal mixed physical education ... From these schools, six male teachers and three female teachers consented to have their lessons recorded on video and audio tape (through lapel microphones). These teachers, together with at least one other member of staff from each school, were also interviewed at length ...
In all, eighteen lessons were recorded, some lasting for one ‘period’ of 40 minutes duration and others for a ‘double period’ of 80 minutes. As some lessons yielded 40 pages of transcript, the usual detailed analysis of every clause was obviously impracticable for this amount of a data. A taxonomy was developed to provide the initial framework (grid) by which the lessons could be analysed in terms of the research questions described below. As a starting point, two lessons were selected for analysis …..
|Outline of and justification for the theoretical perspectives informing the research and the methodological approach |
The following two paragraphs provide the details of how the researcher gathered data for that part of the research that looked at classroom interactions.
© Copyright 2000
Comments and questions should
be directed to Unilearning@uow.edu.au