Writing your Dissertation: Methodology
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.