Learning Skills

Research Methods

See also: Writing a Research Proposal

An Introduction to Research Methods

You are most likely to have to carry out a piece of research as part of a course of study, whether for an undergraduate or post-graduate degree.

However, there are also plenty of times when you may need to do some basic research as part of a job or a voluntary role, whether it’s a simple survey to find out what customers think or a more advanced piece of research.

This page introduces some basic principles of research design and discusses how your view of the world affects your choice of methods and techniques.

The Basic Principles of Research Design

According to one of the most respected management research textbooks, written by Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, there are four main features of research design, which are distinct, but closely related.

They are:

  • Ontology. How you, the researcher, view the world and the assumptions that you make about the nature of the world and of reality.
  • Epistemology. The assumptions that you make about the best way of investigating the world and about reality.
  • Methodology. The way that you group together your research techniques to make a coherent picture.
  • Methods and techniques. What you actually do in order to collect your data and carry out your investigations.

Easterby-Smith and colleagues liken these four to the rings of a tree trunk: the methods are the outermost, and most visible, but without the inner ones, the outer one would die. All four need to be coherent and consistent to create a viable research design.

These principles are the same, whether you are doing scientific research in a laboratory or sending out a customer questionnaire.

Before choosing your methods, you need to understand how they fit with your ‘bigger picture’ of the world, and how you choose to investigate it, to ensure that your work will be coherent and effective.

The Underlying Philosophy

There are four main schools of ontology (how we construct reality), summarised in this table.

Ontology Realism Internal Realism Relativism Nominalism
Summary The world is ‘real’, and science proceeds by examining and observing it The world is real, but it is almost impossible to examine it directly Scientific laws are basically created by people to fit their view of reality Reality is entirely created by people, and there is no external ‘truth’
Truth There is a single truth Truth exists, but is obscure There are many truths There is no truth
Facts Facts exist, and can be revealed through experiments Facts are concrete, but cannot always be revealed Facts depend on the viewpoint of the observer Facts are all human creations

From: Management Research (4th edition), Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson

It will hopefully be clear that the underlying philosophy affects the choice of research methods. For example, a realist will attempt to ‘uncover the truth’, whereas a relativist will be interested in exploring different people’s ideas of the truth. The two will require quite different approaches. However, none of these positions are absolutes. They are on a continuum, with overlaps between them.

Within social sciences, there are also different epistemological approaches, or the way in which you choose to investigate the world. The two main schools are positivism and social constructionism.

  • Positivists believe that the best way to investigate the world is through objective methods, such as observations. Positivism fits within a realist ontology.
  • Social constructionists believe that reality does not exist by itself. Instead, it is constructed and given meaning by people. Their focus is therefore on feelings, beliefs and thoughts, and how people communicate these. Social constructionism fits better with a relativist ontology.

All these philosophical approaches, both ontological and epistemological, are valid. There are many eminent researchers working in all of these traditions and schools, and many others who draw on multiple approaches depending on what they are investigating. The important thing is that your research should be internally consistent.

If you say that you are using a social constructionist approach within a relativist ontology, your research will need to involve conversations. Observing people ‘doing what they do’ will not deliver the results that you need to answer your research questions.

Your chosen ontology and epistemology will have implications for your methodology.

Realists tend to use a positivist epistemology. They start with hypotheses. They gather facts through experiments, with a view to proving or disproving their hypotheses, and therefore confirming, or not, their theory. Clinical trials for new drugs or treatments are a good example of realist/positivist research.

Relativists, on the other hand, tend to take a social constructionist view. They start with questions. They use case studies and surveys to gather both words (views) and numbers, which they use to triangulate and compare. From these, they generate theories.

Social constructionist approaches tend to draw on qualitative sources of data, and positivist approaches on quantitative data.

  • Quantitative data is about quantities, and therefore numbers.
  • Qualitative data is about the nature of the thing investigated, and tends to be words rather than numbers.

A Note on Data Sources

  • Primary data is gathered by the researcher themselves, whether through surveys, interviews, or by counting atoms in a laboratory. Because it is collected for the purposes of the study, it is intrinsically interesting, although the researcher will also need to make some comment on it when publishing it.
  • Secondary data is published by someone else, usually a public body or company, although it may also consist of archive material such as historical records. A researcher using such data needs to generate new and original insights into it.

Researchers can either choose to use primary or secondary data for their studies. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and most researchers will use a combination of the two.

The Role of the Researcher

The researcher can be either involved, or external, detached.

These two positions, again, tend to link to the ontology and epistemology, with the positivist approach leading to a detached view, and the social constructionists tending towards the researcher being part of the world and therefore influencing, and being influenced by, events.

Choices and Trade-Offs

The choice of any particular research design, from ontology, through epistemology to methodology and then methods and techniques, involves trade-offs.

All of the main research traditions have strengths and weaknesses.

The most important aspect of designing your research is what you want to find out. Whatever methods you use, together with their underpinning philosophy, must answer your chosen research questions.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

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The Skills You Need Guide for Students

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