Writing the methodology/methods section

Methodology and methods – a note on vocabulary

Methodology: the strategy, plan of action, design behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes (e.g. experimental, case study, action research, phenomenography).

Your general methodological framework governs your choice and use of specific methods. Therefore it needs to be carefully explained. In humanities and social sciences this is also where you refer to the theoretical perspective or philosophical stance informing the methodology, providing a context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria, e.g critical theory.

Generally theoretical perspectives are embedded in approaches to knowledge or epistemology. These approaches are not always explicitly discussed in a thesis and generally not at all in a research paper.

Scientific research, generally based on a well-accepted scientific method, tends to not refer to a methodology, but goes straight to methods.

Method: the techniques or procedures used to gather and analyse data related to the research questions or hypotheses (e.g. interview, focus group, questionnaire, experiment).

What should be included?

The methodology/methods section in a thesis or research paper generally comes after the background or literature review section. If your thesis is composed of a series of studies, then each study may have its own background and methods section.

Your research methods should be appropriately chosen, they have to enable you to answer your research questions. The method chapter tells your reader ‘how’ you carried out the research needed to answer your research questions. In this section, you outline all the steps implemented and justify the choices you made. You describe, explain and justify.

You may not have a chapter called ‘methodology’ or ‘methods’, but somewhere you need to define your approach, your analytical perspective, the tools you used and how they were used.

What you did to study the problem? (if it is a proposal: what will you do to study the problem?)

  • What was investigated? People, plants, animals texts…
  • What was your research design/approach?
  • What kinds of information/data did you use to gather evidence, to answer your question?
  • From what sources was the information/data collected? What samples were used?

How you did it

  • How was the information/data collected? What techniques/procedures were used? What resources, tools were available to collect the information?
  • When did you collect the required data?
  • Where did you collect the data/information?

How did you analyse the information/data?

Why you did it the way you did it?

  • Explain and justify choices made.
  • Could it have been done another way?
  • Why did you decide not to do it the other way?

You also need to match your description of methods with your research questions/objectives/hypotheses.

A step by step approach

You need to set out step by step, clearly and accurately, what you did (or in the case of a proposal what you propose to do) when implementing the methodology or study design. Include as much details as necessary to ensure replicability of your study.

Provide enough detail for a reader to assess validity of results, as well as to repeat the work done. The information you provide should allow the research to be replicated without requiring guesswork.

You need to provide clear and detailed information on:

  • participants or subjects. E.g. animals or humans, text and how they were contacted, found
  • collection tools used (interview, survey, microscopes, scales…)
  • materials used and how they were used
  • protocols (if relevant). E.g. what steps did you go through in your experiment? How was a focus group set up?
  • how variables were measured (if relevant)
  • how data was analysed

The methodology section in qualitative research

The methodology section in qualitative research may include:

  • epistemological perspective
  • research context – social, political, economic, and cultural
  • selection of participants and sites – who, where, how and why
  • gaining access to the people and sites, resources and materials, data – who, where and how
  • data collection forms – observations, interviews, documents, audio-visual materials and type of data, e.g. field notes, transcripts, documents, etc.
  • data collection process – process of observing, the researcher’s role, recording of field notes, types of interview and process of interviewing, locating and selecting documents, etc.
  • data recording – how?
  • data analysis – steps involved, how data was organised, transcribed, explored, coded and how codes were used to build description and themes, etc.
  • triangulation of data, dependability, credibility and transferability, transparency,
  • limitations
  • ethical issues

Information on how research was experienced can be important for clarifying your interpretations. It allows reader to make his or her own judgment. If possible give your reader a feel for what it is like to be a participant (Darley 2003). Describe sequences participants went through and provide clear summaries or excerpts of what was actually said to the participant, what story was told, including rationale or cover story given to participant (Darley, 2003), what was being asked, the context, the setting – room, space.

The methods section in quantitative research

The methodology section in quantitative research may include:

  • research context – social, political, economic, and cultural
  • research site – e.g. geographical characteristics (applied science); company profile (management)
  • data collection – what, when, where and how
  • sample – sampling method and sample size
  • samples of questionnaire, tests, attitude scales and describe its properties (unless they are very common)
  • analysing unit – village, family, individual, company
  • subjects/participants/species – characteristics and profile
  • variables – operational definitions of all variables under study
  • treatment – details of treatment for experimental studies
  • measurement – description and justification of chosen instrument(s), reliability and validity issues
  • data analysis – procedure for scoring and inputting data, selection and justification of statistical tests, lab techniques
  • other details – e.g. ethical issues, permissions
  • resources – e.g. equipment, computer programs
  • possible limitations – in terms of research methods

Validity and reliability

The methods section supports reliability and validity of your findings, so you need details that matter. It is important to indicate who did the research, what sample choices were made, what the non-response rate was, whether people dropped out…as all this could affect validity and reliability of your research.

Validity

Validity indicates whether the research actually measures what it says it will measure; reflecting the strength of the conclusions.

  • Internal validity – the difference in the dependent variable is actually a result of the independent variable, nothing else – can we establish causation?
  • External validity – the results of the study are generalisable to other groups and environments outside the experimental setting – largely depends on having representative samples.
  • Ecological validity –does the context influence the research?

Reliability:

  • Consistency of a measurement, or the degree to which an instrument measures the same way each time it is used under the same condition with the same subjects.
  • Replicability of your measurement.

Qualitative research refers to

  • Credibility: is the researcher credible, are processes convincing?
  • Transferability: can findings be transferred to other contexts?
  • Dependability: about context and how it changes
  • Confirmability: requires rigorous data collection, coding, taking into account all possible explanations
  • Authenticity and morality (Angen, 2000)

What makes a methods section outstanding ?

The following table taken from Lovitts (2007, p56) sets out what the differences are between an outstanding and a failed methods section:

Outstanding Very good Acceptable Unacceptable
Original, clear, innovative

Thorough and comprehensively described

Identifies strengths and weaknesses, advantages/disadvantages

Flows from question to theory

Uses state of the art methods, tools, techniques, approaches…

Uses multiple methods

Appropriate for the problem

Uses existing methods, techniques or approaches in correct and creative ways

Discusses why method was chosen

Describes advantages and disadvantages

 

Appropriate for the problem

Uses standard or less sophisticated methods correctly

Provides minimum or sufficient information

Shows basic competence

Lacks a method,

Method wrong for the problem

Method used incorrectly

Methods do not relate to question or theory

Fatally flawed

Does not describe or provides insufficient detail

An outstanding method section in sciences (Lovitts, 2007)

  • really understand the methods used, what they did and what it shows
  • provides information on how much to trust the data
  • attacks the problem from all sides

Ethics

If relevant you need to explain that the research was approved by the appropriate committee at your institution.

Check out methods sections in some theses in your area. You can find theses in Trove.

Writing it down

Make it easy for the reader, ensure your writing is clear, precise and accurate.

Break the section into smaller sections, with subheadings.

Balance out how much description you need. You may not need to describe established techniques or equipment, but, the reader should not have to look up what technique or equipment you refer. Same goes for theories which sometimes are defined in more than one way – explain the definition you have adopted.

When referring to participant groups or variables, name them clearly. Make sure the reader does not have to wonder – what was group 3 again? Give each group or variable a name that means something in the project, E.g if you have different age groups: group 12-18, group 19-25, group 26-35 instead of group 1, group 2 and group 3.

If possible use diagrams

Verb tenses

In general:

  • In a proposal: what you plan to do – in future tense.
  • In research thesis: what you did – in past tense.

But, use present tense when introducing more general aspects, such as:

  • describing a theoretical model
  • describing the larger population
  • referring to conventional materials
  • relating directly to the research questions
  • explaining your chosen method
  • comparing your chosen method with others
  • justifying your chosen method
  • Use past tense when describing
  • the specific sample
  • specifically designed materials
  • procedure
  • data collection
  • data analysis

Use past tense when describing something you did

Examples:

The subjects were 50 postgraduate research students at the University of Canberra.

A case study research methodology is appropriate for the present study since it is the ‘in-depth analysis of a phenomenon in its natural context, and from the perspective of the participants involved in the phenomenon’ (Aden & Blurp, 1996, p. 236).

This study, undertaken from a phenomenographic perspective (Aden, 1981, 1986; Blurp & Coll, 1997), investigated participants’ conceptions of learning and leadership and their conceptual development.

Therefore, in this sense, the study is different from other studies within the phenomenographic tradition.

As with phenomenographic research, the aim of this study was to investigate variation in the underlying meaning of …

Voice

The emphasis in a methods section is on what was done rather than who did it, so often passive voice is used (while in rest of thesis best to avoid the passive voice).

Use of 1st, 2nd or 3rd person

No right or wrong option, but you need to make a conscious choice. Do not let ‘we’, and ‘I ‘ and ‘you’  slip in the text inadvertently.

Take into account:

  • your position as a researcher
  • research culture of your discipline, your country
  • who will read you

References

Angen,M.J. (2000). ‘Evaluating interpretative inquiry: reviewing the validity debate and opening the dialogue’, Qual Health Research 10/3, pp 378 – 395.

Darley, J.m., Zanna, M.P. & Roediger III, H.L. (eds) (2003). The competent academic. A practical guide for beginning social scientist (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association: Washington

Lovitts. Barbara E.(2007). Making the implicit explicit. Creating performance expectation for the dissertation. Stylus Publishing: Sterling Virginia.  (UC Library LB 2369.L6.2007)

Resources

American Institute for Clinical Chemistry, Clinical Chemistry Guide to Scientific Writing

Annesley Thomas M. (2010). Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why: The Ingredients in the Recipe for a Successful Methods Section. Clinical Chemistry 56/6, 897-901.

Macintosh, R. (2016). Top 10 hints for a great methodology chapterIt’s not you…it’s your data!
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