How to write a research methodology
In your thesis or dissertation, you will have to discuss the methods you used to do your research. The methodology or methods section explains what you did and how you did it, allowing readers to evaluate the reliability and validity of the research. It should include:
- The type of research you did
- How you collected your data
- How you analyzed your data
- Any tools or materials you used in the research
- Your rationale for choosing these methods
The methodology section should generally be written in the past tense.
Step 1: Explain your methodological approach
Begin by introducing your overall approach to the research. What research problem or question did you investigate, and what kind of data did you need to answer it?
- Quantitative methods (e.g. surveys) are best for measuring, ranking, categorizing, identifying patterns and making generalizations
- Qualitative methods (e.g. interviews) are best for describing, interpreting, contextualizing, and gaining in-depth insight into specific concepts or phenomena
- Mixed methods allow for a combination of numerical measurement and in-depth exploration
Depending on your discipline and approach, you might also begin with a discussion of the rationale and assumptions underpinning your methodology.
- Was your aim to address a practical or a theoretical research problem?
- Why is this the most suitable approach to answering your research questions?
- Is this a standard methodology in your field or does it require justification?
- Were there any ethical or philosophical considerations?
- What are the criteria for validity and reliability in this type of research?
In a quantitative experimental study, you might aim to produce generalizable knowledge about the causes of a phenomenon. Valid research requires a carefully designed study with a representative sample and controlled variables that can be replicated by other researchers.
In a qualitative ethnographic case study, you might aim to produce contextual real-world knowledge about the behaviors, social structures and shared beliefs of a specific group of people. As this methodology is less controlled and more interpretive, you will need to reflect on your position as researcher, taking into account how your participation and perception might have influenced the results.
Step 2: Describe your methods of data collection
Once you have introduced your overall methodological approach, you should give full details of the research methods you used. Outline the tools, procedures and materials you used to gather data, and the criteria you used to select participants or sources.
Describe where, when and how the survey was conducted.
- How did you design the questions and what form did they take (e.g. multiple choice, rating scale)?
- What sampling method did you use to select participants?
- Did you conduct surveys by phone, mail, online or in person, and how long did participants have to respond?
- What was the sample size and response rate?
You might want to include the full questionnaire as an appendix so that your reader can see exactly what data was collected.
Give full details of the tools, techniques and procedures you used to conduct the experiment.
- How did you design the experiment?
- How did you recruit participants?
- How did you manipulate and measure the variables?
- What tools or technologies did you use in the experiment?
In experimental research, it is especially important to give enough detail for another researcher to reproduce your results.
Explain how you gathered and selected material (such as publications or archival data) for inclusion in your analysis.
- Where did you source the material?
- How was the data originally produced?
- What criteria did you use to select material (e.g. date range)?
Quantitative methods example
The survey consisted of 5 multiple-choice questions and 10 questions that the respondents had to answer with a 7-point Likert scale. The aim was to conduct the survey with 350 customers of Company X on the company premises in The Hague from 4-8 July 2017 between 11:00 and 15:00. A customer was defined as a person who had purchased a product from Company X on the day of questioning. Participants were given 5 minutes to fill in the survey anonymously, and 408 customers responded. Because not all surveys were fully completed, 371 survey results were included in the analysis.
Interviews or focus groups
Describe where, when and how the interviews were conducted.
- How did you find and select participants?
- How many people took part?
- What form did the interviews take (structured, semi-structured, unstructured)?
- How long were the interviews and how were they recorded?
Describe where, when and how you conducted the observation.
- What group or community did you observe and how did you gain access to them?
- How long did you spend conducting the research and where was it located?
- How did you record your data (e.g. audiovisual recordings, note-taking)?
Explain how you selected case study materials (such as texts or images) for the focus of your analysis.
- What type of materials did you analyze?
- How did you collect and select them?
Qualitative methods example
In order to gain a better insight into the possibilities for improvement of the product range, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 8 returning customers from the main target group of Company X. A returning customer was defined as someone who usually bought products at least twice a week from Company X. The surveys were used to select participants who belonged to the target group (20-45 years old). Interviews were conducted in a small office next to the cash register, and lasted approximately 20 minutes each. Answers were recorded by note-taking, and seven interviews were also filmed with consent. One interviewee preferred not to be filmed.
Step 3: Describe your methods of analysis
Next, you should indicate how you processed and analyzed the data. Avoid going into too much detail—you should not start presenting or discussing any of your results at this stage.
In quantitative research, your analysis will be based on numbers. In the methods section you might include:
- How you prepared the data before analyzing it (e.g. checking for missing data, removing outliers, transforming variables)
- Which software you used to analyze the data (e.g. SPSS or Stata)
- Which statistical methods you used (e.g. regression analysis)
Quantitative methods example
Before analysis the gathered data was prepared. The dataset was checked for missing data and outliers. For this the “outlier labeling rule” was used. All values outside the calculated range were considered outliers (Hoaglin & Iglewicz, 1987). The data was then analyzed using statistical software SPSS.
In qualitative research, your analysis will be based on language, images and observations (often involving some form of textual analysis). Specific methods might include:
- Content analysis: categorizing and discussing the meaning of words, phrases and sentences
- Thematic analysis: coding and closely examining the data to identify broad themes and patterns
- Discourse analysis: studying communication and meaning in relation to their social context
Qualitative methods example
The interviews were transcribed and thematic analysis was conducted. This involved coding all the data before identifying and reviewing six key themes. Each theme was examined to gain an understanding of participants’ perceptions and motivations.
Step 4: Evaluate and justify your methodological choices
Your methodology should make the case for why you chose these particular methods, especially if you did not take the most standard approach to your topic. Discuss why other methods were not suitable for your objectives, and show how this approach contributes new knowledge or understanding.
You can acknowledge limitations or weaknesses in the approach you chose, but justify why these were outweighed by the strengths.
Tips for writing a strong methodology
Remember that your aim is not just to describe your methods, but to show how and why you applied them and to demonstrate that your research was rigorously conducted.
Focus on your objectives and research questions
The methodology section should clearly show why your methods suit your objectives and convince the reader that you chose the best possible approach to answering your problem statement and research questions. Throughout the section, relate your choices back to the central purpose of your dissertation.
Cite relevant sources
Your methodology can be strengthened by reference to existing research in the field, either to:
- Confirm that you followed established practices for this type of research
- Discuss how you evaluated different methodologies and decided on your approach
- Show that you took a novel methodological approach to address a gap in the literature
Write for your audience
Consider how much information you need to give, and don’t go into unnecessary detail. If you are using methods that are standard for your discipline, you probably don’t need to give lots of background or justification. But if you take an approach that is less common in your field, you might need to explain and justify your methodological choices.
In either case, your methodology should be a clear, well-structured text that makes an argument for your approach, not just a list of technical details and procedures.
If you encountered difficulties in collecting or analyzing data, explain how you dealt with them. Show how you minimized the impact of any unexpected obstacles. Pre-empt any major critiques of your approach and demonstrate that you made the research as rigorous as possible.
Frequently asked questions about methodology
- What’s the difference between method and methodology?
Methodology refers to the overarching strategy and rationale of your research project. It involves studying the methods used in your field and the theories or principles behind them, in order to develop an approach that matches your objectives.
In shorter scientific papers, where the aim is to report the findings of a specific study, you might simply describe what you did in a methods section.
In a longer or more complex research project, such as a thesis or dissertation, you will probably include a methodology section, where you explain your approach to answering the research questions and cite relevant sources to support your choice of methods.
- Where does the methodology section go in a research paper?
In a scientific paper, the methodology always comes after the introduction and before the results, discussion and conclusion. The same basic structure also applies to a thesis, dissertation, or research proposal.
- What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?
Quantitative methods allow you to test a hypothesis by systematically collecting and analyzing data. Common methods include experiments, observations recorded as numbers, and surveys with closed-ended questions.
Qualitative methods allow you to explore ideas and experiences in depth. Common methods include interviews with open-ended questions, observations described in words, and literature reviews that explore concepts and theories.
Qualitative methods tend to be more flexible, while quantitative methods are more reproducible.
- What’s the difference between reliability and validity?
Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:
- Reliability refers to the consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions).
- Validity refers to the accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).
If you are doing experimental research, you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.
- What is sampling?
A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population. Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research. For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.
Statistical sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population. There are various sampling methods you can use to ensure that your sample is representative of the population as a whole.