How To Write The Methodology Chapter
The What, Why & How Explained Simply (With Examples)
By: Jenna Crossley (PhD Cand). Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | September 2021
So, you’ve pinned down your research topic and undertaken a review of the literature – now it’s time to write up the methodology section of your dissertation, thesis or research paper. But what exactly is the methodology chapter all about – and how do you go about writing one? In this post, we’ll unpack the topic, step by step.
What (exactly) is the methodology chapter?
Your methodology chapter is where you highlight the philosophical underpinnings of your research and outline the specific research design choices you’ve made. The point of the methodology chapter is to tell the reader exactly how you designed your research and to justify your design choices.
The methodology chapter should comprehensively describe and justify all the research design choices you made. For example, the type of research you conducted (e.g. qualitative or quantitative), how you collected your data, how you analysed your data and who or where you collected data from (sampling). We’ll explain all the key design choices later in this post.
Why is the methodology chapter important?
The methodology chapter is important for two reasons:
Firstly, it demonstrates your understanding of research design theory, which is what earns you marks. A flawed research design or methodology would mean flawed results, so this chapter is vital as it allows you to show the marker that you know what you’re doing and that your results are credible.
Secondly, the methodology chapter is what helps to make your study replicable – in other words, it allows other researchers to undertake your study using the same design, and compare their findings to yours. This is very important within academic research, as each study builds on previous studies.
The methodology chapter is also important because it allows you to identify and discuss any methodological issues or problems you encountered (i.e. limitations), and to explain how you mitigated the impacts of these. Every research project has its limitations and shortcomings, so it’s important to acknowledge these openly and highlight your study’s value despite its limitations. Again, this demonstrates your understanding of research design, which will earn you marks. We’ll discuss limitations in more detail later in this post.
How to write up the methodology chapter
First off, it’s worth noting that the exact structure and contents of the methodology chapter will vary depending on the field of research (for example, humanities vs chemistry vs engineering) as well as the university. So, it’s always a good idea to check the guidelines provided by your institution for clarity and, if possible, review past dissertations and theses from your university. Here we’re going to discuss a generic structure for a methodology chapter typically found in the sciences, especially the social sciences (e.g. psychology).
Before you start writing, we always recommend that you draw up a rough outline, so that you have a clear direction to head in. Don’t just start writing without knowing what will go where. If you do, you’ll most likely end up with a disjointed, poorly flowing narrative. As a result, you’ll waste a lot of time rewriting in an attempt to try to stitch all the pieces together. Start with the end in mind.
Section 1 – Introduction
As with all chapters in your dissertation or thesis, the methodology chapter should have a brief introduction. In this introduction, you should remind your readers what the focus of your study is, especially the research aims. As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, your research design needs to align with your research aims, objectives and research questions, so it’s useful to frontload this to remind the reader (and yourself!) what you’re trying to achieve with your design and methodology.
In this section, you can also briefly mention how you’ll structure the chapter. This will help orient the reader and provide a bit of a roadmap so that they know what to expect.
Section 2 – The Research Design
The next section of your methodology chapter should present your research design to the reader. In this section, you need to detail and justify all the key design choices in a logical, intuitive fashion. This is the heart of your methodology chapter, so you need to get specific – don’t hold back on the details here. This is not one of those “less is more” situations.
Let’s have a look at the most common design choices you’ll need to cover.
Design Choice #1 – Research Philosophy
Research philosophy refers to the underlying beliefs (i.e. world view) regarding how data about a phenomenon should be gathered, analysed and used. Your research philosophy will serve as the core of your study and underpin all of the other research design choices, so it’s critically important that you understand which philosophy you’ll adopt and why you made that choice. If you’re not clear on this, take the time to get clarity before you make any research design choices.
While several research philosophies exist, two commonly adopted ones are positivism and interpretivism.
Positivism is commonly the underlying research philosophy in quantitative studies. It states that the researcher can observe reality objectively and that there is only one reality, which exists independent of the observer.
Contrasted with this, interpretivism, which is often the underlying research philosophy in qualitative studies, assumes that the researcher performs a role in observing the world around them and that reality is unique to each observer. In other words, reality is observed subjectively.
These are just two philosophies (there are many), but they demonstrate significantly different approaches to research and have a significant impact on all the research design choices. Therefore, it’s vital that you clearly outline and justify your research philosophy at the beginning of your methodology chapter, as it sets the scene for everything that follows.
Design Choice #2 – Research Type
The next thing you would typically discuss in your methodology section is the research type. The starting point for this is to indicate whether the research you conducted is inductive or deductive. With inductive research, theory is generated from the ground up (i.e. from the collected data), and therefore these studies tend to be exploratory in terms of approach. Deductive research, on the other hand, starts with established theory and builds onto it with collected data, and therefore these studies tend to be confirmatory in approach.
Related to this, you’ll need to indicate whether your study adopts a qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods methodology. As we’ve mentioned, there’s a strong link between this choice and your research philosophy, so make sure that your choices are tightly aligned. Again, when you write this section up, remember to clearly justify your choices, as they form the foundation of your study.
Design Choice #3 – Research Strategy
Next, you’ll need to discuss your research strategy (i.e., your research “action plan”). This research design choice refers to how you conduct your research based on the aims of your study.
Several research strategies exist, including experiments, case studies, ethnography, grounded theory, action research, and phenomenology. Let’s look at two these, experimental and ethnographic, to see how they contrast.
Experimental research makes use of the scientific method, where one group is the control group (in which no variables are manipulated) and another is the experimental group (in which a variable is manipulated). This type of research is undertaken under strict conditions in controlled, artificial environments – for example, within a laboratory. By having firm control over the environment, experimental research often allows the researcher to establish causation between variables. Therefore, it can be a good choice if you have research aims that involve identifying or measuring cause and effect.
Ethnographic research, on the other hand, involves observing and capturing the experiences and perceptions of participants in their natural environment (for example, at home or in the office). In other words, in an uncontrolled environment. Naturally this means that this research strategy would be far less suitable if your research aims involve identifying causation, but it would be very valuable if you’re looking to explore and examine a group culture, for example.
As you can see, the right research strategy will depend largely on your research aims and research questions – in other words, what you’re trying to figure out. Therefore, as with every other design choice, it’s essential to justify why you chose the research strategy you did.
Design Choice #4 – Time Horizon
The next thing you need to cover in your methodology chapter is the time horizon. There are two options here – cross-sectional and longitudinal. In other words, whether the data for your study were all collected at one point in time (i.e. cross-sectional) or at multiple points in time (i.e. longitudinal).
The choice you make here depends again on your research aims, objectives and research questions. If, for example, you aim to assess how a specific group of people’s perspectives regarding a topic change over time, you’d likely adopt a longitudinal time horizon.
Another important factor is simply the practical constraints – in other words, whether you have the time necessary to adopt a longitudinal approach (which could involve collecting data over multiple years). Oftentimes, the time pressures of your degree program will force your hand into adopting a cross-sectional time horizon, so keep this in mind.
Design Choice #5 – Sampling Strategy
Next, you’ll need to discuss your chosen sampling strategy. There are two main categories of sampling, probability and non-probability sampling. Probability sampling involves a random (and therefore representative) selection of participants from a population, whereas non-probability sampling entails selecting participants in a non-randomized (and therefore non-representative) manner. For example, selecting participants based on ease of access (this is called a convenience sample).
The right sampling approach depends largely on what you’re trying to achieve in your study. Specifically, whether you trying to develop findings that are generalisable to a population or not. Practicalities and resource constraints also play a large role here, as it can oftentimes be challenging to gain access to a truly random sample.
Design Choice #6 – Data Collection Method
Next up, you need to explain how exactly you’ll go about collecting the necessary data for your study. Your data collection method (or methods) will depend on the type of data that you plan to collect – in other words, qualitative or quantitative data.
Typically, quantitative research relies on surveys, data generated by lab equipment, analytics software or existing datasets. Qualitative research, on the other hand, often makes use of collection methods such as interviews, focus groups, participant observations, and ethnography.
So, as you can see, there is a tight link between this section and the design choices you outlined in earlier sections. Strong alignment between these sections is therefore very important.
Design Choice #7 – Data Analysis Methods/Techniques
The final major design choice that you need to address is that of analysis techniques. In other words, once you’ve collected your data, how will you go about analysing it. Here it’s important to be specific about your analysis methods and/or techniques – don’t leave any room for interpretation. Also, as with all choices in this chapter, you need to justify each choice you make.
What exactly you discuss here will depend largely on the type of study you’re conducting (i.e., qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods). For qualitative studies, common analysis methods include content analysis, thematic analysis and discourse analysis. For quantitative studies, you’ll almost always make use of descriptive statistics, and in many cases, you’ll also use inferential statistical techniques (e.g. correlation and regression analysis).
In this section, it’s also important to discuss how you prepared your data for analysis, and what software you used (if any). For example, quantitative data will often require some initial preparation such as removing duplicates or incomplete responses. As always, remember to state both what you did and why you did it.
Section 3 – The Methodological Limitations
With the key research design choices outlined and justified, the next step is to discuss the limitations of your design. No research design or methodology is perfect – there will always be trade-offs between the “ideal” design and what’s practical and viable, given your constraints. Therefore, this section of your methodology chapter is where you’ll discuss the trade-offs you had to make, and why these were justified given the context.
Methodological limitations can vary greatly from study to study, ranging from common issues such as time and budget constraints to issues of sample or selection bias. For example, you may find that you didn’t manage to draw in enough respondents to achieve the desired sample size (and therefore, statistically significant results), or your sample may be skewed heavily towards a certain demographic, thereby negatively impacting representativeness.
In this section, it’s important to be critical of the shortcomings of your study. There’s no use trying to hide them (your marker will be aware of them regardless). By being critical, you’ll demonstrate to your marker that you have a strong understanding of research design, so don’t be shy here. At the same time, don’t beat your study to death. State the limitations, why these were justified, how you mitigated their impacts to the best degree possible, and how your study still provides value despite these limitations.
Section 4 – Concluding Summary
Finally, it’s time to wrap up the methodology chapter with a brief concluding summary. In this section, you’ll want to concisely summarise what you’ve presented in the chapter. Here, it can be useful to use a figure to summarise the key design decisions, especially if your university recommends using a specific model (for example, Saunders’ Research Onion).
Importantly, this section needs to be brief – a paragraph or two maximum (it’s a summary, after all). Also, make sure that when you write up your concluding summary, you include only what you’ve already discussed in your chapter; don’t add any new information.
And there you have it – the methodology chapter in a nutshell. As we’ve mentioned, the exact contents and structure of this chapter can vary between universities, so be sure to check in with your institution before you start writing. If possible, try to find dissertations or theses from former students of your specific degree program – this will give you a strong indication of the expectations and norms when it comes to the methodology chapter (and all the other chapters!).
Also, remember the golden rule of the methodology chapter – justify every choice! Make sure that you clearly explain the “why” for every “what”, and reference credible methodology textbooks or academic sources to back up your justifications.
If you need a helping hand with your research methodology (or any other section of your dissertation or thesis), be sure to check out our private coaching service, where we hold your hand through every step of the research journey. Until next time, good luck!
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