Choosing an Appropriate Research Methodology

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In this Skill, you will be taken on a rapid but, we hope, fascinating journey through the very varied landscape that constitutes research. In the process, you will learn many new concepts along with vocabulary to describe them succinctly so that you will be able to communicate with other researchers. Furthermore, because there is still so much to find out about in the world, you will discover that researchers ask very different kinds of questions about it and approach the research task from varying perspectives.

Those perspectives are determined by the researchers’ beliefs and values, especially their assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge. You will have the opportunity to explore and challenge your own assumptions about those concepts and learn to recognise those underpinning published research.

Although these assumptions and perspectives are varied, they can be classified so that each group has common attributes. These groups are variously called approaches, schools of thought, or paradigms. In turn, these can be divided into subgroups, sometimes called theoretical methodological perspectives or approaches, while they in turn subsume a range of methodologies that combine methods or techniques in different ways according to the purpose of the research.

Because people have conducted research for many centuries, ideas have evolved and they have evolved differently in different geographical and cultural contexts. Therefore, sometimes you will find the field of ideas divided up slightly differently under the headings of research paradigm, philosophy, approach, school, perspective, and methodology, with some disagreements about their place in the hierarchy. To reduce any confusion here, throughout the Module, terms will be used as consistently as possible, despite Skill authors coming from different disciplines, generations, and locations but do be alert for this when reading other articles, books, and reports. You will find that this issue of language evolving differently according to location, discipline, and generation is a pervasive theme in this and subsequent Skills – yet another challenge to the human need for structure and orderliness. Here the following will generally be used:

  • ‘paradigm’ for the most inclusive level (the main paradigms described under the section on Paradigms will be positivist and interpretivist/constructivist).
  • ‘approach’ for the next level (a broad selection from the range will be described under the section on Specific Methodological Approaches to give a sense of the field).
  • ‘methodology’ for a chosen and justified research structure, including philosophy, design, and methods or techniques.
  • ‘methods’ and ‘techniques’ for specific data collection activities, used interchangeably because there are only so many rules writers can obey!

However, before you start on this part of the adventure, let us alert you to another confusing aspect of research writing. You will find reference to qualitative and quantitative research pervading the research literature, including sometimes in this module. In fact, this results from a rather lazy shorthand that practicing researchers use to describe research that predominantly works with either qualitative or quantitative data. This shorthand worked relatively well when research was concentrated on restricted or confined issues so that answers comprised either numerical data or data composed of language expressions of people’s evaluations, their reasons, values, and beliefs.

For instance, if you wanted to compare how many people lived in one specific region with how they lived in another, perhaps to provide adequate infrastructure facilities in each, then research outcomes would sensibly be in the form of numbers, hence quantitative data, and the name quantitative research. However, if you wanted to know why people lived in those regions, or you were interested in what expectations they had of their region, perhaps with a view to encouraging a more even spread of population, then you would need to collect information about people’s reasons and perceptions, that is qualitative data, using qualitative research.

A picture shows a dog in a cardboard box.

Source: Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash.

However, sometimes problems are more complex – for instance, what facilities would persuade people to move, how many and what groups of people would move if those facilities were provided, and why would others never move? These questions would require the collection of data of both kinds to understand what is going on. Therefore, those simplified terms do not adequately describe the paradigm or methodology. It is preferable now to use more specific terms to describe the paradigm, such as positivist, post-positivist, or interpretivist, constructivist or mixed methods – all of which you will learn about in this Skill so that you can select an appropriate one for your research project.

Pause for Thought

Before you read on you to find out more, give some thought to what you consider to be the nature of reality and knowledge, especially focussing on how stable they are over time, space, and culture. Ponder too on the possibility of humans ever achieving complete knowledge of reality.

Did You Know?

There’s a glossary of terms and concepts available for this entire Module in the Beginning Your Research Skill.

Suggested Reading

Crotty, M.(2003). The foundations of social research. Sage.
Hammersley, M.(1992). Deconstructing the qualitative-quantitative divide. In J.Brannen (Ed.), Mixing methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Research (pp. 3955). Avebury.
Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D.(2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. SAGE publications.
Kuhn, T.(1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
May, T.(2011). Social research: Issues, methods and process (
4th ed.
). Open University Press.
Hughes, J. A., & Sharrock, W. W.(1997). The philosophy of social research. Longman.
Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K.(2018). Research methods in education (
8th ed.
). London.
Fonow, M. M., Cook, J. A. (Eds.). (1991). Beyond methodology. Feminist scholarship as lived research. Indiana University Press.
Clark, T., Foster, L., Sloan, L., Bryman, A.(2021). Bryman’s social research methods (
6th ed.
). Oxford University Press.