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 chapter 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.
Academic style guides in your field may also provide detailed guidelines on what to include for different types of studies. For example, there are specific guidelines for writing an APA methods section.
Step 1: Explain your methodological approach
Begin by introducing your overall approach to the research.
What research problem or question did you investigate? For example, did you aim to systematically describe the characteristics of something, to explore an under-researched topic, or to establish a cause-and-effect relationship? And what type of data did you need to achieve this aim?
Did you need quantitative data (expressed in numbers) or qualitative data (expressed in words)?
Did you need to collect primary data yourself, or did you use secondary data that was collected by someone else?
Did you gather experimental data by controlling and manipulating variables, or descriptive data by gathering observations without intervening?
Depending on your discipline and approach, you might also begin with a discussion of the rationale and assumptions underpinning your methodology.
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 under controlled conditions that can be replicated by other researchers.
In a qualitative ethnography, 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 your data collection methods.
In quantitative research, for valid generalizable results, you should describe your methods in enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.
Explain how you operationalized concepts and measured your variables; your sampling method or inclusion/exclusion criteria; and any tools, procedures and materials you used to gather data.
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, Likert 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 were measured on 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.
In qualitative research, since methods are often more flexible and subjective, it’s important to reflect on the approach you took and explain the choices you made.
Discuss the criteria you used to select participants or sources, the context in which the research was conducted, and the role you played in collecting the data (e.g. were you an active participant or a passive observer?)
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 or ethnography.
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?
What role did you play in the community?
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, Stata or R)
Which statistical tests you used (e.g. two-tailed t-test, simple linear regression)
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.
Lab-based experiments can’t always accurately simulate real-life situations and behaviors, but they are effective for testing causal relationships between variables.
Unstructured interviews usually produce results that cannot be generalized beyond the sample group, but they provide a more in-depth understanding of participants’ perceptions, motivations and emotions.