In my last post on this subject, I considered the distinction between method and methodology. In this one, I’ll look more at what is involved in writing the methodology chapter of a thesis (and I’m writing with social science theses in mind).
The first thing you need to consider is a very high level question. What’s the nature of reality? Broadly speaking, there are two perspectives you can take. One is that there is a reality. The truth is out there. That’s a positivist view. A straightforward example is ‘one plus one equals two’. The other main view is that there are multiple realities or truths, depending on your perspective and context. That’s a constructivist view. An example of this might be, ‘In the denary system conventionally used by mathematicians, one plus one equals two. In a binary system, one plus one equals ten. In a kitchen, one apple plus one orange equals one fruit salad. In a pet shop, one female rabbit plus one male rabbit equals a potential problem.’ Unless you know the appropriate context, you can’t assess whether a particular answer is correct or useful.
Once you’ve made it clear what your take on reality is, then other decisions flow from that. Broadly speaking, if you’ve taken a positivist view, you’re likely to want to use quantitative methods to uncover some aspect of the reality that is out there. If you’re constructivist, you’re likely to want to use qualitative methods to uncover some of those different understandings of reality. If you’re using mixed methods, then you’ve got to be careful to align them with your stated view of reality. A common problem in methodology sections is that writers forget to align their view of the world (their ontology), with their view of how to find out about the world (their epistemology).
At this stage, you can turn your attention to your research questions and to your theoretical perspective. You should already have shown that these emerge from your literature review (avoid the mistake of writing a literature review and then writing down some questions you clearly came up with before reading any of the literature). Check that your research questions and theoretical perspective align with the view about reality that you expressed earlier. Explain your methodology (see earlier blog post).
You now need to explain both what you did and, importantly, why you did it. Most of your decisions are likely to be explained in terms of your research question (eg I’ve considered several ways of going about this – and the one most likely to answer the research question is this one). Some will be explained in terms of your chosen method (I chose to do interviews, therefore I had to make a decision about sample size). Some will be explained in terms of your epistemology (some people would investigate this with a statistical analysis, but I believe that it’s important to uncover different views).
The important thing is to explain all your decisions in these terms. Sure, some of them will have been pragmatic decisions, but avoid framing them in that way. If you’ve made it clear that the best way of answering the question is to use a certain dataset, but you couldn’t get access to that dataset, then you need to explain what you did to compensate for that. Or you need to change your research question to one that you can answer satisfactorily with the available data.
Make it clear you knew you had options. In the end you chose interviews, but you could have used focus groups, or ethnography. What did you gain by using interviews? What did you lose by not using the other methods? Once you decided on interviews, which decisions followed? Structured or semi-structured? Face-to-face or online? Transcribed or not? In one language or many? In your methodology chapter, you need to be setting out the decisions that you made and why you made them. If you simply state what you did, it implies you didn’t give it much thought, or you weren’t even aware there was a decision to make.
Show that you know your chosen method(s) well. Terms you may have used loosely in the past need to be much more precise at this point. Lots of people talk about case studies, for example, but if you’re using this approach you need to explain whose interpretation of case studies you’re using and how you will apply it. Don’t just consider data collection; you also need to explain how you carried out your analysis. Be precise in all cases. If you’re doing mixed methods, don’t explain the quantitative analysis in enormous detail and then just say you’ll be doing some thematic analysis of your qualitative data. Conversely, don’t go into enormous detail about your qualitative analysis and then just say you’ll do statistical analysis of the numbers.
As a follow-up to that point – don’t treat your methods as a pick-and-mix. Methods are carefully developed over time to provide results that are credible and trustworthy. They align with certain views of reality. Some methods are difficult and complicated. That doesn’t mean you can get away with doing the easy part and ignoring the rest. Reference a detailed description of the method and demonstrate that you followed it.
Your methodology section will also consider some consideration of ethics. Avoid being formulaic here and writing a standard paragraph saying you’ll keep to some guidelines you’ve never read, and you’ll store the data in a way you’ll never adhere to. What are the real ethical challenges you’ll face? How will you really deal with them? Do the existing guidelines help in any way? How?
There’s a lot to cover, but bear in mind that you already know the answers. You already made these decisions. If you keep a research journal or a research blog, you already recorded these decisions. Take your reader through your decisions step by step. Justify them in terms of the ontology, epistemology, thematic framework, research questions that you selected. Send your reader on to the next chapter knowing exactly what you did and why you did it.