How to Write a Dissertation: Methodology

| June 5, 2012

Recently Updated: 13/04/2013

In the Methodology section of your dissertation you have to justify and explain your choice of methodologies employed in your research. You don’t however have to explain the methodological approaches that you could have used. In other words, say why you chose the ones you did and don’t say why you didn’t choose the others that were at your disposal.

You may consider whether or not someone else could easily replicate your study based on what you have included in this section and in the appendices.

In this section you have to explain very clearly how you arrived at your findings and state clearly why they are reliable and how they answer your research questions or test the hypotheses on which your research was based.

 

How to Structure the Methodology Chapter

Section I Philosophy

This will deal with the philosophy which underpins your research. You will set out the research paradigm here.

While there are many different research philosophies you can adopt, three of the most popular are positivism, post-positivism and interpretivism. Each is suitable for a different sort of study, and each involves different assumptions about the world (ontology), how we know that world (epistemology) and the nature of knowledge.  The following table sums up key details about each philosophy, and should help you decide which is most useful for your area of study.

 

PHILOSOPHY BRIEF DESCRIPTION TYPE OF DATA/DATA COLLECTION ONTOLOGY EPISTEMOLOGY
Positivism Aims to mirror scientific method.  Uses deductive reasoning, empirical evidence and hypothesis testing Quantitative data, surveys based on scientific methods, larger sample sets, numeric The world is objective and independent of our subjective experience The world is knowable, and this knowledge is communicable between agents
Interpretivism An approach to studying people, particularly in social sciences, that starts from position that the subject matter is inherently different from non-human subjects. Qualitative data, subjective experience, small numbers of respondents, detailed examinations, textual The world is dependent on the many subjective experiences of that world, and does not exist independently of experience There is no possibility of ‘objective’ knowledge of the world, all we have are different experiences.
Post-Positivism Shares the main assumptions of positivism, but takes a more relativistic perspective Quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods There is an objective world, but knowledge of it is filtered through the subjective experience of individuals. Knowledge is by its nature partial and bound by individual experience

 

Section II: Approach

Saunders Research Onion

Research Onion, Source: Saunders et al (2012)

Here you will need to explain the context of your research, its limitations and specifically answer the “w-” questions, which include How, Why, What Where and When? The main decision you are likely to make is whether you will be using qualitative or quantitative methods (or methods which combine both).  Each method is associated with a different approach to gathering data.  In general (there’s lots more material available online if you want to learn more) you first need to decide whether you are going to work along broadly positivist, scientific lines, starting with a defined hypothesis and testing this against reality. If so, you are likely to be collecting numerical data in reasonably large quantities (30 or more) and running statistical tests on this data.

In other words, you’ll be using a quantitative approach (to do with collecting and manipulating data).   On the other hand, you might be more interested in exploring broad areas, probably to do with people’s experiences of, perceptions of or emotional reactions to a subject, and looking in detail at these responses in all their richness. By looking at broad areas of interest, you are aiming to generate theories about the area you are investigating. If this is the case, you will be adopting a qualitative approach (concerned with analysing textual responses in detail).   Finally, you might want to use a mixture of both methods, and indeed ‘mixed methods’ research is becoming increasingly popular.  It’s particularly useful when you want to reflect different perspectives on a subject, or put quantitative information into a robust real-world context.

Other Relevant Articles:
1. Different Strategies to Use in your Dissertation Research
2. Should I use Primary or Secondary Research?
3. The Steps involved in writing a Dissertation.

Section III: Strategy and Research Design

In this section you will outline how you collected your data; and you will have to explain your choice for using the methods you did, such as online surveys, phone surveys, face-to-face-interviews and so on. How did you choose your sample? Explain the choice of age group and ethnicity of your respondents. What questions did you ask and how have these contributed towards answering your research question or how did these test your hypothesis which formed the basis of your research? It is actually better to write this at the start of your research, so that it can be changed if your methods are not producing the results you need. However as this is not usually how dissertations are written- they are written in hindsight, then you will have to be honest about the flaws in the design. When writing or planning this section, it’s good practice to refer back to your research questions, aims and objectives, and ask yourself whether what you are planning to do is the best way to answer the questions and achieve the objectives. It’s best to do this at an early stage, rather than look at the data you collected and find it doesn’t throw any light on the topics you wanted to ask about.

Another thing to remember is that you need to convince the reader that the results you obtain are valid and reliable. When discussing why you selected the methods you did, you should be convincing that these methods are the best ones available given what you want to achieve.

Section IV: Data Collection and Analysis Methods

You will have to explain how the data was collected (by what means) and then explain the analysis tools you used. For example, if you were sampling texts, or have a lot of qualitative data are you using semiotics analysis, discourse analysis and so on. If you used software tools then you will have to say what these were and why you chose to use these particular ones.

In this section you have to explain very clearly how you arrived at your findings and state clearly why they are reliable and how they answer your research questions or test the hypotheses on which your research was based. .

The choices you made at the beginning of your research study should have been aided by contributions from your supervisor. That being so, writing the Methodology section will be the easiest part of your dissertation.

Section V: Ethics, Reliability, Validity, Generalizability and Limitations

Finally, your methodology should discuss the following:

  • Ethics – you need to explain how you have taken into account the ethics of your research, particularly if it includes human subjects. What steps did you take to make sure no one involved is harmed in any way (even very minor ways)?  This discussion should include how you dealt with issues of confidentiality of data, and data protection
  • Reliability – that is, the extent to which your study is reliable, in that the results can be repeated by other researchers at other times. To be informative, studies should be both reliable and valid
  • Validity – that is, does the study test what it sets out to test? Are the measures you use able to accurately assess what you want to look at?
  • Generalizability – to what extent are the particular results you obtained true of other populations? Not all studies are as generalizable as others, but you need to discuss how generalizable your results are likely to be, and why.
  • Limitations – finally, you need to acknowledge any ways in which the study was limited. Was it restricted to only one country, when data from other regions would be useful? Or were only people of a certain age interviewed, when a more representative cross-section of the population would have yielded more informative results?

Continue Reading:
1. Sample Dissertation Methodology: Mixed Method Deductive Research
2. How to Structure a Dissertation: Chapters & Subchapters

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Category: Dissertation Writing Guide