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Research methods

This section is designed to build on the earlier Overview of the research process section by exploring the process in more detail. Distinctions are drawn between research methods, research strategy, data collection methods and interpretation. There is also useful material on sampling and specific data collection methods.

Core reading provided in the module pack: chapter 5 entitled Research methods in Biggam (2008)
John Biggam argues that research methods should be used as an overall term to describe strategy, data collection and framework for data analysis. It is therefore important not to conflate it with, say, purely research strategy or data collection methods.

  • He states that research strategy is concerned with how one intends responding to one or more research questions in overall terms (e.g. literature review, case study, survey, action research, historical or ethnographic research). He outlines specific research strategies in introductory form including: case study, survey, ethnography, experimental research, historical research, action research and grounded theory. You may use more than one research strategy.
  • Data collection methods are concerned with specific forms of data collection (e.g. questionnaires, interviews, selection of named literature, specific organisational records, artefacts, observation). Any one research strategy may involve one or more data collection methods. For example, a survey could involve structured interviewing or questionnaires. A case study could include institutional documents and semi-structured interviews with selected individuals. Biggam briefly describes a range of sampling techniques (e.g. random, simple, stratified, cluster, systematic, quota and convenience). He also provides a technique for calculating sample size. You may find this technique useful if you want to claim your findings are representative of a larger population. Regardless of the research strategy chosen, it is helpful to show how you selected your particular sources of data (in the widest sense to include literature and other 'texts'). You may use more than one data collection method.
  • The framework for data analysis refers to what one does with the data once it has been collected or assembled. This is concerned with justifying and describing how the data is to be interpreted. It is useful to link this with each data source.
  • Biggam argues that it is a common error for researchers and students to identify research strategies as qualitative or quantitative (pp. 86-88).

Next steps
'Research methods' is perhaps a useful heading to include in the research proposal for the reasons Biggam outlines. Although different terminology is used, a distinction between research strategy and data collection methods occurs regularly in the research skills literature (as we have seen with Crotty who uses the terms 'methodology' for strategy and 'methods' for data collection methods). There are suggestions made to help with this in the later Writing up section e.g. each research question should be linked to one or more research strategies and data collection methods.
Biggam's emphasis on making the process of data analyis/interpretation explicit in the research proposal can be valuable as it helps avoid the naive assumption that data collection itself automatically answers research questions. This can also surface potential problems with data collection methods at an early, and therefore retrievable, stage. If the research proposal involves sampling a target population (and of course it may not) then it is useful to show how that sampling is to be accomplished in the proposal.

Having now explored the perspectives of Crotty and Biggam, it is possible to combine them into 3 nested elements:

  1. epistemology
  2. theoretical perspective
  3. research methods

The last element, research methods, can in turn be split into 3 sub-elements:

  1. research strategy
  2. data collection methods
  3. framework for data analysis/interpretation

Note that the term 'data' is used widely here to include a wide range of texts including: chapters, books, articles, novels, plays, poems, policy papers, organisational documents, interactions, objects or other cultural artefacts, as well as survey data.

Once you have selected 1 or 2 likely research strategies, each one can be explored in more detail. You will find specific texts on case studies, surveys, interviews, textual analysis etc. in most libraries.

It also worth considering, despite its prevalence, whether a clear distinction can be drawn between quantitative and qualitative data and reflecting on this in your proposal.
Optional extension activities
Part 2 in May (2001).