Methodologies1

Introduction

The way you approach your question will have a profound effect upon the way you construct your dissertation, so this section discusses the types of research you might undertake for your dissertation.  The use of literature and case studies is considered and the merits of primary research are debated and advice is given on the use of existing research data. You may not be fond of statistics, but the potential relevance of a quantitative approach should be considered and similarly, the idea of qualitative analysis and conducting your own research may yield valuable data. The possibilities of using quantitative and qualitative data are also discussed.

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What approach should I take - qualitative or quantitative?
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What approach should I take - qualitative or quantitative?

Your approach, research design, and research question are all connected. 'Approach' means something more than the type of data you use – it refers to your overall orientation to research and the type of claims you will make for your study. Dissertations can be based on either quantitative or qualitative data, or on a combination of both. How you choose this may depend on your preferences and abilities, and the suitability of particular approaches to your topic. You need to be able to justify why you have chosen to use such data. Quantitative data is particularly useful when you wish to discover how common particular forms of behaviour such as illegal drug use are for a particular age group. Qualitative data is particularly useful when you wish to find out why people engage in such behaviour.
Think about the Research Methods modules you have taken so far. Think about the different kinds of studies you have read for other modules. There is plenty of scope to use the approaches and methods that you are most comfortable with. You need to justify your approach and methods and to cite appropriate literature to help you do this.

What if I want to find out about social trends, or the measurable effects of particular policies?

You will probably want to use large datasets and undertake quantitative data analysis, and you will be adopting a realist approach to the topic studied. Quantitative dissertations are likely to be nearer to the lower end of the range of approved lengths for the dissertation (e.g. if the length is to be 5,000-8,000 words, dissertations based on quantitative analysis are likely to be closer to 5,000 words in length). They will also include tables and figures giving your important findings. Remember that all tables must be carefully titled and labelled and that sources of your data must be acknowledged.

What if I want to record people's views on an issue, and give them a 'voice'?

You will probably want to use in-depth qualitative data, and you may wish to adopt a realist, a phenomenologist, or a constructionist approach to the topic. Qualitative dissertations will include descriptive material, usually extracts from interviews, conversations, documents or field notes, and are therefore likely to be nearer to the upper limit of your word range (e.g. 8,000 words). The types of method suitable for a dissertation could include content analysis, a small scale ethnographic study, small scale in-depth qualitative interviewing.

Whether you choose qualitative or quantitative analysis will depend on several things:

Can I combine qualitative and quantitative methods?

There are many ways in which qualitative and quantitative data and analysis can be combined. Here are two examples.

Your supervisor or research methods tutor may be able to give you detailed examples of these or other ways to combine methods.

 

Can my dissertation be entirely literature-based?

Yes. If you decide to do a primarily theoretical dissertation, it is almost certain that your dissertation will be entirely literature-based. This is likely to be the methodology of theoretical analysis: selection and discussion of theoretical material and descriptive material, in context, and detailed comparison of theories in terms of their applicability. You might ask how useful certain concepts or theories are for understanding particular patterns of behaviour. How useful is the concept of institutional racism? Is objectivity in the media possible? How useful is subcultural theory for understanding virtual communities? Here, the focus of attention is not so much to discover something about the social world, for example virtual communities, as to reach a judgement about the value of key concepts or theories in understanding that world. How the study is approached and how contrasting approaches are drawn upon needs to be stated very clearly.
A library-based or theoretical study is not necessarily 'easier' than an empirical study, indeed, it may well be harder. Remember that theoretical studies, like data-based studies, need to have their research design spelled out from the start.
But even if your dissertation is more empirically focused, it could still be entirely literature-based. You might choose to conduct a review of a field of work. What does the research literature in this field tell us about x? While all dissertations will include a literature review, it is possible to produce a dissertation that is entirely based on a review of the literature. If you do this, it is important to review the literature from an explicit angle and identify some themes to make the review distinctive. You might, for example, explore empirical debates in your chosen field across different countries or time periods.

What is case study research?

Whilst it is possible for dissertations to be entirely literature-based, the most common form of dissertation takes the form of a case study. Here the focus of attention is on a particular community, organisation or set of documents. The attraction of this kind of dissertation is that it stems from empirical curiosity but is at the same time practical. You may be interested in a wider question but a case study enables you to focus on a specific example. A major challenge in case study dissertations is connecting your own primary research or re-analysis with the broader theoretical themes and empirical concerns of the existing literature.

What's an empirical study?

Most dissertations demand either primary or secondary research. In other words, you usually have to analyse data that you have either collected yourself or data that is already available. The reason for this is that the questions dissertations usually address take the following form: Is x happening? Is x changing? Why is x happening? Why is x changing? These questions demand primary or secondary analysis of data.
Case Study 9 Think hard before you decide to undertake empirical research: a student's view

What is secondary analysis?

Secondary analysis is when you analyse data which was collected by another researcher. It allows the researcher to explore areas of interest without having to go through the process of collecting data themselves in the field. The problem with using fieldwork methods in an undergraduate dissertation, however, is that they are costly in terms of time (which is relatively scarce in your final year!) and possibly your own financial resources too. You may choose, therefore, to undertake secondary research, analysing existing data.

Where do I find existing research data?

There are a range of documents that already contain research data that you can analyse. You may, for example, be interested in exploring whether gender stereotypes in the media are changing. This might entail content analysis of newspapers, magazines, video or other media over different time periods. Here you would not be collecting your own data but instead would be analysing existing documents.


Download Case Study 6 Media research

If you are interested, for example, in doing historical research, you may need to visit archives. Government reports and autobiographies may also be used as data.
Other documents include official statistics, datasets (statistical data), and banks of interview transcripts which are all freely available to the academic community. Increasingly, documents, databases and archives are readily accessible online. Research Methods tutors on your course will be able to advise on the availability and accessibility of such data sets.
There are some advantages of doing secondary analysis, particularly if you are doing a quantitative study. You will be able to work with much larger datasets than you could have collected yourself. This has the following advantages:

Collecting you own data - primary research

Quantitative data may also result from non-participant observations or other measurements (e.g. in an experimental design). Also, sometimes data that are collected through qualitative processes (participant observation, interviews) are coded and quantified. Your research methods tutor can give you further information on these types of data, but here are some common quantitative data collection methods and their definitions:


Self-completion questionnaires

A series of questions that the respondent answers on their own. Self-completion questionnaires are good for collecting data on relatively simple topics, and for gaining a general overview of an issue. Questionnaires need to have clear questions, an easy to follow design, and not be too long.

Structured interviews

Similar to a self-completion questionnaire, except that the questions that are asked by an interviewer to the interviewee. The same questions are read out in the same way to all respondents. There will typically be a fixed choice of answers for the respondents.

Structured observation

Watching people and recording systematically their behaviour. Prior to the observation, an observation schedule will be produced which details what exactly the researcher should look for and how those observations should be recorded.

If you are conducting a qualitative analysis you are likely to wish to use at least some original material. This may be collected through in-depth interviews, participant observation recordings and fieldnotes, non-participant observation, or some combination of these. Below are some data collection methods that you might want to use for your dissertation:


In-depth interviews

A way of asking questions which allows the interviewee to have more control of the interview. The interview could be semi-structured, which uses an interview schedule to keep some control of the interview, but also allows for some flexibility in terms of the interviewee’s responses. The interview could be unstructured, here the aim is to explore the interviewee’s feelings about the issue being explored and the style of questioning is very informal. Or the interview could be a life history where the interviewer tries to find out about the whole life, or a portion of the person’s life.

Focus groups

A form of interviewing where there are several participants; there is an emphasis in the questioning on a tightly defined topic; the accent is on interaction within the group and the joint construction of meaning. The moderator tries to provide a relatively free rein to the discussion.

Participant observation

This involves studying people in naturally occurring settings. The researcher participates directly in the setting and collects data in a systematic manner. The researcher will observe behaviour, listen to conversations, and ask questions.

Spend some time looking at general books about research - they will give you an overview of the data collection methods available and help you to make the best choice for your project. Bryman (2004) would be a useful starting point.
For any piece of research you conduct, be it empirically based (quantitative or qualitative) or library based, its methods must be justified. You need to show in the final dissertation how you have given consideration to different methods, and why you have chosen and eliminated these.

STUDENT VOICE: Findings from our research

In our study, supervisors saw part of their role as someone who draws out students’ reasons for choosing a particular research approach. Often in early supervision meetings they ask students to justify their reasons for choosing a library-based or an empirical study. (Todd, Smith and Bannister 2006, p167).

Your supervisor will want you to offer convincing reasons as to why you’ve chosen the approach you have - so be ready!

If you’re having difficulty making that choice, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for their advice. This was particularly useful for one of our respondents:

STUDENT VOICE

It's been a valuable experience for me it's so different from other stuff. With other essays you can rush them if you have to ... but this is so much work, you can't rush it. It demands more. (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p340)

….My reasons for data collection is literature based as my research question involved sensitive subjects which would have been unsuitable for primary data collection. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)

I chose primary data because it would enable me to build skills that would be useful for postgraduate study. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)

It will involve primary data, secondary data, quantitative and qualitative research methods, lit reviews, theory and policy studies and an exploration of alternatives. My dissertation is to be based around the experience of 'poverty', as poverty is the experience. Theories and policies are not. However, to do justice to the subject, theories and policies will be included so Iam able to demonstrate where failures in the system may exist. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)

Note: Research must be conducted in a sensible and ethical manner; data must be analysed and presented in a rational manner. It is important that students do not expose themselves or others to dangers or risks when conducting research. Students need the approval of their dissertation supervisor before embarking on any type of fieldwork (see the section on Research Ethics for more information).

Will my research be inductive or deductive?

In general, deductive research is theory-testing and inductive research is theory-generating. Often people link deductive research with quantitative experiments or surveys, and inductive research with qualitative interviews or ethnographic work. These links are not hard and fast – for instance, experimental research, designed to test a particular theory through developing a hypothesis and creating an experimental design, may use quantitative or qualitative data or a combination. If your research starts with a theory and is driven by hypotheses that you are testing (e.g. that social class background and social deprivation or privilege are likely to affect educational attainment), it is, broadly speaking, deductive. However much research combines deductive and inductive elements. 

What's all this about research design?

Research design is vital to conducting a good piece of work. At the start of your research you need to set down clearly:

You and your supervisor will discuss your design and decide whether the research is 'do-able'. Your university may require you to produce a report (e.g. an 'interim framework report' or a short 'research proposal') that specifies your research design. Other people may have to look at the design to ascertain whether there are ethical issues that affect your research.

Summary

Key Questions

Further Reading

BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Method. 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press
CRESWELL, J. (2002). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 2nd ed., London, Sage
SEALE, C.(2006). Researching society and culture. London, Sage
Here are some references for specific methods:
ARKSEY, H and KNIGHT, P. (1999). Interviewing for social scientists: an introductory resource. London, Sage
DALE, A.; ARBER, S.; AND PROCTOR, M.(1998). Doing Secondary Analysis. London, Allen and Unwin
HAMMERSLEY, M. and ATKINSON, P. (1995). Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London, Routledge
OPPENHEIM, A. N. (1992). Questionnaire Design, Interviewing and Attitude Measurement. London, Pinter

Web Resources

Identifying a research topic:
A template for structured observation:
http://www.sociology.org.uk/methsi.pdf
A site devoted to survey design:
http://www.whatisasurvey.info/
A chapter on structured interviewing:
http://informationr.net/tdw/publ/INISS/Chap1.html
A chapter on qualitative interviewing:
http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/qualmethfour.html
An introduction to ethnographic research:
http://www.statisticalassociates.com/
Materials for focus group interviews:
http://www.tc.umn.edu/~rkrueger/focus.html

Footnote

1. © Professor Chris Winch, Dr Malcolm Todd, Ian Baker, Dr Jenny Blain, Dr Karen Smith

 

Author biographies

Acknowledgements