Thing 02: Research Methods
When starting your research project, you’ll be asked to think about and define your research method(s). There are lots of approaches, and it can feel overwhelming choosing the right one for you. To help with your decision making, you can find overviews of approaches in Sage Research Methods. But what exactly are research methods? And with so many options available, how do you choose one? In this post, A/Prof. Paul Gruba shares some insights.
Assuming that you have established a purpose for your study, set a scope, and established a conceptual framework, you now have to choose your research methods – which can be a tough decision. At this point, your own philosophy, personality, and style very much comes into play. Read about ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ (that is, the nature of reality and the study of knowledge) and see how you want to be situated in your field. With that in mind, reflect on what you like to do, and what you are able to do in the time that you have to complete the study.
That Thing you do: integration into practice
When I first started supervising Toru, he had already been working with another supervisor for some time, and that person had retired. The data had been gathered, and analysis was well under way. To be frank, I didn’t really understand multivariate factor analysis, but I quickly saw that Toru had never written about why he had chosen this method. It seemed to me that without justification his study lacked a demonstration of deep understanding or independent thinking. Both of those points are often considered in the solid review and assessment of research. So, for a few weeks, I worked closely with Toru to justify his methodological decisions with the following questions in mind:
- What was the initial motivation for the study?
- What was the depth of previous work in the area?
- How had previous studies conducted such research?
We re-examined the original reason to begin the study, because it is important to locate where Toru’s eventual contribution would fit into the overall discipline area. Does his research extend long-held conversations on key challenges and concepts, or does it depart in such a way that it runs the risk of becoming isolated? The depth of previous research will indicate the degree to which concepts are accepted within a discipline area, and the extent to which central factors and variables are defined. We then examined previous studies to understand how researchers explained their methods: were the approaches, techniques and variables communicated well enough so that the study could be replicated? Although it took a few weeks to review the work, and better justify Toru’s choice of research methods, our combined efforts strengthened the study and Toru was eventually able to publish his work. Indeed, he went on to write several research methods books in his own discipline area!
Reflecting on my own experiences with research methods – as a researcher and a supervisor – I would also say that the choices we make depend on individual personality and style. Although I was originally trained as a journalist, I conducted several studies through quantitative data analysis. Eventually, though, I came to see that what I really wanted to do was ‘talk to people’ and ‘tell a story’, so I came to adopt a largely qualitative approach to my work. By contrast, Cherie came from a quantitative background. During her thesis, she employed qualitative approaches, but as she graduated and worked at another university she focused on statistical methods in her research. Cherie told me that quantitative approaches appealed to her because she enjoyed knowing ‘for sure’ if a result was significant or not. It was also the case that such work fit better into the research community at her new university.
Increasingly, decisions involving research methods touch on issues of privacy, voluntary participation and data management. Remember that choices of methods are intrinsically tied to ethical considerations, so undertake the appropriate training to ensure ethics remain a central focus throughout your work. Once you are collecting data, be sure that you know where the data will be kept, how secure the storage is, and how the data itself can be made available and published if required.
For many years, I served on a university human research ethics committee. Oftentimes, approval depended on a whether a researcher could clearly demonstrate and communicate their approach to conducting a proposed study. Choices in research methods often involved ethical choices, too.
Talk to a liaison librarian and read a Library Guide, to get ideas of how to conduct research in your field. Each year, new research methods are published, so be sure to stay alert for emerging concepts and innovations by keeping up-to-date with relevant publications. Subscribe to notifications from leading journals in your discipline and, if possible, attend academic conferences and read the proceedings. At the University of Melbourne, be sure to undertake the Research Integrity Online Training (RIOT) to gain an understanding of ethical considerations and work through the ‘Managing Data@Melbourne’ site with your own study in mind.
About the author
Paul Gruba is an associate professor in the School of Languages and Linguistics. Perhaps best known to the research community as a co-author of ‘How to write a better thesis’, his own work concerns intersections of technology, language and media.
One more Thing …
Did you know that University of Melbourne Library users can access Sage Research Methods Core database (link)? You can use this database to learn more about research methods and use its interactive Project Planner for your own research. Thing 2 author, Paul Gruba introduces the database in these two videos:
Want more from 23 Research Things? Sign up to our mailing list to never miss a post.