Writing about research design
- Structure of the research design section
- The two step pattern in the main body of the research design
- Example step one and step two in transport geography study
- Example step one and step two in gender studies study
- Example sentence stems
- Ethical considerations
- The timeline
The methods and methodology section of the research proposal provides an overall plan of how the research objectives will be achieved. In empirical research, it includes a description of the methods and the processes and tools used to gather and analyse the data, as well as an explanation of any conceptual perspective/s that inform the research process. In disciplines such as law, creative writing and art, where the language of 'data' and 'methods' may have little resonance, it is nevertheless important to explain how the research or art making practice will be undertaken. Regardless of discipline, the research design section of the research proposal tells the reader what you intend to do, how and where you will do it, and why you will do it in this way.
The research design section encompasses the:
- methodology or rationale that underpins the research aim, study design, choice of method or approach and the analysis of data,
- data collection methods and study design, or description of artistic practice and materials,
- strategies used to analyse data (except for creative writers and artists),
- discussion of special ethical circumstances as applicable.
This resource provides some tips on how to write the research design section of the research proposal.
Before going on to consider how to structure and write this sections in more detail, it might be useful to clarify what is meant by the terms methods and methodological rationale, and conceptual terms like philosophy, theory, frameworks and models, all of which can come into a discussion of the research design.
According to the dictionary, method refers to 'an orderly or systematic procedure for doing something'. Methods are the physical techniques or procedures used to gather and analyse data, or to produce a creative artefact. Some common research methods include:
- text, image, film or music analysis
- policy analysis
- doctrinal or legal analysis
- statistical analsyis of publically available data or records
- art making practice
- creative writing
- documentary or film making.
Methodology refers to 'the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods, and linking the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes' (Crotty, 1998:3). Methodology can refer to theory, philosophy or more practical decision making that underpins the research.
Research design is often informed by theory, frameworks, models or by a philosophical approach. Each of these terms has a different meaning. Being clear about their meaning is helpful not only in selecting appropriate language to use in your research proposal, but in understanding the kind of content that needs to be provided when defining the conceptual assumptions underpinning your research. The terms philosophy or theory, particularly social theory, are often used interchangeably within social and human research, although strictly speaking they refer to different things.
Theory: refers to a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles.
It follows that when you define a theory in your research design you will describe what the theory explains or predicts, or what general principles it provides.
Framework: refers to a basic structure underlying a system, concept or text.
It follows that when you define a framework in your research design you will explain the system it is proposed to underly, as well as the elements or components that it comprises.
Model: refers to a systematic description of an object or phenomenon that shares important characteristics with the object or phenomenon.
Similarly, a description of a model should tell the reader which object or phenomena it describes and the kinds of characteristics it proposes are a part of that object or phenomena.
Note that frameworks and models are not theories because they do not predict or explain what happens. Rather, models and frameworks tell us about the characteristics or properties of phenomena.
Philosophy: is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence. Philosophical approach determines the kinds of questions you ask, the assumptions you make about the nature of 'reality', and how you propose to gain 'valid' knowledge' about phenomena. For the most part, philosophical questions underpinning the research design pertain to epistemology. Epistemology refers to the branch of philosophy which deals with how we come to know about ourselves and our world, or the philosophical grounds upon which we will claim to have produced 'valid' knowledge. For instance, your epistemological approach determines whether you validate your knowledge on the basis of observable or quantifiable phenomenon, or whether you hold that knowledge arises in human experience and interaction, and requires qualitative methods to explore. There are many philosophical approaches within the social sciences and humanities which attempt to address these kinds of questions. For more support in clarifying the philosophical premises that underpin your research aim or methodological rationale see the Social philosophy of research for social sciences, education and humanities for resources.
You may observe that theories, frameworks and models are often specific to a discipline, although some may be shared by two or more disciplines. Philosophy is a little bit different, and specifically social philosophy, because the same philosophical approaches are often used across disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.
Research proposals tend to discuss the main elements of the research design in the following order:
- General introduction provides a concise statement of any conceptual assumptions that inform the research design, research phases and the relationship between research phases, methods or description of creative practice, and other key information needed to get an overview of the research design (such as detail about samples, case studies, research tools). This can be omitted if key information has already been provided in the introduction.
- Methodology introduces theory or other conceptual content, or other important information that explains the overall design or assumptions underpinning the research design.
- Methods and data collection processes could include headings or information pertaining to methods, process for data collection, materials, sample, selection of sample, recording processes. In visual arts or more scholarly or creative humanities disciplines there may be a discussion of key themes, metaphors or ideas to be used in the creation of artistic or literary work.
- Data analysis is the last part of the research design section and includes an explanation of the approach to data analysis. Research which does not collect 'data' would omit this section.
The general introduction provides a concise statement (where applicable) of:
- underpinning philosophy,
- theoretical approach,
- research phases,
- relationship between research phases,
- methods and research process, or, for exegeses, the section that describes your creative practice, the approach, materials, themes adopted,
- approach to data analysis (not typically for artefact based research).
One or two paragraphs which provide this key information should be provided before going into the detail of the methodology. This enables the reader to understand the overall research rationale as well as the general shape of the research design or approach before being presented with detail about the different aspects within it. This introduction would typically appear in the introduction of the proposal, and/or in the introduction of the methodology section of the proposal. Try to avoid reproducing content provided in the introduction. This can be achieved by focusing on providing more detail in the introduction to the methodology section than is provided in the research proposal introduction.
If the research has more than one phase or study, these should also be introduced, along with the methods and perhaps the data analysis approach to be taken in each phase or study. It is also important to briefly describe the relationship, if any, between the phases or studies in the introduction to the research design.
A good way to communicate your research rationale clearly within this introduction to your methodology is to link the research aim, question or focus with a description of the works to be produced, or the methods, materials, phases adopted, in the first sentence or sentences of the general introduction. The aim, question or focus should be taken from the 'gap' highlighted in the final paragraphs of the literature review section or chapter of the thesis or exegesis.
For example, try using the following sentence structure: ‘In order to investigate … (insert research question/focus here) … this study undertook … (insert detail of work/methods/methodology)'.
Phrases like 'in order to determine ...', 'to verify whether ...', 'to test the assumption that ...', 'to discover if ...' can also be placed before the research aim, question or focus. Use language appropriate to your discipline and to your methodology. For instance artists and creative writers might use terms like 'to explore the insight that ...', or 'to evoke the conceptual limitation contained in ...'.
Example linking of question and method
In order to explore the relationships between employee representation, organisational justice, and work-life spill-over, the research will comprise two interrelated studies. Study one is a qualitative survey utilising one-on-one in-depth interviews designed to facilitate ‘telling the story’ of respondents. Study one will determine the format and design of questions in the cross-sectional quantitative survey in study two. Though the cross-sectional survey cannot demonstrate cause and effect relationships, it can evaluate the relationship between an outcome and various predictors as they exist at a particular point in time. The results of the qualitative and quantitative studies aim to capture employee experience of industrial relations (voice and representation) and its impacts upon their experience of organisational justice, and work-life interaction.
The main body provides more detail (as applicable) about:
- theory or philosophy,
- justification of a case study,
- introduction to methods (including sample, selection and data collection and recording processes), or art making practices, narrative structures, materials used, concepts evoked or engaged with in creative work (for exegeses),
- explanation of the approach to data analysis (except for artistic or literary works).
These aspects of the research may be separated out in the section with separate headings. When different methods use their own sample, selection method, data collection and recording process, use a separate heading for each method, with sub headings under each to cover sample and analysis information for the data set covered. In very complex research, methods headings might be needed under larger headings for each research phase, with sub-headings under each method heading for the different aspects of the research process. For complex research designs involving many phases, methods and processes of data analysis, a diagrammatic representation may be helpful.
Depending on your research design, it will be important to include information about:
- pilot project and results;
- research participants/organisations/texts;
- the criteria used to determine the sources of information selected (how sample selected, size, location, generalisability, criteria for inclusions and exclusions);
- the means by which information sources will be negotiated and accessed;
- the means by which data will be collected and recorded;
- how the data will be analysed once it is collected (surveys, questionnaires, statistical tests, equations and mathematical models, the kinds of information or questions that will inform the coding of interview transcripts and policy analysis);
- how the validity, reliability, and rigor of the knowledge will be assured;
- independent, dependent and confounding variables;
- study setting–naturalistic or contrived;
- equipment, techniques, measures, measurement scales, materials used;
- time horizon – snapshot, longitudinal, retrospective, multiple points in time.
The methods chapter or section does not include results, unless they were obtained to shape some aspect of the method and are more relevant to the methods section than the results section which answers the overarching thesis question.
Note that the typical order of content for methodology sections or chapters follows a few basic principles:
- moves from abstract to detailed content (from philosophy, theory, to detail of the methods and data collection, and then to analysis),
- follows the chronological order in which you did the research (from conceptualisation, to preparation of sample, to data collection, to data analysis),
- utilises a two step pattern within each part of the content (says what you did in step one, and why you did it that way in step two).
Since every research design is unique, there is no standard method or research design template that determines what to include. It is necessary to carefully think through what information will be provided in the research proposal, and what will be left out for your own study.
Conceptual content in the research proposal
It can be difficult to know where to use theory, models, frameworks or philosophy in the research proposal. To work out where and how to write about conceptual content in your research proposal, try the steps below:
1. Write a sentence or brief paragraph that defines the theory, model, framework or philosophy. Use the sentence stem:
Do not skip this step before moving on to step 2. Most problems with the use of conceptual content arise because this step has been missed. In other words, it is necessary to define, and sometimes 'teach yourself' the definition, before you can explain and decide how it will be used in your research.
2. Now ask yourself: how does this concept assist me to persuade my research panel of the significance of my research? NB: It is usually in one of two ways: by assisting to explicate a gap in the literature; or by assisting to explicate the rationale for your research methodology. Sometimes the same concept or different concepts will be used in both literature review and methodology sections. Instead of asking: ‘where do I put the theory’, ask ‘why am I using this theory? How does this theory assist me in my research’. Once you have the answer, you can decide whether you want to use the concept, and where to put a discussion of conceptual content in your proposal.
3. Discuss this with your supervisor or a colleague.
The main body of the methodology section of the research proposal might be thought about as having a two-step pattern. Although these steps are typically blended within the general discussion of the research design, it is useful to consider their distinctive forms.
A first step is to describe the steps and aspects within the research design or approach, in detail, and concisely. Typically this step takes up most of the content of the method and methodology section of the research proposal. This step may include a definition of a theory, model, framework, epistemology or practical tool, and a description of how it will be applied in your research design or approach.
A second step is to explain why the approach, and the details within the approach, were chosen. In many cases the link to the aim will be obvious in the research design, but for some aspects of the research design it may be important to provide explicit explanation for the choice made. The second step in the pattern shows how the approach enables you to achieve the research aim, or to answer the question.
For example: step one, 'Grounded theory assumes that ... (reference). The analysis therefore involves ... (describe research design)'; step two, 'A grounded theory analysis is useful for this study because ...(link back to research aim)'.
When justifying your decisions in step two, work to draw the discussion back to your own research rationale and research aim in some way. You can check your writing to ensure that the detail and explanation provided in your research design section either implicitly or explicitly links back to your research aim, question or objective.
Excerpt from study abstract and methods section, Fyhri, A. and R. Hjorthol. 2009. 'Children's independent mobility to school, friends and leisure activities'. Journal of Transport Geography 17, 377-384.
Problem: Increased use of the car in everyday transport of children can lead to environmental problems, and cause increased obesity and decreased independence among children.
Method and objective: Using a structural equation model investigate the influence of a range of background variables on mode of choice for Australian children's transport to school or leisure activities.
One step, two step in methodology section
The study will utilise data from the 2016 Norwegian national survey. The respondents of the survey respresent the population of Norway 13 years of age and over. The total number of respondents was 17 514, each drawn at random from the national register (step one, describes how data were obtained). The survey provides socio-demographic information about each respondent and their household (level of education, income, occupation, number of children and age), travel activity on a particular day, trips to work and other work-related questions, car access and quality of public transport. The survey also provides information on the frequency of use of different modes of transport (the car as well as other modes) (step two, lists relevant variables to show how the survey information is relevant to the research aim).
Excerpt from study abstract and methods chapter M. Flood. 2000. Lust, trust and latex: Why young heterosexual men don't use condoms, PhD thesis, ANU, Centre for Women's Studies.
Problem: Spread of sexually transmitted AIDS among young heterosexual men.
Aim: To understand how men understand their sexuality and masculinity, and how this influences their sexual practices around AIDS prevention.
One step, two step in methodology section
The research will be centred on a set of in-depth semi-structured interviews with up to 20 young heterosexual men between the ages of 18 to 26 (step one, describes how data were obtained). … The research informants will not be a statistically representative sample of young heterosexual men, or of heterosexual men in general. I do not claim to be able to generalise from the interviewees to wider populations of heterosexual men. Instead, I use the men’s accounts to test claims in the literature about heterosexual men’s understandings and about heterosexual masculinity, to examine the detailed operation of particular meanings in men’s personal narratives, and to theorise about understandings which may be present in the lives of young heterosexual men in Australia. I am not interested in the informants as a group from which to generate statistics on what proportion do or don’t practise a particular sexual behaviour, but in the details of each man’s life and the ways in which particular sexual meanings, understandings and practices are related (step two, links the method to the aim).
- The methodological assumption underpinning this research is ... . This was used to ... (describe research design, step one). Hence the research aims to ... (link back to research aim, step two).
- X theoretical approach assumes that ... . This idea informs ... (aspect of the research design, step one). This approach enables ... (link back to research aim, step two).
- The framework describes ... system in terms of the following components: ... (step one). The framework is used in this research to ... (aspect of the research design/aim, step two).
- X's idea that ... (step one) illuminates ... (aspect of the research approach/aim, step two).
- X theory explains that ... is the result of ... (step one). The theory informs ... (aspect of the research design, step one). This enables ... (link back to research aim, step two).
- According to the framework, ... (object or phenomena) contains ... (elements) (step one). The research will employ the model in its ... (aspect of research design/aim, step two).
Note that in the examples above the conceptual assumptions underpinning the approach are described (step one) before their use in the study is explained. This enables the reader to understand how it will be used in the study. Try to avoid referring to theory without first explaining what you understand by it. This should be done the first time the theory, framework, model or philosophy is mentioned, although it can be unpacked further in later parts of the proposal.
- The study engages participants in an action research cycle involving ... (step one). Action research was adopted for this study because ... (step two, link back to research aim).
- The organisation chosen has ... (step one). This case study provides... (step two, ensure link back to research aim).
- Data will be collected through interviews with ... (step one). The list of persons to be interviewed will depend upon ... (fit with research focus, step two).
- X statistical test will be used to examine ... (step one). This enables a comparison of ... (step two, linked to research aim).
- The design involved ... (step one). A group parallel randomised control design has been chosen specifically to provide ... evidence to quantify the ... (aspect of research focus, step two).
Data analysis writing:
- The analysis involved ... (step one). The research data will be analysed to test the hypothesis that .... (link to research aim, step two).
- X statistical tests were undertaken. This entailed ... (step one). The research data will be analysed to determine whether a relationship exists between variable x and variable y (step two, link to research aim).
- Interviews explored ... (step one). The data will be analysed to determine whether ... supports the theoretical/popular/policy assumption that ... (link to research question, step two).
- The lived experience of participants was captured by ... (step one). The research data will be analysed to provide a rich description of ... in order to test the validity of the theoretical/popular/policy assumption that ... (link to research question, step two).
- A thematic analysis will be undertaken in which ... (step one). The research data will be analysed to reflect on the critical differences between the meaning of x and research phenomena y in order to understand whether ... (link to research question, step two).
If there are no special ethical considerations arising from the research, you can simply refer the reader to consent forms and recruitment materials, such as information sheets and letters of introduction, attached in the appendices as they become relevant within the description of the research design.
When preparing information for research participants, it is important to follow recommended information sheet guidelines and to carefully adapt model consent forms to the requirements of your own research.
If specific ethical issues are raised by your research, they should be raised and discussed in the final part of the research design section of the research proposal. Ethical issues are raised for example when working offshore, with human tissue, with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, or in situations in which issues of dependency and unequal power relationships between the researcher and participants arise. More information about special ethical circumstances can be found on the Graduate Research Centre web site.
The timeline usually follows the research design within the structure of the research proposal. The timeline is typically provided in the form of a table or chart describing when particular milestones will be met across the duration of candidature. The milestones referred to in the timeline include the steps in the research design, as well as research writing and communication outcomes, like deadlines for drafts and dates for presentations. The timeline assists in answering reviewers questions about the feasibility of the research.
Some tips to consider when designing your timeline:
- It is normal to underestimate the amount of time that will be needed for different stages in the research, so be generous and check with experienced researchers.
- Work backwards from the submission of your thesis.
- Break down each step within the research design, including any pilots, collection and analysis of data, and plot it on the timeline.
- Include any external constraints or deadlines within the timeline.
- Have a look at a range of other timelines in research proposals and grant applications and choose what you will include in your own. Some examples are provided below.
The methodology section of the research proposal aims to reassure the reviewer that the methodology, method and approach to data analysis will be adequate to the stated research aims.
The following questions may be useful in assessing the research design section of the research proposal.
- Have I provided an overview of the research design in the introduction (of the research proposal and/or the methodology section)?
- Have I linked my aim or question with the method and methodology in the opening paragraph of the methodology section?
- Have I included a discussion of any theory, frameworks, models or philosophy underpinning my methodological approach?
- Have I discussed the full process for each phase or data set, including how it will be analysed?
- Have I both described and justified each choice within my research design in the main body of the research design section?
- Have I addressed any special ethical considerations arising from the research?
- Have I provided a timeline which maps key stages in the research process against time.
Crotty, M 1998, The Foundations of Social Research, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich.