Writing about research design, business, social sciences, humanities


This topic within the series of resources on thesis, exegesis and journal article writing in the social sciences, humanities and business focuses on writing about the research design or the researchmethodology, or, for those writing exegeses in relation to an artefact, about the approach to producing the creative work.

Regardless of the style and structure of thesis, exegesis or journal article, they all explain:

  • what you did to achieve the research aims, or to reach your findings and conclusions,
  • why you chose to approach the research or your creative work in this way. 

Depending on the nature of your project, you may also include methodology writing to explain:

  • why your approach is better suited to understanding the research phenomenon, or some aspect of it, than other approaches adopted in the field;
  • what you did to obtain preliminary results that are not reported in findings chapter/s.

Although the last two are less common than the first, all three types of methodology writing will be discussed in this resource.

Three types of methodology writing

There are at least three different types of methodology writing:

  1. All theses, exegeses and journal articles provide type one methodology writing, in which an outline of what you did and why you did it that way is provided. There are a variety of possible placements for type one methodology writing, including in the introduction, in a separate chapter following the literature review, or in a brief section immediately before results in middle thesis chapters.
  2. Sometime methodology writing involves a review of different methodological approaches to show that your approach is better suited to understand the research phenomenon compared to other approaches. This might occur when there is more than one approach in the discipline, to introduce a new approach in the discipline, or to explain why one approach is better than others in the discipline in order to build the thesis or exegesis case. Type two methodology writing can take in steps two and three of the research story line in the sense that the purpose of this type of methodology writing is often to highlight the need for the current research, as well as to explicate the rationale underpinning the research design. Type two methodology writing may form a separate and distinctive chapter without type one content; or it may be integrated in type one methodology writing within the part of the thesis, exegesis or journal article that describes the conceptual approach; or it may form a part of your literature review. It usually appears in a paragraph, section or chapter preceding more detailed discussion of methods, materials, sample, selection process, data collection and analysis.
  3. In some instances, methodology writing introduces the methods used to produce intermediary results required to answer the thesis question, or results which are used in the next phase of the research, but which are not reported in the findings chapter (not typically applicable to exegeses). Type three methodology chapters will include some combination of a four part pattern including: 1. question/aims (possibly also literature review), 2. overview of the methodology used to obtain the preliminary result (methods, sampling, data analysis), 3. preliminary results, and 4. discussion, conclusion. The pattern may be repeated in one chapter, or repeated across more than one chapter depending on the thesis. But in each case, a method and methodology section that explains how the preliminary result was obtained is provided, followed by the results obtained, and a discussion and/or conclusion which says how the result will be used to answer the final thesis question, or, how it would need to be supplemented by further data to lead up to answering, or to answer the final thesis question. 

How much should I write?

As you can see, there are no simple rules about how much to write about methodology in your thesis, exegesis or journal article. How much you write will be unique to your own study. However, the points below may assist you in deciding how much you need to write about methodology.

  • When the method, methodology or model is relatively simple or straightforward, and well known or uncontroversial in your field it is not usually necessary to describe the method or approach in extensive detail. You might even cover the method and the supporting details of the research design within the introductory chapter of the thesis or exegesis or within short methods sections within the middle chapters of the thesis or exegesis.
  • When the method, methodology or model is complex, requires considerable detail to explain, is new or controversial in your field, or was used to produce intermediary results, you may need to dedicate a separate chapter or even several chapters to a discussion of method and methodology. 

Structure and content

Type one methodology writing 

General introduction

The introduction of type one methodology chapters may provide a concise statement (where relevant) 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, symbolism used,
  • approach to data analysis (except for exegeses). 

One or two paragraphs which provide this key information can 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 introductory thesis chapter, or, for more detailed type one methodology chapters, in the introduction of a separate chapter. If you will write a separate type one methodology chapter, try to avoid too much reproduction of the content provided in the introduction. Repetition of content can be avoided by focusing on providing more detail in the chapter introduction than is provided in the thesis introduction, bearing in mind that some overlap between the thesis introduction and chapter introductions is difficult to avoid and acceptable to some extent.

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 methods, materials, phases, or the works to be produced, in the first sentence or sentences of the general introduction. Reference to the aim, question or focus should reflect the 'gap' highlighted in the final paragraphs of the literature review section or chapter of the thesis or exegesis.

For example, you might 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 be placed before the research aim, question or focus, remembering to 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 ...'.

Main body

The main body provides, in order, detail (where applicable) about: 

  • theory or philosophy (to learn more about different philosophical approaches underpinning methodology in the social sciences and humanities, please refer to the Social philosophy of research online resources),
  • justification for a case study,
  • introduction to the methods (including sample, selection and data collection and recording processes),
  • art making practices, narrative structures, materials used, concepts evoked or engaged with in creative work (for exegeses),
  • explanation of the approach to data analysis.

These aspects of the research may be separated out in the chapter by using 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 it for each of these aspects of the research process for each method. In complex research designs, 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 qualitative research you may need 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 (including 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.

For quantitative research you may need to include information about:

  • independent, dependent and confounding variables;
  • study setting—naturalistic or contrived;
  • pilot projects and results;
  • sample (size, location, what unit of analysis, how selected, criteria for inclusions and exclusions);  
  • means by which information sources will be negotiated and accessed;
  • means by which data will be collected and recorded;
  • equipment, techniques, measures, measurement scales, materials used;
  • time horizon—snapshot, longitudinal, retrospective, multiple points in time;
  • means by which data will be analysed (surveys, questionnaires, statistical tests, equations and mathematical models);
  • how the validity, reliability, and rigor of the knowledge will be assured.

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 (see type three methodology writing).

Note that the typical order of content for type one 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).

The two step pattern

If you examine research texts closely, you will see that the main body within well written research design sections has a two step writerly pattern. Although these steps are typically blended within the general discussion, it is useful to consider them separately.

The first step describes the approach, in detail, and concisely. Typically this step takes up most of the content of the research design section.

The second step explains why the approach, and the details within the approach, were chosen. This is typically accomplished by referring back to the research aim in descriptions of the research design adopted. That is, the second step in the pattern explains how the approach adopted enables an exploration of the research aim, focus or question.

For example: step one, 'Grounded theory involves ... (references)'; step two, 'Grounded theory was chosen for this study because ... (link back to aspect of research aim)'. 

Try to avoid overly long, or generalised text-book-like descriptions of the nature or value of a particular methodology, method, or approach to data analysis. The research design section should continually draw the discussion back to a description of the current rationale and research aims. It may be helpful to remember that the same research question may be investigated from a number of different philosophical and methodological angles, using different methods and research designs, and that there may be little consensus about what constitutes the 'best' approach within your field. Within type one or standard methodology writing, what is important in the research design is not to list the positive benefits of an approach, but to explain how it will enable you to answer your research question.

Sentence stems

A simple sentence stem to accomplish step two methodology writing might be expressed in the form: 'x methodology, method or approach to data analysis was chosen because ...'. The because part of the sentence refers back to the research aims in some way. Sentences which link a description of what was done with why it was done would be expected to appear regularly throughout the research design section of the thesis or journal article. 

Possible linking sentence stems:


  • The study/work is underpinned by the methodological assumption that ... . Hence the research/work aims to ... .
  • X theoretical approach assumes that ... . This idea informs ... (aspect of the study).
  • Theoretical approach x is used in this research because it enables an exploration of ... (aspects of the research focus).
  • X's idea that ... illuminates ... (aspect of the research).
  • X theory provides a framework to deconstruct and understand ... (aspect of the research focus).
  • The research will employ x theory to analyse ... (aspect of research focus).


  • Action research was adopted for this study to achieve ... . Action research constitutes ...
  • The case study was chosen because ...
  • Data was collected through interviews with ... . The list of persons to be interviewed was selected on the basis of ... (fit with research focus).
  • X statistical test was used to examine ... (aspect of research focus).
  • A group parallel randomised control design was chosen specifically to provide ... (evidence pertaining to research focus).

Data analysis:

  • The ... (research data set) ... was analysed to test the hypothesis that .... .
  • The ... (research data set) ... was analysed to determine whether a relationship exists between ... variable x and ... variable y.
  • The ... (research data set) ... was analysed to determine whether ... (research phenomenon) ... supports the theoretical/popular/policy assumption that ... .
  • The ... (research data set) ... was analysed to provide a rich description of ... (research context) ... in order to test the validity of the theoretical/popular/policy assumption that ... .
  • The ... (research data set) ... was analysed to reflect upon the meaning of ... (research phenomena) ... within ... (social context of research) ... in order to understand whether ... (research focus).
  • The ... (research data set) ... was analysed to reflect on the critical differences between the meaning of ... (research phenomena x and research phenomena y) ... in order to understand whether ... (research focus).

Point of view and tense

When writing up the research design, the point of view adopted is that of the study rather than the researcher, especially for theses following the question/answer style, (‘The study design comprises … ’, ‘The sample population was drawn from …’) and, less commonly, the researcher (‘When sensitive issues arose, I … ’).

Use of an appropriate tense when writing about methods and methodology can be confusing for both native and non-native speakers, however there are some simple rules you can follow:

  • Use past tense verb to report methods/practices used in making work because these were conducted in the past (for example: 'works were produced', ‘interviews were conducted’, ‘surveys were distributed’).
  • Use present tense to refer to published papers or books in methodology writing, this is because the ideas expressed exist in the present, and this is what you are referring to, even though the text referred to was published in the past (for example: 'Brown suggests that x, y z factors are significant precursors of ...', 'Previous approaches assume that ..').
  • Use past tense when referring to methods conducted within studies because the methods of studies, unlike the findings, were conducted in past and are not current (for example: 'the study was based on a survey of ...', 'the study surveyed ...').


A good method/methodology chapter/section:

  • provides a summary of the research design, methods and methodological rationale in the opening paragraph or paragraphs;

  • organizes information within a clear structure moving from theory, or a discussion of the more abstract principles underpinning the research design (where applicable), through to the detail of the methods and analysis;

  • provides information in chronological order, or moves from a discussion of how the research design is conceptualised through to how data was gathered, organised and analysed;

  • links descriptions of elements within the research design or approach back to the research question, aims or central argument;

  • is concise, contains no superfluous detail or unnecessary or repetitive information.

Type two methodology writing

Type two methodology writing seems to be more typical in social science and humanities disciplines, and in multidisciplinary fields, where there are often a variety of methodological 'paradigms' or lenses through which data is collected and analysed. In STEM disciplines, in contrast, there is more likely to be consensus about methodology and a consequent commensurability of findings. Type two methodology writing is distinguished by its engagement with differences of approach to a problem space, and how these approaches affect the findings of research, or our understanding of a phenomenon. Type two methodology writing is often then more conceptual in nature than type one methodology writing which may or may not combine conceptual material with a description of how the research design will answer the research question. 

Whether or not to include type two methodology writing in your thesis, exegesis or journal article may depend upon:

  • whether there is philosophical, methodological, theoretical, conceptual diversity in your discipline;
  • whether a discussion of this diversity will build credibility for your approach;
  • whether a discussion of conceptual diversity is necessary because your field is likely to be sceptical of your approach.   

Type two methodology writing consists of:

  • discussion of what different approaches to a subject illuminate or bring to the foreground,
  • discussion of what an existing approach fails to reveal that the research will investigate.

The aim of type two methodology writing is often twofold. First, to show that existing approaches to a problem area, whether they are different by virtue of disciplinary, philosophical, methodological or theoretical perspectives, or a combination of these, are inadequate to some aspect of the subject matter of the research. Secondly, to show that the proposed approach will reveal an important unexplored or less considered aspect of the problem, which it is the objective of the research to investigate.  


The example below is comprised of excerpts taken from the introduction of a book chapter which precedes a discussion of the results of a sociological study on transexual and transgender experience.  

Ekins, R 1997, Male femaling, Routledge, London.

Paragraph 1

As I have intimated in Chapter 1, cross-dressing and sex-changing in contemporary advanced industrialised societies are variously considered as shocking: a media spectacle of prurient and endless fascination; a medical problem to be understood, managed and treated, and an alternative way of life for a misunderstood minority.


Reminds the reader of 'the problem' the research is concerned with.

Paragraph 2

Each aspect has generated its own literature in terms of curiosity and sensationalism in the popular press (references), specialist texts on ‘transvestism’, ‘transsexuality’ and ‘gender dysphoria’ in the psychiatric-psychological-medical arena (references), and in terms of world-wide information networks for cross-dressers and sex changers themselves (references).


Summarises the description of literatures and discipline areas that have addressed the problem.


Paragraph 2

Infrequently, social scientists have attended to the area, most typically from the specialist standpoints of ethnomethodology, the sociology of deviance, the medicalisation of gender roles, or feminism. Studies such as these have invariably underplayed the erotic, in both its subjective and social features. Only Lewins (1995) and the occasional serious piece of journalism in the quality press have attempted to bridge the gap between the disparate and discrete literatures.


Provides a summary description of social science discipline and methodological approaches to the research focus, and signals an aspect of the research focus which has not been adequately captured. 

Paragraph 2

From a quite different standpoint, the phenomenon dubbed 'gender bending' in the 1980s focused attention on 'transsexuals' and 'transvestites' as part of a general consideration of contemporary gender options. These writers suggest that cross-dressers and sex-changers may have a lot to teach us all  about the most fundamental questions of our nature, as being variously sexed and gendered. More recently, these issues have been taken up by cultural and queer theorists. Garber (1992), particularly is important in elucidating the ubiquity of cross-dressing phenomena, from the standpoint of cultural criticism. Such studies, for the most part, however, remain at the level of textual analysis and evidence a lack of intimate and wide-ranging knowledge of the experiences of cross-dressers and sex-changers themselves.

Provides a summary description of what research to date reveals on the subject, and explains that the method typically adopted has failed to provide a complete understanding of the subject (lack of focus on experience). 

Paragraph 3

What remains to be addressed, then, is a consideration of cross-dressing and sex-changing from the standpoint of a systematic and empirical exploration of the interrelations between sex, sexuality and gender. … If any sociology os sex, sexuality and gender is to be based upon firm foundations, we need to know much more about the process whereby identities, selves and objects become variously and with varying degrees of interconnectedness sexed, sexualised and gendered (both inside and outside of the specific area of cross-dressing and sex-changing).

Elaborates the research focus growing out of the 'gap' identified above.

Paragraph 4

Arguably, the reason for the neglect is that the literature lacks a serious non-medicalised treatment of cross-dressers and sex-changers based on extensive and first-hand knowledge of informants, considered as equals and co-workers, as they relate over time and place with their families, friends and associates in the full range of domestic, leisure, work, medical and sub cultural settings. It is the purpose of this study to rectify this gap in the literature.

Ties the gap in knowledge to a new methodological approach to the subject, signals an approach that would fill the gap.

Paragraph 5

It is instructive to distinguish the grounded theory approach from others used in the psychiatric and social scientific literature. The following review will serve as both a summary of the cognate work and an introduction to the research methodology which generated this study.

Outlines what will be covered in the chapter, an explanation of a new approach in the field, the study methodology, why it is needed for this subject.

If you look at the bolded text in the example above, you will see that the same kinds of sentence stems are used in type two methodology writing as in literature review writing. Type two methodology writing is often a form of literature review. The difference between type two methodology writing and other types of literature reviews is that it focuses purely upon the methodological approach taken by other studies. Literature reviews typically focus on the findings of studies, reporting what is and what is not known in a field area, only occasionally discussing differences in approach in any depth.   

Type three methodology writing example

The examples below are comprised of excerpts from the main thesis introduction, and the introduction from one of three methods chapters, for a PhD thesis. The exemplar is designed to illustrate how theses which must produce preliminary results in order to answer the thesis question can be structured. When reading the example, pay particular attention to the chapter outline in the first table. The second table is provided to show how a methods chapter using type three methodology writing is structured and functions within a thesis of this type.  

Example: Excerpts from thesis introduction for type 3 methodology writing in a PhD thesis

Naranpanawa, A. 2005. Trade liberalisation and poverty in a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model: Sri Lankan case, PhD thesis, Griffith Uni, Business School.

Thesis introduction

Annotation-thesis   placement structure

Trade and development economists, policy makers and policy analysts globally have argued that globalisation promotes growth and reduces poverty. However, critics argue that in developing countries integration into the world economy makes the poor poorer and the rich richer.

Problem statement

Existing research about the links between openness, growth and poverty are based on cross-country comparisons. While this research suggests that growth is pro   poor, it is unclear how it affects different income groups and sectors within a single economy. Sri Lanka offers an appropriate context to study income differentials because, despite being the first country in the South Asian region to liberalise its trade substantially, it continues to manifest significant poverty mainly among the rural population. There is a considerable literature to support a Sri Lankan specific computable general equilibrium (CGE) model to simulate the economic effects of trade liberalisation. However, a poverty focused CGE model for Sri Lanka has never   been developed.

Literature review summary notes that most studies provide cross-country comparisons and points to two ‘gaps’ or contributions of the research. First, a study of the impact of trade liberalization on poverty in a single economy, and second, a poverty   model for Sri Lanka.

The main objective of this study is to use a general equilibrium framework to identify and quantify the direction and the magnitude of the short run and long run implications of trade liberalization on household level poverty and income inequality using Sri Lanka as a case study.

Objective of the thesis growing out of the gap and problem statement.

A poverty focused CGE model for the Sri Lankan economy was developed in order to simulate the effects of trade liberalisation upon poverty. As a requirement for the development of such a model, a social accounting matrix of the Sri Lankan economy for the year 1995 was constructed. In order to estimate income differences between urban and rural groups, income distribution for different household groups was empirically estimated and linked to the CGE model in 'top down' mode. This enabled a wide range of household level poverty and inequality measurements to be computed. Finally, a set of simulation experiments was conducted to identify the impact of trade liberalisation in manufacturing and agricultural industries on absolute and relative poverty at household level.

Summary description of the methods/methodology

Chapter two provides a historical over view of trade liberalization, poverty and inequality experience in Sri Lanka. Chapter three surveys the available literature on poverty-focused CGE model applications in order to highlight the poverty capturing mechanisms in available CGE models. This chapter also presents a brief overview of the theoretical and empirical methodologies used in addressing the trade and poverty linkage.

In chapter four we develop the poverty-focused CGE model for Sri Lanka, which comprises multiple households and which has the capability to endogenise the change in the poverty line.

Chapter five presents the empirical best-fit income distribution functional forms for different household groups in Sri Lanka. It also estimates a wide range of poverty and inequality indices for Sri Lanka for the base case scenario. It further briefly explains the linking of income distribution functional forms with the CGE model developed in the previous chapter.

The construction of the SAM for Sri Lanka and other data necessary for   implementing the CGE model are discussed in chapter six.

Chapter seven presents the results of the trade policy simulation experiments carried out using the CGE model and the linked income distribution functional forms. It further presents the results of the systematic sensitivity analysis (SSA) for parameters.

Chapter outline−note there are two ‘literature reviews’, chapters two and three. Chapter two outlines what is known in relation to the problem (poverty effects of trade liberalization in Sri Lanka) and the second outlines what we know and what remains to be done on models to measure the problem.


Chapters four, five and six are all devoted to developing the model which will find the answer to the question, but they do not themselves answer the question which is about the effect of trade liberalization on poverty.

There is only one results chapter in the thesis, followed by the conclusion chapter.

Example: Excerpt of introduction to chapter five for above thesis, for type 3 methodology writing in PhD thesis

Naranpanawa, A. 2005. Trade liberalisation and poverty in a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model: Sri Lankan case, PhD thesis, Griffith Uni, Business School.

The objective of this chapter is to explain the methodology involved in   estimating income distribution functional forms of different household groups in the SLGEM−P developed in chapter four in order to measure poverty and   inequality indices for the base case scenario. In this chapter we extend the different aggregated household groups in the LSGEM−P into empirically estimated income distribution functions based on household survey data. These distribution functions in turn would be used to estimate various poverty and inequality indices for the base year using a ‘top down’ approach we estimate the post stimulation poverty and inequality estimates. 

Chapter five introduces the objective of the chapter linked to the thesis aim−to use household survey data to estimate household income distribution

The empirical estimation of best-fit income distribution functions for different household groups has never been carried out for Sri Lanka. Moreover, linking of household level income distribution functions with a national CGE model and estimating different poverty and inequality indices within a general equilibrium framework has never been attempted for Sri Lanka. Interestingly, there are hardly any studies available within the context of CGE models which investigate the linkage between trade reforms and poverty by incorporating empirical best-fit-income distribution functions. This study seeks to shed more light on the current debate on the trade-poverty   linkage by attempting to fill the gaps in the above areas.

Note that although the chapter describes a method that will not directly produce the result, or the answer to the question, it does provide a literature review element outlining how this step of the method developed in the thesis contributes to the field of research. This might then be an example of a thesis whose methods/methodology chapters, and not simply the results chapters, as   would be more typical, contribute something unique to the field (being also potentially publishable).

Therefore, this chapter attempts to fit the most suitable income distribution functional forms empirically and link them with the CGE model to measure the poverty and distributional consequences of trade reforms. Moreover, we estimate the base case estimates of poverty and inequality indices, which are necessary for the simulation experiments described in chapter seven.

Chapter aim

This chapter is organized as follows. Section 5.2 discusses the available income distribution functions within CGE models. The empirical procedure for estimating the income distribution functions for different household groups in Sri Lanka is described in Section 5.3. Section 5.4 discusses the poverty and inequality indices used in the study and presents the results of base year poverty and inequality estimates. The linking of income distribution models with the CGE model is briefly explained in Section 5.5.

Chapter outline−note that the chapter structure uses the normal literature review, methodology, results and conclusion structure, but these are not tied to the overall thesis aim directly. The aim of the chapter is rather to provide intermediate knowledge about a measure required to answer the overall thesis question.

This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich.

Last modified: Wednesday, 22 May 2019, 11:50 AM