Skip to main content

Research Methods Information: Methods/Methodologies

A comprehensive resource for faculty and students who are teaching and conducting research.


Methods vs. Methodology | How Are They Different?

Methods and the Methodology

Do not confuse the terms methods and methodology. As Schneider notes, a method refers to the technical steps taken to do research. Descriptions of methods usually include defining them and stating why you have chosen specific techniques to investigate a research problem, followed by an outline of the procedures you used to systematically select, gather, and process the data [remember to always save the interpretation of data for the discussion section of your paper].

Methodology refers to a discussion of the underlying reasoning why particular methods were used. This discussion includes describing the theoretical concepts that inform the choice of methods to be applied, placing the choice of methods within the more general nature of academic work, and reviewing its relevance to examining the research problem. The discussion also includes a thorough review of the literature about methods other scholars have used to study the topic.

SOURCES: Bryman, Alan."Of Methods and Methodology." Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal 3 (2008):159-168; Schneider, Florian. “What's in a Methodology: The Difference between Method, Methodology, and Theory…and How to Get the Balance Right?” Chinese Department, University of Leiden, Netherlands.

Labaree, Robert. Types of Research Designs. Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Papers: Types of Designs research guide. USC Libraries, 2016.
The content of this section was created by Dr. Labaree and used with his permission.

The Methods Section of The Study | Overview

What Does the Methods Section Include?

The methods section describes the rationale for the application of specific procedures or techniques used to identify, select, and analyze information applied to understanding the research problem, thereby, allowing the reader to critically evaluate a study’s overall validity and reliability. The methodology section of a research paper answers two main questions: How was the data collected or generated? And, how was it analyzed? The writing should be direct and precise and always written in the past tense.

SOURCE: Kallet, Richard H. "How to Write the Methods Section of a Research Paper." Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004): 1229-1232.

The Importance of a Good Methodology Section

You must explain how you obtained and analyzed your results for the following reasons:

  • Readers need to know how the data was obtained because the method you chose affects the findings and, by extension, how you likely interpreted them.
  • Methodology is crucial for any branch of scholarship because an unreliable method produces unreliable results and, as a consequence, undermines the value of your interpretations of the findings.
  • In most cases, there are a variety of different methods you can choose to investigate a research problem. The methodology section of your paper should clearly articulate the reasons why you chose a particular procedure or technique.
  • The reader wants to know that the data was collected or generated in a way that is consistent with accepted practice in the field of study. For example, if you are using a multiple choice questionnaire, readers need to know that it offered your respondents a reasonable range of answers to choose from.
  • The method must be appropriate to fulfilling the overall aims of the study. For example, you need to ensure that you have a large enough sample size to be able to generalize and make recommendations based upon the findings.
  • The methodology should discuss the problems that were anticipated and the steps you took to prevent them from occurring. For any problems that do arise, you must describe the ways in which they were minimized or why these problems do not impact in any meaningful way your interpretation of the findings.
  • In the social and bahavioral sciences, it is important to always provide sufficient information to allow other researchers to adopt or replicate your methodology. This information is particularly important when a new method has been developed or an innovative use of an exisiting method is utilized.

Bem, Daryl J. Writing the Empirical Journal Article. Psychology Writing Center. University of Washington; Lunenburg, Frederick C. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008.

I. Groups of Research Methods

There are two main groups of research methods in the social sciences:

  1. The empirical-analytical group approaches the study of social sciences in a similar manner that researchers study the natural sciences. This type of research focuses on objective knowledge, research questions that can be answered yes or no, and operational definitions of variables to be measured. The empirical-analytical group employs deductive reasoning that uses existing theory as a foundation for formulating hypotheses that need to be tested. This approach is focused on explanation.
  2. The interpretative group of methods is focused on understanding phenomenon in a comprehensive, holistic way. Interpretive methods focus on analytically disclosing the meaning-making practices of human subjects [the why, how, or by what means people do what they do], while showing how those practices arrange so that it can be used to generate observable outcomes. Interpretive methods allow you to recognize your connection to the phenomena under study but, because the interpretative group focuses more on subjective knowledge, it requires careful interpretation of variables.

II. Content

An effectively written methodology section should:

  • Introduce the overall methodological approach for investigating your research problem. Is your study qualitative or quantitative or a combination of both (mixed method)? Are you going to take a special approach, such as action research, or a more neutral stance?
  • Indicate how the approach fits the overall research design. Your methods should have a clear connection with your research problem. In other words, make sure that your methods will actually address the problem. One of the most common deficiencies found in research papers is that the proposed methodology is not suitable to achieving the stated objective of your paper.
  • Describe the specific methods of data collection you are going to use, such as, surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observation, archival research. If you are analyzing existing data, such as a data set or archival documents, describe how it was originally created or gathered and by whom.
  • Explain how you intend to analyze your results. Will you use statistical analysis? Will you use specific theoretical perspectives to help you analyze a text or explain observed behaviors? Describe how you plan to obtain an accurate assessment of relationships, patterns, trends, distributions, and possible contradictions found in the data.
  • Provide background and a rationale for methodologies that are unfamiliar for your readers. Very often in the social sciences, research problems and the methods for investigating them require more explanation/rationale than widely accepted rules governing the natural and physical sciences. Be clear and concise in your explanation.
  • Provide a justification for subject selection and sampling procedure. For instance, if you propose to conduct interviews, how do you intend to select the sample population? If you are analyzing texts, which texts have you chosen, and why? If you are using statistics, why is this set of statistics being used? If other data sources exist, explain why the data you chose is most appropriate to addressing the research problem.
  • Describe potential limitations. Are there any practical limitations that could affect your data collection? How will you attempt to control for potential confounding variables and errors? If your methodology may lead to problems you can anticipate, state this openly and show why pursuing this methodology outweighs the risk of these problems cropping up.

NOTE:  Once you have written all of the elements of the methods section, subsequent revisions should focus on how to present those elements as clearly and as logically as possibly. The description of how you prepared to study the research problem, how you gathered the data, and the protocol for analyzing the data should be organized chronologically. For clarity, when a large amount of detail must be presented, information should be presented in sub-sections according to topic.

III. Problems to Avoid

Irrelevant Detail: The methodology section of your paper should be thorough but to the point. Do not provide any background information that doesn’t directly help the reader to understand why a particular method was chosen, how the data was gathered or obtained, and how it was analyzed.

Unnecessary Explanation of Basic Procedures: Remember that you are not writing a how-to guide about a particular method. You should make the assumption that readers possess a basic understanding of how to investigate the research problem on their own and, therefore, you do not have to go into great detail about specific methodological procedures. The focus should be on how you applied a method, not on the mechanics of doing a method.

NOTE: An exception to this rule is if you select an unconventional approach to doing the method; if this is the case, be sure to explain why this approach was chosen and how it enhances the overall research process.

Problem Blindness: It is almost a given that you will encounter problems when collecting or generating your data. Do not ignore these problems or pretend they did not occur. Often, documenting how you overcame obstacles can form an interesting part of the methodology. It demonstrates to the reader that you can provide a cogent rationale for the decisions you made to minimize the impact of any problems that arose.

Literature Review: Just as the literature review section of your paper provides an overview of sources you have examined while researching a particular topic, the methodology section should cite any sources that informed your choice and application of a particular method [i.e., the choice of a survey should include any citations to the works you used to help construct the survey].

It’s More than Sources of Information! A description of a research study's method should not be confused with a description of the sources of information. Such a list of sources is useful in itself, especially if it is accompanied by an explanation about the selection and use of the sources. The description of the project's methodology complements a list of sources in that it sets forth the organization and interpretation of information emanating from those sources.

SOURCES: Azevedo, L.F. et al. "How to Write a Scientific Paper: Writing the Methods Section." Revista Portuguesa de Pneumologia 17 (2011): 232-238; Butin, Dan W. The Education Dissertation A Guide for Practitioner Scholars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010; Carter, Susan. Structuring Your Research Thesis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Lunenburg, Frederick C. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Methods Section. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; What is Interpretive Research. Institute of Public and International Affairs, University of Utah; Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Methods and Materials. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College.

Labaree, Robert. Types of Research Designs. Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Papers: Types of Designs research guide. USC Libraries, 2016.
The content of this section was created by Dr. Labaree and used with his permission.

Basic Definitions

Systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications. ( sometimes referred to as research methodology.

Purposes of Research

  • Review or synthesize existing knowledge

  • Investigate existing situations or problems

  • Provide solutions to problems

  • Explore and analyze more general issues

  • Construct or create new procedures or systems

  • Explain new phenomenon

  • Generate new knowledge or combination of any of the above

Research Types

"The ways of categorizing research studies."


"Research conducted for a problem that has not been clearly defined."

  • Looks for patterns, hypotheses or ideas that can be tested
  • Can help determine the best research design, data collection method, and selection of subjects
  • Used when few or no previous studies exist
  • Will often form the basis for further research


"Research that looks to test (confirm) a prespecified relationship (i.e, causal research that tests prior hypotheses)."

  • Can be quantitative
  • Can be qualitative
  • or both (mixed method)


"Research that identifies and classifies the elements or characteristics of the subject."

  • Explains what occurred
  • Does not answer questions about how, when, or why the characteristics occurred


"Research that attempts to suggest or explain why or how something is happening."

  • Often extends descriptive research
  • Is a type of confirmatory research


"Research that attempts to forecast the likelihood of something happening."

  • Speculates intelligently on future possibilities
  • Based on close analysis of currently available evidence of cause & effect.

Research Method

"The various specific tools or ways data can be collected & analyzed." NOTE: A research method is part of research methodology.

  • Some examples of data collection methods: questionnaires; interviews, experiments, clinical trials
  • Some examples of data analysis methods: coding, content analysis, univariate analysis, multivariate analysis

Research Approach

The general nature of a work of research that includes: the specific analytical objectives, the types of questions posed,  the data collection methods used, the types of data produced, and the degree of flexibility in design of the study.

  • Quantitative
    • Systematic, empirical* investigation of social phenomena using statistical, mathematical or computational techniques.
  • Qualitative
    • Planned, empirical investigations that aim to gain a deep understanding of a specific organization or event, rather a than to compile a surface description of a large sample of a population via measurement.
  • Mixed Methods
    • Planned investigation for collecting, analyzing, and “mixing” both quantitative and qualitative research and methods in a single study in order to understand a research problem from multiple perspectives.
  • Applied
    • Studies for which the aim from the start is to apply findings to a particular situation.
  • Basic
    • Studies for which the aim is to improve knowledge generally (i.e., no particular applied purpose in mind at the outset).
  • Deductive
    • Research that begins with a body of general information (such as theories, laws or a principle) and tries to draw a conclusion directly from that by testing a specific hypothesis (referred to as top-down research).
  • Inductive
    • Research that moves from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories (referred to as bottom-up research).

 * Empirical =  Empirical research applies observation and experience as the main modes of gathering data. Data collected is referred to as empirical evidence (which is then subjected to qualitative or quantitative analysis techniques in order to answer empirical questions).

SOURCES: Adapted from: Neville, Colin. Introduction to Research and Research Methods. (University of Bradford (UK), School of Managment, 2007); From the Online Glossary of Nath, Christine Nielsen's Dental Publish Health: Contemporary Practice for the Dental Hygienist. 2nd edition. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004); and from Straub, Detmar, David Gefen, and Marie-Claude Boudreau (2004). "The ISWorld Quantitative, Positivist Research Methods Website," (Ed) Dennis Galletta, Last updated: January 7, 2005." Section 3: General Research Approaches;  Chapter 3: Research Methods.

Labaree, Robert. Types of Research Designs. Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Papers: Types of Designs research guide. USC Libraries, 2016.
The content of this section was created by Dr. Labaree and used with his permission.

Selected Journals on Research Methods

General Reference Books: Research Methods

RSS Feeds on Research Methods

Cover of Organizational Research Methods journal

Organizational Research Methods (ORM), peer-reviewed and published quarterly, brings relevant methodological developments to a wide range of researchers in organizational and management studies and promotes a more effective understanding of current and new methodologies and their application in organizational settings.




Loading ...

NCRM logoThe National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) forms part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) strategy to improve the standards of research methods across the UK social science community.


Loading ...