Your methods section is your opportunity to share how you conducted your research and why you chose the methods you chose. This is also the place to show that your research has been rigorously conducted and can be reproduced.
This gives your research legitimacy and situates it in your field, and also gives your readers a place to refer if they have questions or criticisms in other sections.
Methodology refers to the overall strategy and rationale for your research project. It involves studying the methods used in your field and the theories or principles behind them, in order to develop an approach that matches your goals.
Methods are the specific tools and procedures you use to collect and analyze data (for example, experiments, surveys, and statistical tests).
In shorter scientific articles, where the goal is to report the results of a specific study, you can simply describe what you did in a methods section.
In a longer or more complex research project, such as a thesis or dissertation, you will likely include a section methodological, where you will explain your approach to answering the research questions and cite relevant sources to support your choice of methods.
Say the why and the how
You can start by presenting your overall approach to your research. You have two options here.
Option 1: Start with your “what”
What problem or research question did you study?
- Want to describe the characteristics of something?
- Explore an under-researched topic?
- Establish a causal relationship?
And what kind of data did you need to achieve this goal?
- Quantitative data, qualitative data or a mixture of both?
- Primary data collected by you or secondary data collected by someone else?
- Experimental data collected by controlling and manipulating variables, or descriptive data collected through observations?
Option 2: Start with your “why”
Depending on your discipline, you can also start with a discussion on the rationale and assumptions underlying your methodology. In other words, why did you choose these methods for your study?
- Why is this the best way to answer your research question?
- Is this a standard methodology in your field or does it require justification?
- Were there ethical considerations in your choices?
- What are the criteria of validity and reliability in this type of research?
Describe data collection (if necessary)
Once you have presented your methodological approach to your reader, you should share all the details about your data collection methods.
To be considered generalizable, you must describe quantitative research methods in enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.
Here, explain how you operationalized your concepts and measured your variables. Discuss your sampling method or inclusion and exclusion criteria, as well as the tools, procedures, and materials you used to collect your data.
Describe where, when and how the survey was conducted.
- How did you design the questionnaire?
- What form did your questions take (e.g. multiple choice, Likert scale)?
- Were your surveys conducted in person or virtually?
- What sampling method did you use to select participants?
- What was your sample size and response rate?
Share full details of the tools, techniques, and procedures you used to conduct your experiment.
- How did you design the experience?
- How did you recruit the participants?
- How did you manipulate and measure the variables?
- What tools did you use?
Explain how you gathered and selected the material (such as datasets or archival data) that you used in your analysis.
- Where did you find the material?
- How was the data originally produced?
- What criteria did you use to select the material (e.g. date range)?
In qualitative research, methods are often more flexible and subjective. For this reason, it is crucial to explain in a robust way the methodological choices you have made.
Be sure to discuss the criteria you used to select your data, the context in which your research was conducted, and the role you played in collecting your data (for example, were you an active participant or a passive observer?)
Interviews or focus groups
Describe where, when and how the interviews were conducted.
- How did you find and select the participants?
- How many participants participated?
- What form did the interviews take (structured, semi-structured or unstructured)?
- How long did the interviews last?
- How were they recorded?
Describe where, when and how you conducted the observation or ethnography.
- What group or community did you observe? How long did you spend there?
- How did you find this group? What role have you played in the community?
- How long did you spend conducting the research? Where was it located?
- How did you record your data (eg audiovisual recordings, note taking)?
Explain how you selected case study material for your analysis.
- What kind of materials did you analyze?
- How did you select them?
Mixed methods research combines quantitative and qualitative approaches. If a stand-alone quantitative or qualitative study is insufficient to answer your research question, mixed methods may be right for you.
Keep in mind that mixed methods research does not just mean collecting both types of data. Rather, it encompasses careful consideration and integration of both types of data into conclusions strong and solid.
Mixed methods are less common than stand-alone analyses, largely because they require a lot of effort to be successful. If you choose to pursue mixed methods, it is especially important to strongly justify your methods here.
Describe the method/analysis used
Next, you need to indicate how you processed and analyzed your data. Avoid going into too much detail: you should not start presenting or discussing your results at this stage.
In quantitative research, your analysis will be based on numbers. In your methods section, you can include:
- How you prepared the data before analyzing it (e.g. checking for missing data, removing outliers, transforming variables)
- What software you used (eg SPSS, Stata or R)
- What statistical tests you used (e.g., two-tailed t-test, regression simple linear)
In qualitative research, your analysis will be based on language, images and observations (often involving some form of textual analysis).
Specific methods may include:
- Content analysis: categorizing and discussing the meaning of words, phrases and sentences
- Thematic analysis: Coding and in-depth examination of data to identify broad themes and patterns
- Discourse analysis: studying communication and meaning in relation to their social context
Mixed methods combine the two research methods above, integrating both qualitative and quantitative approaches into a cohesive analytical process.
Then justify your choices
First and foremost, your methodology section should clearly explain why you chose the methods you chose. This is especially true if you haven't taken the most standard approach to your topic.
If so, explain why other methods were not suitable for your purposes and show how this approach brings new knowledge or understanding.
Either way, it should be overwhelmingly clear to your reader that you are setting yourself up for success in terms of designing your methodology.
Show how your methods should lead to valid and reliable results, while leaving the analysis of the meaning, importance and relevance of your results to your discussion section.
You can acknowledge the limitations or weaknesses of the approach you have chosen, but justify why they were offset by the strengths. Here are some examples:
Quantitative: Laboratory experiments cannot always accurately simulate real-life situations and behaviors, but they are effective in testing causal relationships between variables.
Qualitative: Unstructured interviews generally produce results that cannot be generalized beyond the sample group, but they provide a deeper understanding of participants' perceptions, motivations, and emotions.
Mixed methods: despite the problems of systematically comparing different types of data, a purely quantitative study would not sufficiently integrate the lived experience of each participant, while a purely qualitative study would be insufficiently generalizable.
Some writing tips
Remember that your goal is not just to describe your methods, but to show how and why you applied them. Again, it is essential to demonstrate that your research has been rigorously conducted and can be reproduced.
The methodology section should clearly show why your methods suit your goals and convince the reader that you have chosen the best possible approach to answer your problem statement and research questions.
Your methodology can be strengthened by referencing existing research in your field. It can help you:
- Show that you have followed established practice for your type of research
- Discuss how you decided on your approach by evaluating existing research
- Present a new methodological approach to fill a gap in the literature
Consider how much information you need to give and avoid being too long. If you're using standard methods for your discipline, you probably don't need to give much information or justification.
Either way, your methodology should be a clear, well-structured text that argues for your approach, not just a list of technical details and procedures.