How to Write a Dissertation Methodology
The methodology chapter of the dissertation
Not all dissertations require a dissertation methodology section and accordingly you should check with your supervisor and/or course handbook as to whether your individual department expects one to be included. Customarily, the methodology section will comprise ten to fifteen per cent of the dissertation. As a general rule, undergraduate dissertations in subjects such as law, politics and history do not require methodologies (as such dissertations tend to be focused on the reinterpretation of existing data) whereas dissertations that involve the collection of new data, interviews, or experiments, do require explicit methodology sections (for instance, in risk management, business, or chemistry). In dissertations that do not feature a methodology chapter, the word count released is divided among the other sections.
There are two main research types and three main types of research analysis. These are, respectively, primary and secondary research, and quantitative, qualitative and mixed research analysis methods.
- Primary research relates to the collection of primary (new) data or the use, in history, of sources written at the time of the event you are studying by actors within that period. A questionnaire that you conduct as part of your research would be primary research and a letter written by Henry VIII would be a primary source.
- Secondary research refers to data that has already been published and the re-examination of that data and further utilisation of it within your study. The reusing of a questionnaire and the results that have already been published would be secondary research in the same way that a book explaining the aforementioned letter by Henry VIII would be a secondary source.
- Quantitative research only produces results on the specific issue that is being investigated and uses statistical, mathematical and computational programmes. A closed-ended questionnaire would be analysed using quantitative research if the researcher merely computed the results and produced a series of comments as to the percentages of respondents who gave specific answers. A common programme by which to analyse quantitative research is SPSS.
- Qualitative research tends to be used more in the social sciences and arts and is when a research seeks to ask 'why' and 'how' something has happened and explains the reasons with recourse to empirical mathematical models. Within primary research that uses qualitative research small focus groups can often be employed. An open-ended questionnaire that collates and assesses a range of verbal responses would be analysed using qualitative techniques as the answers given do not lend themselves to being processed in the manner described above relating to closed questionnaires.
- A mixed methodology features aspects of each or all of the above techniques. In a dissertation where one is assessing, for instance, the effects of flooding in the Wirral peninsula, it is likely that all the research techniques mentioned above would be used. Secondary data would be used through a literature review, closed-ended questionnaires could be analysed using a statistical panel and interviews with experts would be commented upon with reference to existing literature. Accordingly, both primary and secondary research techniques would be utilised as well as qualitative and quantitative mechanisms.
Which approach you use depends upon the subject matter and the means by which primary data will be collected. Clearly, if your dissertation is primarily a review of existing data then your methodology will be centred upon secondary data. Conversely, if you are undertaking street interviews on issues of fashion for a BA in Fashion Marketing, you will be more involved in collecting primary data and will then need to decide whether you analyse your data through qualitative or quantitative methods, or a mixed-method approach. It is strongly recommended that you undertake further reading on methods of research.
The methodology section will explain why you have chosen to adopt the approach you are using. In so doing, you should also note (briefly) what is inappropriate about the other approaches as well as the ways in which you have overcome any negatives that are associated with your approach. Thus, for instance, you might, if conducting interviews, note that you have used some 'closed questions' so that the personal bias of the interviewer (you) is minimised.
Whichever approach you use it is important that you justify your decision and that you do so via reference to existing academic works - and writing only in the third person. As with the background section of your dissertation, your methodology section needs to be grounded in existing academic opinion. The following books provide not only an overview of methodological approaches (and the strengths and weaknesses associated with each) but are also the sorts of books that your lecturers may expect to see referenced within your methodology section, depending on the type of course you are doing.
- Bell, J. (1993). Doing your research project. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Bryman, A. (2012). Social research methods (4th edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Denscombe, M. (2007). The good research guide (3rd edn). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Flick, U. (2011). Introducing research methodology. London: SAGE.
- Grinyer, A. (2002). 'The anonymity of research participants: Assumptions, ethics and practicalities'. Social Research Update, Vol. 36, University of Surrey.
- Morgan, G. and Smircich, L. (1980). 'The case for qualitative research', The Academy of Management Review. Vol. 5 (4), pp. 491-500.
- Ritchie, J. and Lewis, L. (2003). Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers. London: SAGE.
- Robson, C. (2002). Real world research (2nd edn). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
- Silverman, D. (2010). Doing qualitative research: A practical handbook (3rd edn). London: SAGE.
You do not need to read them all but you should show (using appropriate and limited direct quotation for extra marks) at least some knowledge of the arguments contained within these books. For an undergraduate dissertation it would be good practice to include at least five of these books (or their equivalent - depending upon what is available within your library) in your bibliography.
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