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Choosing your research method or methods

Choosing your research method or methods for your PhD
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© University of Leicester

Some PhD projects are built exclusively around a single method. Ethnographic research, for example, involves such considerable effort and immersion that there is no need for additional methods. But many PhDs do use a combination of methods. For example, a quantitative project might use a mixture of secondary data along with survey material, whilst a qualitative project might include a mixture of interviews with focus groups. Again, the choice of which specific methods to use will be driven by the research questions. Using additional methods in a way that is irrelevant or that adds little additional information is more like to deduct than add value to the overall thesis and may use up more time.

It is possible to combine methods as ‘Mixed Methods’ research. There has been much debate around the merits and the actual process of doing mixed methods research in recent years. For some researchers, this is a way of synthesising the best aspects of each approach – for instance, the large samples of quantitative approaches with the depth of qualitative approaches. For others, it is a means of combining several different kinds of empirical material comparatively within the same overall project. Designing a mixed methods study in a way that works can be quite difficult to accomplish and requires a detailed understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of each method to be included. Nevertheless, mixing methods does raise the possibility of extending the spread of possible issues in a research project. It also enables the research to engage with different research traditions.

In technical terms, the quality of a research method is established by considering issues of reliability and validity. Reliability refers to the capacity of a method to deliver consistent results that are broadly comparable over time. Validity refers to the extent to which the method provides an appropriate technique for answering the questions that are posed to it. These two quality control procedures work very differently in relation to quantitative and qualitative research. In quantitative work, reliability is usually checked through statistical means, in qualitative work, reliability is assessed by ensuring consistency in the design, application and analysis of methods, as determined by the standards set by a particular community of researchers. Evaluating the extent to which the empirical material provides access to the relevant information assesses the validity of both quantitative and qualitative methods. There are some statistical means of doing so in quantitative research, but this also requires looking at theoretical and conceptual concerns. In qualitative work, comparing across studies and exploring the extent to which the results of a given study have a place in an existing tradition of related work can also address validity.

© University of Leicester
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