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This is the "Research method" page of the "The research process" guide.
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This Libguide provides a systematic guide to the different phases and activities of a master's or doctoral research project and introduces the researcher and research student to relevant Library sources, tools and services offered along the way.
Last Updated: Jun 6, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

Research method Print Page

Different research methodologies and methods

Examples of empirical studies 

Qualitative Methods

Quantitative Methods

Ethnographic research - participant observation studies
Aim to provide in-depth description of a group of people or community
Sources of data: participant observation; semi-structured interviewing (individual and focus group); use of documentary sources.

Aim to provide a broad overview of a representative sample of a large population
Sources of data: Structured questionnaires; structured telephone interview schedules; structured mail questionnaires and electronic questionnaires.

Ethnographic research - case       studies
Aim to provide in-depth description of a small number of cases.
Sources of data: Participant observation; semi-structured interviewing (individual and focus group); use of documentary sources and other existing data.

Experimental designs (laboratory)
Aim to provide a causal study of a small number of cases under highly controlled conditions, through laboratory conditions.
Sources of data: Structured observation and physical measurement; psychometric techniques.

Participatory / action research
Studies that involve the subjects of research, using qualitative methods to gain understanding into life-worlds of participants.
Sources of data: participant observation; semi-structured interviewing; using documents; constructing stories and narratives.

Field/natural experimental designs
Aim to provide a broad overview of a representative sample of a large population. Field experiments occur in natural settings.
Sources of data: Structured observation; questionnaires; interviews

Textual analysis / hermeneutics /  textual criticism
In social research the term refers to a method of analysing the contents of documents (religious or literary) that uses qualitative procedures for assessing the significance of particular ideas or meanings in the document.

Secondary data analysis
Using existing data (mostly quantitative) it aims reanalysing the data in order to test hypotheses or to validate models.
Sources of data: The primary data are survey data (cross-sectional, but also longitudinal surveys), e.g. census information.

 Read more about qualitative methods.

  Read more about quantitative methods.

Examples of non-empirical research

Conceptual analysis   

The analysis of meaning of words or concepts through clarification and elaboration of the different dimensions of meaning.

Theory building or model building studies

Studies aimed at developing new models and theories to explain particular phenomena.

 Literature reviews

Studies that provide an overview of scholarship through an analysis of trends and debates.

Mouton, J. 2001. How to succeed in your Master's and Doctoral Studies: a South African guide and resource book. Pretoria: Van Schaik.


Emerging research methods

The infographic below shows the various research methods across time, categorised by the generations in which they really took off. From the more classical approaches to research such as pen & paper surveys during the Builder generation, to apps, tablets and smart phone technologies in the current Gen Z and Alpha generations.

The McCrindle Research Blog 

Click here for the full view of the infographic.


Qualitative vs quantitative research

Qualitative research explores attitudes, behaviour and experiences.Examples: action research, ethnography, feminist research and grounded theory. It is non-numerical, descriptive, applies reasoning and uses words.

Quantitative research generates statistics through the use of large-scale survey research. It is based on the measurement of quantity or amount.


Research methodology vs research methods

The research methodology is the philosophy or general principle you choose to guide your research. It is the overall approach to your topic of research. Even if the research method considered in two problems are the same, the methodology could be different. Research methodology is concerned with the explanation of the following:

  1. Why is a particular research study undertaken?
  2. How did one formulate a research problem?
  3. What types of data were collected?
  4. What particular methods has been used?
  5. Why was a particular technique of analysis of data used?

Research methods are the tools you use to gather your data. They include theoretical procedures, experimental studies, numerical schemes, statistical approaches, etc. They help us to collect samples, data and find a solution to a problem. Scientific research methods call for explanations based on collected facts, measurements and observations and not on reasoning alone. The chosen research methodology helps to indicate the most appropriate research tools. A research method only refers to the various tools or ways data can be collected and analysed, e.g. questionnaires, interviews, data analysis software, etc.



Triangulation is the term used when a combination of qualitative and quantitative forms of research are used.

Triangulation Method for Cross-Checking Data

Recognising the imperfections in each data collection method, social sciences research methodology recommends using a triangulation approach to cross-check gathered data (see accompanying diagram).

Data validity is increased when you verify one set of data against data from another collection method. For example, the triangulation approach should be applied when conducting telephone or mail surveys. Because survey results usually are based on a sample of the population and responses sometimes can be skewed toward certain types of individuals, it is recommended that focus groups or interviews with key informants be conducted to corroborate and complement the survey findings.

However, some data will be available only through one collection method. As long as one data source is not heavily relied upon, gathering from a mixed approach should ensure balanced results. Read more on triangulation.

Sources for the above sections:
Dawson, C. 2009. Introduction to research methods: a practical guide for anyone undertaking a research project. Oxford: How to Books.
Rajasekar, S. and Philominathan, P. 2006. Research Methodology. Downloaded:


Checklist for choosing research methods

  • Methods must be chosen in the light of the research methodology, focus, aims, research questions and the hypothesis
  • It is usually best to use more than one research technique, to "triangulate" the information you collect
  • The audience you want to influence will guide you in your choice of methods
  • Decide upfront how you will record and analyse your data when you choose a method
  • Test a method before using it and change to a different method if you experience major problems

Laws, S., Harper, C. and Marcus, R. 2003. Research for development: a practical guide. London: Sage.


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