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Research Process: Research methods

This guide gives a full overview of all the aspects of the research process and where to get assistance.

Research 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-emperical 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.

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 research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists of a set of interpretive, material pracitices that make the world observable. It involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials such as case study, personal experience, introspection, interview, artifacts, visual texts, etc. that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals' lives (Denzin & Lincoln, 2018:10).

Quantitative research intends to make causal inferences through analysing two or more variables of interest (Swart, Kramer, Ratele & Seedat, 2019:18). Quantitative observation studies further tend to have a particular, prespecified focus that can be quantified through a variety of methodologies (Leedy & Ormrod, 2010:182).

Mixed methods research is a third methodological approach that is gaining popularity. It can be defined as a design that combines qualitative and quantitative approaches in the methodology of a study (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998). It can be characterised by how it mixes the data from both qualitative and quantitative inquiries to add new insights to the research and, depending on the subject, it can give priority to one or to both forms of data (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011:5).


Creswell, J.W. & Plano Clark, V.L. 2011. Designing and conducting mixed methods research. 2nd edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. 2018. Introduction: The discipline and practice of qualitative research, in N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (eds). The SAGE handbook of qualitative resaerch. 5th edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage. 1-26.

Leedy, P.D. & Ormrod, J.E. 2010. Practical research: Planning and design. 9th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Education International. Swart, L-A., Kramer, S., Ratele, K. & Seedat, M. 2019. Non-experimental research designs: Investigating the spatial distribution and social ecology of male homicide. in S. Laher, A. Fynn & S. Kramer (eds). Transforming research methods in the social sciences: Case studies from South Africa. Johannesburg, Wits University Press. 19-35. DOI:

Tashakkori, A. & Teddlie, C. 1998. Mixed methodology: Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


As a point of departure, it is important to note that the relationship between a research method and research methodology is that the methodology would justify and explain the choice(s) of research methods in a study (Clough & Nutbrown, 2007:31).

Methods are essentially the end tools used in a study and the choice of method(s) depends on the type of study. The choice of method will also speak to the validity and reliability of your research (Clough & Nutbrown, 2007:31). Examples of methods include interviews, surveys, participant observation, statistical analysis, experiments, etc.

Methodology refers to the underlying justification for your choice of a particular research design (Clough & Nutbrown, 2007:37). It should also provide the reader an insight into your assumptions "about what the world is, how it works and how [you] can claim to know these things" (Clough & Nutbrown, 2007:37). In other words, methodology refers to the philosophical approach that you have taken in your research. Your ontological assumptions (about the nature of reality and the nature of things) give rise to epistemological assumptions (ways of researching and enquiring into the nature of reality and the nature of things) which give rise to your methodological considerations (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2011:3). Your methodology, however, should not just be confined to your 'Methodology' chapter or section, but rather it should be evident throughout your work (Clough & Nutbrown, 2007:39)


Recommended reading

Clough, P. & Nutbrown, C. 2007. A student's guide to methodology. 3rd edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Although it focuses on educational sciences, the below book is recommended for any field of research:

Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. 2011. Research methods in education. 7th edition. London: Routledge.

  • 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. & Marcus, R. 2003. Research for development: a practical guide. London: Sage.

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: