Here are some suggestions on how the various sections of a dissertation methods chapter should be put together, expressed as question prompts for you to think about and respond to. This is not a definitive guide, and it does not replace careful reading on methodology and independent thought. You will need to cite academic literature to back up your answers to the questions asked here, and there may be other matters you need to address in your methods chapter that have not been included here, depending on your study. This is just some initial guidance. The prompts here are practical ones – remember that a methods chapter should contain a lot of operational detail. It should also be reflective and reflexive about your own role as researcher, although we don’t need your life story! Reading a methods chapter should give you all the information you would need to be able to replicate the study if you wanted to.
What is your methodological framework? (E.g., positivist, interpretivist, feminist, de- or post-colonial, postmodernist, or a mixture). Is your study qualitative or quantitative, or mixed methods, and why? Why did you choose this particular framework for your research topic? What are the benefits and limitations of this framework? If you used particular theories to frame your study, how did these theories fit with your methodological framework? How did you operationalise your theory(ies)? For instance, how did you recognise concepts such as ‘power’ or ‘agency’ in your data? How did you measure stigma?
What type of study did you conduct (e.g., longitudinal, comparative, case-study, cross-sectional) and why? How many stages was it conducted in? (E.g., an initial review of the literature, followed by design and piloting of research instruments, followed by fieldwork, followed by writing up). Why did you design the research like this and what were the strengths and limitations of your design? If you had to do it again, would you design it any differently and why?
Sampling and gaining access
What did your sample consist of (e.g., three teachers and ten students, 20 policy documents) and how did you generate it? Did you choose a sample at random, was it self-selecting, did you use a purposive sampling technique or was yours a convenience sample? Were you looking for representativeness or was this a more exploratory study? If you worked with human subjects, what were the demographics of the sample and how diverse was it? If you were working with existing or ‘found’ data such as documents, how did you select them in a systematic way? You need to give assurances that you did not just cherry-pick your sample to confirm what you feel you already know.
How did you gain access to your sample (for instance, did you advertise on social media, did you approach a local organisation, did you go through a gatekeeper)? Were there any problems in sampling and/or gaining access, and how did you address them? What were the strengths and weaknesses of your sample and how does this impact on the knowledge claims you can make? For instance, if you were doing a study on young men’s experiences of the police, if your sample contained only white middle class men your results would probably be very different than if your sample contained working class men, both white and men of colour. You would probably miss a lot of important issues. The more broad or ambitious you want your claims to be, the bigger and more diverse your sample has to be – but remember that a limited sample does not necessarily undermine your study as long as you acknowledge it and temper your claims accordingly. Another example – you might study a Brighton yoga class. It might turn out that most of the participants are white middle-class women. This does not invalidate your research if you are open about it – in fact, you might write a very interesting study about how gender, class, and race shape people’s participation in particular forms of fitness and ‘wellness’ activity.
What methods or mixture of methods (e.g., surveys, interviews, focus groups, observation, content or documentary analysis) did you choose and why? If you were doing interviews or focus groups, were these structured, semi-structured, unstructured and why? If you were doing observations, were these overt or covert, participant or non-participant and why? Were they conducted in open/public or closed settings? Did you collect data in person or online? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of these methods and the combination of methods you chose (if relevant)?
How did you design your research instruments (e.g., your survey/interview/focus group questions) and how did you decide what questions to ask? How did you translate your research questions and operationalise your theory (if relevant)? Did you use a top-down approach (generate headings first, then populate sections) or a bottom-up one (list all topics of interest, then organise)? If you did observations, did you write field notes freely or use a structured observation schedule? Did you take any quantitative notes and how? How did you record both your subjective experiences and your analysis? If you did content analysis of existing data, how did you systematise this? Did you do quantitative or qualitative analysis, or both? Did you do discourse/narrative/semiotic analysis? How did you create your coding frame or schedule? Was it concept- or data-driven? How did you capture any contextual data? (More about this in data analysis below).
What was it like to collect the data? How did you generate full and sincere responses to your questions and create rapport with participants? In focus groups, how did you manage the interaction in the group and deal with any dominant or shy individuals? Did you record the interaction, body language and group dynamics, and how? How did you remain flexible while keeping the discussion on-topic? Did you use any creative methods or audiovisual materials to facilitate discussion and how did this go?
Ethics and reflexivity
What was your approach to research ethics in your study? Did you follow a professional framework such as the British Sociological Association’s, and how did you put that into practice? How did you ensure participants were giving informed consent throughout their participation in your study? How did you manage refusal and withdrawal? How did you ensure confidentiality and anonymity if these were offered? How were your data processed and stored in line with both ethical principles and any relevant legal requirements (such as GDPR)? What did you do, both immediately and in terms of after-care, if any participants were distressed because of the research? How did you exercise cultural, social, political, and personal sensitivity in both the process, writing up and publication (if relevant) of your research?
How did you manage your own social and/or cultural positionality(ies), and any potential political or emotional investments you had in the research? Remember we don’t need your autobiography here. How did your participants respond to you and why? How did you feel about the whole process? How did you look after your own wellbeing, if you were studying a sensitive topic or if difficult issues arose? What other ethical decisions did you have to make, and how did you make and implement them? What would you do differently next time?
How did you analyse your data (e.g., coding, compiling statistics)? How did you build up your coding frame and identify codes and sub-codes? Was your coding frame non-hierarchical or hierarchical in structure? Did you use software (e.g., NViVO, or comments on a Word document) or just a highlighter pen and scissors? What was your coding process (e.g., pre-analysis, code, adjust, code again)? Did you do inductive or deductive coding, or a mixture? How did you relate your codes back to your research questions and theory(ies) and look at the bigger picture?
How did you move from description to analysis and interpretation? How can you be sure your analysis and interpretation was careful and honest, and you were not just looking for what you wanted to find? How did you decide which story to tell about your data, and make sure you were not flattening out complexities and ignoring contradictions while remaining clear? How does your method of data analysis, and its drawbacks, impact on the knowledge claims you can make?
If you manage to address most or all of these questions in your methodology chapter, you will be well on your way. Don’t forget to end the chapter with a few sentences linking to the next section of your dissertation. Good luck!