Rethinking Research Methods

It seems to me that research methods are the ‘ugly duckling’ of research practice. Just think about it for a second:

  • Research methods courses (in my experience anyway) are generally a dull prerequisite that must be endured before you’re allowed to get on with the ‘real’ research. This is probably attributable, at least in part, to the fact that the people who teach research methods courses seem only marginally more inclined to be there than the students who are required to attend.
  • Many (but not all!) books on research methods are similarly dry and prescriptive. Once again, I suspect that a paycheck may have something to do with the author’s motivation.

The same principle seems to hold true, in my admittedly limited exposure, to PhD methodology chapters. Explaining what you did and why you did it is a tedious formality. The theory and data analysis chapters are where you have a chance to shine and, consequently, are where you invest the most effort.

But it really doesn’t have to be this way. If you stick it out long enough – and perhaps do a bit of reading beyond the usual textbooks – research methods might just surprise you.

Much like most of you, I imagine, I muddled grudging through research methods training, the accompanying reading, and eventually the first several drafts of my PhD chapter. To my surprise, however, a serendipitous sequence of events led to a veritable wonderland of visual research techniques, my methodology chapter became the standout feature of my thesis, and researching and developing innovative research methods is now at the core of my postdoc.

So, to those of you trying to decide which research methods to use, I suggest diverting, if only briefly, from the well-trodden path to explore what else might be possible. You can always go back to surveys or interviews, so why not indulge in a little procrastination and take a look at what other options might be available? One way of doing this could be to browse around the SAGE Methodspace (http://www.methodspace.com/) to see what sorts of things other researchers in your area are getting up to.

To those of you trying to write up your methods chapter, I suggest thinking of it less as a technical document and more as a personal account. This is the one place in your thesis where you can tell your story, misadventures and all. Instead of giving your examiners yet another dry, dull, lifeless methods chapter (that they’ll be just as loath to read as you were to write), why not surprise them with the engaging tale of how the research project you ended up with wasn’t quite the one you had in mind when you started out. I may be wrong, but I suspect they’ll thank you for it.

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One response to “Rethinking Research Methods

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Research Methods for Community Change | One Hundred Thousand Words

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