By Claire Aitchison
I have worked with many students, particularly humanities and social science scholars, who have found writing the methodology chapter a hugely agonising experience.
I recall my own experience as a mature-aged student, acutely aware of my ignorance and uncertainty: I read and wrote blind for weeks and weeks before showing anything to my supervisor.
Like me, for many, the task of coming to understand methodology begins with reading. In the main, research methodology textbooks are big and dense, and it isn’t uncommon for students to disappear, like Alice, into Research Methodology Wonderland only to reappear months later, dazed and confused.
Writing the methodology chapter is hard because research methodology is complex; because the territory is littered with terminology that is frequently used differently even within the same disciplines; and because there are significantly different expectations for what this section of a thesis should look like. And also, almost inevitably, coming to understand methodology and its application to a particular study is a transformational step, a threshold concept that is arrived at after considerable intellectual challenge.
When do you write a methodology chapter? Read to know
As must be clear, I believe you cannot (and I recommend, do not) begin writing without doing preliminary reading. Yes, reading your way into methodology is important; and mostly because the breadth and depth you need cannot be found in journal articles. This is one of those cases where books hold their own. If you consider yourself an absolute beginner (i.e., you need to start with background reading), ask a librarian (or Wikipedia) for an introductory research methods text. With a generalist view under your belt, you can then aim for discipline/research-specific reading.
Every supervisor and discipline has a favourite Research Methods text. Seek advice from your supervisors and mine your networks–especially other doctoral students doing similar research. Look at the methodology chapters of recent theses in your field for guidance about who is cited.
I commonly advise students to seek out two types of key resources: aim for big names in research methods (for example, for social scientists, Creswell) and secondly a big name in your particular field of research (for example, Hammersley and Atkinson for ethnography). You can’t go wrong knowing and citing these folk, especially when you connect their say-so to your particular work or intentions. As you progress your own thinking, you will be able to develop more extensive, nuanced and targeted ideas, and over time extend your reading to add other method- or tool-specific references.
Naming and locating the chapter: Methods vs Methodology?
The chapter that gives an account of the approach and conduct of the research generally lies after the Literature Review and before the chapters describing the findings. For social scientists, the chapter is likely to be named Methodology and contains methods within.
Generally, a Methodology chapter will have two components: the big picture that describes the theoretical orientation and justification (sometimes called the Research Approach), and another section that gives an account of the particularities of how the research was undertaken (e.g. data collection and analysis). In the ‘hard’ sciences ‘Methodology’ is rarely required; instead, the chapter is called Methods and the focus is on the tools and procedures of data collection and analysis. Paltridge and Starfield (2007) give a good account of the associated writing practices.
When to write the methodology chapter
Mostly students will have written a methodology/methods section months or years earlier for the research proposal. This work will have been predictive, the language often propositional, and the future tense will have dominated. During doctoral candidature these early thoughts will have become more refined or even considerably altered. Depending on how much things have changed, it may be more pragmatic to write this section afresh for the thesis.
A reworking of this early work should occur alongside all the extended reading and prior to data collection. Then, I believe doctoral scholars need to return to the methodology after having collected and begun some early analysis of data (oh! and when the literature review is also largely complete). At this time the research questions and approach will more likely have been refined and bedded down—and making sense of methodology texts will be considerably easier. For the thesis, this chapter will be dominated by past tense because the story line will be about why things were done as they were.
Breaking things down
Putting down headings and sub headings early on can help clarify what needs to be included in the chapter. Headings can help facilitate the dumping of ideas into the relevant sections and can enable items to be collected and written in any sequence. Headings can be removed later if they don’t fit the style of the thesis.
Establishing credibility through story-telling and self-revelation
One of the key objectives of the chapter is to establish the reliability of the research and the credibility of the researcher. Building a picture of an authoritative and competent researcher is crucial for building confidence in the research. Hard science researchers often demonstrate this by using an already validated approach. For social scientists undertaking qualitative research, establishing credibility can be quite difficult. Transparency is critical—but how often and how much should one reveal?
It is a feat to get the right balance. There is nothing more tiresome than reading or writing ‘I did this … Then I did that … I realised that … Then I did …. After that I ….’. On the other hand, employing too many passive constructions (e.g., ‘the interviews occurred…’ ‘data was collected and analysed’) can make it difficult to understand the role of the researcher in relation to how things actually happened. Donna Haraway (1988) calls extensive use of the passive tense ‘the God trick’ – the illusion that things happened without human involvement.
Another trap can be the confessional tone. It is unnecessary to tell the whole backstory—omit relating everything that went wrong, false leads, new beginnings and personal challenges. All research involves such ups and downs—tell only what’s pertinent and what’s necessary to build credibility. The focus should be on what was done and why this was the best, and right, thing to do.
Procedurally, sometimes it can help to jot down the whole story, warts and all, reflect on what’s actually really relevant, remove unnecessary bits and rework the text succinctly summarising the key messages—and confidently tell a story of achievement. Avoid the chronological ordering of events (except when necessary) – it’s not that kind of story! The story you want to tell is that research design decisions were deliberate, thoughtful and well-informed—not accidental, serendipitous and fumbling.
A note of caution about voice in writing about methodology
When working with doctoral students, I have noticed that sometimes the author’s voice takes on a curious tenor that has more in common with textbook-style inflection. Instructional declarations such as ‘x or y must show reliability…’, or ‘good research requires …’ jump into the narrative, unsettling the authenticity of the writer. Of course, if students are reading lots of ‘how-to’ texts, it’s understandable how this foreign voice can slip into their work. However, these stand-alone declarations signal that the author has not integrated their reading, it implies they don’t really understand the applicability of these assertions to their own research.
Resources on writing style
Some fabulous resources created for those for whom English isn’t a first language are amongst the earliest to pay close attention to the structural and rhetorical elements of writing methodology and methods sections. Swales and Feak remain seminal in the field.
We’d love to hear of others.
Creswell, J. (2014). Research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th ed.) SAGE: Thousand Oaks.
Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (2019). Ethnography: Principles in practice. (4th ed.) London: Routledge
Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Routledge.
Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2000). English in Today’s Research World: A Writing Guide. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2001). Academic Writing for Graduate Students: A Course for Nonnative Speakers of English. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.