methodology isn’t methods.. or… what goes in a methods chapter

Since I’ve been posting about methods and methodology, I’ve been asked several times to discuss the difference between methodology and methods and how these appear in a methods chapter. This post is by way of an answer.

Not all dissertations have a methods chapter. Although much of the how-to-write-it material (including my own) suggests that there is a distinct chapter called methods, some disciplines and many research projects don’t have one per se.

However, most (but not all) arts, humanities and social science theses do have to include, somewhere in the first few chapters, something about the way that the researcher has approached the task of researching, how they think about themselves as a researcher, and how they have designed the actual piece of research that they are doing, and why it is the way that it is. (In the textbooks these things are usually called epistemology, methodology, and methods.)

Discussions of epistemology and methodology generally go together.

Sometimes, there is no need to go into a great deal of detail about epistemology. It will be sufficient to say something like … this research has been conducted from a critical perspective, that is, I understand that … and then the writer goes on to offer some basic principles which underpin a critical research tradition. (Or interpretive, or social constructivist – whatever… )

Sometimes this discussion can be quite lengthy. It’s not at all uncommon for historians for example to devote a whole chapter to discussions of what counts as historical knowledge, where they stand in relation to a series of key debates and how they have approached their research. It’s also not at all uncommon for ethnographers to write a very extended piece about how they are approaching their research. For anthropologists and others working in the ethnographic tradition, understanding that knowledge is a social construction has an enormous set of implications – about the role of the researcher, the way that access is obtained and the relationships that are set up with research participants, the way in which the researcher wrestles with who they are … and more. A well-handled ethnographic discussion will blend together questions of epistemology and methodology quite seamlessly. And I would always expect to see somebody who claimed a feminist position to not only argue that knowledge is socially constructed, and in particular gendered interests, but also to be very specific about which feminism[s] they actually work with and against. This would clearly require quite an extended discussion since they also need to spell out the implications for their research.

Writing about methodology is always about fitting the discussion to the discipline and the topic – it’s writing about what is most important for the reader to understand in order to appreciate/comprehend the research that is about to be reported.

So, after all that, what do I mean by methodology?

Well I understand methodology to be theory; it’s theory about the research methods that will be used. It’s theory which underpins the decisions made about the researcher’s range of choices of – for example – what to study; who to study; where to study; which research tradition to work within; what knowledges to draw on; what to include and exclude, foreground and background and the consequences of this decision; what counts as data and why; relational and ethical concerns; and how to represent the findings/how to write the research.

And I see methods as the ‘tools’ that are used to do the research.

Finally, a research design is the way that the researcher assembles and sequences the tools, and the ways in which these are applied, according to the principles elaborated through the methodological choices.

As an examiner I would therefore always expect to see a methods chapter, if it is presented as such, to cover:
(1) a brief restatement of the research question
(2) a methodological discussion, including discussion of epistemology and ontology as relevant
(3) the research design, including a discussion of methods with due recognition of their blank and blind spots.

I also expect to see
(4) a clear audit trail of what the researcher has actually done, with whom, when and where, how much data was produced and how it connects to the research question(s), how the data was analysed, and a pointer to any particular problems/issues that arose.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in epistemology, methodology, methods chapter, ontology, research design, research methods, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to methodology isn’t methods.. or… what goes in a methods chapter

  1. A wonderfully clear explanation of methodology, method, and design.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Natéwindé Sawadogo says:

    Thanks Patter,
    have been following you for some time and I really find your posts interesting.
    with regard to the present topic, simply put then methodology includes methods -but the reverse is not true.
    French social scientists have more words than their english counterparts when talking about this topic
    Techniques> Methods
    Outils> When French talk about ‘tools’ when english talk about methods[like you put it here], they are referring to -for example -‘interview guide’ BUT NOT THE TECHNIQUE OF INTERVIEW, questionnaire’ BUT NOT THE SURVEY etc… french language method is till at a general level, although below methodology. it is tools which are the most detailled level.


  3. Margaret says:

    Great post! I just passed this along to some of my M.A. students.


  4. Elizabeth Hartnell-Young says:

    Thaks! You have addressed one of my biggest bugbears in research tenders (I’m sure you would know what mean) in this really helpful post.


  5. nickhopwood says:

    Reblogged this on Nick Hopwood and commented:
    This is a very nice piece getting to grips with what is often a key difficulty in thesis writing. Thanks, Pat!


  6. M-H says:

    Quite a lot of people use the word ‘methodology’ as if it meant the sum of your methods, or the effect of them used together. I’ve noticed this in economics, for instance. and management literature. I suppose if you’re not concerned with questions of standpoint and asking ‘how do I know this?’ it’s hard to write the kind of methodology you’re talking about.


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  11. Ahmad Salih says:

    Reblogged this on The Practice of Strategy and commented:
    A nice piece by Pat Thomson on the difference between methodology and methods.


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  17. Chris Grant says:

    Real clear and easy explanation. I have added a link to this page of your blog on my Moodle page for Research Methods for MSc (various business subjects) which I am delivering in Botswana in January.


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  20. phambichha says:

    Reblogged this on Phambichha's Blog and commented:
    This is helpful. Methodology is key to see through my thesis. Thank a lot Prof. Pat Thomsom for writing and sharing this wonderful pieces of advice.


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  22. Student says:

    Hi Pat, thank for this post – it’s very useful.

    I have methods in each of my four different studies for my PhD thesis. I’m wondering, do I need an overall methodology chapter? Or should I just incorporate that into introduction?


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  24. golpobolo says:

    Reblogged this on Récits and commented:
    Damn, this is extremely helpful!


  25. William Anamoo Atindana says:

    I have liked the way you have clearly distinguished the two concepts to increase my knowledge and understanding of them. My question is,is it very necessary to include a philosophical background or foundation associated with your dissertation?


    • pat thomson says:

      it depends what discipline you are in and the expectations of your supervisors. But is worth remembering that that the Ph in PhD – if that is what you are doing – stands for Philosophy.


  26. Tag says:

    Great post! Thanks a lot.
    I have a question if you could help me clarify, you wrote: “the writer goes on to offer some basic principles which underpin a critical research tradition. (Or interpretive, or social constructivist – whatever… )”
    Could you elaborate more on the traditions? I googled research traditions but I keep getting research approaches (e.g the five approaches to qualitative research). So is there another common term for research traditions and how are they different from research approaches?


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  33. Rev. Babu Alexander Christopher says:

    The explanation of methodology and methods is simply superb. I have decided to follow and forward this to my colleagues.


  34. Ifeanyi Anthony Okonkwo says:

    Thank you Pat. This was really helpful!


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