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Project Planning for the Beginner: Research Design

This Sage Research Methods tool is designed for the first time researcher to guide you through your research project.

Research Design

What Is a Research Plan?

This refers to the overall plan for your research, and will be used by you and your supervisor to indicate your intentions for your research and the method(s) you’ll use to carry it out. It includes:

• A specification of your research questions

• An outline of your proposed research methods

• A timetable for doing the work

What Is Research Design?

The term “research design“ is usually used in reference to experimental research, and refers to the design of your experiment. However, you will also see the term “research design” used in other types of research. Below is a list of possible research designs you might encounter or adopt for your research:

• Descriptive or exploratory (e.g., case study, naturalistic observation)

• Correlational (e.g., case-control study, observational study)

• Quasi-experimental (e.g., field experiment, quasi-experiment)

• Experimental (experiment with random allocation and a control and test group)

• Review (e.g. literature review, systematic review)

• Meta-analytic (e.g. meta-analysis)

Research Design Choices

How Do I Match My Research Method to My Research Question?

The method(s) you use must be capable of answering the research questions you have set. Here are some things you may have to consider:

• Often questions can be answered in different ways using different methods

• You may be working with multiple methods

• Methods can answer different sorts of questions

• Questions can be answered in different ways.

The matching of method(s) to questions always matters. Some methods work better for particular sorts of questions.

If your question is a hypothesis which must be falsifiable, you can answer it using the following possible methods:

• An experimental method using statistical methods to test your hypothesis.

Survey data (either generated by you or secondary data) using statistical methods to test your hypothesis.

If your question requires you to describe a social context and/or process, then you can answer it using the following possible methods:

• You can use data from your own surveys and/or secondary data to carry out descriptive statistics and numerical taxonomy methods for classification.

• You can use qualitative material derived from:

Documentary research

Qualitative interviews

Focus groups

Visual research

Ethnographic methods

• Any combination of the above may be deployed.

If your question(s) require you to make causal statements about how certain things have come to be as they are, then you might consider using the following:

• You can build quantitative causal models using techniques which derive from statistical regression analysis and seeing if the models “fit” your quantitative data set.

• You can do this through building simulations.

• You can do this by using figurational methods, particularly qualitative comparative analysis, which start either with the construction of quantitative descriptions of cases from qualitative accounts of those cases, or with an existing data set which contains quantitative descriptions of cases. 

• You can combine both approaches.

If your question(s) require you to produce interpretive accounts of human social actions with a focus on the meanings actors have attached to those actions, then you might consider using the following:

• You can use documentary resources which include accounts of action(s) and the meanings actors have attached to those actions. This is a key approach in historical research.

• You can conduct qualitative interviews.

• You can hold focus groups.

• You can do this using ethnographic observation.

• You can combine any or all of above approaches.

If your question(s) are evaluative, this could mean that you have to find out if some intervention has worked, how it has worked if it has, and why it didn’t work if it didn’t. You might then consider using the following:

• Any combination of quantitative and qualitative methods which fit the data you have.

• You should always use process tracing to generate a careful historical account of the intervention and its context(s). 

Checklist: Question to Ask When Deciding On a Method

Here are seven questions you should be able to answer about the methods you have chosen for your research. 

  • Does your method/do your methods fit the research question(s)?
  • Do you understand how the methods relate to your methodological position?
  • Do you know how to use the method(s) ? If not, can you learn how to use the method(s)?
  • Do you have the resources you need to use the methods? For example:

• statistical software

• qualitative data analysis software

• an adequate computer

• access to secondary data sets

• audio-visual equipment

• language training

• transport You need to work through this list and add anything else that you need.

  • If you are using multiple methods, do you know how you are going to combine them to carry out the research?
  • If you are using multiple methods, do you know how you are going to combine the  products of using them when writing up your research? 

Research Design