How to choose a research method

NCRM news
Eva Nedbalova

Article by NCRM originally published in the NVivo blog

When working on your research project there are so many things to consider!

You have to think about the plan of the study, the research questions, the data collection, the evaluation, the discussion, the presentation. It can be really quite overwhelming and what looks like a great idea in your head can turn into a complicated nightmare once you start structuring it in an academic manner.

One of the big issues related to planning and conducting a research project is – how to choose a research method.

In this blog I outline steps and tips to help you find the research method for you.

Everyone starts somewhere:

What is the best place to start when choosing a research method?

Should your decision be based on the research design and philosophical paradigm of your project? But what if you don’t know quite yet what is the philosophy of your research?

Or, should you choose a method that is familiar to you? A method that will be the easiest to use? But how will you justify such choice?

Defining the purpose of your research will help bring you clarity:

So where is the best place to start?

The best idea is to go back to the roots of your research endeavours and ask, what is the purpose of your research? Just pause for a minute. Take a broad approach to this question, have in mind the general aim of your project (but not too general, such as ‘to make the world a better place’).

Write down what comes to your mind (if you are not sure what to write check the NCRM poster on ‘how to choose a research method’ start at the top and explore the pathways).

Perhaps your research question is about culture, relationships or a new phenomenon and you want to do in-depth exploration of social processes or participants’ meaning. If so, this lends itself to methods like interviews, focus groups, observations, diary methods, case study or ethnography.

Or perhaps you already have a data set produced by someone else and you want to explore what the data are telling you, then you could choose methods like document analysis, meta-analysis, administrative data analysis or the almighty big data analysis.

Alternatively, you may be ambitions and take ‘making the world a better place’ seriously and you want to change or challenge social processes. In this case transformative research frameworks, critical methodologies, feminist research, emancipatory research, action research or participatory approaches are the best fit for you.

If your interest is to understand the whole population of an institution or a region, predict behaviour or explore causation or a set of natural laws, and you are confident with numbers you may want to choose the survey method or a social science experiment.

If you can’t settle on just one method, don’t panic!

You might want to pick more than one method because what you really want to do is to tell the full story of the complex problem you are looking at, you want to choose methods that are creative or you want to choose a number of methods and mix them up.  

Take it one step at a time, start with asking yourself what is the purpose of your research, write down your answers and make sure you make a good use of available resources in the form your tutors, colleagues, books (e.g. When to Use What Research Design by W.P. Vogt) and vast online resources (such as