Musings on ways of doing research (and socks)

There are some words and phrases you will encounter in methodological discussions and it’s important to understand what they mean and how they are used by researchers. Let’s start with ‘methodology’ itself. I tell my students that ‘method’ is what you do and the ‘ology’ is why and how you’re doing it that way. A methodology is simply a way of doing things. The ways – the methods – will differ from one subject area to another and there will be different reasons for the use of those different methods. For example, my methodology (my way) for washing socks involves several steps.

  1. Find all the dirty socks. With two children, the socks could be almost anywhere in the house, in pockets, down the side of the sofa, inside a pair of leggings and, occasionally, in the laundry basket. But I digress.
  2. Put all the odd socks to one side until the pairs are found. There’s a whole research project in how and why there are so many odd socks. I think the children may eat them.
  3. Sort the socks into those that can go in a dark wash, those that need to go in a white wash and those that can go in a mixed-colours wash.
  4. Put the socks, together with similarly coloured clothes, in the washing machine and wash them.

This is my way of washing socks. These steps are based on my desire for order and control. I don’t like to find unwashed (especially odd) socks after I have started the washing machine, so I hunt around for the socks first. I don’t like the thought of one black or bright red sock getting into the white wash and spoiling the beautiful, crisp white fabrics, so I sort the socks into different washes. I can’t bear odd socks, so I keep all the odd ones together until the pair shows up in a dressing gown pocket or worn by a teddy bear so I can wash the pair together. It’s all about being in control and trying to keep order in the chaotic world of socks. This is my justification for my chosen approach to washing socks. You may have an entirely different approach and that’s fine as long as it serves your purposes.

And that’s the important thing about your chosen methods – they must suit your purposes, i.e. your research objectives or research questions. I promise I won’t mention socks again.

But what has all this got to do with research methodology? Well, methodology for research considers similar ideas, by asking and answering some key questions.

QuestionsSocks exampleResearch exampleYour example
What do you want to achieve/know?Clean, paired socks with no colour-runHow many beans are in a tin of baked beans 
Why does this matter?If the laundry isn’t done we’ll run out of clothes and the socks are part of that bigger pictureFor quality control purposes 
What is the best way to do it?My way, obviously!Count the number of beans in each of ten tins and take an average 
Why is that the best way?Because this way the socks retain their colour, stay in pairs and get washedIt’s quick and doesn’t waste the beans – they can still be eaten 

For each project there are a number of different ways in which the overall aim may be achieved and it’s important that you are able to justify the decisions you make about your research method. For example, in the baked beans example above, you could instead weigh ten individual baked beans to find the average weight of one bean, calculate the weight of the tin and the weight of the sauce, then simply weigh a can of baked beans to work out how many are inside. Would this be a better way to do it?

For academic research projects there is a huge range of available methods and I shall return to this subject and investigate some of them in future posts. The researcher selects the most suitable methods for meeting the research objectives. Not the methods they prefer to use, but the ones that will answer the questions being asked. I like conducting interviews, but that would not help me with the baked beans! It is true, however, that we each have our own views about how to approach research and these views may change the way we frame research questions. This brings us to the matter of research philosophy, which I shall consider in the next post. Now I’m off to hunt for some socks.

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