I’ve published a (newly updated!) video on youtube, outlining a framework I’ve been using for thinking about research design, particularly in social sciences.
It is based on 4 central ideas, that gradually adopt a more fine-grained focus, and a necessary gesture towards analysis: hence the idea of a 4+ part framework.
The parts are:
1. Strategy – the big picture, how you name the kind of research you are doing. This does a lot of work in setting the tone and character of your research, signals to others what they might expect, and from this, many implications for other parts of design flow.
2. Theoretical / Conceptual Framework – this is about the set of ideas or sets of ideas that help you frame your research in more abstract terms. Such a framework is
- part of the location of your work in scholarly debates, fields, contexts
- something that enables you to frame a concrete problem in more scholarly terms (and in doing so make a local or specific issue something of wider relevance)
- operationalise something tricky to pin down (e.g if you want to research something ‘invisible’ like ‘learning’ or empirically slippery like ‘class’, or ‘sexism’, then a theory or conceptual framework will enable you ‘see’ it
- often something that you speak to in your contribution to knowledge (advancing the framework, adding to it, applying it in new areas, challenging aspects of it).
3. Sampling – not necessarily implying positivistic / quantitative notions, but pointing to the need to think seriously about who is involved in research (or what, if you’re looking at documents for example), who isn’t, what your relationships with these people or objects are, what inclusions and exclusions there are, whether and how these matter etc. And remember, sampling isn’t just people, but times, places, events, phenomena and so on!
4. Methods – the broad tools you use in your research to gather information (or generate data, if you’re coming from a more constructivist paradigm where things aren’t out there waiting to be discovered…). I raise the question of alignment between these and your research questions, but distinguish methodological issues from…
5. Techniques – this is how you use the tools in (3). What kind of interview are you doing? How are you observing? What is your survey like? Here I point explicitly to aesthetic aspects of the accomplishment or performance of research methods, the art that goes with the (social) science.
5+ – Analysis. Learning from my own mistakes in the (now dim and distant) past: going and getting data, or designing research without thinking through how the analysis will proceed is a no-go. It doesn’t mean you can predict and anticipate exactly what you’ll do analytically, but it’s better to think ahead than to get what looks like great data and then realise there’s no sensible way to analyse it that links to your research question (I say this from experience!).
The tree metaphor
The video makes use of a tree metaphor, talking about research as planting seeds and growing a tree.
Where do you plant the seeds here and not there (ie. why this topic / question and not another? what other trees are growing here? what else has been done?)
How tall does your tree have to be? (ie. what do you have to do to stand out and make a new contribution in this field?)
How thick is your trunk? (ie. how do your make your research sturdy, able to withstand the odd thing going wrong, and the gusty winds of academic critique?)
How wide are your branches? (ie. how far can your analysis take you beyond what you studied to saying something of wider relevance? This doesn’t mean empirical generalisability necessarily!)
How tasty is your fruit? (ie. how palatable are your conclusions? or at least, how inviting is what you have to say in terms of capturing people’s attention. You don’t necessarily want to say what people want to hear, but you’ve got to get them enticed somehow!).
I hope you find this helpful!
I should acknowledge that this post and the video float in a void in terms of references to methods literature. I’m not claiming anything revolutionary here and am sure that may people talk about similar issues in research design. The tree metaphor is probably new (at least as far as I’m aware), and I think some clarity around saying design involves thinking about strategy, sampling, methods, techniques (oh, and analysis!) may be helpful. These terms are used in many different ways in the literature. This is simply how I find it useful to think about them.