Figuring Out What to Do: Making Methodological Decisions Across our Practices

Categories: Research, Research Design, Research Roles, Research Skills

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. We’ll continue to learn about the design stage in February with a focus on Choosing Methodology and Methods. This post is from our February Mentors in Residence Pengfei Zhao, Karen Ross, Peiwei Li and Barbara Dennis. See their new book, Making Sense of Social Research Methodology.


In our ordinary lives we are persistently engaged in inquiry, problem solving and curiosities. However, the practice of research has gotten so technologized that is often thought of as involving expertise not readily available to practitioners. In our text we invite readers to begin with their life experiences and ongoing decision-making as an entry point into learning how to engage in research methods and methodologies.

Imagine you are a parent or loved one of a child and that child has just been diagnosed with medical condition that seems to be impacting them in significant ways. You might read books or research articles on the condition, you might make daily notes describing your child, you might visit the blogs of parents who have children living with that same condition. You make a lot of decision about how to get information and what sources to trust. Once you have gathered information, you figure out how to interpret, accept as valid, and apply the information. This example reveals that most of us are not strangers to inquiry. Let us look at an ordinary professional example. Therapists at a counseling center might wonder about effective strategies for supporting commitments to therapy amongst clients from socially stigmatized groups, for example, women living with HIV/Aids. The therapists have noticed that clients from socially stigmatized groups, on average, end their counseling sessions before reaching their own therapy goals. The therapists at the center ask themselves, “why?”

One possible set of explanations might involve the commitments and motivations of the clients themselves. Perhaps another cluster of reasons are a function of socioeconomic conditions. Another explanation might be that their counseling strategies are not as effective as they need to be. The therapists decide to investigate this question by looking closely at clients’ perceptions of counseling effectiveness. They begin by surveying past clients with a carefully prepared questionnaire. Once they have a better understanding of potential reasons clients have ended their therapy early, the therapists decide to implement have anonymous exit surveys through which the therapists try to tease out the weight of these various possible reasons that clients both continue or end therapy. The initial interest unfolds methodologically and begins to take shape in terms of methods. And one interesting answer, leads organically to more questions. Practitioners consistently encounter questions which are worthy of investigation.

In our textbook, Making Sense of Social Research Methodology: A Student and Practitioner-Oriented Approach, we start each chapter by providing readers with opportunities to muse upon their everyday practical experiences. Insights gained from those ordinary experiences are linked with how we might engage in decisions regarding our methods and methodologies. For example, in one chapter, we describe a situation where Barbara was experiencing some prolonged physical discomfort. She decided to start keeping a journal. She had to decide what to include in the journal – for example, she decided to make notes about what she ate and drank. She also made notes about her physical activities and she rated how she felt on a scale from one to ten. After keeping track for a few days, she realized that the time of day she felt uncomfortable was also important information. We might reflect on the decision to report on her comfort using a rating scale. Or we might wonder about how feasible it was for her to write down everything she ate and drank. The example moves us to thinking about data, how it is generated, and how are ideas about data influence that process. For example, Barbara wanted an easy-to-synthesize, visual display of her comfort as opposed to a written narration of how she felt as one might write in a diary. She believed she could rate her own experiences with discomfort on a daily basis in a way that was relevant to how her ideas about what she took to be typical levels of comfort prior to the onset of this prolonged discomfort, which she was interpreting as a symptom of some underlying problem.

Practitioners, like therapists, and students, like ours, who read the text might be able to imagine some problems they would like to solve or a situation they wish they understood better. Practitioners and students usually entertain inquiry questions that are directly linked with what is going on in our immediate contexts. This contrasts with an idea of researchers as experts who work in a lab from a “disinterested” perspective. This later vision of research feels like it excludes the sorts of questions practitioners and students might have, as well as the expertise they bring to the table. Methods and methodological decisions seem to be of a realm outside our ordinary lives or practice work experiences. It is the hope that our book traverses this untenable and ill-fated exclusion.

Interested in purchasing the book?

Use this code, MSPACE20, for a 20% discount when you order the book from SAGE Publishing.

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