Research Design

Grounded theory

Grounded theory is an approach in which researchers seek to generate theories from the data which they collect from real life situations. Data can be collected using a range of methods within this approach, for example interviews, observations, questionnaires, documents etc. It is the way in which data is analysed, rather than how it is collected that characterises grounded theory, with the researcher seeking to find new themes and interpretations within the particular area of research that go beyond what has been found in previous related research in that field.


Phenomenology is an approach that explores a particular experience from the viewpoint of several individuals, for example student teachers’ accounts of school experience. A researcher engaged in this approach would describe the first hand experiences of individuals, their viewpoints and perceptions. The researcher then seeks to explore individual interpretations, attitudes, beliefs and emotions that were of significance to participants within the context of their experience.

Sources of further information:

Denscombe (2003) Chapter 7

Ethnography and Autoethnography

Ethnography is characterised by extended periods of fieldwork, in which the researcher spends a considerable amount of time observing the events and interactions taking place in the normal everyday activities of the individuals within a particular community. The aim of researchers carrying engaged in an ethnographic approach is exploration of the links which exist between various social, cultural and psychological aspects of the community being studied.

Action research

Action research is most commonly associated with the investigation of practical issues / problems that exist within real contexts. The aim of this type of research is to enable the researcher to develop a greater understanding of the factors impacting on these issues / problems in order to be able to develop new strategies for implementing change to bring about improvements for example in procedures or practice. Action research is often a cyclical process where ongoing evaluation of these new strategies becomes the focus of the next phase of the research.

Case studies

Case studies are used widely in educational research and are characterised by the fact that they focus on a small number (often just one) context / example of the research issue being studied. As a consequence of this narrow focus, it is possible to generate in-depth data that facilitates exploration of a range of inter-related factors, such as relationships and processes, which are interacting and influencing the research focus. Another strength of case studies is that they facilitate research being carried out in natural settings.

Experimental design

The use of an experimental approach in social sciences has parallels to scientific research in that it centres on identification and exploration of causal factors in a particular system. Experiments involve changing some of these factors, whilst controlling others, and observing / measuring in detail the impact of this change within the system.

Sources of further information:

Experimental research


The use of surveys in social science research provides insight into a particular research question at one point in time. A common tool used in a survey approach is a questionnaire, however methods such as interview and observation can also be used to collect survey data. A key characteristic of surveys is that they aim to generate insights from a sample of a population to provide insights into the population as a whole.

Overview of methodologies

The two basic research approaches exist in social science research, termed qualitative and quantitative approaches and these differ in the way in which the research is carried out:

Understanding research methodology

This guide is designed to introduce you to key themes related to methodology in social science research. To gain more in-depth understanding it would be beneficial to read more about these and the links included in each section can be used as a starting point. 


Triangulation involves the use of two or more different approaches within your research and this can improve both the validity and reliability of the data being collected. There are several types of triangulation and the three forms commonly used in education research are summarised below (Denzin, 1970 cited in Cohen, et al., 2011):


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