Key Concepts to Understand When Writing Your Methods Chapter – blog @ Dissertation Consulting Company


For doctoral candidates who are envisioning the nature of their upcoming dissertation research, the possibilities associated with qualitative research methods can be quite appealing. When you conduct a qualitative study, you have the opportunity to sit down and talk with your participants face to face about topics that truly matter. It is inspiring to recognize that the insights your participants share can help you to literally change the world through your dissertation research. Compared with quantitative research, qualitative studies have a much more “human” feel, as your results chapter will highlight participants’ quotes to underscore the messages they are trying to impart. 

For our dissertation consulting clients who are working toward positive social change, qualitative methods are a favorite choice because they allow the researcher to give voice to populations who have important perspectives to share about the world around us. Harnessing the power of your participants’ unique insights to spur changes to policy and practice in your field can be so gratifying and exciting! We are always thrilled to support doctoral candidates in their pursuits of positive social change, and through this support, our dissertation consultants have identified a collection of key concepts related to qualitative research methods that are unfamiliar to many new researchers. We’ve put together this article to address these very concepts, and we hope that this helps you along in your dissertation journey.

Rationale for Use of Qualitative Method

One of the first sections of the methods chapter deals with your rationale for choosing a qualitative research method for your study. A key point to keep in mind is that a major objective of the dissertation process is to demonstrate your competence as a new researcher. So, it is not sufficient to simply say that you chose a qualitative method; you must also explain why you chose a qualitative method after carefully considering all other options (i.e., quantitative and mixed methods). Our dissertation consultants always recommend developing two main components of this rationale: (a) explaining why a qualitative research method was the appropriate choice, and (b) explaining why a quantitative method was not the best choice for your study.

Reasons That Qualitative Method is the Best Fit

To explain how a qualitative research method was the best fit for your study, you’ll need to start by explaining the strengths of this method. For example, qualitative methods allow researchers flexibility to explore participants’ perspectives and experiences in great detail, which yields rich insights into how participants interpret or make sense of their experiences (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). Qualitative methods are excellent for exploring topics that have not been heavily researched, and they are also useful when researchers wish to explore diverse viewpoints and experiences (Ritchie & Ormston, 2013). 

The point of this discussion is not to simply list the various strengths of qualitative methods, though. Your committee isn’t looking for an exhaustive catalog of the applications of qualitative research and analysis; they’re looking to see that you understand how your specific research focus aligns with this method. So, what you need to think about is which particular strengths of this method will help to accomplish your dissertation’s specific aims, and then you need to connect these explicitly. 

Here’s an example: “Qualitative research methods are useful when researchers wish to explore participants’ inner experiences related to complex processes (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). This strength aligns with the proposed study’s aim of understanding bullying victims’ experiences of post-traumatic growth.” Did you notice that we didn’t cite the sentence that refers to the proposed study’s topic? That was deliberate. Only cite statements regarding the strengths of qualitative research methods; don’t cite statements that you make about your study’s purpose and aims.

Reasons That Quantitative Method is Not a Fit

The flip side of your discussion of the applicability of a qualitative research method to your study’s topic and purpose is your subsequent explanation of why a quantitative approach would not suit your study. As with your discussion of qualitative methods, you need to start out by discussing some distinct uses and strengths of quantitative methods, supported by citations of authoritative sources. For example, a quantitative method is useful when researchers are trying to establish relationships between variables via statistical analysis (Babbie, 2012). Because of this broad aim of quantitative studies, it is important that the research questions revolve around operationalized variables that are quantifiable (i.e., can be counted). Quantitative methods are also great when researchers are trying to establish causal relationships between variables, as qualitative analysis cannot establish causality.

To complete your rationale for choosing a qualitative research method, you will need to explain how these varied strengths and applications of quantitative methods don’t really work given what you’re trying to accomplish with your study. This might look like this: “Quantitative methods are appropriate when researchers endeavor to determine relationships between previously defined variables using statistical analysis (Babbie, 2012). This does not align with the proposed study’s focus, as I am interested in first-hand descriptions of internal processes of growth following traumatic bullying experiences.” We should also note that in most cases, reviewers will want to see a good, solid paragraph regarding (a) the applicability of qualitative research methods to your study and (b) the inapplicability of a quantitative method.

Rationale for Use of Research Design

After you establish a cogent rationale for your use of a qualitative research method, you need to do the same exact thing for your chosen research design. The logic and sequencing of this discussion are the same as for the research method: (a) explain the strengths of the selected research design and connect these to your research topic; and (b) discuss two or three other research designs from the qualitative research paradigm, explaining how they don’t match your study’s aims.

Let’s go over an example using the previously discussed topic related to experiences of post-traumatic growth following bullying. For this study, an appropriate design within the qualitative research paradigm might be phenomenology, as this design is concerned with understanding the essence of shared experiences by exploring how people interpret or make sense of their lived experiences (Moustakas, 1994). You would explain that this design would help you to address your dissertation’s purpose, which is to understand how participants interpreted their inner healing and growth after being traumatized.

Next, you would discuss a couple of other possible research designs that you considered, explaining why you discarded those in favor of phenomenology. You might discuss grounded theory, which qualitative researchers use when they want to develop theory based on participants’ insights and perspectives (Charmaz, 2014). You would note that although you are interested in participants’ perspectives, you are not aiming to develop theory; therefore, grounded theory is not a suitable choice. Similarly, you might discuss case study, which is useful for examining complex processes as they naturally occur in bounded settings (Yin, 2014). You might note that you are interested in the complexity of participants’ experiences of post-traumatic growth, but that you are not seeking to examine this phenomenon within any type of setting or group. This makes case study a poor design choice for your study.

Purposive Sampling

Every methods chapter has a section related to the population and sample, and purposive sampling is an important concept to understand if you’re conducting qualitative research. Purposive sampling—or purposeful sampling—refers to the deliberate selection of participants based on their characteristics and background (Robinson, 2014). If you’re thinking that this sounds like the opposite of a random sampling process, you’re correct!

Many of our dissertation assistance clients are surprised to learn that researchers do not typically use random samples in qualitative research. We’ve all taken our quantitative methods classes and learned about how random samples are essential for supporting generalization of statistical analysis results to the broader population. So, it’s surprising to learn that using a random sample isn’t important in most qualitative research. In fact, it can be kind of a bad thing in many cases, and this is because quantitative and qualitative studies really have different aims where generalization is concerned.

With statistical analysis, it’s important that your sample reflect the full population and not some tiny, non-representative subgroup within the larger population. If you try to generalize based on a sample that does not truly represent the population, you’ll come to erroneous conclusions. With qualitative research, however, you’re not typically trying to present a portrait of the whole population; you’re trying to dig deep into the perspectives of a select group of people to generate understanding of meanings associated with specific experiences, settings, or cultures (Dworkin, 2012). To help meet this aim of your qualitative dissertation, you will need a sample that is composed of people who all have the specific experiences to speak to your questions with rich insights (Ritchie et al., 2013). This is the purposive sample.

As with previous sections of the methods chapter we have discussed, you’ll need to cite authoritative sources when describing the nature of purposive sampling and its advantages. Then, you will explain what criteria you will use to decide which individuals to include in your sample. Considering our hypothetical dissertation topic, it would help to recruit people who had all (a) experienced bullying, (b) been traumatized by bullying, and (c) made post-traumatic growth. This ensures that all of your participants will have the experiences necessary to respond fully and with informative detail to your interview questions.

Data Saturation

In quantitative and qualitative research, you need to explain not only how you will assemble your sample but also how you decided on an appropriate target sample size. With quantitative studies, a common method for determining sample size adequacy is to conduct a power analysis. The results of power analysis are comforting because they tell you in no uncertain terms what your minimum sample size should be, based on the specific statistical analysis you have planned and your level of significance. 

Determining an appropriate sample size in qualitative research, however, is a less exact process. The key indicator that qualitative researchers look to when trying determine whether they have collected data from a sufficient number of participants is referred to as data saturation. Data saturation is a point in qualitative research when adding new participants to your sample no longer results in new insights being contributed to your dataset (Dworkin, 2012). In other words, participant interviews begin to grow repetitive, and adding new participants just creates redundancies in the data.

Of course, you’ll only know if you’ve reached data saturation after you have begun collecting your data, but you need to specify a target sample size in your methods chapter, which must be approved before you even apply to your IRB. So, how do you do this? The standard approach is to rely on other qualitative researchers’ examples for appropriate sample sizes. This means that you will likely plan to sample anywhere from 5 to 50 participants (Dworkin, 2012). 

For doctoral candidates, it is most likely that you will establish a target sample size based on how your committee guides you (Mason, 2010). In our work with dissertation consulting clients, we find that most settle on samples of about 10 to 20 participants. Because you only know that your sample was of adequate size after collecting data, you should note in this section that if you do not reach data saturation after collecting data from the projected number of participants, then you will continue to include additional participants until you do reach data saturation.

Role of the Researcher

Most qualitative methods chapters will contain a required section on the role of the researcher. The reason you’ll find this section in qualitative methods chapters and not in quantitative methods chapters is because, in qualitative research, you work much more closely with the data as it is being collected and analyzed. Through techniques such as interviews and observations, qualitative researchers directly facilitate the generation of data (Chenail, 2011). During qualitative analysis, researchers bring their own interpretive lenses to the data in a way that is much more individualized than in statistical analysis.

The inherent subjectivities involved in qualitative analysis require careful attention, as they create a risk of bias that is not present with statistical analysis. Attending specifically to factors that may introduce bias is what the role of the researcher section is all about. For example, if you have strong opinions on your research topic, have direct experience in the setting under examination, or have personal or professional relationships with potential participants, these might all be sources of bias that could affect your data collection and interpretation. Acknowledging potential sources of bias helps you to be more objective during analysis, and it also helps readers of your dissertation to understand where you are coming from personally and professionally.  

Bracketing

Directly related to the role of the researcher is the process of bracketing. Because qualitative researchers work so closely with the data, and because qualitative analysis is an inherently interpretive process, it is important for researchers to take measures to avoid undue imposition of their own biases on the data. In the previous section, we discussed the importance of recognizing how your own personal experiences and viewpoints might influence your interpretation of the data. Bracketing refers to the process of taking these personal perspectives and consciously setting them aside, which allows you to hear the voices of your participants more clearly.

Bracketing ties in with the concept of researcher reflexivity, which involves reflection on your own processes of thought and interpretation with regard to your study and its emerging findings (Shaw, 2010). One method that is helpful toward this end is memo-writing, as this allows you to fully explore your own internal reactions and interpretations, bringing your own thought processes into a clearer light (Tufford & Newman, 2012). You can also engage in interviews with persons outside of your dissertation research, which can help to elucidate viewpoints and biases that you maybe hadn’t fully acknowledged (Tufford & Newman, 2012). Describing the methods you will employ related to reflexivity will help to clarify the nature of your bracketing process for readers of your dissertation.

Coding of Data

The process of coding in qualitative research requires some clarification, as it is often misunderstood. In many of our dissertation consulting clients’ first attempts at writing an analysis description in their methods chapters, coding is presented as the entire analysis process from start to finish. In reality, though, coding is only the initial stage of qualitative analysis.

When coding the data, you try to identify basic units of meaning at the surface level of the text. Qualitative analysis software like NVivo allows you to then apply labels to selected excerpts of text–these labels are your codes. This is not the full extent of the qualitative analysis process, though, so it will be important to explain what you will do with these codes once you have completed this step in your analysis.

In reviewing your methods chapter, your committee will want to see that you have a thorough, step-by-step understanding of how to get from raw data to themes through your analysis. Our dissertation coaches love the Braun et al. (2014) 6-step thematic analysis process precisely because it provides this level of detail. As the authors describe, your next steps after coding are to group codes together based on similarity and then ask yourself what the grouped codes have in common. This allows you to detect commonalities that become the basis for your themes and subthemes. 

Final Thoughts

Completing a qualitative study is a challenging but deeply rewarding experience, and we hope that this quick overview of key concepts will help as your dissertation proceeds. You might also have a look at our previous discussions related to conducting interviews and promoting trustworthiness—these are also really important components of qualitative research to get acquainted with as you put together your methods chapter. Our dissertation consultants are always here to help if you run into snags along the way with your study, and we would be excited to lend you the strengths of our qualitative expertise as you complete your proposal. Thanks for reading!

References

Babbie, E. R. (2012). The practice of social research. Wadsworth.

Braun, V., Clarke, V., & Terry, G. (2014). Thematic analysis. In P. Rohleder & A. Lyons (Eds.), Qualitative research in clinical and health psychology (pp. 95-113). Palgrave MacMillan.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory. Sage.

Chenail, R. J. (2011). Interviewing the investigator: Strategies for addressing instrumentation and researcher bias concerns in qualitative research. Qualitative Report, 16(1), 255-262.

Dworkin, S. L. (2012). Sample size policy for qualitative studies using in-depth interviews. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(6), 1319-1320.

Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2015). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. John Wiley & Sons.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Sage.

Ritchie, J., Lewis, J., Elam, G., Tennant, R., & Rahim, N. (2013). Designing and selecting samples. In J. Ritchie, J. Lewis, C. M. Nicholls, & R. Ormston (Eds.), Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers (pp. 111-145). Sage.

Ritchie, J., & Ormston, R. (2013). The applications of qualitative research to social research. In J. Ritchie, J. Lewis, C. M. Nicholls, & R. Ormston (Eds.), Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers (pp. 27-45). Sage.

Robinson, O. C. (2014). Sampling in interview-based qualitative research: A theoretical and practical guide. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 11(1), 25-41.

Shaw, R. (2010). Embedding reflexivity within experiential qualitative psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology7(3), 233-243.

Tufford, L., & Newman, P. (2012). Bracketing in qualitative research. Qualitative Social Work11(1), 80-96.

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods. Sage publications.

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