Devising Your Own Research Method

yesI’ve had several emails recently from people asking whether they can devise their own research method. The answer is yes – in the right circumstances.

If you’re an undergraduate or a Masters’ student, you’ll have difficulty convincing your tutors that it’s a good idea for you to devise your own research method. They’re likely to say, with some justification, that you need to learn about existing research methods and practise doing research first. The possible exception is if you’re studying for a Masters’ degree in research methods and you want to use your dissertation to try out something new. But otherwise you probably need to leave the devising of a new method for your doctoral study or professional research.

Devising your own research method very rarely means creating a whole new method. Mostly it means tweaking an existing method, or layering two methods together, or some other form of adaptation. For example, Jacqueline Belzile and Gunilla Öberg, from the University of British Columbia, took a new look at focus group data. They found that it was usually treated in the same way as interview data, i.e. the content of the text was the focus of analysis while interactions between participants were generally ignored. Belzile and Öberg came up with new ways to analyse interactions in focus group data, and so moved analytic methods forward.

This usefully demonstrates that devising your own research method does not and need not apply only to data gathering. You can also experiment with writing, as I have done alongside many others, and there’s loads of room for creativity in presenting and disseminating findings. Art installations, theatrical performances, interactive multimedia – these are just a few of the options available to anyone who wants to go beyond the conventional conference presentation, thesis, journal article, or research report.

However, my inbox suggests that data gathering is the phase where people are most inclined to be experimental. And by ‘people’, I mean doctoral students. When I was doing the background reading for my book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, I found that a surprisingly high proportion of papers on innovative methods were written by people who had developed those methods during their doctoral studies. This applied right across the methodological spectrum, from people developing new scales or algorithms, apps or computer games, or ways of mixing methods, to people developing new arts-based techniques. I myself developed a new method of gathering data using oral storytelling during my own doctoral studies. I guess this is at least in part because doctoral study provides enough time to research and develop methods – for those who have the inclination.

Some doctoral students find that their supervisors are nervous about the idea of a new method. The key to soothing supervisory anxiety is to construct a solid argument for the methodological move. So, let’s say a student, Ali, wants to research the effect of living close to mainline railway lines on outdoor social opportunities. Ali decides to create two three-dimensional models of small towns, identical except in one respect: one of the towns has a mainline railway running through the middle while the other has a stream with a path alongside. Ali also makes a collection of small figures and objects (barbecue, picnic blanket, bicycles etc) that participants can place on the model to show what kinds of outdoor social opportunities they would expect to see in which locations. However, Ali’s supervisors favour traditional methods of data collection such as interviewing. Ali needs to come up with some kind of precedent to demonstrate that the plans are viable, but there is no direct precedent – in fact, Ali can’t find anything anywhere in the methods literature about people using three-dimensional maps or model towns for qualitative research.

This means Ali needs to do some lateral thinking. There is some information in the methods literature about using maps with research participants, and there is also information about using objects to support interviewing. Ali collects and reads both sets of literature and uses the arguments therein to build a new argument in support of the planned method. Very sensibly, Ali also identifies some potential weaknesses of that method, and outlines plans to pilot and review the method as the first stage in its development.

So, if you want to devise a new method, whether for academic or other research, start by reading widely in the methods literature. Be prepared to think laterally, and to use a variety of search terms. At the methods frontiers, terminology is often unclear, and it would be embarrassing to claim you’d invented a new method then find several other people had invented it first but called it something different. Also, allow enough time to test your method thoroughly, through a pilot or a series of pilots, before you use it for real.

Devising a new method of gathering data – or, more likely, extending the boundaries of an existing method – is not for everyone, and it is certainly not necessary to do this to gain a doctoral qualification. But it can be great fun and very satisfying.

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