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Saunders’ Research Onion – A Step-By-Step Guide To Structuring Research Methodology Chapter For PhD And Master-Level Researchers

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Are you someone who is presently working on PhD Thesis or Master-level Dissertation? Do you find yourself stuck when writing up ‘Methodology’ chapter? Does it bother you to such an extent that you feel clueless about future course of action? If you answered ‘yes’ to all the previously asked questions, you must read on as this article would attempt to clear your doubts related to ‘Methodology’ chapter by using Saunders’ research onion as base.

 

As a PhD or Postgraduate researcher, you may already have settled on a suitable research topic by now. Additionally, you might have critically examined or reviewed literature relevant to the chosen topic and penned down clear & concise research questions with a view to addressing the research gap and making significant contribution to the existing body of knowledge in your chosen field of study. So far, you have not had any issues with regard to your research paper whatsoever. However, you start feeling ill at ease as you move on to draft one of the crucial chapters of your PhD thesis or dissertation, i.e. Methodology. This particular chapter apparently underpins your entire piece of research and adds a great deal of credibility to it. Hence, it must be drafted carefully after weighing all the possible methodological decisions.

 

In academia, the research onion model is quite a famous one and is often resorted to by researchers across the world for drafting the much-feared methodology chapter. This model was developed by Saunders et al in 2007 and the different layers of the model represent the various stages through which a researcher must pass when putting together an effective methodology. At each stage, the researcher must weigh all the given possibilities and make the most logical methodological decision which, in turn, will give rise to a credible piece of research.

Research Onion Diagram (based on Saunders et al’s diagram 2009)

As you can see in the picture above, there are 6 layers to the research onion. Now, you must be wondering as to what is the analogy of an onion to research methodology. Well, it simply has to do with the structured process of peeling, i.e. you have to peel away each layer of the onion starting from the outer one in order to make your way to the core eventually. Similarly, you have to start from the topmost layer of the research onion, i.e. research philosophy, and move through the middle layers comprising of research approaches, research strategies, research choices and time horizons before finally getting to the core, i.e. research techniques and procedures. The important thing to note here is that each layer has something important to offer to make your PhD thesis or dissertation look credible and hence, none of the layers should be overlooked or ignored at all. Let us now find out what each of the layers means in detail in the space provided below:

 

Research Philosophy

The first and topmost layer of the research onion has to do with a set of beliefs related to the nature of reality being investigated, and is often studied in the context of ontology and epistemology. You should explore it carefully as selection of a philosophical stance would influence data collection and data analysis going forward. Let us briefly understand what epistemology and ontology mean and consist of.

 

Epistemology – This branch of philosophy is concerned with the question of what is (or should be) regarded as acceptable knowledge in a discipline and how we can obtain it. It basically answers the questions beginning with ‘how’ and ‘what’. Perception, sensation, intuition, reason and even faith are considered as means to knowledge as per Epistemology.

 

In order to understand it better, let us look at positivism, critical realism and interpretivism (the three philosophical stances that are often linked to Epistemology).

 

  • Positivism – This position is based on the idea that scientific knowledge is the true or acceptable knowledge of the world and is characterized by the testing of the hypotheses (or research questions) derived from the existing theory of knowledge. The body of research generated by this philosophical stance is something that can be replicated by other researchers with same or very similar quantifiable results arising from statistical analysis.

 

  • Realism – The philosophy of realism questions reliability of the scientific knowledge and maintains that all theories can be revised and more reliable results can be obtained through continual research and application of new methods of research. Hence, new research methods contribute to the acceptable knowledge in this case.

 

  • Interpretivism – Unlike positivism and realism, an interpretive philosophy emphasizes the use of qualitative analysis over quantitative or statistical analysis to obtain the results. The interpretivist researcher is often seen playing an important role in making sense of and interpreting the collected data. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that interpretivism incorporates human interest into a research study and recognises differences between people.

 

Ontology – This branch of metaphysics (philosophy related to the overall nature of what things are) is concerned with the study of reality or things that exhibit reality. It answers the question ‘what is’. Physical objects, minds, events, properties, values and abstract entities such as numbers and sets could all be said to be representing the ontology (or inventory) of the world.

 

In order to get further insight into Ontology, let us take a look at objectivism, constructivism and pragmatism that constitute it:

 

  • Objectivism – This philosophy is derived from the idea that human knowledge and values are objective and are determined by the nature of reality. They are not created by the thoughts which one (i.e. social actor) has. For instance, if it is raining, it is for real and would, therefore, be acknowledged by every living creature. Such reality is not dependent on the thoughts of any specific social actor. Rather, it influences them. In your research, you may, for example, talk about how a specific law (a real phenomenon) passed by the government is impacting a group of people (social actors).

 

  • Constructivism – This philosophical stance focuses on how bodies of knowledge come to be and how ideas are constructed by human interactions and decisions. Contrary to what we saw in case of objectivism, constructivism maintains that reality is dependent on or is constructed by social actors. For example, a new law (reality) passed by the government may be the outcome of the behavior of a group of people (social actors) which the law has now impact on.

 

  • Pragmatism – This philosophical standpoint centers on the linking of theory and practice. It asserts that both objectivism and constructivism are practical and valid ways to approach any research, and they both could be comfortably used to find solutions to problems.

 

Research Approach

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This happens to be the second layer of the research onion and demonstrates the approaches that a researcher could resort to when conducting research of any kind.

 

A research approach could be either deductive or inductive, and its selection would often depend on the previously-made choices, research aims, limitations and personal opinions.

 

  • Deductive – This research approach tends to flow from generic to specific. Any researcher using deductive reasoning would start with theory and move on to research question or hypothesis which is tested through data collection afterwards. In the end, findings derived from the collected data would either confirm or reject the research question or hypothesis.

 

  • Inductive – This type of reasoning or approach is often used or helpful when there is little research available on a topic. Unlike deductive approach, a researcher has to move in the opposite direction from research question to observation and description to analysis before finally getting on to theory.

 

Generally speaking, a deductive approach is often associated with quantitative research whereas an inductive approach is often linked to qualitative research.

 

Research Strategies

The third layer of the research onion is concerned with how a researcher plans to collect data for the PhD thesis or dissertation in question. Such data collection methods could include experiment, survey, case study, action research, grounded theory, ethnography and archival research. An academic researcher can choose more than one of the above-mentioned options to collect data as long as such decision is explained well in the PhD thesis or dissertation. Let us glance through some of the research strategies in section below:

 

  • Experiment – Scientific and rigid in structure, experimental designs are meant to test causal effects of phenomena on a group. The data collected using this method could be statistically analysed.

 

  • Survey – A survey design often results from a deductive approach and is capable of collecting large volume of data that is apt for statistical analysis. The collected data helps answer the research question or hypothesis in a cost-effective manner.

 

  • Case study – This type of research design provides unique examples of real people or cases in real situations. The number of such case studies is often restricted for drawing clear conclusions from the data.

 

  • Action research – This is primarily designed to deal with a specific problem in a specific situation. The process of action research begins with setting up of a clear objective. Thereafter, the problem is fully diagnosed and subsequently, a list of solutions is prepared and presented as recommendations to solve the issue.

 

  • Grounded Theory – This strategy takes the approach of collecting data to build theory rather than to test or refine one. The researcher using grounded theory strategy often begins with a research question or qualitative data collection. Thereafter, the data collected through observation is reviewed by the researcher and the repeated ideas are then coded/grouped into categories that, in turn, create basis for a new theory.

 

  • Ethnography – This strategy studies people in natural surroundings in order to develop theory around behaviour and culture. This is rather a daunting and time-consuming research design wherein the researcher becomes part of the community being investigated with a view to producing details about long-term changes in opinions and actions.

 

  • Archival Research – This strategy derives information from existing data and archive documents. A study using this research strategy could face a roadblock going forward as the accuracy and the amount of available information could present issues. Hence, you are encouraged not to rely solely on this kind of secondary data for your PhD thesis or dissertation.

 

Research Choices

The fourth layer of the research onion is concerned with qualitative and quantitative methodologies. You would need to make a decision as to whether you would choose the former or the latter or both for your PhD thesis or dissertation. If you are using both methods, you would further need to decide whether both methods would weigh equally or one would dominate the other in your research.

 

Quantitative research relates to numbers, measurements and quantity whereas Qualitative research is concerned with rich data including opinions, description and personal accounts.

 

You would need to follow a framework of methods and tools depending on the choice you make at this stage.

 

Basically, we have three methods to choose from when working with this specific layer of the research onion. These are listed below:

 

  • Mono-method – This type of method takes place when the researcher goes about collecting either qualitative data or quantitative data based on the decisions made in the previous stages of research onion.

 

  • Mixed-methods – When a researcher collects both quantitative data and qualitative data with an intention to use those equally in the research study, data collection and analysis, we term it as mixed-methods research. It is rather a popular framework that attempts to complement quantitative data with qualitative data in order to overcome the limitations of each individual method.

 

  • Multi-method – This means that both qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques are used. However, analysis of the collected data is done using one perspective only.

 

Time Horizons

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Layer 5 of the research onion is to do with timeframe for the research. There are two options for a researcher to choose from, i.e. cross-sectional and longitudinal.

 

  • Cross-sectional – This option presents a snapshot view of a particular situation at a single point in time and confines the duration of data collection and research to short period of time.

 

  • Longitudinal – This type of research studies events and behaviors using concentrated samples over a long period of time.

 

Techniques and Procedures

The final layer of the research onion looks at data collection and analysis. As a researcher, you need to pen down decisions related to sample groups, questionnaire content, interview questions, ethics and what not in this particular section. Please note that all the decisions incorporated into the 5th layer should be in accordance with the discussions that took place in the previous layers of the research onion if you are to produce valid results.

 

Hopefully, the article has served its purpose of clarifying your doubts related to research onion and methodology chapter well. Please feel free to share the article with your connections who might benefit from it.

 

Last but not the least, if you are still struggling with your methodology chapter or any other aspect of your PhD thesis or dissertation, please feel free to write to us at info@ukdissertationwriters.com or fill out our Contact Us form and our team of native English-speaking UK-University Professors and Sr. Lecturers would be more than happy to assist you further. 

 

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