Thursday, 4 June 2009

How to write a methodology section

As I sit in front of my computer desperately trying to put together a methodology section for my 'transfer of status' paper, which is a 10,000 word document designed to prove that I really do have something which looks like a doctoral project, I'm led to wonder why there isn't a convenient guide on how to write your methodology section.

The easy answer is that there's no one right way to write a methodology. But there should be some common elements or easy patterns to follow, surely?

It's not like I don't know what my methodology is: in fact there is an irony in the fact that the theory section, which was not at all clear in my head, was relatively easy to write, whereas the design which I have been nurturing up there for months refuses to get out on the page.

Which turned out to be the problem. I thought I knew what my design was, but it wasn't until I'd sat down with another piece of paper and started to hammer out the specific details that I realised I hadn't had it all as clear as I thought. Scrappy bullet points might not be what my supervisor wants, but without that kind of 'thinking aloud on paper' I just couldn't get my head organised.

It was made more complicated by the fact that I am using 'mixed methods', as the well-worn phrase goes. This means that I essentially have three methodologies to write. But some of what I am saying applies to all three strands, so I need to combine them to make a sensible and yet understandable whole.

I think I'm on pretty safe ground starting with my research questions. Then I go on briefly to set the specific context for data collection. After that I've chosen to deal with sampling as a whole, and then divide the rest into the three strands, covering data collection and data analysis for each strand. After that comes the thumping great Ethics section, which is twice as long as the rest of the methodology section put together.

But I can't help feeling that there is something missing. And that's where a check-list would really come in handy. Or a convenient book in the library. Ah well, perhaps that's the next project: "a study of the process of writing methodologies in social science doctorates". Or perhaps not.