Research Design

Creating an effective research design is likely to be one of the most difficult and eminently useful tasks in drafting a proposal. An effective research design links abstract and stylized concepts and questions with the empirical world’s complexities and challenges. A research design must at once be specific and highly flexible. It must be expansive enough to adapt these very complexities while still pointing you towards relevant data. The methods you use should be extensions of your substantive question and epistemological orientation. Contrary to some disciplinarians’ claims, there is no single research model that one can or should follow. Numerous alternatives must always be considered and choices made. What follows is a set of general principles and questions to consider in making those choices. Whether or not these questions help ensure funding, they will help guide you as you start to navigate “the field.”

Identify the kind of research you intend to do. Depending on discipline, project, and personal inclination, social science research projects may contain a wide range of empirical and theoretical objectives. While most researchers hope to explore and document some form of “reality” — something important in the real world — the reasons for doing so vary tremendously. Identifying your normative motivations and your theoretical foundations will considerably influence how you design your research: where you go, for how long, with whom you talk, and the kind of questions you ask. Deciding if you intend to test or elaborate existing theory or are trying to build a new, grand theory, or are using existing theory in a new way, has implications in the kind of information you need to collect.

Be realistic. The world is infinitely more complicated than anything you can possibly represent in a comprehensible text, be it your proposal or dissertation. Given the technical, financial, and chronological restraints you will face in conducting your research (see fieldwork below), you are going to have to make choices. Conducting a household survey may mean that you cannot also do participant observation, an in-depth ethnography, and extensive archival research. Such questions become even more complicated when conducting research at multiple sites or with ethnically or linguistically diverse populations. Selecting and justifying a limited number of approaches will demonstrate that you have thought through your agenda and the kind of information you need to make your point. Demonstrating that you have the technical skills to execute these approaches will only make your statement stronger.
Be precise. Social scientific discourse, both methodological and substantive, is rife with neologisms and jargon. As with any concept you hope to use, you must be prepared to tease out and concretize the methods you select. If you intend to conduct open-ended interviews, you must ask a whole series of secondary questions:

  • What do I want to get out of these interviews?
  • With whom am I going to conduct these interviews?
  • How do I know they will talk to me?
  • How many interviews must I do?

The same goes for “process tracing” (e.g., what process, where do I see this process, etc.), “archival research” (what archives, what sources, what about accessibility? reliability?), or with any other approach. Not all of your answers to these questions need to go in the proposal, but demonstrating that you have considered them will only help.

Be flexible. While realism and precision require excluding some possible approaches, a research design that is too strictly curtailed raises its own set of hazards. In the words of King, Keohene and Verba, “the first-rate social scientist does not regard a research deign as a blueprint for a mechanical process of data-gathering and evaluation. To the contrary, the scholar must have the flexibility of mind to overturn old ways of looking at the world, to ask new questions, to revise research designs appropriately, and then to collect more data of a different type than originally intended” (1994:12). It may be useful to consider what you will do if you cannot access a certain data set, speak to a particular official, or live among a certain group of villagers. Developing a research design that allows you to incorporate these contingencies will help persuade grant-makers that you are ready for what lies ahead.

As much as possible, test your methods in advance. Trying out drafts of your questionnaire, interviewing technique or skills at facilitating focus group discussions can prove invaluable. Ideally, this would be done “in the field” on a pre-dissertation trip, but most of us are not lucky enough to get such a chance. You may be surprised, however, at just how quickly you can eliminate or refine particular questions or approaches by trying them with strangers at home. Moreover, you can help see what methods you realistically think you will be able to use. Doing this ahead of time will not only save invaluable time when you get to the field, but can help you decide what methods you are most comfortable (and most competent) using. Not everyone, for example, is prepared to go undercover in a meatpacking factory as a participant-observer. Being able to specify what you are going to do, and why you are the person to do, are central to convincing potential funders that you are a worthy grantee.

Consider revising your research question; consider revising your methods. For some, research design and methodology are seen as ways of operationalizing a research question. Others, often those with more technical leanings, choose a research question that highlights their methodological prowess. There are merits to both approaches. A research question must be answerable by the methodological tools available to you, the researcher. Conversely, the methods, however sophisticated, must help you to answer a question of significance to both you and your discipline. As you consider what you can do practically, it may be worth thinking about reformulating or “spinning” your question in a way that will allow you to provide an effective answer. Similarly, as your thinking evolves and your research question changes, you must be prepared to reformulate your research design.

Cited: King, G., Keohane, R. O., Verba, S. (1994) Designing Social Inquiry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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