Friday, 20 May 2016

Article - Shrimoyee, Sandhya, Debapriya

Research Methods vs Methodologies

Shrimoyee Bhattacharya
Senior Research Scientist, CSTEP

Sandhya Sundararagavan
Research Scientist, CSTEP

Debapriya Das
Senior Research Economist, CSTEP

The science of solving a problem systematically is research methodology. People often confuse methods with methodologies. Methodology is how the research is conducted while methods are means by which a research is conducted. Thus methodologies are generally very unique to a particular research, whereas methods are more established ways with theoretical backing to achieve a methodology. Selection of suitable methodologies and methods are critical while conducting policy research in Think Tanks. Methodologies include milestones or intermediate goals that help answer the larger research question at the end. Methods are selected to perform activities that can help reach intended goals.

For example, if the purpose of a research is to measure the extent of change in topography of a certain geographic area over a given period of time, then the methodology for the same could include producing maps of existing topography. The methods deployed for this goal could include primary data collection and interpretation through surveys or analysis, based on available secondary data from different sources such as available satellite data from open sources. It is here that there could be a blurred understanding of the difference between research methods and techniques. Techniques or tools are finer aspects of a research method. For example, primary data collection through topographic surveys could be done with a variety of techniques such as Areal surveying, Transit-stadia surveying, Plane-table surveying, or sophisticated Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) methods. In this case, a researcher can select a specific technique primarily based on the quality of output produced and identify if this is adequate in answering the larger research question. Criteria such as time sensitivity, cost, and availability of skilled human resources etc. are also important in this regard.

Research methods are categorised in the following broad categories: 

Quantitative methods help in quantifying or testing a policy problem by using different kinds of data sets. In quantitative methods mathematical or/and statistical analysis is used and is generalised to a larger population within known error margins. Surveys and review of documents and records with numeric information are common quantitative methods prescribed in research.

Qualitative methods are explored to understand the policy problem in terms of opinions, reasons and an underlying motivation. These methods describe the policy problem from the point of view of those who are experiencing it. Comparatively, qualitative methods are more subjective than quantitative methods. Focus group discussions, in depth interviews, review of documents pertaining to a policy problem are few of the common qualitative methods used in research.

Pragmatic/combined methods – as the name suggests is a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Once a certain statistical or numerical analysis is completed for a policy problem, the same can be tested via qualitative methods in terms of interviews and focus group discussions. Pragmatic or combined methods help in balancing the limitation of one type of method with the strength of the other.

On the other hand, research methodologies are selected based on type of research such as longitudinal research, empirical research, quantitative or qualitative research, historical research, analytical research, experimental and exploratory research etc.

The choice of research methods from the categories mentioned above are based on the research methodology adopted for a particular type of research that the policy problem concentrates on.
Often there are debates among researchers on the choice between qualitative and quantitative methods. It is important to remember that public policy research has two important dimensions- knowledge and value. The degree of certainty (or lack of it) in each of these determines whether a policy problem is structured, unstructured or moderately structured (Politics and Ideas, “Doing policy relevant research – responding to policy problems”, Module 4, 2015-16). Brainstorming on research methodologies and methods at the primary stage of research can be valuable for a Think Tank in understanding the kind of challenges for a particular research eco system and thus be cognizant of the type of research output to be expected. To summarise, both are important factors in generating favourable conditions for making the desired impact from a research.

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