I. Groups of Research Methods
There are two main groups of research methods in the social sciences:
- The empirical-analytical groupapproaches the study of social sciences in a similar manner that researchers study the natural sciences. This type of research focuses on objective knowledge, research questions that can be answered yes or no, and operational definitions of variables to be measured. The empirical-analytical group employs deductive reasoning that uses existing theory as a foundation for formulating hypotheses that need to be tested. This approach is focused on explanation.
- The interpretative group of methods is focused on understanding phenomenon in a comprehensive, holistic way. Interpretive methods focus on analytically disclosing the meaning-making practices of human subjects [the why, how, or by what means people do what they do], while showing how those practices arrange so that it can be used to generate observable outcomes. Interpretive methods allow you to recognize your connection to the phenomena under investigation. However, the interpretative group requires careful examination of variables because it focuses more on subjective knowledge.
The introduction to your methodology section should begin by restating the research problem and underlying assumptions underpinning your study. This is followed by situating the methods you will use to gather, analyze, and process information within the overall “tradition” of your field of study and within the particular research design you have chosen to study the problem. If the method you choose lies outside of the tradition of your field [i.e., your review of the literature demonstrates that it is not commonly used], provide a justification for how your choice of methods specifically addresses the research problem in ways that have not been utilized in prior studies.
The remainder of your methodology section should describe the following:
- Decisions made in selecting the data you have analyzed or, in the case of qualitative research, the subjects and research setting you have examined,
- Tools and methods used to identify and collect information, and how you identified relevant variables,
- The ways in which you processed the data and the procedures you used to analyze that data, and
- The specific research tools or strategies that you utilized to study the underlying hypothesis and research questions.
In addition, an effectively written methodology section should:
- Introduce the overall methodological approach for investigating your research problem. Is your study qualitative or quantitative or a combination of both (mixed method)? Are you going to take a special approach, such as action research, or a more neutral stance?
- Indicate how the approach fits the overall research design. Your methods for gathering data should have a clear connection to your research problem. In other words, make sure that your methods will actually address the problem. One of the most common deficiencies found in research papers is that the proposed methodology is not suitable to achieving the stated objective of your paper.
- Describe the specific methods of data collection you are going to use, such as, surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observation, archival research. If you are analyzing existing data, such as a data set or archival documents, describe how it was originally created or gathered and by whom. Also be sure to explain how older data is still relevant to investigating the current research problem.
- Explain how you intend to analyze your results. Will you use statistical analysis? Will you use specific theoretical perspectives to help you analyze a text or explain observed behaviors? Describe how you plan to obtain an accurate assessment of relationships, patterns, trends, distributions, and possible contradictions found in the data.
- Provide background and a rationale for methodologies that are unfamiliar for your readers. Very often in the social sciences, research problems and the methods for investigating them require more explanation/rationale than widely accepted rules governing the natural and physical sciences. Be clear and concise in your explanation.
- Provide a justification for subject selection and sampling procedure. For instance, if you propose to conduct interviews, how do you intend to select the sample population? If you are analyzing texts, which texts have you chosen, and why? If you are using statistics, why is this set of data being used? If other data sources exist, explain why the data you chose is most appropriate to addressing the research problem.
- Describe potential limitations. Are there any practical limitations that could affect your data collection? How will you attempt to control for potential confounding variables and errors? If your methodology may lead to problems you can anticipate, state this openly and show why pursuing this methodology outweighs the risk of these problems cropping up.
NOTE: Once you have written all of the elements of the methods section, subsequent revisions should focus on how to present those elements as clearly and as logically as possibly. The description of how you prepared to study the research problem, how you gathered the data, and the protocol for analyzing the data should be organized chronologically. For clarity, when a large amount of detail must be presented, information should be presented in sub-sections according to topic.
ANOTHER NOTE: If you are conducting a qualitative analysis of a research problem, the methodology section generally requires a more elaborate description of the methods used as well as an explanation of the processes applied to gathering and analyzing of data than is generally required for studies using quantitative methods. Because you are the primary instrument for generating the data, the process for collecting that data has a significantly greater impact on producing the findings. Therefore, qualitative research requires a more detailed description of the methods used.
III. Problems to Avoid
The methodology section of your paper should be thorough but to the point. Do not provide any background information that doesn’t directly help the reader to understand why a particular method was chosen, how the data was gathered or obtained, and how it was analyzed.
Unnecessary Explanation of Basic Procedures
Remember that you are not writing a how-to guide about a particular method. You should make the assumption that readers possess a basic understanding of how to investigate the research problem on their own and, therefore, you do not have to go into great detail about specific methodological procedures. The focus should be on how you applied a method, not on the mechanics of doing a method. An exception to this rule is if you select an unconventional methodological approach; if this is the case, be sure to explain why this approach was chosen and how it enhances the overall process of discovery.
It is almost a given that you will encounter problems when collecting or generating your data, or, gaps will exist in existing data or archival materials. Do not ignore these problems or pretend they did not occur. Often, documenting how you overcame obstacles can form an interesting part of the methodology. It demonstrates to the reader that you can provide a cogent rationale for the decisions you made to minimize the impact of any problems that arose.
Just as the literature review section of your paper provides an overview of sources you have examined while researching a particular topic, the methodology section should cite any sources that informed your choice and application of a particular method [i.e., the choice of a survey should include any citations to the works you used to help construct the survey].
It’s More than Sources of Information!
A description of a research study's method should not be confused with a description of the sources of information. Such a list of sources is useful in and of itself, especially if it is accompanied by an explanation about the selection and use of the sources. The description of the project's methodology complements a list of sources in that it sets forth the organization and interpretation of information emanating from those sources.
Azevedo, L.F. et al. "How to Write a Scientific Paper: Writing the Methods Section." Revista Portuguesa de Pneumologia 17 (2011): 232-238; Blair Lorrie. “Choosing a Methodology.” In Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation, Teaching Writing Series. (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers 2016), pp. 49-72; Butin, Dan W. The Education Dissertation A Guide for Practitioner Scholars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010; Carter, Susan. Structuring Your Research Thesis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Kallet, Richard H. “How to Write the Methods Section of a Research Paper.” Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004):1229-1232; Lunenburg, Frederick C. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Methods Section. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Rudestam, Kjell Erik and Rae R. Newton. “The Method Chapter: Describing Your Research Plan.” In Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. (Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2015), pp. 87-115; What is Interpretive Research. Institute of Public and International Affairs, University of Utah; Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Methods and Materials. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College.
The method section of an APA format psychology paper provides the methods and procedures used in a research study or experiment. This part of an APA paper is critical because it allows other researchers to see exactly how you conducted your research. This allows other researchers to reproduce your experiment if they want and to assess alternative methods that might produce differing results.
So what exactly do you need to include when writing your method section?
You should provide detailed information on the research design, participants, equipment, materials, variables, and actions taken by the participants. The method section should provide enough information to allow other researchers to replicate your experiment or study.
The Parts of the Method Section
The method section should utilize subheadings to divide up different subsections. These subsections typically include: Participants, Materials, Design, and Procedure.
In this part of the method section, you should describe the participants in your experiment including who they were, how many there were, and how they were selected. Include details about how your participants were chosen, who they were, and any unique features that may set them apart from the general population. If you utilized random selection to choose your participants, it should be noted here.
"We randomly selected 100 children from elementary schools near the University of Arizona."
At the very minimum, this part of your method section must convey who was in your study, the population from which your participants were drawn, and any restrictions on your pool of participants. For example, if your study consists of female college students from a small private college in the mid-West, you should note this in this part of your method section.
This part of your method section should also explain how many participants were in your study, how many were assigned to each condition, and basic characteristics of your participants such as sex, age, ethnicity, or religion. In this subsection, it is also important to explain why your participants took part in your research. Was your study advertised at a college or hospital? Did participants receive some type of incentive to take part in your research?
Be sure to explain how participants were assigned to each group. Were they randomly assigned to a condition or was some other selection method used?
Providing this information helps other researchers understand how your study was performed, how generalizable the result might be, and allows others researchers to replicate your results with other populations to see if they might obtain the same results.
Describe the materials, measures, equipment, or stimuli used in the experiment. This may include testing instruments, technical equipment, books, images, or other materials used in the course of research. If you used some type of psychological assessment or special equipment during the course of your experiment, it should be noted in this part of your method section.
"Two stories from Sullivan et al.'s (1994) second-order false belief attribution tasks were used to assess children's understanding of second-order beliefs."
For standard and expected equipment such as computer screens, television screens, videos, keyboards, and radios, you can simply name the device and not provide further explanation. So if you used a computer to administer a psychological assessment, you would need to name the specific assessment you used, but you could simply state that you used a computer to administer the test rather than listing the brand and technical specifications of the device.
Specialized equipment, especially if it is something that is complex or created for a niche purpose, should be given greater detail. In some instances, such as if you created a special material or apparatus for your study, you may need to provide and illustration of the item that can be included in your appendix and then referred to in your method section.
Describe the type of design used in the experiment. Specify the variables as well as the levels of these variables. Clearly identify your independent variables, dependent variables, control variables, and any extraneous variables that might influence your results. Explain whether your experiment uses a within-groups or between-groups design.
"The experiment used a 3x2 between-subjects design. Theindependent variableswere age and understanding of second-order beliefs."
The next part of your method section should detail the procedures used in your experiment. Explain what you had participants do, how you collected data, and the order in which steps occurred.
"An examiner interviewed children individually at their school in one session that lasted 20 minutes on average. The examiner explained to each child that he or she would be told two short stories and that some questions would be asked after each story. All sessions were videotaped so the data could later be coded."
Keep this subsection concise yet detailed. Explain what you did and how you did it, but do not overwhelm your readers with too much information.
Things to Remember When Writing a Method Section
- Always write the method section in the past tense.
- Provide enough detail that another researcher could replicate your experiment, but focus on brevity. Avoid unnecessary detail that is not relevant to the outcome of the experiment.
- Remember to use proper APA format. As you are writing your method section, keep a style guide published by the American Psychological Association on hand, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
- Take a rough draft of your method section to your university's writing lab for additional assistance.
- Proofread your paper for typos, grammar problems, and spelling errors. Do not just rely on computer spell checkers. Always read through each section of your paper for agreement with other sections. If you mention steps and procedures in the method section, these elements should also be present in the results and discussion sections.
A Word From Verywell
The method section is one of the most important components of your APA format paper. The goal of your paper should be to clearly detail what you did in your experiment. Provide enough detail that another researcher could replicate your study if he or she wanted.
Finally, if you are writing your paper for a class or for a specific publication, be sure to keep in mind any specific instructions provided by your instructor or by the journal editor. Your instructor may have certain requirements that you need to follow while writing your method section.
American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: The American Psychological Association; 2010.