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Top 5 methods tips for new researchers

Caitlin Hamilton and Laura J. Shepherd | Published on October 29, 2020

The UKRI GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub is a multi-partner, five-year research consortium working with local and global civil society, practitioners, governments and international organisations to advance gender justice and inclusive peace. 

A key area of the Hub’s work relates to research design, and methodological innovation. This stream of activity is focused on exploring the process of research design, the identification of appropriate research methods, and the ethics and practice of research with diverse research participants. Across the thirty-two projects, researchers from around the world are using a variety of methodological approaches to establish how we can advance gender justice and inclusive peace, include through photo-voice research, theatre productions and participatory action projects.

We asked the members of the Hub for their best methods advice. Here are their top 5 tips:

1. Let your research question guide your research methods

Having a really clear research question at the outset is important for framing your research, but it also guides what methods to use. It’s tempting to use familiar methods for each new project, but the research question should determine whether those methods are appropriate or not. Your question might well change over the course of your research project – in fact, it almost certainly will, and that’s fine! You just need to make sure that the methods you choose are the best ones for answering your question, whatever it ends up being.

2. Be methodologically open-minded

Even though you might have an idea about which method or methods you would like to use, keep an open mind. Learn what you can about all sorts of methods – take classes, talk to other researchers about their methods, and read widely, including from other disciplines. Having a range of methodological tools in your toolbox – including both qualitative and quantitative methods – will only help you to be a better researcher.

3. Be flexible

Research rarely goes to plan. You might not be able to speak to the participants you had wanted to speak to, the data that you planned to analysis might have inexplicably disappeared, or a global pandemic might disrupt your fieldwork plans. While it’s frustrating, learning to adapt to these kinds of setbacks is part of your research training. Instead, ask yourself how you can adapt to the new circumstances. Are there other sources of data that you could use? Can you reframe your research question slightly to open up new methods?

4. Be aware of your power and positionality

Conducting research with other people – whether as colleagues, research collaborators or research participants – involves relationships, and relationships invariably have power dynamics. If you are a researcher at a university, your institutional affiliation will create opportunities in terms of authority, access and resources (such as access to literature). With this privilege comes responsibility. When you undertake an ethnography, for example, or conduct interviews with a vulnerable population, you need to be especially aware of the hierarchies and divisions that may exist and acknowledge how those hierarchies will inform and influence the work you are doing.   

5. Stay curious

The origins of the word ‘research’ are from the French rechercher, to seek or to search for. Remember to always hold whatever it is that you are ‘seeking’ at the centre of your research design. Despite the challenges that you may face in doing your research, let curiosity keep driving you. Finding an issue that you are genuinely curious about – and a research question that you actually want to know the answer to – will help you to keep going if (when!) the research gets tricky.

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