About Conceptualising and Designing Research

Conceptualising research—as an activity, as a process, as a product—is approached in different, sometimes very different, ways by different researchers and, similarly, designing a research project may draw on diverse methodological technologies, techniques and traditions and both design and its operationalising are likely to be influenced by contextual factors. Ultimately, in doctoral research, decisions are the responsibility of the doctoral student in consultation with their supervisor or supervisors. So this programme should not be construed as a ‘how to do it’ course, nor can it aspire to completeness. It is intended to provide a range of resources for thinking about research that will identify some of the continuities and discontinuities in research as a field of practice, enabling, it is hoped a kind of discursive proprioception. It is also intended to introduce some of the normal/ideal types (and the deductive/inductive tension between Tönnies and Weber is deliberate) of approach to research design and discuss these in relation to specific instances of published research and in relation to participants’ own nascent projects. It is hoped that participants will draw critically on these resources in expanding their own ideas about research and their own research skills and in their research planning.


Dowling and Brown (2010) constitute methodology as concerned with the strategic dehiscing and re-suturing of the general field of activity to construct theoretical and empirical fields and, ultimately, a research problem or question and its resolution. Methodology construed in this way is that which enables the argument in support of claims made by the researcher. Key areas of contrast in methodology include those between theory driven and theory generating research, quantitative and qualitative research, and between research seeking to identify ‘truths’ about the world, research intended to present motivated interpretations of the world, and research seeking to transform the world, although all of these might be interpreted as normal/ideal types and, very often, approaches will blur these distinctions or will combine what, from another perspective, might be seen as contradictory approaches. The course will introduce, inter alia, survey methods, grounded theory, phenomenological analysis, narrative analysis, ethnography, action research, and social activity method (SAM), again, not intended necessarily as pure forms, but as partially coordinated resources.


The course will include lectures, seminar discussion and workshops. It is essential that participants complete the essential reading—kept to a minimum—prior to the relevant session and as much of the general reading as is possible, given their other commitments. CDR is a core course that should be taken in the first year of doctoral registration. This being the case, it is understood that participants may not have developed very far their thinking about and planning of their research. Nevertheless, it is an important feature of the course that participants bring their own research interests into an explicit dialogue with the approaches that will be considered: how, for example, might their research interest be pursued by adopting a phenomenological approach, might a survey be introduced into what is basically a qualitative study, how might grounded theory or SAM assist with analysis? The first two sessions will be led by Dr Lapping, the remaining eight by Professor Dowling; there is no reason to expect an entirely consistent approach between (or even within) these components of the course and this is to be seen as a positive feature. The various recommended readings will also offer interpretations that will sometimes differ from those privileged by each other and by the course leaders: methodology constitutes a contested, though not anarchic, field of activity.

Some Key Issues to Consider

Whilst this course is partly organised on the basis of named approaches to research—grounded theory, narrative research, and so forth—it is NOT necessary for you to give a name to your approach and, indeed, many researchers do not name the approach that they have taken. The techniques of grounded theory, for example—theoretical sampling, open coding, conceptualisation, memoing, constant comparison, theoretical saturation—are very widely recruited in educational research, but the expression ‘grounded theory’ is far less commonly used in publications (though it is more frequently used in other areas such as nursing research).