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Saunders’ Research Onion: Explained Simply

Peeling the onion, layer by layer (with examples).

By: David Phair (PhD) and Kerryn Warren (PhD) | January 2021

If you’re learning about research skills and methodologies, you may have heard the term “ research onion ”. Specifically, the research onion developed by Saunders et al in 2007 . But what exactly is this elusive onion? In this post, we’ll break Saunders’ research onion down into bite-sized chunks to make it a little more digestible.

The Research Onion (Saunders, 2007)

Saunders’ (2007) Research Onion – What is it?

At the simplest level, Saunders’ research onion describes the different decisions you’ll need to make when developing a  research methodology   – whether that’s for your dissertation, thesis or any other formal research project. As you work from the outside of the onion inwards , you’ll face a range of choices that progress from high-level and philosophical to tactical and practical in nature. This also mimics the general structure for the methodology chapter .

While Saunders’ research onion is certainly not perfect, it’s a useful tool for thinking holistically about methodology. At a minimum, it helps you understand what decisions you need to make in terms of your research design and methodology.

The layers of Saunders’ research onion

The onion is made up of 6 layers, which you’ll need to peel back one at a time as you develop your research methodology:

  • Research philosophy
  • Research approach
  • Research strategy
  • Time horizon
  • Techniques & procedures

Onion Layer 1: Research Philosophy

The very first layer of the onion is the research philosophy . But what does that mean? Well, the research philosophy is the foundation of any study as it describes the set of beliefs the research is built upon . Research philosophy can be described from either an  ontological  or  epistemological  point of view. “A what?!”, you ask?

In simple terms,  ontology  is the “what” and “how” of what we know – in other words, what is the nature of reality and what are we really able to know and understand. For example, does reality exist as a single objective thing, or is it different for each person? Think about the simulated reality in the film The Matrix.

Epistemology , on the other hand, is about “how” we can obtain knowledge and come to understand things – in other words, how can we figure out what reality is, and what the limits of this knowledge are. This is a gross oversimplification, but it’s a useful starting point (we’ll cover ontology and epistemology another post).

With that fluffy stuff out the way, let’s look at three of the main research philosophies that operate on different ontological and epistemological assumptions:

  • Interpretivism

These certainly aren’t the only research philosophies, but they are very common and provide a good starting point for understanding the spectrum of philosophies.

The research philosophy is the foundation of any study as it describes the set of beliefs upon which the research is built.

Research Philosophy 1:  Positivism

Positivist research takes the view that knowledge exists outside of what’s being studied . In other words, what is being studied can only be done so objectively , and it cannot include opinions or personal viewpoints – the researcher doesn’t interpret, they only observe. Positivism states that there is only one reality  and that all meaning is consistent between subjects.

In the positivist’s view, knowledge can only be acquired through empirical research , which is based on measurement and observation. In other words, all knowledge is viewed as a posteriori knowledge – knowledge that is not reliant on human reasoning but instead is gained from research.

For the positivist, knowledge can only be true, false, or meaningless . Basically, if something is not found to be true or false, it no longer holds any ground and is thus dismissed.

Let’s look at an example, based on the question of whether God exists or not. Since positivism takes the stance that knowledge has to be empirically vigorous, the knowledge of whether God exists or not is irrelevant. This topic cannot be proven to be true or false, and thus this knowledge is seen as meaningless.

Kinda harsh, right? Well, that’s the one end of the spectrum – let’s look at the other end.

For the positivist, knowledge can only be true, false, or meaningless.

Research Philosophy 2: Interpretivism

On the other side of the spectrum, interpretivism emphasises the influence that social and cultural factors can have on an individual. This view focuses on  people’s thoughts and ideas , in light of the socio-cultural backdrop. With the interpretivist philosophy, the researcher plays an active role in the study, as it’s necessary to draw a holistic view of the participant and their actions, thoughts and meanings.

Let’s look at an example. If you were studying psychology, you may make use of a case study in your research which investigates an individual with a proposed diagnosis of schizophrenia. The interpretivist view would come into play here as social and cultural factors may influence the outcome of this diagnosis.

Through your research, you may find that the individual originates from India, where schizophrenic symptoms like hallucinations are viewed positively, as they are thought to indicate that the person is a spirit medium. This example illustrates an interpretivist approach since you, as a researcher, would make use of the patient’s point of view, as well as your own interpretation when assessing the case study.

The interpretivist view focuses on people’s thoughts and ideas, in light of the  socio-cultural backdrop.

Research Philosophy 3: Pragmatism

Pragmatism highlights the importance of using the best tools possible to investigate phenomena. The main aim of pragmatism is to approach research from a practical point of view , where knowledge is not fixed, but instead is constantly questioned and interpreted. For this reason, pragmatism consists of an element of researcher involvement and subjectivity, specifically when drawing conclusions based on participants’ responses and decisions. In other words, pragmatism is not committed to (or limited by) one specific philosophy.

Let’s look at an example in the form of the trolley problem, which is a set of ethical and psychological thought experiments. In these, participants have to decide on either killing one person to save multiple people or allowing multiple people to die to avoid killing one person. 

This experiment can be altered, including details such as the one person or the group of people being family members or loved ones. The fact that the experiment can be altered to suit the researcher’s needs is an example of pragmatism – in other words, the outcome of the person doing the thought experiment is more important than the philosophical ideas behind the experiment.

Pragmatism is about using the best tools possible to investigate phenomena.   It approaches research from a practical point of view, where knowledge is constantly questioned and interpreted.

To recap, research philosophy is the foundation of any research project and reflects the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the researcher. So, when you’re designing your research methodology , the first thing you need to think about is which philosophy you’ll adopt, given the nature of your research.

Onion Layer 2: Research Approach

Let’s peel off another layer and take a look at the research approach . Your research approach is the broader method you’ll use for your research –  inductive  or  deductive . It’s important to clearly identify your research approach as it will inform the decisions you take in terms of data collection and analysis in your study (we’ll get to that layer soon).

Inductive approaches entail generating theories from research , rather than starting a project with a theory as a foundation.  Deductive approaches, on the other hand, begin with a theory and aim to build on it (or test it) through research.

Sounds a bit fluffy? Let’s look at two examples:

An  inductive approach  could be used in the study of an otherwise unknown isolated community. There is very little knowledge about this community, and therefore, research would have to be conducted to gain information on the community, thus leading to the formation of theories.

On the other hand, a  deductive approach  would be taken when investigating changes in the physical properties of animals over time, as this would likely be rooted in the theory of evolution. In other words, the starting point is a well-established pre-existing body of research.

Inductive approaches entail generating theories from the research data. Deductive approaches, on the other hand, begin with a theory and aim to build on it (or test it) using research data.

Closely linked to research approaches are  qualitative and  quantitative  research. Simply put, qualitative research focuses on textual , visual or audio-based data, while quantitative research focuses on numerical data. To learn more about qualitative and quantitative research, check out our dedicated post here .

What’s the relevance of qualitative and quantitative data to research approaches? Well, inductive approaches are usually used within qualitative research, while quantitative research tends to reflect a deductive approach, usually informed by positivist philosophy. The reason for using a deductive approach here is that quantitative research typically begins with theory as a foundation, where progress is made through hypothesis testing. In other words, a wider theory is applied to a particular context, event, or observation to see whether these fit in with the theory, as with our example of evolution above.

So, to recap, the two research approaches are  inductive  and  deductive . To decide on the right approach for your study, you need to assess the type of research you aim to conduct. Ask yourself whether your research will build on something that exists, or whether you’ll be investigating something that cannot necessarily be rooted in previous research. The former suggests a deductive approach while the latter suggests an inductive approach.

Need a helping hand?

research onion

Onion Layer 3: Research Strategy

So far, we’ve looked at pretty conceptual and intangible aspects of the onion. Now, it’s time to peel another layer off that onion and get a little more practical – introducing research strategy . This layer of the research onion details how, based on the aims of the study, research can be conducted. Note that outside of the onion, these strategies are referred to as research designs.

There are several strategies  you can take, so let’s have a look at some of them.

  • Experimental research
  • Action research
  • Case study research
  • Grounded theory
  • Ethnography
  • Archival research

Strategy 1: Experimental research

Experimental research involves manipulating one variable (the independent variable ) to observe a change in another variable (the dependent variable ) – in other words, to assess the relationship between variables. The purpose of experimental research is to support, refute or validate a  research hypothesis . This research strategy follows the principles of the  scientific method  and is conducted within a controlled environment or setting (for example, a laboratory).

Experimental research aims to test existing theories rather than create new ones, and as such, is deductive in nature. Experimental research aligns with the positivist research philosophy, as it assumes that knowledge can only be studied objectively and in isolation from external factors such as context or culture.

Let’s look at an example of experimental research. If you had a hypothesis that a certain brand of dog food can raise a dogs’ protein levels, you could make use of experimental research to compare the effects of the specific brand to a “regular” diet. In other words, you could test your hypothesis.

In this example, you would have two groups, where one group consists of dogs with no changes to their diet (this is called  the control group) and the other group consists of dogs being fed the specific brand that you aim to investigate (this is called the experimental/treatment group). You would then test your hypothesis by comparing the protein levels in both groups.

Experimental research involves manipulating the independent variable to observe a change in the dependent variable.

Strategy 2: Action research

Next, we have action research . The simplest way of describing action research is by saying that it involves learning through… wait for it… action. Action research is conducted in practical settings such as a classroom, a hospital, a workspace, etc – as opposed to controlled environments like a lab. Action research helps to inform researchers of problems or weaknesses related to interactions within the real-world . With action research, there’s a strong focus on the participants (the people involved in the issue being studied, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as “participant action research” or PAR.

An example of PAR is a community intervention (for therapy, farming, education, whatever). The researcher comes with an idea and it is implemented with the help of the community (i.e. the participants). The findings are then discussed with the community to see how to better the intervention. The process is repeated until the intervention works just right for the community. In this way, a practical solution is given to a problem and it is generated by the combination of researcher and community (participant) feedback.

This kind of research is generally applied in the social sciences , specifically in professions where individuals aim to improve on themselves and the work that they are doing. Action research is most commonly adopted in qualitative studies and is rarely seen in quantitative studies. This is because, as you can see in the above examples, action research makes use of language and interactions rather than statistics and numbers.

Action research is conducted in practical settings such as a classroom, a hospital, a workspace, etc.   This helps researchers understand problems related to interactions within the real-world.

Strategy 3: Case study research

A case study is a detailed, in-depth study of a single subject – for example, a person, a group or an institution, or an event, phenomenon or issue. In this type of research, the subject is analysed to gain an in-depth understanding of issues in a real-life setting. The objective here is to gain an in-depth understanding within the context of the study – not (necessarily) to generalise the findings.

It is vital that, when conducting case study research, you take the social context and culture into account, which means that this type of research is (more often than not) qualitative in nature and tends to be inductive. Also, since the researcher’s assumptions and understanding play a role in case study research, it is typically informed by an interpretivist philosophy.

For example, a study on political views of a specific group of people needs to take into account the current political situation within a country and factors that could contribute towards participants taking a certain view.

A case study is an detailed study of a single subject to gain an in-depth understanding within the context of the study .

Strategy 4: Grounded theory

Next up, grounded theory. Grounded theory is all about “letting the data speak for itself”. In other words, in grounded theory, you let the data inform the development of a new theory, model or framework. True to the name, the theory you develop is “ grounded ” in the data. Ground theory is therefore very useful for research into issues that are completely new or under-researched.

Grounded theory research is typically qualitative (although it can also use quantitative data) and takes an inductive approach. Typically, this form of research involves identifying commonalities between sets of data, and results are then drawn from completed research without the aim of fitting the findings in with a pre-existing theory or framework.

For example, if you were to study the mythology of an unknown culture through artefacts, you’d enter your research without any hypotheses or theories, and rather work from the knowledge you gain from your study to develop these.

Grounded theory is all about "letting the data speak for itself" - i.e. you let the data inform the development of a new theory or model.

Strategy 5: Ethnography

Ethnography involves observing people in their natural environments and drawing meaning from their cultural interactions. The objective with ethnography is to capture the subjective experiences of participants, to see the world through their eyes. Creswell (2013) says it best: “Ethnographers study the meaning of the behaviour, the language, and the interaction among members of the culture-sharing group.”

For example, if you were interested in studying interactions on a mental health discussion board, you could use ethnography to analyse interactions and draw an understanding of the participants’ subjective experiences.

For example, if you wanted to explore the behaviour, language, and beliefs of an isolated Amazonian tribe, ethnography could allow you to develop a complex, complete description of the social behaviours of the group by immersing yourself into the community, rather than just observing from the outside.  

Given the nature of ethnography, it generally reflects an interpretivist research philosophy and involves an inductive , qualitative research approach. However, there are exceptions to this – for example, quantitative ethnography as proposed by David Shafer.

Ethnography involves observing people in their natural environments and drawing meaning from their cultural interactions.

Strategy 6: Archival research

Last but not least is archival research. An archival research strategy draws from materials that already exist, and meaning is then established through a review of this existing data. This method is particularly well-suited to historical research and can make use of materials such as manuscripts and records.

For example, if you were interested in people’s beliefs about so-called supernatural phenomena in the medieval period, you could consult manuscripts and records from the time, and use those as your core data set.

Onion Layer 4: Choices

The next layer of the research onion is simply called “choices” – they could have been a little more specific, right? In any case, this layer is simply about deciding how many data types (qualitative or quantitative) you’ll use in your research. There are three options – mono , mixed , and multi-method .

Let’s take a look at them.

Choosing to use a  mono method  means that you’ll only make use of one data type – either qualitative or quantitative. For example, if you were to conduct a study investigating a community’s opinions on a specific pizza restaurant, you could make use of a qualitative approach only, so that you can analyse participants’ views and opinions of the restaurant.

If you were to make use of both quantitative and qualitative data, you’d be taking a  mixed-methods approach. Keeping with the previous example, you may also want to assess how many people in a community eat specific types of pizza. For this, you could make use of a survey to collect quantitative data and then analyse the results statistically, producing quantitative results in addition to your qualitative ones.

Lastly, there’s  multi-method . With a multi-method approach, you’d make use of a wider range of approaches, with more than just a one quantitative and one qualitative approach. For example, if you conduct a study looking at archives from a specific culture, you could make use of two qualitative methods (such as thematic analysis and content analysis ), and then additionally make use of quantitative methods to analyse numerical data.

There are three options in terms of your method choice - mono-method,  mixed-method, and multi-method.

As with all the layers of the research onion, the right choice here depends on the nature of your research, as well as your research aims and objectives . There’s also the practical consideration of viability – in other words, what kind of data will you be able to access, given your constraints.

Onion Layer 5: Time horizon

What’s that far in the distance? It’s the time horizon. But what exactly is it? Thankfully, this one’s pretty straightforward. The time horizon simply describes how many points in time you plan to collect your data at . Two options exist – the  cross-sectional  and  longitudinal  time horizon.

Imagine that you’re wasting time on social media and think, “Ooh! I want to study the language of memes and how this language evolves over time”. For this study, you’d need to collect data over multiple points in time – perhaps over a few weeks, months, or even years. Therefore, you’d make use of a  longitudinal time horizon. This option is highly beneficial when studying changes and progressions over time.

If instead, you wanted to study the language used in memes at a certain point in time (for example, in 2020), you’d make use of a  cross-sectional  time horizon. This is where data is collected at one point in time, so you wouldn’t be gathering data to see how language changes, but rather what language exists at a snapshot point in time. The type of data collected could be qualitative, quantitative or a mix of both, as the focus is on the time of collection, not the data type.

Time horizon

As with all the other choices, the nature of your research and your research aims and objectives are the key determining factors when deciding on the time horizon. You’ll also need to consider practical constraints , such as the amount of time you have available to complete your research (especially in the case of a dissertation or thesis).

Onion Layer 6: Techniques and Procedures

Finally, we reach the centre of the onion – this is where you get down to the real practicalities of your research to make choices regarding specific techniques and procedures .

Specifically, this is where you’ll:

  • Decide on what data you’ll collect and what data collection methods you’ll use (for example, will you use a survey? Or perhaps one-on-one interviews?)
  • Decide how you’ll go about sampling the population (for example, snowball sampling, random sampling, convenience sampling, etc).
  • Determine the type of data analysis you’ll use to answer your research questions (such as content analysis or a statistical analysis like correlation).
  • Set up the materials you’ll be using for your study (such as writing up questions for a survey or interview)

What’s important to note here is that these techniques and procedures need to align with all the other layers of the research onion – i.e., research philosophy, research approaches, research strategy, choices, and time horizon.

For example, you if you’re adopting a deductive, quantitative research approach, it’s unlikely that you’ll use interviews to collect your data, as you’ll want high-volume, numerical data (which surveys are far better suited to). So, you need to ensure that the decisions at each layer of your onion align with the rest, and most importantly, that they align with your research aims and objectives.

In practical terms, you'll need to decide what data to collect, how you'll sample it, how'll collect it and how you'll analyse it.

Let’s Recap: Research Onion 101

The research onion details the many interrelated choices you’ll need to make when you’re crafting your research methodology. These include:

  • Research philosophy – the set of beliefs your research is based on (positivism, interpretivism, pragmatism)
  • Research approaches – the broader method you’ll use (inductive, deductive, qualitative and quantitative)
  • Research strategies – how you’ll conduct the research (e.g., experimental, action, case study, etc.)
  • Choices – how many methods you’ll use (mono method, mixed-method or multi-method)
  • Time horizons – the number of points in time at which you’ll collect your data (cross-sectional or longitudinal)
  • Techniques and procedures (data collection methods, data analysis techniques, sampling strategies, etc.)

Saunders research onion

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 

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55 Comments

Kapsleisure@yahoo.com

This is good

Patience Nalavwe

Wow this was sooo helpful. I don’t feel so blank about my research anymore. With this information I can conquer my research. Going ‘write’ into it. Get it write not right hahahaha

Botho

I am doing research with Bolton University so i would like to empower myself.

Arega Berlie

Really thoughtful presentation and preparation. I learnt too much to teach my students in a very simple and understandable way

Eduard Popescu

Very useful, thank you.

Derek Jansen

You’re most welcome. Good luck with your research!

davie nyondo

thanks alot for your brief and brilliant notes

Osward Lunda

I am a Student at Malawi Institute of Management, pursuing a Masters’ degree in Business Administration. I find this to be very helpful

Roxana

Extremely useful, well explained. Thank you so much

Khadija Mohammed

I would like to download this file… I can’t find the attachment file. Thanks

abirami manoj

Thank you so much for explaining it in the most simple and precise manner!

Tsega

Very thoughtful and well expained, thanks.

Samantha liyanage

This is good for upgrade my research knowledge

Abubakar Musa

I have enjoying your videos on YouTube, they are very educative and useful. I have learned a lot. Thanks

Ramsey

Thank you this has really helped me with writing my dissertation methodology !

Kenneth Igiri

Thanks so much for this piece. Just to be clear, which layer do interviews fit in?

janet

well explained i found it to be very engaging. now i’m going to pass my research methods course. thank you.

aleina tomlinson

Thank you so much this has really helped as I can’t get this insight from uni due to covid

Abdullah Khan

well explained with more clarity!

seun banjoko

this is an excellent piece i find it super helpful

Lini

Beautiful, thank you!

Lini

Beautiful and helpful. Thank you!

Lydia Namatende-Sakwa

This is well done!

Sazir

A complex but useful approach to research simplified! I would like to learn more from the team.

Aromona Deborah

A very simplified version of a complex topic. I found it really helpful. I would like to know if this publication can be cited for academic research. Thank you

You’re welcome to cite this page, but it would be better to cite the original work of Saunders.

Giovanni

Thirteen odd years since my MSc in HRM & HRD at UoL. I’d like to say thank you for the effort to produce such an insightful discussion of a rather complex topic.

Moses E.D Magadza

I am a PhD in Media Studies student. I found this enormously helpful when stringing together the methodology chapter, especially the research philosophy section.

Mark Saunders

Hello there. Thank you for summarising the work on the onion. A more recent version of the onion (Saunders et al., 2019) refers to ‘methodological choices’ rather than choices. This can be downloaded, along with the chapter dealing with research philosophies at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330760964_Research_Methods_for_Business_Students_Chapter_4_Understanding_research_philosophy_and_approaches_to_theory_development or https://www.academia.edu/42304065/Research_Methods_for_Business_Students_Chapter_4_Understanding_research_philosophy_and_approaches_to_theory_development_8th_edition

Lillian Sintufya

Thank you Mark Saunders. Your work is very insightful

Yvonne

Thank you for the update and additional reading Mark, very helpful indeed.

PRASAD VITHANAGE

THROUGHLY AND SIMPLY BRIEFED TO MAKE SENSE AND A CLEAR INSIGHT. THANK YOU, VERY MUCH.

KAPANSA

Thank you for the sharing the recent version of the Onion!

John Bajracharya

I want to keep it in my reference of my assignment. May I??

David Bell

Great summary, thank you taking the time to put this together. I’m sure it’s been a big help to lots of people. It definitely was to me.

Justus Ranganga

I love the analysis… some people do not recognize qualitative or quantitative as an approach but rather have inductive, abductive, and deductive.

Modise Othusitse

This has been helpful in the understanding of research . Thank you for this valuable information.

Joy Chikomo

Great summary. Well explained. Thank you, guys.

Nancy Namwai Mpekansambo

This makes my fears on methodology go away. I confidently look forward to working on my methodology now. Thank you so much I ma doing a PhD with UNIMA, School of Education

rashmk

simple and clear

Maku Babatunde

Simple guide to crafting a research methodology. Quite impactful. Thank you

Thank you for this, this makes things very clear. Now I’m off to conquer my research proposal. Thanks again.

purusha kuni

Thank you for this very informative and valuable information. What would the best approach be to take if you are using secondary data to form a qualitative study and relying on industry reports and peer journals to distinguish what factors influence the use of say cryptocurrency ?

W. W. Tiyana. R

Thanks for providing the whole idea/knowledge in the simplest way with essential factors which made my entire research process more efficient as well as valuable.

Netra Prasad Subedi

what is about research design such as descriptive, causal-comparative, correlation, developmental where these fall in the research onion?

Ilemobayo Meroko

This is very helpful. Thank you for this wonderful piece. However, it would be nicer to have References to the knowledge provided here. My suggestion

AKLILU ASSEFA ADATO

This material is very important for researchers, particularly for PhD scholars to conduct further study.

Adetayo Ayanleke

This was insightful. Thank you for the knowledge.

WENDYMULITE

Thank you for the wonderful knowledge !Easy to understand and grasp.

PETER BWALYA

thanks very much very simple. will need a coach

Tanuja Tambwekar

Hi this is a great article giving much help to my research. I just wanted to mention here that the example where you mentioned that ” schizophrenic symptoms like hallucinations are viewed positively, as they are thought to indicate the person is a spirit medium” is completely false as those are different cases and a bit out of context here. We are medically and psychologically well versed and obviously understand the difference between the two. As much as I am grateful to this article I would like to suggest you to give proper examples.

Osman Sadiq

Thank you very much, sincerely I appreciate your efforts, it is insightful information. Once again I’m grateful .

Ahtasham Faroq

In short, a complete insight of and for writing research methodology.

kuchhi

This information was very helpful, I was having difficulties in writing my methodology now I can say I have the full knowledge to write a more informative research methodology.

Amali

Thank you so much for this amazing explanation. As a person who hasn’t ever done a research project, this video helped me to clear my doubts and approach my research in a clear and concise manner. Great work

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Understanding the Research Onion

The research onion model.

The research onion model was presented by Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill in their book titled Research Methods for Business Students . This model aims to explain the different stages of writing a dissertation to help students create a better organised methodology. The below Research Onion model symbolically illustrates the ways in which different elements involved in the research could be examined to develop the final research design.

Research Onion

Layers of the Research Onion

The research onion consists of six main layers, which can be explained as:

It refers to the set of principles concerning the worldview or stance from which the research is conducted. It is usually studied in terms of ontology and epistemology. Here, ontology refers to the authenticity of the information and how one understands its existence, whereas epistemology refers to the valid information required for the research and how one can obtain it. Philosophical positions used in academic studies are often divided into positivism and interpretivism, where positivism assumes that knowledge is independent of the subject being studied, and interpretivism claims that individual observers have their own perception and understanding of reality. Hence positivist studies are often more scientific and result in testing phenomena, whereas interpretivist studies are often qualitative in nature.

Once the student has chosen the appropriate methodology, the research onion suggests that an appropriate research must be picked. The deductive approach starts with a specific hypothesis development based on the literature review that has been observed by the researcher, and gradually tries to test this hypothesis and check if it holds in particular contexts. In contrast, the inductive approach starts with observations that the researcher uses to create a new theory.

After this, the student is expected to devise the strategy of the study. The research onion suggests that strategies can include action research, experimental research, interviews, surveys, case study research or a systematic literature review. The strategy is chosen based on the data required for the research and the purpose of the study.

Choices of Methods

The research onion suggests mono-method, mixed method and multi-method as possible choices for conducting research. The mono-method comprises only one method for the study. The mixed method is based on the use of two or more methods of research and commonly refers to the use of qualitative and quantitative methodology. Finally, the multi-method uses a wider selection of methods.

Time Horizons

It refers to the time frame of the research. Generally, observations can be of two types based on time horizons, namely cross-sectional and longitudinal. The cross-sectional data is used when all observations are for a single point of time such as in most surveys. Longitudinal data, in contrast, implies the observations for a particular variable that are available for several years, quarters, months or days.

Data Collection and Analysis

This is the final layer of the research onion and consists of the techniques and procedures used. It is used to clearly explain the ways and purposes of the research conducted. At this stage, the student is expected to choose between the primary and secondary data and between qualitative and quantitative data collected from different sources. Data is considered the central piece in the research onion framework.

If you are struggling with choosing the right methods for your dissertation, feel free to use our methodology generator tool that uses elements of the research onion.

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Saunders' Research Onion: Explained Simply (+ Examples) - Grad Coach (2024)

If you’re learning about research skills and methodologies, you may have heard the term “ research onion ”. Specifically, the research onion developed by Saunders et al in 2007 . But what exactly is this elusive onion? In this post, we’ll break Saunders’ research onion down into bite-sized chunks to make it a little more digestible.

Saunders' Research Onion: Explained Simply (+ Examples) - Grad Coach (1)

Saunders’ (2007) Research Onion – What is it?

At the simplest level, Saunders’ research onion describes the different decisions you’ll need to make when developing a research methodology – whether that’s for your dissertation, thesis or any other formal research project. As you work from the outside of the onion inwards , you’ll face a range of choices that progress from high-level and philosophical to tactical and practical in nature. This also mimics the general structure for the methodology chapter .

While Saunders’ research onion is certainly not perfect, it’s a useful tool for thinking holistically about methodology. At a minimum, it helps you understand what decisions you need to make in terms of your research design.

The layers of Saunders’ research onion

The onion is made up of 6 layers, which you’ll need to peel back one at a time as you develop your research methodology:

  • Research philosophy
  • Research approach
  • Research strategy
  • Time horizon

Onion Layer 1: Research Philosophy

The very first layer of the onion is the research philosophy . But what does that mean? Well, the research philosophy is the foundation of any study as it describes the set of beliefs the research is built upon. Research philosophy can be described from either an ontological or epistemological point of view. “A what?!”, you ask?

In simple terms, ontology is the “what” and “how” of what we know – in other words, what is the nature of reality and what are we really able to know and understand. For example, does reality exist as a single objective thing, or is it different for each person? Think about the simulated reality in the film The Matrix.

Epistemology , on the other hand, is about “how” we can obtain knowledge and come to understand things – in other words, how can we figure out what reality is, and what the limits of this knowledge are. This is a gross oversimplification, but it’s a useful starting point (we’ll cover ontology and epistemology another post).

With that fluffy stuff out the way, let’s look at three of the main research philosophies that operate on different ontological and epistemological assumptions:

  • Interpretivism

These certainly aren’t the only research philosophies, but they are very common and provide a good starting point for understanding the spectrum of philosophies.

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Research Philosophy 1: Positivism

Positivist research takes the view that knowledge exists outside of what’s being studied . In other words, what is being studied can only be done so objectively , and itcannot include opinionsor personal viewpoints – the researcher doesn’t interpret, they only observe. Positivism states that there is onlyone reality and that all meaning is consistent between subjects.

In the positivist’s view, knowledge can only be acquired through empirical research , which is based on measurement and observation. In other words, all knowledge is viewed as a posteriori knowledge – knowledge that is not reliant on human reasoning but instead is gained from research.

For the positivist, knowledge can only be true, false, or meaningless . Basically, if something is not found to be true or false, it no longer holds any ground and is thus dismissed.

Let’s look at an example, based on the question of whether God exists or not. Since positivism takes the stance that knowledge has to be empirically vigorous, the knowledge of whether God exists or not is irrelevant. This topic cannot be proven to be true or false, and thus this knowledge is seen as meaningless.

Kinda harsh, right? Well, that’s the one end of the spectrum – let’s look at the other end.

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Research Philosophy 2: Interpretivism

On the other side of the spectrum, interpretivism emphasises the influence that social and cultural factors can have on an individual. This view focuses on people’s thoughts and ideas ,in light of the socio-cultural backdrop. With the interpretivist philosophy, the researcher plays an active role in the study, as it’s necessary to draw a holistic view of the participant and their actions, thoughts and meanings.

Let’s look at an example. If you were studying psychology, you may make use of a case study in your research which investigates an individual with a proposed diagnosis of schizophrenia. The interpretivist view would come into play here as social and cultural factors may influence the outcome of this diagnosis.

Through your research, you may find that the individual originates from India, where schizophrenic symptoms like hallucinations are viewed positively, as they are thought to indicate that the person is a spirit medium. This example illustrates an interpretivist approach since you, as a researcher, would make use of the patient’s point of view, as well as your own interpretation when assessing the case study.

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Research Philosophy 3: Pragmatism

Pragmatism highlights the importance of using the best tools possible to investigate phenomena. The main aim of pragmatism is to approach research from a practical point of view , where knowledge is not fixed, but instead is constantly questioned and interpreted. For this reason, pragmatism consists of an element of researcher involvement and subjectivity, specifically when drawing conclusions based on participants’ responses and decisions. In other words, pragmatism is not committed to (or limited by) one specific philosophy.

Let’s look at an example in the form of the trolley problem, which is a set of ethical and psychological thought experiments. In these, participants have to decide on either killing one person to save multiple people or allowing multiple people to die to avoid killing one person.

This experiment can be altered, including details such as the one person or the group of people being family members or loved ones. The fact that the experiment can be altered to suit the researcher’s needs is an example of pragmatism – in other words, the outcome of the person doing the thought experiment is more important than the philosophical ideas behind the experiment.

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To recap, research philosophy is the foundation of any research project and reflects the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the researcher. So, when you’re designing your research methodology , the first thing you need to think about is which philosophy you’ll adopt, given the nature of your research.

Onion Layer 2: Research Approach

Let’s peel off another layer and take a look at the research approach . Your research approach is the broader method you’ll use for your research – inductive or deductive . It’s important to clearly identify your research approach as it will inform the decisions you take in terms of data collection and analysis in your study (we’ll get to that layer soon).

Inductive approachesentail generating theories from research , rather than starting a project with a theory as a foundation. Deductive approaches, on the other hand, begin with a theory and aim to build on it (or test it) through research.

Sounds a bit fluffy? Let’s look at two examples:

An inductive approach could be used in the study of an otherwise unknown isolated community. There is very little knowledge about this community, and therefore, research would have to be conducted to gain information on the community, thus leading to the formation of theories.

On the other hand, a deductive approach would be taken when investigating changes in the physical properties of animals over time, as this would likely be rooted in the theory of evolution. In other words, the starting point is a well-established pre-existing body of research.

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Closely linked to research approaches are qualitative and quantitative research. Simply put, qualitative research focuses on textual , visual or audio-based data, while quantitative research focuses on numerical data. To learn more about qualitative and quantitative research, check out ourdedicated post here .

What’s the relevance of qualitative and quantitative data to research approaches? Well, inductive approaches are usually used within qualitative research, while quantitative research tends to reflect a deductive approach, usually informed by positivist philosophy. The reason for using a deductive approach here is that quantitative research typically begins with theory as a foundation, where progress is made through hypothesis testing. In other words, a wider theory is applied to a particular context, event, or observation to see whether these fit in with the theory, as with our example of evolution above.

So, to recap, the two research approaches are inductive and deductive . To decide on the right approach for your study, you need to assess the type of research you aim to conduct. Ask yourself whether your research will build on something that exists, or whether you’ll be investigating something that cannot necessarily be rooted in previous research. The former suggests a deductive approach while the latter suggests an inductive approach.

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Onion Layer 3: Research Strategy

So far, we’ve looked at pretty conceptual and intangible aspects of the onion. Now, it’s time to peel another layer off that onion and get a little more practical – introducing research strategy . This layer of the research onion details how, based on the aims of the study, research can be conducted. There are several approaches you can take, so let’s have a look at some of them.

  • Experimental research
  • Action research
  • Case study research
  • Grounded theory
  • Ethnography
  • Archival research

Strategy 1: Experimental research

Experimental research involves manipulatingone variable (the independent variable) to observe a change in another variable (the dependent variable) – in other words, to assess the relationship between variables. The purpose of experimental research is to support, refute or validate a research hypothesis . This research strategy follows the principles of the scientific method and is conducted within a controlled environment or setting (for example, a laboratory).

Experimental research aims to test existing theories rather than create new ones, and as such, is deductive in nature. Experimental research aligns with the positivist research philosophy, as it assumes that knowledge can only be studied objectively and in isolation from external factors such as context or culture. See Also What Is SEO Score and How Can I Use It to Improve My Website?

Let’s look at an example of experimental research. If you had a hypothesis that a certain brand of dog food can raise a dogs’ protein levels, you could make use of experimental research to compare the effects of the specific brand to a “regular” diet. In other words, you could test your hypothesis.

In this example, you would have two groups, where one group consists of dogs with no changes to their diet (this is called the control group) and the other group consists of dogs being fed the specific brand that you aim to investigate (this is called the experimental/treatment group). You would then test your hypothesis by comparing the protein levels in both groups.

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Strategy 2: Action research

Next, we have action research . The simplest way of describing action research is by saying that it involves learning through… wait for it… action. Action research is conducted in practical settings such as a classroom, a hospital, a workspace, etc – as opposed to controlled environments like a lab. Action research helps to inform researchers of problems or weaknesses related to interactions within the real-world . With action research, there’s a strong focus on the participants (the people involved in the issue being studied, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as “participant action research” or PAR.

An example of PAR is a community intervention (for therapy, farming, education, whatever). The researcher comes with an idea and it is implemented with the help of the community (i.e. the participants). The findings are then discussed with the community to see how to better the intervention. The process is repeated until the intervention works just right for the community. In this way, a practical solution is given to a problem and it is generated by the combination of researcher and community (participant) feedback.

This kind of research is generally applied in the social sciences , specifically in professions where individuals aim to improve on themselves and the work that they are doing. Action research is most commonly adopted in qualitative studies and is rarely seen in quantitative studies. This is because, as you can see in the above examples, action research makes use of language and interactions rather than statistics and numbers.

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Strategy 3: Case study research

A case study is a detailed, in-depth study of a single subject – for example, a person, a group or an institution, or an event, phenomenon or issue. In this type of research, the subject is analysed to gain an in-depth understanding of issues in a real-life setting. The objective here is to gain an in-depth understanding within the context of the study – not (necessarily) to generalise the findings.

It is vital that, when conducting case study research, you take the social context and culture into account, which means that this type of research is (more often than not) qualitative in nature and tends to be inductive. Also, since the researcher’s assumptions and understanding play a role in case study research, it is typically informed by an interpretivist philosophy.

For example, a study on political views of a specific group of people needs to take into account the current political situation within a country and factors that could contribute towards participants taking a certain view.

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Strategy 4: Grounded theory

Next up, grounded theory. Grounded theory is all about “letting the data speak for itself”. In other words, in grounded theory, youlet the data inform the development of a new theory, model or framework. True to the name, the theory you develop is “ grounded ” in the data. Ground theory is therefore very useful for research into issues that are completely new or under-researched.

Grounded theory research is typically qualitative (although it can also use quantitative data) and takes an inductive approach. Typically, this form of research involves identifying commonalities between sets of data, and results are then drawn from completed research without the aim of fitting the findings in with a pre-existing theory or framework.

For example, if you were to study the mythology of an unknown culture through artefacts, you’d enter your research without any hypotheses or theories, and rather work from the knowledge you gain from your study to develop these.

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Strategy 5: Ethnography

Ethnography involves observing people in their natural environments and drawing meaning from their cultural interactions. The objective with ethnography is to capture the subjective experiences of participants, to see the world through their eyes. Creswell (2013) says it best: “Ethnographers study the meaning of the behaviour, the language, and the interaction among members of the culture-sharing group.”

For example, if you were interested in studying interactions on a mental health discussion board, you could use ethnography to analyse interactions and draw an understanding of the participants’ subjective experiences.

For example, if you wanted toexplore the behaviour, language, and beliefs of an isolated Amazonian tribe, ethnography could allow you to develop a complex, complete description of the social behaviours of the group by immersing yourself into the community, rather than just observing from the outside.

Given the nature of ethnography, it generally reflects an interpretivist research philosophy and involves an inductive , qualitative research approach. However, there are exceptions to this – for example,quantitative ethnographyas proposed by David Shafer.

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Strategy 6: Archival research

Last but not least is archival research. An archival research strategy draws from materials that already exist, and meaning is then established through a review of this existing data. This method is particularly well-suited to historical research and can make use of materials such as manuscripts and records.

For example, if you were interested in people’s beliefs about so-called supernatural phenomena in the medieval period, you could consult manuscripts and records from the time, and use those as your core data set.

As you can see, there is a wide range of choices in terms of research strategy. The right choice for your project will depend largely on your research aims and objectives, as well as the choices you make in terms of research philosophy and approach.

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Onion Layer 4: Choices

The next layer of the research onion is simply called “choices” – they could have been a little more specific, right? In any case, this layer is simply about deciding how many data types (qualitative or quantitative) you’ll use in your research. There are three options – mono , mixed , and multi-method .

Let’s take a look at them.

Choosing to use a mono method means that you’ll only make use of one data type – either qualitative or quantitative. For example, if you were to conduct a study investigating a community’s opinions on a specific pizza restaurant, you could make use of a qualitative approach only, so that you can analyse participants’ views and opinions of the restaurant.

If you were to make use of both quantitative and qualitative data, you’d be taking a mixed-methods approach. Keeping with the previous example, you may also want to assess how many people in a community eat specific types of pizza. For this, you could make use of a survey to collect quantitative data and then analyse the results statistically, producing quantitative results in addition to your qualitative ones.

Lastly, there’s multi-method . With a multi-method approach, you’d make use of a wider range of approaches, with more than just a one quantitative and one qualitative approach. For example, if you conduct a study looking at archives from a specific culture, you could make use of two qualitative methods (such as thematic analysis and content analysis ), and then additionally make use of quantitative methods to analyse numerical data.

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As with all the layers of the research onion, the right choice here depends on the nature of your research, as well as your research aims and objectives . There’s also the practical consideration of viability – in other words, what kind of data will you be able to access, given your constraints.

Onion Layer 5: Time horizon

What’s that far in the distance? It’s the time horizon. But what exactly is it? Thankfully, this one’s pretty straightforward. The time horizon simply describes how many points in time you plan to collect your data at . Two options exist – the cross-sectional and longitudinal time horizon.

Imagine that you’re wasting time on social media and think, “Ooh! I want to study the language of memes and how this language evolves over time”. For this study, you’d need to collect data over multiple points in time – perhaps over a few weeks, months, or even years. Therefore, you’d make use of a longitudinal time horizon. This option is highly beneficial when studying changes and progressions over time.

If instead, you wanted to study the language used in memes at a certain point in time (for example, in 2020), you’d make use of a cross-sectional time horizon. This is where data is collected at one point in time, so you wouldn’t be gathering data to see how language changes, but rather what language exists at a snapshot point in time. The type of data collected could be qualitative, quantitative or a mix of both, as the focus is on the time of collection, not the data type.

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As with all the other choices, the nature of your research and your research aims and objectives are the key determining factors when deciding on the time horizon. You’ll also need to consider practical constraints , such as the amount of time you have available to complete your research (especially in the case of a dissertation or thesis).

Onion Layer 6: Techniques and Procedures

Finally, we reach the centre of the onion – this is where you get down to the real practicalities of your research to make choices regarding specific techniques and procedures .

Specifically, this is where you’ll:

  • Decide on what data you’ll collect and what data collection methods you’ll use (for example, will you use a survey? Or perhaps one-on-one interviews?)
  • Decide how you’ll go about sampling the population (for example, snowball sampling, random sampling, convenience sampling, etc).
  • Determine the type of data analysis you’ll use to answer your research questions (such as content analysis or a statistical analysis like correlation).
  • Set up the materials you’ll be using for your study (such as writing up questions for a survey or interview)

What’s important to note here is that these techniques and procedures need to align with all the other layers of the research onion – i.e., research philosophy, research approaches, research strategy, choices, and time horizon.

For example, you if you’re adopting a deductive, quantitative research approach, it’s unlikely that you’ll use interviews to collect your data, as you’ll want high-volume, numerical data (which surveys are far better suited to). So, you need to ensure that the decisions at each layer of your onion align with the rest, and most importantly, that they align with your research aims and objectives.

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Let’s Recap: Research Onion 101

The research onion details the many interrelated choices you’ll need to make when you’re crafting your research methodology. These include:

  • Research philosophy – the set of beliefs your research is based on (positivism, interpretivism, pragmatism)
  • Research approaches – the broader method you’ll use (inductive, deductive, qualitative and quantitative)
  • Research strategies – how you’ll conduct the research (e.g., experimental, action, case study, etc.)
  • Choices – how many methods you’ll use (mono method, mixed-method or multi-method)
  • Time horizons – the number of points in time at which you’ll collect your data (cross-sectional or longitudinal)
  • Techniques and procedures (data collection methods, data analysis techniques, sampling strategies, etc.)

Saunders' Research Onion: Explained Simply (+ Examples) - Grad Coach (17)

Now that we’ve peeled the onion, it’s time for you to get cooking. Most importantly, remember that designing your research methodology all starts with your research aims and objectives, so make sure those are crystal clear before you start peeling.

Saunders' Research Onion: Explained Simply (+ Examples) - Grad Coach (2024)

What is Saunders onion theory? ›

Saunders' (2007) Research Onion – What is it? At the simplest level, Saunders' research onion describes the different decisions you'll need to make when developing a research methodology – whether that's for your dissertation, thesis or any other formal research project.

Research approach is the second layer of Saunders et al.'s research onion [43]. They divide research approach into the deductive approach and the inductive approach. The deductive approach concentrates on using the literature to identify theories and ideas that the researcher will test using data.

What is the research onion? The research onion was developed by Saunders et al in 2007 to describe the stages through which a researcher must pass when developing an effective methodology .

The research onion provides an effective progression through which a research methodology can be designed . Its usefulness lies in its adaptability for almost any type of research methodology and can be used in a variety of contexts (Bryman, 2012).

Create an Onion Chart - YouTube

  • Restate your thesis or research problem. ...
  • Explain the approach you chose. ...
  • Explain any uncommon methodology you use. ...
  • Describe how you collected the data you used. ...
  • Explain the methods you used to analyze the data you collected. ...
  • Evaluate and justify the methodological choices you made.

Research methods refers to the tools that one uses to do research . These can either be qualitative or quantitative or mixed. Quantitative methods examines numerical data and often requires the use of statistical tools to analyse data collected.

Research onion is one such framework that helps in designing a robust research methodology ; simply put, it will help you to make a series of decisions that allows systematic research. We began with three assumptions, viz., ontological, epistemological and axiological, which constitute our research philosophy.

  • Prepare and organize your data. Print out your transcripts, gather your notes, documents, or other materials. ...
  • Review and explore the data. ...
  • Create initial codes. ...
  • Review those codes and revise or combine into themes. ...
  • Present themes in a cohesive manner.

Draw an Onion Real Easy - YouTube

What is the onion skin model? ›

The onion model is a graph-based diagram and conceptual model for describing relationships among levels of a hierarchy , evoking a metaphor of the layered "shells" exposed when an onion (or other concentric assembly of spheroidal objects) is bisected by a plane that intersects the center or the innermost shell.

Data may be grouped into four main types based on methods for collection: observational, experimental, simulation, and derived .

  • Logic of Inquiry (Qualitative or Quantitative) ...
  • Research Setting and participants. ...
  • Methods and Procedure of Data Collection. ...
  • Methods and Procedure of Data Analysis. ...
  • Ethical Issues.

Positivist research philosophy . It claims that the social world can be understood in an objective way . In this research philosophy, the scientist is an objective analyst and, on the basis of it, dissociates himself from personal values and works independently.

Research Onion as a Model of Designing Research Methodology . Methodology is a general research strategy which delineates the way how research should. be undertaken.

Pragmatism involves research designs that incorporate operational decisions based on 'what will work best' in finding answers for the questions under investigation and this enables pragmatic researchers to conduct research in innovative and dynamic ways to find solutions to research problems.

Time horizons. This layer defines the time frame for the research – cross-sectional or short term study, involving collection of data at a specific point of time; longitudinal – collection of data repeatedly over a long period of time in order to compare data.

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Blog 132-Research Onion: A Systematic Approach to Designing Research Methodology

research onion

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Developing a good research design is important while undertaking quality social science research, and in this blog Dr Mahesh BT illustrates the different stages in designing a research methodology using the Research Onion framework.

When I joined for my PhD, as many of you, I too was curious about research. Along with the curiosity came seriousness, but only after one of my mentors said: “Your thesis is your brainchild and indeed a reflection of you”. I am here now to share a few of the specifics that I learnt during my PhD journey. I will be discussing how to design and present a robust research methodology. Why do I find this concept very crucial? It is because these answers to research questions are valid and reliable – if they are answered through a systematic method(s). Often we find dissertations with a poorly explained research methodology chapter, which is required to be crystal clear in every step, so I was in search of something that can explain things clearly. During my desk research, I came across various ways and means to design research methodology; one of the most crucial revelations for me was a research vegetable called ‘Research onion’. Let us first see what this research onion is all about.

WHAT IS ‘RESEARCH ONION’?

Saunders et al. (2012) proposed the research onion framework (Figure 1), which explains pictorially the various aspects of the research to be examined and planned in order to come up with a sound research design. In other words, the research onion guides the researcher through all the steps that need to be taken when developing a research methodology.

Saunders et al. (2019), divided the research onion into three levels of decisions: 1. First two outer rings, i.e., Research philosophy and Research approach; 2. Research design which constitutes (a) methodological choices, (b) research strategy and (c) time horizon; and (3) tactics, i.e., the inner core of the research onion, which includes data collection and analysis aspects.

Before we strip the research onion let us do an activity. Take an onion and try to peel it from the inside without using a knife. You tried but could not peel it, the systematic way is to peel it from the outside to inside, and this is what we have to do with the research onion as well.

To develop a sound research methodology scholarly research starts with the research question(s), the objectives followed by the series of decisions on choice of research philosophy, approach to research, then the research design, i.e., methodological choices, research strategy, the time horizon, and the last inner core – data collection and data analysis. All the layers of research onion are interrelated and interdependent. In other words, the choice of philosophy influences the approach, which in turn influences the selection of methodological choice, strategy, time horizon, data collection and analysis.

PEELING OUT THE RESEARCH ONION 

1.RESEARCH PHILOSOPHY Knowingly or unknowingly a researcher will be making numerous assumptions while embarking on research (Burrell and Morgan 2016).

These assumptions are of three types:

  • Ontological assumptions –  Assumptions regarding the reality faced in the research or what makes something a reality, and how a researcher can understand existence.
  • Epistemological assumptions – Assumptions associated with human knowledge or what forms valid knowledge, whether it can be known, and how a researcher can get it and transfer it.
  • Axiological assumptions  -These are assumptions about the level of influence of the researcher’s values on the research process or what is essential and valuable in the research.

Further, these assumptions help a researcher to design the research questions, choose appropriate methods, and influence the interpretation of findings (Crotty 1998). These assumptions altogether form the research philosophy of the study. According to Saunders et al. (2012), the term research philosophy refers to ‘a system of beliefs and assumptions about the development of knowledge’.

The  ontological assumption  is the assumption made by a researcher regarding the nature of reality. Here reality means the study area or a subject domain, such as agricultural extension. The extension fraternity has various assumptions regarding the subject of extension, we assume it to be a study of human (farmers) behaviour, and others say it is the transfer of technology, and so on and so forth. These ontological assumptions may also be with regard to a specific research area in the subject domain. For instance, we study farmers’ adoption of agro-technology, in most adoption studies the researchers presumed that a lower level of adoption (a reality) of technology is the reason for lower crop production. Therefore, the focus was on studying the level of adoption by farmers and how to increase it. On the other hand, some researchers assume technology adoption as a mental process and see that there is low level of adoption everywhere, and so they try to understand why there is a low level of adoption and what are the factors determining the adoption. From this, it is clear that your assumption about the nature of reality (ontology) decides how you view the subject domain (Agricultural Extension) or the research area, which in turn influences what you want to research (what research questions to ask or what research objectives to study).

The  epistemological assumption  is an assumption made by a researcher regarding knowledge. What forms valid and reliable knowledge? How do we acquire and communicate it? We know that the subject matter of agricultural extension is derived from different disciplines. Therefore, the nature of knowledge will be diverse; it may constitute numerical data (e.g., number of women FPOs) to textual data (results of in-depth interview or focused group discussion), or even visual data (social map, resource map, sociogram). In extension research, facts, opinions, narratives and stories constitute valid knowledge, provided it follows a systematic process of enquiry. You will come across various research studies in extension where the researcher has used different epistemology in their research, research purely based on case studies, and some dealing only with factual stuff.

The  axiological assumption  is an assumption made by a researcher regarding the influence of values and beliefs on the research. The researcher tries to be free from values and beliefs intruding into the research or positively considers and acknowledges values and beliefs influencing the research process and the conclusions. Sometimes we need to decide on whether the values and beliefs of the research respondents should be considered or not. Researchers argue, as reported by Saunders  et al.  (2019), that it is very tough to keep ourselves free from the influence of values and beliefs. For instance, as a researcher you might have come across your advisor saying “parametric test is stronger than non-parametric”, “qualitative data gives in-depth understanding about a phenomenon than quantitative data”. What are these assumptions? They are the aspects of research your advisor values more.

At this juncture, you might have questioned yourself – why should I be making assumptions and know the different research philosophies when I can directly collect data, analyse and report the results? There are several aspects for which these assumptions are essential they are listed below.

  • Assumptions are your research tour guide; they tell you how to conduct the research, what should be your role – whether you should maintain objectivity or can subjectivity be expressed. They tell you what methods you can follow.
  • The researcher has to defend his/her work at various levels. As a student researcher, we get suggestions from the advisory committee or institutional review board to strictly go for quantitative methods with probability sampling, and try to avoid qualitative methods. This is due to the difference in the assumptions or more specifically, the research philosophy they follow. The most challenging is to convince the journal reviewers and editors, there are chances of your paper getting rejected because your philosophy is different from what they follow. Therefore, to show that your overall approach to research is justifiable, you should state your assumptions (research philosophy) very clearly.
  • Another issue we come across is sweeping apologies in our dissertation, for instance, a researcher apologises for not interviewing a large number of respondents in qualitative research; and the other one is failing to get an in-depth understanding due to the quantitative nature of research. No! You need not apologise, all that you need to do is follow the standard methods and procedure that suits your research philosophy. Therefore it is very important to understand the various research philosophies.

According to Saunders  et al.  (2019), there are five research philosophies: (1) positivism; (2) critical realism; (3) interpretivism; (4) postmodernism; and (5) pragmatism. The detailed explanation of these five research philosophies is presented in Tables 1 to 5.

2. THE RESEARCH APPROACH OR APPROACH TO THEORY DEVELOPMENT

The second ring in the research onion contains the research approach. If we critically think on what a researcher does in research, we can classify them into three aspects – theory testing, theory building, and theory modification. The point I am trying to make here is that the research we undertake involves the use of theory which we may or may not name in our research design. You will find the essence of theory in the conclusions of research findings. The selection of a particular philosophy that was discussed in the first section will determine the approach you choose for the development of the theory or for the reasoning behind your findings. Further, the approach you select will influence the choice of research design and methods (Babbie 2010).

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Source: Developed from Saunders et al. (2019) Note: Application of positivist philosophy in social science research is a matter of scholarly debate. However, a researcher can apply some of the assumptions and methods with caution and rationality.  Suggested reading: Thomas Houghton, Does positivism really ‘work’ in the social sciences? Link: https://www.e-ir.info/2011/09/26/does-positivism-really-%E2%80%98work%E2%80%99-in-the-social-sciences/ 

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Source: Developed from Saunders et al. (2019) Suggested reading : Fletcher Amber J. Applying critical realism in qualitative research: Methodology meets method.  Link:   https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13645579.2016.1144401?journalCode=tsrm20 

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Source: Developed from Saunders et al. (2019) Suggested reading : Chen Y Y, Shek D T L and Bu F F. 2011. Applications of interpretive and constructionist research methods in adolescent research: Philosophy, principles and examples. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health 23(2).doi:10.1515/ijamh.2011.022 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21870675/

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Source: Developed from Saunders et al. (2019) Suggested reading : Rosenau P V. Postmodernism: Methodology. https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-043076-7/00692-6    Link : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B0080430767006926

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Source: Developed from Saunders et al. (2019) Suggested reading: Crist J D, Parsons M L, Warner-Robbins C, Mullins M V and Espinosa Y M. 2009. Pragmatic action research with 2 vulnerable populations. Family & Community Health 32(4):320–329. doi:10.1097/fch.0b013e3181b9

According to Saunders et al. (2012), there are three research approaches viz., induction, deduction, and abduction. A brief overview of the research approaches is presented in Table 6.

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2.1 In this section I have graphically explained all the three research approaches using flowchart with hypothetical examples. 2.1.1 Inductive approach to research

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Suggested reading: Ferguson  K M, Kim M A and McCoy S. 2011. Enhancing empowerment and leadership among homeless youth in agency and community settings: A grounded theory approach. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 28(1):122.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10560-010-0217-6

2.1.2 Deductive approach to research

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Suggested reading: Chia-Pin Yu, Shu Tian Cole and Chancellor Charles. 2018. Resident support for tourism development in rural midwestern (USA) communities: Perceived tourism impacts and community quality of life perspective. Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal 10(3):1-17.

2.1.3 Abductive approach to research

You may find some surprising or incomplete observations or conclusions regarding any social aspect; you wanted to study it both empirically as well as know the subjective opinions of people for better understanding. In this situation, you follow the abduction approach in which your research will combine the elements of both the inductive and deductive approaches. To put it in simple words, in abduction ‘You build a theory and then go for its empirical testing’.

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Suggested reading: Bristow A, Robinso S K and Ratle O. 2017. Being an early-career CMS academic in the context of insecurity and ‘Excellence’: The dialectics of resistance and compliance. Organization Studies 38(9):1185–1207.

Research design:  It is the overall plan of a research project which involves three distinct but interrelated aspects. They are: methodological choice, research strategy and time horizon. Let us understand them separately. Sanders et al. (2019) classified research designs into three types: (1) quantitative research design; (2) qualitative research design; and (3) mixed methods research design. I have attempted to develop a schematic explanation for qualitative and quantitative research design (Figures 4 and 5, respectively) for better understanding.

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3. METHODOLOGICAL CHOICE

Methodological Choice involves   the selection and use of a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods research design. In the mono method, a single data collection technique is utilized, followed by corresponding qualitative or quantitative analysis procedures. In the multiple method design, more than one data collection techniques and analysis procedures are employed (Collis and Hussey 2013). Alternatively, a mixed-method approach utilizes both qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques and analysis procedures (Creswell 2013).

According to Saunders et al. (2019), mixed method research can be classified into three ways which are as follows:

  • Concurrent mixed methods research: Here a researcher collects both qualitative and quantitative data and analyses them in a single phase study.
  • Sequential mixed methods research : Here a researcher collects and analyses data in two phases, which can further be divided into two forms:
  • sequential exploratory research design: where a researcher collects and analyses qualitative data in the first phase, followed by quantitative data collection and analysis in the second phase;
  • sequential explanatory research design: Here a researcher collects and analyses quantitative data in the first phase followed by qualitative data collection and analysis in the second phase.
  • Sequential multi-phase: In this a researcher collects and analyses data in more than two phases, in sequence. For example, qualitative followed by quantitative and then qualitative.

4. THE RESEARCH STRATEGY

The research strategy describes how the researcher aims to carry out the work (Saunders  et al . 2007). There are several research strategies, viz., Experimental design, Survey design, Archival research, Case study, Ethnography, Action research, Grounded theory and Narrative inquiry (Saunders  et al. 2012). Here we can include other research strategies appropriate to our study.

  • Experimental design : Here, a researcher tries to study a cause-effect relationship between two or more variables. He/she decides to systematically manipulate the independent variable to study the corresponding changes in the dependent variable.
  • Survey design:  Here, a researcher tries to seek answers for ‘what’, ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘how much’ and ‘how many’ types of research questions. Data is collected and analyzed from a sample of individuals.
  • Case study: is an empirical inquiry of an individual social unit. Here the researcher tries to seek answers for ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.
  • Action research : A systematic inquiry to address real-life practical problems. Here a researcher tries to find practical solutions for problems through participation and collaboration with members of a social unit.
  • Grounded theory:  This is a systematic inductive method for conducting qualitative research to develop a theory.
  • Ethnography : is a research strategy adopted to explore cultures and societies. Here a researcher collects data through direct interaction and involvement so as to gain firsthand information from research subjects.
  • Archival research: A systematic inquiry wherein primary sources held in archives are studied for evidence collection or deep understanding. Here a researcher does not use secondary sources relevant to the research topic.

5. TIME HORIZON

Research can be grouped into two types based on time, i.e., longitudinal or successive independent samples; and cross-sectional (Bryman and Bell 2015). The longitudinal study refers to the study of a phenomenon or a population over a period of time (Caruana et al. 2015). A cross-sectional study is a ‘snap-shot’ study, it means a phenomenon or a cross-section of the population is studied for one time (Setia 2016). Please read the suggested reading given below to understand one of the longest researches in the history of social science research.

Suggested reading: Hastorf A H 1997. Lewis Terman’s longitudinal study of the intellectually gifted: Early research, recent investigations and the future. Gifted and Talented International 12(1):3–7. doi:10.1080/15332276.1997.11672858

6. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS 

  The inner circle of research onion is made up of ‘tactics’ which refers to aspects   about the finer details of data collection and analysis. In this section, the following aspects are described.

A. Data collection tools and procedures : Data collection tools such as scale, questionnaire, mail survey, etc., and procedures such as scale construction, interviews, focused group discussion, etc. B. Study Area – A brief description about the study area and why you have selected this locale, supported by reliable data. C. Research population and sampling procedures : Describe the following aspects in this section:

a. Inclusion /exclusion criteria; b. Sample size; c. Sampling method; d. Sampling plan – Flow chart with a table indicating sample details; e. Sourcing samples : Here the researcher has to describe the source of the study samples; it has the following three aspects:

  • Source population(N) : This is the group about which the researcher is going to draw inferences and to which the inclusion and exclusion criteria are applied (Example: women farmers of a district – say may be N=1000);
  • Study population  (Np): The group which fits the inclusion and exclusion criteria (Example: women farmer growing sunflower, with landholding more than 2 ha and five years of experience, say maybe Np=500);
  • Sample (n) : The group selected after following a suitable sampling method, and finally with whom you conduct your study (a representative sample of women sunflower growers sampled from the study population, say maybe n=120).

f.  Sample limitations

D. Study Phases:  describe in how many phases your study will be done (during planning-synopsis) / was done (while reporting in the thesis) if it was done in multiple phases. Explain the list of the tasks using a Gantt chart (Figure 6).

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Variables and their measurement:  Describe how the concepts, constructs and the variables were identified; this aspect is linked with the theoretical orientation. Provide the operational definition; it means how the variable is measured, mention the level of measurement also. A schematic table would suffice (for example, see Table 7).

Table 7. List of variables their method of measurement and operational definition

F. Statistical analysis: Mention all the statistics tools applied and software(s) used to analyse the research data (in thesis).

G. Ethical considerations: All the ethical aspects considered in the study need to be clearly planned and mentioned. Mention about respondent consent, how sensitive information (in synopsis) was elicited, if any. Report the approval of Research ethics committees, if applicable.

The difference between a researcher and a non-researcher is, whatever a researcher does she/he does it systematically, justifies logically, subjects it to verification, is always open to criticism, ready for self-correction and explicitly expresses what was done, how it was done, why it was done and what was found. A researcher starts with a research problem, raises questions, and transforms it into workable objectives. To find answers to the research questions, we need a sound research methodology. Research onion is one such framework that helps in designing a robust research methodology; simply put, it will help you to make a series of decisions that allows systematic research. We began with three assumptions, viz., ontological, epistemological and axiological, which constitute our research philosophy. Once we decide on the specific philosophy, an appropriate research approach can be adopted based on the research question and philosophy. The deductive approach is adopted for theory testing, inductive approach for theory building, and abductive approach for theory modification.

Further, these two crucial decisions will guide the next important aspect that is research design, which is made up of three important decisions: 1. Methodological choice – whether to follow a qualitative method, quantitative method or a mixed method; 2. Research strategy; and 3. Time horizon – cross-sectional or longitudinal research. Furthermore, the last decision is about very minute intricacies of research that is data collection, analysis and ethical statement.

Authors’ observation

It is often observed in academic discussions that various aspects of research are presented and (or) perceived to be competitive (quantitative versus qualitative, parametric versus non-parametric, probability sampling versus non-probability sampling, small sample size versus large sample size, experimental design versus non-experimental, cross-sectional versus longitudinal, and so on) rather than complimentary. Every aspect of research has got its own importance and relevance. A research scholar values every logical approach to research, and it is possible only after looking at it through all dimensions via the lenses of different questions (why, what, when, where, who, what).

Acknowledgement

I wish to acknowledge and thank the AESA, CRISP, ICAR-CTCRI, MANAGE, NAARM collaborative National Workshop on ‘Advances in Social and Behavioural Science Research’ held from 12 to 17 November 2018 at ICAR-CTCRI, Kerala. This event was an eye opener for me which oriented me towards social science research methodology, and indirectly helped me in my PhD research.  

Babbie E. 2010. The practice of social research. 12th Edition. Belmont, USA: Wadsworth.

Bristow A, Robinson S K and Ratle O. 2017.Being an early career CMS academic in the context of insecurity and ‘Excellence’: The dialectics of resistance and compliance’. Organization Studies 38(9):1185–1207.

Bryman A and Bell E. 2015. Business research methods Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burrell G and Morgan G. 2016. Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis. Abingdon: Routledge (originally published by Heinemann 1979).

Caruana E J, Marius Roman, Jules Hernández-Sánchez and Piergiorgio Soll. 2015. Longitudinal studies. Journal of Thoracic Disease 7(11):537–540. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2015.10.63. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4669300/

Chen Y Y, Shek D T L and Bu F F. 2011. Applications of interpretive and constructionist research methods in adolescent research: Philosophy, principles and examples. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health 23(2).  doi:10.1515/ijamh.2011.022  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21870675/

Chia-Pin Yu, Shu Tian Cole and Charles Chancellor.2018. Resident support for tourism development in rural midwestern (USA) communities: Perceived tourism impacts and community quality of life perspective. Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal 10(3):1-17.

Crist J D, Parsons M L, Warner-Robbins C, Mullins M V and Espinosa Y M. 2009. Pragmatic action research with 2 vulnerable populations. Family & Community Health 32(4):320–329. doi:10.1097/fch.0b013e3181b91f

Crotty M. 1998. The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. London: Sage.

Collis J and Hussey R. 2013. Business research: A practical guide for undergraduate and postgraduate students. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Creswell J W. 2013. Qualitative inquiry & research design; choosing among five approaches. Third edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ferguson K M, Kim M A and  McCoy S. 2011. Enhancing empowerment and leadership among homeless youth in agency and community settings: A grounded theory approach. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 28(1):1-22.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10560-010-0217-6

Hastorf A H. 1997. Lewis Terman’s longitudinal study of the intellectually gifted: Early research, recent investigations and the future. Gifted and Talented International 12(1):3–7. doi:10.1080/15332276.1997.11672858

Saunders M, Lewis P and Thornhill A. 2007. Research methods for business students. (6th ed.) London: Pearson.

Saunders M, Lewis P and Thornhill A. 2019. Research methods for business students. Eighth edition. London: Pearson.

Setia M S. 2016. Methodology series module 3: Cross-sectional studies. Indian Journal of Dermatology 61:261-4. Retrieved from  http://www.e-ijd.org/text.asp?2016/61/3/261/182410

Thomas Houghton. 2011.Does positivism really ‘work’ in the social sciences? Link: https://www.e-ir.info/2011/09/26/does-positivism-really %E2%80%98work%E2%80%99-in-the-social-sciences/

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Very interesting blog. Enjoyed reading it. I do have a small difference of with respect to one of the statements. Author says ‘you need not be apologetic in saying that sample was small or methods limit interpretation’. I am a firm believer of transparent communication and I feel that it is the role of a researcher to know the limits of the study and also communicate it to the readers, and there is nothing to be apologetic about it (Bsically I disagree with the term too). Infact I see many paper where they make very strong causal statements, when the methods are not really designed for it which I see as a more serious concern. This is my humble opinion, as academician I really enjoyed the blog. I appreciate the efforts of the author in elaborating on a very Important topic.

Thank you Aditya, thank you for your observations and. The very purpose of this blog was to make things systematic and clear. Yes the author strongly believe in reporting every aspect of the research including limitations provided they are indeed limiting the research design. Here the author is trying to state that when the research design demands or permits certain conditions those conditions should not be expressed as limitations, and it doesn’t imply any aspect should be hidden. I welcome your disagreements in the usage of words, we can disagree to agree. I strongly agree with you that even I enjoyed working on this blog. Thank you once again.

Well written.

Very comprehensively covering different paradigms in research methodology, with interesting analogy, Dr Mahesh could peel out research onion, explaining each layer starting from research philosophy to the data collection. Congratulations to Dr Mahesh. Further one important inner layer could be added to the onion, which would make it complete-the layer of research reporting/research communication. Unless we plan how we are going to communicate our research to the others, and communicate effectively through research paper, conference etc., research remains incomplete.

Very Good effort to write the blog to make research methodology easy to understand, Dear Mahesh , I enjoyed reading it

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  2. Research Onion

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  3. The research onion (Saunders et al., 2012)

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  4. -.Research.Onion.(Saunders et al.,.2016)

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  5. The Research Onion (adapted from Saunders et al. 2009, p. 138

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  6. Research Onion Source :(Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2009) As per

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