Research design, what even is that?

… structured, rigorous curiosity

Also guess who’s convening the Research Design course come the semester start.

A challenge in teaching or being taught research design is talking directly about what research design is as a general topic. We can point to specific design types (experiment, ethnography, etc) but it is harder to talk about design as a generalised practice. Which is funny because everyone does it, everyone generates design. Discussions often default to talk of method or research paradigms. Both are part of design but are not it. That is a bit of a failure as we live in a research design world so it would be good to know about it. Digital platforms are massive ongoing experiments on their users using a/b testing. Cambridge analytica was reported as ‘data harvesting’ firm but it’s really a research design business model which categorises voters by how they can be influenced.

Here’s my go: The research design is the concrete, tangible form of your theory/hypotheses. It plots the relationship between the empirical and conceptual elements – the construct and the underlying, tangible reality. It anticipates and storyboards your research plan. Research design is organised around a set of principles which produce enquiry. It informs the research work plan. It organises the resources you need. It sets out success/failure conditions. It tells you whether failure is catastrophic or recoverable.

You know you need a research design when you answer any question about how you are doing your research with an answer about quals or quants. ‘Qualitative’ is not an answer to a question about the kind of research you do. Lots of researchers think that saying ‘they are using qualitative methods’ is a way of answering or rather bypassing tricky questions of ontology, epistemology, hypothesis generation, design, validity and. Qualitative isn’t a methodology, and in any case does not supply an answer to any of these questions. Neither does ‘investigatory’, ‘exploratory’ or ‘study’ anything. Scrub these lazy, meaningless words from your vocabulary. Physicists don’t say they are ‘scienceing’ some topic. Blaikie and Priest (2019) set out the different logics that drive different research designs. Reading them again was very useful for in distinguishing the research logic (the type of inquiry) from the research paradigm (the stuff about positivism, standpoint, intersectionality etc) and how these interrelate. They nest logic, then ontology, epistemology and paradgim. Frequently researchers play it with paradigm, then epistemology, logic and finally ontology.

People often start with the paradigm before they’ve thought out the logic – not their fault, it’s a result of the fealty made by some of us to a paradigm. That is a logical error.  There can be every reason to take a feminist approach to a topic but there is no logical reason why that would define one’s research programme. It turns out that way just because we tend to examine lots of the same kind of stuff. The reverse holds true and that opens up interesting possibilities for researchers selecting paradigms they would not normally consider while formulating their research aims.

Blaikie N and Priest J (2019) Designing Social Research: The Logic of Anticipation. Newark, UNITED KINGDOM: Polity Press. Available at: (accessed 19 December 2020).

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email Tweet @angusbancroft

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