Research methods vs approaches

Portrait of Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships, in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.

Method Man (aka Clifford Smith) performing at Shattuck Down
Method Man, by Alyssa Tomfohrde from Oakland, USA, CC BY 2.0.

I am a Method Man. No, this does not involve being part of the Wu-Tang Clan. I’m not even referencing the fact that most university researchers exist in a paradigm easily summarised by Wu-Tang’s most famous line: Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.).

I mean that when I read your research application, I take a very close look at your research methods.

This is, in part, driven by systemic behaviour of reviewers who are prone to attacking the methodology of research grants. Anecdotally, this is understood as a ‘neutral’ ground (it is less personal than attacking the track record of the applicant) and, thus, less likely to cause offence while still enabling the reviewer to kill the application. Enabling the reviewer to become a kind of Ghostface Killah.

Yet those same reviewers may be onto something. Quite often the methodology is a grant application’s greatest weakness.

Sometimes, though, it’s more complicated than that. For example, whenever I see the phrase Participatory Action Research (PAR) in a funding application, I groan (internally, because open plan). In my experience, Participatory Action Research seems to say ‘we don’t know what we want to do so let’s just wait and see what happens’. The kind of methodology built upon hope or the methodological equivalent of the shrug emoji:


Recently, someone quite rightly pointed out that this was less of a fault of the research methodology and more of a fault of applicants. When using this method, they frequently don’t explain the research approach or articulate how that approach will inform the selected research method adequately.

This kind of blurring between the two is a common mistake in many applications, but particularly in Participatory Action Research projects (in my experience). It seems to be a real trap for early career researchers in particular. It’s one of the reasons that here at RMIT, we’ve started asking Australian Research Council applicants, especially Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) applicants, to present their research methods in a workshop. Talking it through with other researchers often helps to clarify what they really mean.

Other common mistakes are:

  • The method isn’t explained adequately in the context of the overall project, which creates a disconnect in the project description.
  • Too many methods are employed – a scatter-gun ‘just to be on the safe side’ approach that is equally confusing.

Reflecting on these points made me realise that I didn’t have a problem with Participatory Action Research itself. It is, after all, an incredibly useful method in certain contexts. I was reacting to the way that a particular research approach and its associated methods were articulated. Too many applications fail to explain why that method is (1) appropriate and (2) necessary.

Naming a method is not an a priori justification of the use of it. It may be that Participatory Action Research (or Research by design or Practice-based research or [insert any other research methodology here]) is the most appropriate approach and is the most likely method to achieve the aims of the research. However, if this isn’t explained adequately, it can leave lingering doubts in the reader’s mind.

Admittedly, this kind of articulation is perhaps made more problematic for Participatory Action Research -style approaches because the whole point of the approach is that the methods emerge during the research, long after the grant application is done and dusted.

With traditional methods it is easier to convey what the researchers are going to ‘do’ with the money – again, C.R.E.A.M (last Wu-Tang reference, I promise).

Saying you’re going to analyse qualitative data gathered by interviews to look for patterns of consumer behavior means I know:

  1. Interviews will take place.
  2. An analysis will take place.
  3. Findings from that analysis will (hopefully) be used in X and Y ways to answer the original research question.

A side benefit of this type of method is that it is very easy to see the correlation between the methods and the budget. I would expect the above example to include budget items for:

  1. Staff time to undertake the interviews and analyse the findings.
  2. Some kind of reward or gift for participants.
  3. A recording device, perhaps.
  4. Transcription fees.

If carefully explained, the Participatory Action Research approach can include those kinds of details as well. If your research is seeking to bring together a wide range of stakeholders to explore a problem, then you might not be able to say what the outcome of that meeting will be. However, you can say:

  1. How you will capture that information;
  2. Who will analyse the info;
  3. What you anticipate that information will enable you to do, based on previous experience.

This kind of detail in the methods section means that the reader comes to understand:

  1. That several focus groups will be undertaken.
  2. Visual and audio data will be captured using microphones and video cameras.
  3. This data will be analysed and the results shared with the group.

Just like the previous example, the Participatory Action Research description leads to specific budget items:

  1. Venues for focus groups.
  2. Staff time to undertake the interviews and analyse the findings.
  3. Some kind of reward or gift for participants, perhaps.
  4. A recording device, perhaps.
  5. Transcription fees.

Researchers need to be aware of the distinction between the approach they are taking and the methods they will be employing. While this difference appears to be purely semantic, it is the difference between the rapper Ghostface Killah and the café Toastface Grillah (I lied about the Wu-Tang thing).

Clarifying the difference between approach and methods from the outset (especially in your own head) will mean that the reviewer is clearer about what you’re going to do with the money.

It makes it easier to articulate how your methods as intrinsically linked to the aims of the research and explain adequately how they are the most appropriate way of answering the research question. This latter point is, Wu-Tang puns and semantics aside, incredibly powerful.


  1. This has to be the first time I laughed over something as serious as grant writing – well done JL


  2. Makes you realise how constraining the whole process can be for indigenous methodologies. Conducting this kind of research is almost always very slow paced, long ranging and collaborative. Never going to make it past you it would seem!


    • Hi Susan. I agree entirely – you cannot describe everything that’s going to happen in a research project but I think my overall point is that I’m not opposed to any methods whether they are fast or slow etc.(and they certainly don’t need to get ‘past’ me). What I am opposed to researchers not articulating those methods clearly (even if that’s just giving some scenarios of how it might play out) or more importantly, not articulating why those methods are the most appropriate way to approach the problem.


  3. Reblogged this on The FEDUA Research Impact Blog and commented:
    Who isn’t trying to bomb-proof their grant applications? Jonathan Laskovsky from RMIT takes deconstructs research applications and looks closely at methodology and how to articulate it in this excellent post (plus a little Wu-Tang). Thanks be always to the wonderful folk at The Research Whisperer.


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