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Process: Research Design

Research Design

Decorative chess piece

Design are the methods of collecting evidence to address the research questions and theories. For example: observation, surveys, archival research, experiments, among others. A few common methods are described below. For an in-depth examination of research designs, we recommend the following sources.

Recommended sources

Research Methods


Action Research

A term that is used to describe a global family of related approaches that integrate theory and action with the goal of addressing important organizational, community and social issues together with those who experience them. It focuses on the creation of areas for collaborative learning and the design, enactment and evaluation of liberating actions through combining action and reflection, in an ongoing cycle of co-generative knowledge." Action research is cyclical as the researcher explores intervention on a problem and moving through observations and evaluations. Related approaches: collaborative research, mixed methods, participatory action research, ethnography, participant observation. 

Coghlan, D., & Brydon-Miller, M. (2014). The SAGE encyclopedia of action research (Vols. 1-2). London, : SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446294406


Applied Research

Applied research is inquiry using the application of scientific methodology with the purpose of generating empirical observations to solve critical problems in society. It is widely used in varying contexts, ranging from applied behavior analysis to city planning and public policy and to program evaluation. Applied research can be executed through a diverse range of research strategies that can be solely quantitative, solely qualitative, or a mixed method research design that combines quantitative and qualitative data slices in the same project. What all the multiple facets in applied research projects share is one basic commonality—the practice of conducting research in “nonpure” research conditions because data are needed to help solve a real-life problem. 

Salkind, N. J. (2010). Encyclopedia of research design (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412961288


Case Study

A method that seeks to illuminate a research problem by collecting and detailing observations of a particular entity. Definitions of case study differs across disciplines. Generally, case studies "focus on the interrelationships that constitute the context of a specific entity (such as an organization, event, phenomenon, or person)" and analyze "the relationship between the contextual factors and the entity being studied." The method is adopted with "the explicit purpose of using those insights (of the interactions between contextual relationships and the entity in question) to generate theory and/or contribute to extant theory. 

Mills, A. J., Durepos, G., & Wiebe, E. (2010). Encyclopedia of case study research (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412957397


Causal Design

Causality studies may be thought of as understanding a phenomenon in terms of conditional statements in the form, “If X, then Y.” This type of research is used to measure what impact a specific change will have on existing norms and assumptions. Most social scientists seek causal explanations that reflect tests of hypotheses. Causal effect (nomothetic perspective) occurs when variation in one phenomenon, an independent variable, leads to or results, on average, in variation in another phenomenon, the dependent variable. 



Cohort Design

A design in which groups of individuals pass through an institution such as a school but experience different events such as whether or not they have been exposed to a particular course. The groups have not been randomly assigned to whether or not they experience the particular event so it is not possible to determine whether any difference between the groups experiencing the event and those not experiencing the event is due to the event itself. 

Cramer, D., & Howitt, D. (2004). The SAGE dictionary of statistics (Vols. 1-0). London, : SAGE Publications, Ltd doi: 10.4135/9780857020123


Experimental Design

Experiments are ways of assessing causal relationships by, in its simplest form, randomly allocating 'subjects' to two groups and then comparing one (the 'control group') in which no changes are made, with the other (the 'test group') who are subjected to some manipulation or stimulus." "The primary purpose of experimental designs is to establish “cause and effect” or more technically, to make causal inferences. 

Frey, B. (2018). The SAGE encyclopedia of educational research, measurement, and evaluation (Vols. 1-4). Thousand Oaks,, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781506326139



A statistical method that integrates the results of several independent studies considered to be “combinable.” It has become one of the major tools to integrate research findings in social and medical sciences in general and in education and psychology in particular." Essential characteristics of meta-analysis include: "it is undeniably quantitative, that is, it uses numbers and statistical methods for organizing and extracting information; it does not prejudge research findings in terms of research quality (i.e., no a priori arbitrary and nonempirical criteria of research quality are imposed to exclude a large number of studies); it seeks general conclusions from many separate investigations that address related or identical hypotheses. 

Salkind, N. J. (2010). Encyclopedia of research design (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412961288


Fieldwork or Field Research

Conducted in a natural setting rather than in a laboratory or at a distance. "Researchers examine how the manipulation of at least one independent variable leads to a change in a dependent variable in the context of the natural environment. When researchers conduct experiments, they study how the manipulation of independent variables, or variables that remain constant, cause a change in a dependent variable, or a factor that changes. 

Allen, M. (2017). The sage encyclopedia of communication research methods (Vols. 1-4). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc doi: 10.4135/9781483381411


Longitudinal Research

Although the term is used somewhat differently in different disciplines, it generally refers to research involving data collected at more than one point in time and focused on the measurement and analysis of change over time in the units of study. 

Sage Research Methods



Ethnography involves the production of highly detailed accounts of how people in a social setting lead their lives, based on systematic and long-term observation of, and discussion with, those within the setting. 

Sage Research Methods


Mixed Methods Research

A process of research in which researchers integrate quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection and analysis to best understand a research purpose. The way this process unfolds in a given study is shaped by mixed methods research content considerations and researchers’ personal, interpersonal, and social contexts 

Plano Clark, V. & Ivankova, N. (2016). Why a guide to the field of mixed methods research?: introducing a conceptual framework of the field. In Plano Clark, V., & Ivankova, N. Mixed methods research: A guide to the field (pp. 3-30). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781483398341


Clinical Research

Medical research involving people. The aim of clinical research is to advance medical knowledge by collecting evidence to establish treatments, either through observational studies or through experimental research such as clinical trials." Includes: protocols, clinical trials, pre-post studies. 

Sage Research Methods


Qualitative Research

Also known as qualitative inquiry, is an umbrella term used to cover a wide variety of research methods and methodologies that provide holistic, in-depth accounts and attempt to reflect the complicated, contextual, interactive, and interpretive nature of our social world. For example, grounded theory, ethnography, phenomenology, ethnomethodology, narratology, photovoice, and participatory action research (PAR) may all be included under the qualitative label, although each of these individual methods is based on its own set of assumptions and procedures. 

Salkind, N. J. (2010). Encyclopedia of research design (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412961288


Quantitative Research

Quantitative research studies produce results that can be used to describe or note numerical changes in measurable characteristics of a population of interest; generalize to other, similar situations; provide explanations of predictions; and explain causal relationships. The fundamental philosophy underlying quantitative research is known as positivism, which is based on the scientific method of research. 

Salkind, N. J. (2010). Encyclopedia of research design (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412961288