How to structure your research approach

This blog post is all about helping you to create a Methodology approach for your Qualitative research.For many identifying and writing a research approach is a personal journey of reflection, exploration and anguish! During my PHD identifying a research approach was one of the most difficult things I achieved. This was also a common phenomena with some of the other PHD students who were also undertaking their degree at the same time as me. We struggled with every aspect of the research approach and for some it was too much.

So how did I get through it? Believe me it was not easy, the whole environment of creating a research approach is confusing with so many avenues, cul-de sacs and dead ends. The problem is compounded by the bewildering terminology and options. Hopefully this post will provide a helping hand to other Qualitative researchers in helping them to understand how a research approach should or could be structured. This post relies heavily on Michael Crotty (1998) and his work on the four elements.

Four Questions of Crotty (1998)

In trying to develop my research approach and find a suitable framework I came across the work of Crotty (1998). This was an absolute godsend and saved me months of anguish. In helping me to structure my work Crotty (1998) forces qualitative students to think logically and clearly about the decision making process when deciding on the research approach. Crotty (1998, p. 2-3) takes the view that any researcher during the research phase  should be able to answer four simple questions, he defines these four questions as the basic elements of any research process:

  1. What methods do we propose to use? What are the techniques or procedures used to gather and analyse data?
  2. What methodology governs our choice of methods? The strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods
  3. What is our theoretical perspective? The philosophical stance informing the methodology and providing context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria
  4. What epistemology informs our perspective? What is the theory of knowledge embedded in the theoretical perspective and thereby in the methodology?

These four questions give a depth and breadth to the interrelated decisions that are essential in the design of research. In the view of Creswell (2002), these questions inform a choice of approach that encompasses broad assumptions from practical considerations to data collection.

The Four Elements

In discussing the questions in detail Crotty (1998) argues that a structured but broad approach is necessary to allow researchers to make sense of the vast amount of research approaches that are out there. This is a problem that many researchers encounter, there are so many research approaches available and the novice researcher can get lost. It is here that Crotty (1998) advocates an approach to make the process of selection simpler. So in moving the research approach forward Crotty (1998) proposes that epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology and methods are elements which are all reliant on each other; any decision made in one element affects decisions made in the others; they all inform each other. This is a view that is supported by King and Horrocks (2010, p. 10) who state that ontology, epistemology, methodology and methods are all connected and cannot be viewed in isolation.

In my view the structure advocated by Crotty (1998) is essential for early PHD students in helping them to make sense of the key methodological approach decisions they will have to make at some point. These four elements are detailed below as a pyramid:

The four elements of Crotty as part of research decisions.
The four elements of Crotty (1998) as part of research decisions. This image is copyright to Crotty (1998).

In his work Crotty takes the clear view that researchers and PHD students need to provide structure and order to their work, hence his four elements are “fixed”. The only things that are fluid are the decisions made within each block of the pyramid as long as they are suitable.

An Example of the Four elements in action

In order to illustrate this point in detail I give a quick overview of how the process can look if completed successfully:

  • Epistemology (Constructionism)
  • Theoretical Perspective (Interpretivism)
  • Methodology (Phenomenology)
  • Methods (Interviews)

This is just one example of how decisions (Highlighted in red) fit into the four elements, the approach chosen and the decisions made are all appropriate to each other. The power of the four elements lies in its flexibility and can be used for a multitude of purposes, if for example your were to take an anthropological approach this would require you to make different decisions on your methods but would be heavily influenced by your Epistemology and Theoretical Perspective. Hence this framework “should” make the process of decision making about your research a little bit easier and clearer.

The role of Ontology

However what about ontology I hear you say! Unusually Crotty (1998, p .4) does not outline ontology as a separate element within his four elements, he argues that

“Ontological issues and epistemological issues tend to emerge together (….) to talk of the construction of meaning is to talk of the construction of meaningful reality (…) because of this confluence, writers in the research literature have trouble keeping ontology and epistemology apart conceptually” (p. 11).

This is not an isolated view with King & Horrocks (2010, p. 8) supporting this position by arguing that ontological and epistemological issues often arise together. Hence it can be argued that the ontological decision will be made as it emerges within the epistemological discussion.


Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research. meaning and perspective in the research process. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.

King, N., & Horrocks, C. (2010). Interviews in qualitative research (p. 245). London: SAGE Publications Limited.

Creswell, J. W. (2002). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative.

If you found this blog post helpful or you would like to discuss please leave a comment below.



7 thoughts on “How to structure your research approach”

    1. Thank you for your blog. It is good for me to know. What I want to know as I am considering these four cardinal points in a qualitative research. Can I use Subjectivism as an epistemology or do I need to augment it with some other concept of knowing say objectivism or constructivism?


      1. There is no harm in using multiple epistemological positions. This can be sometimes common when mixed methods approaches are involved. Crotty views subjectivism as a valid epistemological position


  1. Hi there thank you for the clarity of your blog, I have a question on compatibility ie using the four elements (as in your example) where would I place post-structuralism, discourse theory, methods (i can manage), possibly discourse analysis.
    thank you in advance


    1. Good question Francesca. each of the elements you identify can be mapped across to Crottys work. So for example IMO Post-Structuralism = Epistemology; Discourse theory is also a epistemological/ontological approach, hence may not be appropriate depending on your view and your research. Discourse analysis in my view could be theory and method.


  2. Thank you Abdul Jabbar for making this clearer to me. I however still confused on how to work these in a mixed-method research. Can I say this?
    Epistemology (holism, fallibilism, anti-skepticism) [Festenstein, 2002)],
    Theoretical Perspective (Pragmatism),
    Methodology (Phenomenology),
    Methods (Questionnaires + Interviews)


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