Module 3: Theory & Methods Lessons


Researchers engage with theory in two main ways.  First, researchers use theory to inform their research, helping make decisions about “what will be studied and how it will be studied”  (Kelly 2010, 285).  In other words, theory informs your methodology, defined as the approach you take to carry out your research.   Theories provide a lens through which to understand the social world, explaining social, political, and cultural patterns, and a foundation for your research.  Moira Kelly (2010) offers the following definition of theory:

Theories arrange sets of concepts to define and explain phenomena, enabling us to move beyond basic description to in-depth description, interpretation, and explanation. 

Moira Kelly (2010) “The Role of Theory in Qualitative Health Research”

Theories contain descriptions, explanations, and accounts of the social world that helps researchers understand particular phenomena in a broader context.  Social theory accounts for the ways a particular society is structured based on complex power dynamics, and the ways people as individuals, families, and communities, interact within these complex systems. Theories also identify social problems and propose alternatives. 

When you conduct research, you will adopt a particular theoretical perspective. This means that the theory you depend upon becomes a lens through which you understand your research. Employing a theoretical perspective is like putting on a new set of glasses, and seeing the world through these lenses. In the course on researching global migration you will consider what it means to study migration from the lens of intersectional feminism, postcolonial feminism, and transnational feminism. 

The second way researchers engage with theory is by informing the development of new theories with their research. Research often relies upon theory, and offers new accounts of social relations.  For example, by providing rich analyses of a particular issue or “thick description”, researchers identify prevalent problems, possible solutions, or new ways of thinking about an issue. When researchers theorize about social relations, they do not merely describe what they observe; they go beyond this by offering a critical explanation of why the thing they observe constitutes a problem, the reasons the problem exists, or what must be done about it. 

Importantly, theory informs both qualitative and quantitative research. In quantitative research, theory informs the development of a hypothesis or set of hypotheses, or a statement of what the researcher expects to find.  This preliminary statement about what the researcher expects the data to reveal is tested using quantitative experiments.

Methodology & Methods

The theoretical framework or the foundation of ideas and explanations of the social world upon which your research is based informs your methodological approach. Methodology refers to the research approach, including the description and justification of your methods. Methods are the tools you use to gather and analyze information.  Moira Kelly offers this distinction:

Methodology “refers to the theory that underpins research design” whereas methods “are the technical tools used to conduct your research” (286). 

Moira Kelly (2010) “The Role of Theory in Qualitative Health Research”

Methodology refers to the “assumptions, postulates, rules, and methods the blueprint or roadmap that researchers employ to render their work open to analysis critique, replication, repetition, and/or adaptation and to choose research methods” (Given 2008, 516). 

All of these things the theory, the methodology, and the methods must relate to the research question.  When defining their methodology, researchers answer questions such as:

  • What is my research question? Why is this research question important?  (What is the justification for this study?)
  • Which concepts are relevant to this question? 
  • Where can I conduct this research? Where will I find the information I need? 
  • Who has knowledge about this question? Of these people, how will I determine who should participate in this study?
  • Do I need any other data to answer this question? 

The methods a researcher uses are based on the answers to these questions.  

Below, we introduce you to three different methods used in social research.  We have also compiled resources on a variety of methods in the resource kit. 


  • a set of open- and/or closed-ended questions
  • advantage: the researcher can recruit a large number of participants to complete the survey, providing a large dataset
  • can complement interviews and focus groups, where you study a smaller number of participants


  • a conversation between the researcher and a participant
  • advantage: the researcher can gain in-depth, nuanced descriptions of a participant’s experience
  • usually a smaller set of data than a survey because of the time involved

Focus Groups

  • a group conversation or interview facilitated by the researcher
  • can complement other data from surveys or individual interviews
  • advantage: can collect a lot of data from a group in a small amount of time

In the readings for this module, you will find out more about each of these methods and their strengths and weaknesses.