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In its most common sense, methodology is the study of research methods. However, the term can also refer to the methods themselves or to the philosophical discussion of associated background assumptions. A method is a structured procedure for bringing about a certain goal, like acquiring knowledge or verifying knowledge claims. This normally involves various steps, like choosing a sample, collecting data from this sample, and interpreting the data. The study of methods concerns a detailed description and analysis of these processes. It includes evaluative aspects by comparing different methods. This way, it is assessed what advantages and disadvantages they have and for what research goals they may be used. These descriptions and evaluations depend on philosophical background assumptions. Examples are how to conceptualize the studied phenomena and what constitutes evidence for or against them. When understood in the widest sense, methodology also includes the discussion of these more abstract issues.
Methodologies are traditionally divided into quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research is the main methodology of the natural sciences. It uses precise numerical measurements. Its goal is usually to find universal laws used to make predictions about future events. The dominant methodology in the natural sciences is called the scientific method. It includes steps like observation and the formulation of a hypothesis. Further steps are to test the hypothesis using an experiment, to compare the measurements to the expected results, and to publish the findings.
Qualitative research is more characteristic of the social sciences and gives less prominence to exact numerical measurements. It aims more at an in-depth understanding of the meaning of the studied phenomena and less at universal and predictive laws. Common methods found in the social sciences are surveys, interviews, focus groups, and the nominal group technique. They differ from each other concerning their sample size, the types of questions asked, and the general setting. In recent decades, many social scientists have started using mixed-methods research, which combines quantitative and qualitative methodologies.
Many discussions in methodology concern the question of whether the quantitative approach is superior, especially whether it is adequate when applied to the social domain. A few theorists reject methodology as a discipline in general. For example, some argue that it is useless since methods should be used rather than studied. Others hold that it is harmful because it restricts the freedom and creativity of researchers. Methodologists often respond to these objections by claiming that a good methodology helps researchers arrive at reliable theories in an efficient way. The choice of method often matters since the same factual material can lead to different conclusions depending on one's method. Interest in methodology has risen in the 20th century due to the increased importance of interdisciplinary work and the obstacles hindering efficient cooperation.
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