Can the ‘research onion’ help your thinking around the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of your SoTL project?

Author: Paula Karlsson-Brown @researchingrisk

I recently did an assignment for my MEd in Academic Practice studies, which involved me designing a substantial project proposal and pitching it to a fictional funder. I had very limited time and only a few slides at my disposal for the pitch, so I needed to present my study quickly and as clearly as possible. I figured that a visual display of my study was needed, and so I proceeded to use the ‘research onion’ to explain the philosophy and all that follows from it. 

For those unfamiliar with the research onion, it is one that Saunders and colleagues (2019) have been promoting over the years. Basically, it shows you the different layers that are involved in research, including philosophies, approaches, methodological choices, strategies, time horizon, and finally techniques and procedures.  

Students (and perhaps academics too?) often jump to the last one (the innermost layer), which is the methods that you apply, after you’ve thought about a research topic or question, thinking “I’m going to do interviews in my study”. This effectively means that researchers jump over a lot of the key considerations and decisions they need to make in relation to their research. This is probably because in your head it is easier to make sense of something tangible like doing an interview or running a survey, versus thinking in detail about the more abstract elements of research. 

I am drawing on my experience and talking about students here, because I later used this same approach with applying the research onion, using my SoTL project as an example, to teach my students on a research methods course about how research philosophy applies to their research projects. I find this is one of the hardest parts for students to figure out in research methods courses, so I wanted to show this in a visually appealing and applied manner, so that students would see how it all links together. However, I think this probably applies equally to academics embarking on research, and perhaps SoTL inquiries especially, which sometimes may feel like less traditional research (since so much of it is focused on our own academic practice) and so it may seem challenging to apply standard research thinking to it. To be completely honest, until I inserted my own project into the research onion, I also struggled with the useability of the research onion at times. What I did, meant that the research onion made more sense to me as well, and not just because it made it easier and quicker to present my project to others (through the pitch).  

So, let me explain what I did with the research onion. My MEd project proposal focused on one of the undergraduate courses I teach on management in the third sector. The basic gist of the project is: should I change the course to be more focused on applied learning, or should I stick to the tried and tested method that is in place currently? The reason for this is to try and figure out how best to develop students’ graduate skills, especially in relation to the third sector. Without going into the specifics of my project, the figure below illustrates the ‘research onion’ for my action research project with detailed explanations for each layer of the onion. 

This image is a graphic. the text from the text boxes here. The paragraphs read clockwise from top to bottom: 

1st Textbox: 
I am taking a pragmatism approach since the emphasis is on practical outcomes. This approach allows me to use whatever method and data source that is required to answer my research question. Assuming that there will be difficulty in getting data from students, given the knowledge I have of our undergraduate students participating in voluntary activities, I will rely on different sources of data, containing a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data, and multiple sources of each type. I will be using my own reflection, and I will use student surveys and assignments and individual reflective diaries and ratings of different teaching methods.

The research Onion from outside to inside
1. Pragmatism
2. Abduction
3. Multi and mixed method
4. Action Research/Case Study (the course)
5. Longitudinal (action research). Cross-sectional (course evaluation)
(from this point there is a link to a visualisation of the action research cycle) 
6. data sources, thematic & content analysis, and descriptive summaries

Second Textbox: 
As there are some quantitative elements in the data collection, through student ratings and a survey, these suggest a deductive approach, as I have derived the criteria that is evaluated by students from literature. However, in true pragmatism sense, as l am using multiple and mixed methods, I am also coming from an inductive point of view into all the qualitative data that is collected (or produced by myself). Therefore, the approach to theory development in this study is in fact abduction, as a combination of deduction and induction is used.

3rd Textbox: 
Inherently, this is an action research project based on my academic practice. The third sector course is the cross sectional case study unit that this study focuses on. I have already undertaken stages of action over the years when I have taught this course, so l am reflecting on this process and how & why the course changed. This present study that I am proposing to do, would be the penultimate stage - the evaluation of all components. The final stage of action is the outcome of the evaluation (putting in action the recommendations of this study, but this is out with the scope of this research project that I have outlined.

4th Textbox 
The study consists of many sources of data collected through 4 different methods: Secondary data, Autoethnography, Documentary analysis, Survey. Data analysis will consist of a mixture of thematic, content and documentary analysis, depending on the different qualitative data sources. Any data involving ratings will be limited to providing descriptive summates of the findings.

Creating a research onion for my own project helped me clarify the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of my SoTL project. Having all the components laid out in such clear terms as in the figure, I will find it much easier to explain and justify my research approach. 

Therefore, if I am to impart any practical learning from my experience of using the research onion in my research and teaching practice, I suggest that when you next plan your own research, you take the research onion and work with it in the same way that I have done. In other words, try to place your research idea and the philosophical and methodological and methods elements within the onion. It should all flow together nicely, e.g. the methods you choose should follow the methodology you have outlined, etc. For example, if you said you were doing a positivist research but are relying on action research as your methodology and interviews as your method, that would simply stand out as illogical. So, all of this, from philosophy to methods, needs to flow, and it needs to be understandable and make sense to another person reading the project output. It also needs to be justified, meaning that a reader should not be able to pick holes in your entire study, e.g. from validity, reliability or quality perspectives, which they will be able to do if the study does not make sense or is not clearly outlined. I think that having internal clarity (as a researcher) also shows in external clarity (for the reader), and a visual display of your research, for example through the research onion can help you achieve both.  

References 

Saunders M., Lewis, P. & Thornhill, A. (2019) Research Methods for Business Students. 8th edition. Harlow: Pearson.  

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