Understanding the Research Onion (Saunders et al., 2015)

The research onion, developed by Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, is a well-known conceptual framework designed to help researchers plan, structure and execute their research. It is based on the idea of layering, with each layer representing a different stage of the research process.

Understanding the Research Onion (Saunders et al., 2015)

Research is an incredibly important tool for understanding and navigating the world around us. It is used to shape policies, make decisions, validate existing ideas or beliefs, and gain insights into how the world works.

However, conducting research is not always an easy task. It often feels like a never-ending cycle of questions and answers. What research questions should you ask? Where do I start from? What type of methodology should I use? How can I make sure that my research is ethical and valid? What kind of data do I need? How do I collect the data?

Thankfully, there’s a tool that can help guide you through the research process: the research onion. The research onion is a conceptual framework that provides a roadmap to guide a researcher from the initial stage of a project to the finished product. It helps in understanding the complexity of research and is widely used by researchers in the social sciences. It can be used for both qualitative and quantitative research, and understanding the onion’s layers can give a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of the research.

In this article, we will take a closer look at each layer of the research onion and how it can be used to improve the quality of your research projects. We will also discuss some common misconceptions about research methods and how understanding the onion can help researchers avoid these errors.

What is the research onion?

The research onion is a concept that describes the stages of planning and designing a research project. It is a metaphorical model used in research methodology to illustrate the various layers or stages involved in the research process. It is based on the idea of layering, with each layer representing a different stage of the research process.

As the word suggests, this process is similar to peeling an onion; as you go deeper into your research project, you will see more layers that need to be peeled off before reaching the core of your data analysis. Each layer of the onion represents a different step in the process of conducting research, and each step builds upon the previous one. The main idea behind the research onion is that researchers need to understand how their decisions at each stage can affect the quality and validity of their findings.

The concept was first developed by Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill (2009) to visualize the research process and the various stages researchers must go through to achieve a successful outcome. 

The research onion consists of six layers: (1) the research philosophy, (2) the research approach, (3) the research strategy, (4) the research choice, (5) the time horizon, and (6) the data sources. Each layer of the onion has a unique purpose and is fundamental to the success of a research project. The overall research will likely suffer if any of these layers is neglected. Therefore, researchers need to understand the research onion concept and how the layers interact with each other. This understanding can give them the confidence to accurately plan, design, and execute their research projects and ensure that the results are valid and reliable. 

The diagram below shows the structure of the onion and how each layer provides a different perspective on the research process:

1. Research Philosophy

The first layer of the research onion is the research philosophy. This is the outermost layer and represents the researcher’s underlying philosophical beliefs and assumptions. Research philosophy is about how you view the world. It includes your beliefs about the nature of the truth you are investigating: WHAT is important, and WHY is it important?

As such, the researcher should be able to answer the following questions: what personal values do you bring to the topic? How will they influence your choice of methodologies and procedures? What impact might they have on the validity of your results? Bajpai (2011) suggested the research philosophy helps you decide what types of data to collect, how to collect it, and how to analyze it.

Academic studies frequently adopt four distinct philosophical orientations in research: positivism, interpretivism, pragmatism, and realism (Saunders et al., 2007; Žukauskas, Vveinhardt, & Andriukaitienė, 2018).

1.1. Positivism

Positivism is based on the assumption that the world is objective and that scientific methods are the best way to understand it. The advocates of positivism support the idea of objectivism. In other words, reality can be known objectively through systematic observation and measurement. From this viewpoint, researchers are considered objective observers who examine phenomena that are independent of them (Rehman and Alharthi, 2016). They use symbols and words to describe things as they exist without any interference (Rehman & Alharthi, 2016).

The positivist approach is fundamentally rooted in scientific methods, diligently attempting to explain the underlying causes and effects of various phenomena. It is particularly well-suited for quantitative studies, where researchers employ techniques such as surveys, experiments, and simulations to rigorously gather and analyze data (Holden & Lynch, 2004).

1.2. Interpretivism

Interpretivism focuses on understanding human behaviour by closely examining people’s experiences, interpretations, and perspectives (Bajpai, 2011). The advocates of positivism support the idea of subjectivism. They believe reality is subjective and there are no universal truths (Saunders et al., 2009). This means truth must be created and interpreted subjectively. Individuals must make sense of their own experiences to understand and interpret the world around them. Interpretivism often uses qualitative methods such as interviews, focus groups and observations to collect data (Bajpai, 2011).

1.3. Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a philosophical approach that emphasizes practicality or usefulness as the ultimate criterion for judging truth (Saunders et al., 2009). In other words, pragmatism is committed to using evidence and reason to determine what works best in the real world. It focuses on practical outcomes rather than abstract theories. Pragmatist researchers believe in the efficacy of using practical experience and empirical evidence to determine the truth or falsity of propositions.

The meaning of concepts or ideas cannot be ascertained apart from their use in the context of actual situations. Pragmatism is often contrasted with the epistemological perspective, which holds that knowledge can be derived from a source independent of experience. The following research methods are commonly associated with Pragmatism: empirical observation, experimentation, and survey research.

1.4. Realism

Realism is a philosophical position that believes that the world is fundamentally the same as it is in reality and that the only thing that really matters is what is real. Researchers who adhere to this view believe that there are facts out there that exist independently of human thought or perception. While our perceptions may influence what we observe, ultimately the real world exists outside of our experience or belief. As a result, science can provide us with knowledge about these objective realities (Bajpai, 2011).

Despite the inherent disparities among these philosophical approaches, it’s important to note that one isn’t inherently superior to the others. Instead, researchers may tend to gravitate towards a particular philosophy based on their preferences and the nature of their research (Podsakoff et al., 2012).

2. Research Approaches

The second layer of the research onion is the research approach. The onion suggests that a research approach must be selected once the appropriate methodology is chosen. 

According to Saunders et al (2015), there are two main approaches to research: inductive et deductive.

2.1. Inductive research

Inductive research is a type of inquiry that starts with specific observations or experiences and then generalizes them to form theories or hypotheses. The inductive approach is based on interpretivism (Temitope and Udayangani, 2015). This means that the researcher uses his or her personal experiences, observations, and knowledge to form theories that explain the phenomenon being studied. For this reason, inductive research is often considered a more qualitative approach than deductive research.

For example: suppose you are interested in how people use social media to learn about products. In that case, you might start by collecting data through surveys or interviews, asking people about their experiences buying products online or offline and then draw conclusions based on those interviews. We can see here that the researcher goes from specific to general levels of focus.

As outlined by Bryman and Bell (2011), the inductive approach is predominantly employed in qualitative research. This is particularly advantageous because it obviates the necessity for a guiding theory, which, in turn, diminishes the likelihood of researcher bias during the data gathering phase.

Figure 2 below provides a visual representation of the procedural steps entailed in conducting research utilizing an inductive approach:

2.2. Deductive research

Deductive research starts with a hypothesis or theory that has been established by previous research and then seeks evidence to support or reject it. Here, the researcher goes from general principles to make predictions about what will happen in a specific situation. This approach is based on positivism, i.e. the researcher uses objective methods to gather data from many sources in order to make generalizations about human behavior.

Nephtali Tshitadi

Nephtali Tshitadi is a researcher and professional content writer with more than 5 years of experience. He holds a Masters's qualification (Mcom) in Finance, Honours Degree in Financial Management, and BCom in Economics.

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