An Interview with Patricia Leavy about Research Design in Contemporary Times

Your main areas of interest are research methodology and public scholarship. How did you become interested in these topics and how, if at all, do you think they’re linked?

When I was a sophomore in college I took a required survey of research methods course. That’s when my passion for research methodology began, and when I started to see the importance of textbooks for influencing the field. I loved the book used in that class, which I think was probably used in just about every methods course in the social sciences at that time. To me, that textbook outlined the ways that knowledge comes to be and how we might each be a part of creating new knowledge. I found that quite profound and I still do. When I tell people I write about research methodology they might think, goodness that sounds boring. But I’m obsessed with it. This is an important subject that impacts the work done in all fields from the social sciences to education to health studies. It’s the invisible framework for all knowledge production. Research methodology is about how we conceive of and carry out research projects including what we study, how we study it, with whom, for what purpose, and with whom we share the potential benefits of that knowledge. It’s in the latter part of that statement that there is a connection to public scholarship.

When I entered the academy I was stunned to learn some of the realities surrounding academic research. Peer-reviewed journal articles are the primary format for publishing academic research. As a result, most academic research is totally inaccessible. It’s inaccessible in two ways. First, no one outside of the academy has access to peer-reviewed journals. Second, they’re loaded with jargon and prohibitive language. So people don’t want to read this stuff, nor can they. As a result, the average peer-reviewed article has an audience of 3-8 readers according to some. That’s astounding. When you consider the human and other resources put into research. I believe there is an ethical, moral, and practical mandate to make research more widely available both inside and outside of the academy. Research should be of some value in real-world contexts.  Public scholarship is that which reaches relevant stakeholders outside of the academy.

So let me crystalize the relationships between public scholarship and methodology. Researchers develop a methodology for each study or project. That methodology is a plan for how the research will proceed. If we’re committed to making our research matter to relevant stakeholders, decisions need to be made regarding how we will identify and reach them. Audience should be considered as one develops a project, regardless of the design used. Our methodological possibilities impact our ability to contribute effectively to public scholarship. This is one reason methodological innovation matters. The more tools we have available, the greater the possibilities for knowledge production and dissemination.

What connections do you see to the sociological imagination?

The sociological imagination centers on understanding the connections between our individual biographies, or micro-level experiences, and the larger socio-historical context, or macro-level. In other words, it’s about the link between our own individual lives and the larger contexts in which we live. Research projects can be designed to explicitly explore, describe, explain, or otherwise illuminate those connections. The more methodological options we have at our disposal, the more we can investigate.

Your new book Research Design offers an alternative to the methods literature. How would you describe the book? What was your goal writing it?

Research Design is a step-by-step guide to designing research using the five approaches to research: quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods, arts-based, and community-based participatory. It’s a one-stop shop to research design. It’s intended for use as a primary or supplemental textbook. A course could be designed around it. It’s also intended to be a resource for individual students and researchers. The first part of the book reviews the different sources from which we gain knowledge in daily life, how social research is a unique form of knowledge-building, the main elements of a research project, ethics, and the nuts-and-bolts of designing a research project from selecting a topic to developing research questions and/or hypotheses, conducting literature reviews, and locating participants for research studies. The second part of the book reviews the five approaches to research, each in their own chapter. The chapters cover what you need to know to develop a research proposal and design a project. Each chapter presents a template for writing a research proposal and then follows a unique format whereby the chapter fills in each section of the proposal. So readers can learn the details of each approach to design and simultaneously learn how to create a research proposal. I would also describe the book as pedagogically rich. There are numerous features intended to make it user-friendly. For example, there are in-chapter “Review Stops” which are quick quizzes intended to test new learning, with end-of-chapter answer keys, tables, graphs, charts, bold terms, research and writing activities for further engagement, suggested resources, and a glossary of key terms.

This book lived in me for many years. It was a major undertaking and I wanted to be ready for it. My goal was to create a highly user-friendly textbook that reviews the five available approaches to research design, instead of the three covered by most texts. I wanted to offer an alternative to the current methods texts. There are many great methods texts, several of which I have taught with over the years and that I regularly pull off my bookcase for personal reference. So I had no desire to attempt to replicate what is already out there. However, I did see the need for a book that offers equal treatment to five approaches, even if some readers choose to omit some of the chapters. I also approached chapters about the standard three approaches differently than other books, again, in order to produce an alternative. For example, the quantitative chapter follows a deductive model and the qualitative chapter follows an inductive model. There’s content that you don’t always find too. For example in the quantitative chapter there’s discussion of replication studies, data sharing, and survey question construction. Attention is also paid to contemporary issues, including the role of technology in some research.

That’s a long answer so to summarize, the book is meant to be a contemporary one-stop guide to research design across five approaches with pedagogical features. I hope it’s of value to professors, students, and researchers.

The coverage of arts-based research (ABR) and community-based participatory research (CBPR) approaches is unique. Why is it important to include these approaches?

These new approaches have developed at a time when there is more diversity and inclusion in academia and the field of research methods. This makes for a much richer array of perspectives on knowledge-building including philosophical assumptions we have taken for granted for many decades, and corresponding methods practices. Revisiting the methods terrain is vital. If we don’t, we continue to work nearly exclusively with ideas and tools created at a time when women and people of color were excluded or radically marginalized. For example, scholars of color routinely engage with community-based and participatory research, and contribute to our methods knowledge in this area. Consider the effect of failure to give equal credence to these methods in our teaching, awards, publishing, and funding practices. Arts-based research has grown over the past couple of decades in concert with the push toward public scholarship.  As the academy wrestles with issues of impact, it’s prudent to share the tools of ABR and learn from arts practitioners for whom audience has always mattered. It’s also important to give equal treatment to all five approaches to design because failure to do so can result in a host of misunderstandings in the literature. For example, when CBPR is reviewed, it’s usually in brief in the context of a chapter on qualitative research. However, CBPR can be conducted with quantitative methods or mixed methods, and frequently is. There’s a documented history of community surveys in CBPR. Qualitative researchers have greatly advanced the practice of CBPR but that does not mean it is only within the purview of qualitative research. It isn’t. This is one example of why each approach needs equal coverage.

What do you think CBPR offers sociology in particular?

Sociologists frequently engage in different kinds of social action research. Meaning, there is the intent to have real-world impact and help foster positive social change. CBPR offers a host of tools for creating projects based on needs identified by relevant stakeholders and then implementing effective strategies to reach goals. It also goes back to the earlier question about the public scholarship. We typically use that term to talk about distributing the products of social research. But what about a public sociology from the ground up, in which relevant publics are involved during all phases and are the beneficiaries of the research process? In short, there’s a justice imperative.

Social justice and ethics are strong themes in the book. How are these topics pertinent to research methods education and practice?

Social justice and ethics have a central role in both research methods education and practice. Let’s take practice first. Why do we carry out a particular study? For what purpose? Toward what end? With benefits to whom? From the topic we decide to investigate, to how we go about designing and implementing a project, and how and with whom we share our results, social justice imperatives can drive research agendas. Research can be carried out with the intent of, in some way, making the world more just. Whether it’s including previously excluded populations and asking new questions in survey research around a particular phenomenon, implementing an arts-based design in order to jar people into self and social reflection around a justice-themed topic, or something else, research can be underscored with, if not explicitly driven by justice goals. Even when this is not the case, social justice values should be present in every research project, even those with other kinds of objectives. Researchers need to engage with these values.

Likewise, ethics are central to research practice. While institutional and regulatory obligations are in place to protect research participants in some basic ways, such as making sure participation is voluntary, confidential, understood, and can be withdrawn without penalty, there are a host of other issues to consider. Depending on the project a few other issues may include the relationship between the researchers and participants, the use of culturally sensitive language and practices, going into communities in which the researcher isn’t otherwise invested, and accounting for one’s own role in the project. I always say, ethics are not a checklist only to be dealt with at the beginning of a project. Ethics must be considered throughout the entire research process, including representation and dissemination.

Because social justice and ethics are central to research practice, they must be given sustained attention in our methods education. I actually think the way we choose to teach methods perhaps has the greatest impact of any factor on how we see these principles enacted in actual practice. Emerging researchers need to be sensitized to these issues and provided with strategies for best practices in they are going to be able to successfully design studies. For these reasons, I paid extra attention to ethics and justice issues in Research Design. There’s a robust chapter on ethics placed after the introductory chapter, as well as “ethics in practice” notes placed in each of the five design chapters which highlight key moments of ethical decision-making as they occur. I also offer a range of interdisciplinary examples of research studies conducted on justice-related topics, such as racial inequality.

Language is also given attention in the text. Can you explain that?

When using each of the five approaches to research, one tends to use different language. For example, to describe those from whom we learn we may use the word subject, participant, or, collaborator, among other words. These distinctions are important as they speak to larger philosophical differences. When writing a research proposal or final write-up it’s necessary to show competence with appropriate language so I model this in each of the five approaches chapters.

There’s also discussion of culturally sensitive and culturally competent language. Research may involve those with whom we share differences. Finding effective ways to respectfully communicate with people and to sensitively portray people in their multi-dimensionality in our write-ups is a part of ethical practice. This issue comes up at numerous times in the book. Strategies for determining culturally sensitive language are noted. For example, establishing community advisory boards and how one might do that.

How do you see Research Design impacting the field of research methods?

That will be for others to determine, over time. My hope is that professors will consider the book for their courses and that ultimately it will be a useful resource for students and researchers at various career levels. In the act of writing it, and offering equal guidance in each of the five approaches to research design without privileging any of the approaches, I feel I’ve made a contribution to the field. It would be wonderful if standard methods teaching expanded to cover four or five approaches in full, instead of the three typically covered. If so, the publication and funding landscapes might also shift over time.

Anything you’d like to add?

I want to thank the entire team at Guilford Press for their outstanding work on Research Design. Authors’ names appear on front covers but books represent the labor of many. I was fortunate to work with a world-class team. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about this. I know the term research methodology doesn’t sound very sexy, and so the subject often goes under the radar. But our methods practices are complicit in knowledge production world-wide with pervasive real-world implications. These issues ought to be brought into the light. Thank you for being a part of that.

About the Patricia Leavy

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D., is an independent scholar (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology, and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College). She is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of research methodology and arts-based research. The author or editor of twenty-two books, she has earned critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, and her books have been translated into many languages. Her latest book, Research Design, was the number one new release on Amazon in seven categories for eight consecutive weeks. She is also series creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers, including the ground-breaking Social Fictions series. Known for her commitment to public scholarship, she is frequently called on by the US national news media and has regular blogs for The Huffington Post, The Creativity Post, and We Are the Real Deal. She has received career awards from the New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a global women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.”  For more information please visit or follow Patricia on Facebook at

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