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Dissertation Guidance 3: Research Methods

This is part of a new series of articles giving guidance on producing university level dissertations. The articles will give you detailed instructions on all aspects of dissertation production – from choosing a topic and researching it, to writing and academic standards of presentation.

After you’ve chosen a research question, the next step is to research it.  This article examines techniques for finding sources of information.  It should give you an idea of primary and secondary sources you can use.  It takes a long time to build up research skills, but I’m going to tell you a few tricks of the trade.

First of all, I want to give you some tips on background reading.  Whenever you have to research a subject you have to know who’s already written about it.  What are the key texts?  To do that, start by looking at the reading lists in the various module guides and handouts you’ve been given throughout your course, and read any books that might be relevant. 

Then use the library catalogue to find further materials.  Start with a few keywords and see what comes up.  If you can’t find anything immediately, widen your search field by using a wider range of keywords.  You have to be quite inventive here.  Think about the categories your subject will appear in.  For example, if you’re interested in sustainability, what keywords could you use? 

·         Sustainability/sustainable

·         Green design/architecture

·         Ecology

·         Environment

·         Names of key practitioners

When you get to the library, don’t just grab the book you want: browse around.  Books are grouped according to subject, so there may be other items nearby on the same shelf.  Don’t restrict yourself to the Design section.  Depending on your topic you will find useful items in the arts, technology, history and so on.

Electronic resources

I now want to talk about electronic databases, which are very useful resources.   Hundreds of academic and design journals are published every year, and they’re full of articles.  The problem is it’s difficult to find them.  You can get one of the printed volumes and check the index, but that’s very time-consuming.  With the advent of computerisation, searching them has become much easier. 

The good news is the content of these journals is uploaded to electronic databases which can search it in seconds.  Your library’s website should allow you to search a wide range of academic databases simultaneously and you can use them to find books and articles.  A lot of these are available electronically, which is very convenient.  You might need to use your Athens password for some of them.  This allows you to assess the current state of knowledge on your subject.  You can search for key words, which saves a lot of time.  Again, you need to be inventive in your use of key words.  You don’t want to develop tunnel vision and only look for a very limited range of terms. 

You can search databases like LexisNexis Executive, which is good for newspaper articles.  That can be valuable when you’re looking for topical issues.  Another one is the Oxford Journals Digital Archive.  Oxford Journals has recently undertaken a digitisation project to make over 165 years of research available online.  The content covers 1849-1995, with over 3 million article pages.  Cambridge University publishes over 220 peer-reviewed academic journals.  These are accessible via Cambridge Journals Online.

JSTOR maintains an archive of scholarly journals. JSTOR offers scanned images of pages.  This can be quite annoying because sections can’t be copied so anything you want to quote has to be typed up.   

Reading tips

When you’re using a book, keep an eye out for key points you can use in your dissertation.  Jot down any quotations that support your assertions and make a note of exactly where you found them – you will need to reference these sources at the end.  There are different ways of doing this.  You could photocopy the pages and highlight anything useful, or you could copy it out by hand.  I always write a one line summary of the key points and make a note of the page number they appear on.  I go through and map out each source like this.

When you read a useful book on your subject, turn to the back and go through the bibliography.  This is often the most useful part of the book.  Which sources has the author relied on?  In particular, which primary sources have been used?  You can also look at the references, which will be either footnotes or endnotes.  That will help you to identify key primary sources; then you can go and find them yourself.  If in turn to the back you can see a list of sources the author has used.  You can then go and find any of these that seem relevant.

So those were some general techniques for getting knowledge of the literature.  Now I want to talk about the nature of sources.

Primary and secondary sources

There are basically two types of source: primary and secondary.  Primary sources are ones that were produced at the time or by the person under study.  For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography is a primary source, even though it was written a long time after most of his buildings were designed.  It’s a primary source because it’s a first-hand account.

Secondary sources are essentially second-hand accounts.  Biographies are secondary sources because they’re written by someone else, so are most historical books.  For example, a history of Art Deco or Modernism would be a secondary source.  Which of these are primary sources and which are secondary?

·         Alexander Boulton (1993) Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect: an illustrated biography.

·         Frank Lloyd Wright (1993) Frank Lloyd Wright: collected writings, edited by Bruce Pfeiffer.

·         Roger Remington (2003) American Modernism: graphic design 1920 to 1960.

·         Le Corbusier (1927) Towards a New Architecture.

Sometimes a source has ambiguous status, and sometimes it depends on how you use it.

I now want to talk about primary sources.  Again, primary sources are documents produced during the period under study or by the people in question.  At undergraduate level you’re not required to use primary sources, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.  It’s always very impressive when someone does.  Primary material comes in many different formats.  The following constitute primary material:

§  Original letters, diaries or manuscripts.

§  Published forms of the above – e.g. collections of letters, edited diaries.

§  Newspapers, periodicals and journals.

§  Public records and official documents (from a council, public body or government).

§  Accounts of contemporary events.

§  Autobiographies of historical players.

§  Literature from the period you are studying – fiction, poetry, plays etc.

§  Material culture from the period you are studying.

§  Buildings and design objects.

§  Interviews with designers.

§  Results of questionnaires.

My key sources were Victorian architectural journals like The Builder.  These are invaluable resources because they give a detailed empirical record of architectural practice.  I went through them systematically, looking at hundreds of volumes, which took months.  Journals make it possible to analyse debates within the profession.

One of the buildings I was researching was the Union Club in Newcastle, designed by M.P. Manning in 1877.  A plan of the Union Club was published in The Builder in 1887.  Plans are useful because they show you the internal division of space.  That can reveal how the building was used and how social hierarchies were embodied in it.  The fact that there were two billiard rooms and private dining rooms suggests that the Union Club was a very sober, masculine institution.

Sources can sometimes give you contradictory evidence.  So how do you resolve this?  You have to use sources to test and corroborate each other.  For example, architectural journals were illustrated and the images are particularly valuable, but they have to be viewed with caution.  They sometimes differ from the actual building. You have to compare the illustrations with the original architectural plans and wherever possible with the buildings themselves.

You should also assess sources for bias: the author might have had an agenda.  For example, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote his autobiography when his career was declining.  He used his autobiography to re-establish his status.  That means you have to be sceptical of what he writes because he’s writing his own legend.  If you read the book, it does have a very pompous tone.  You have to ask why the source was produced; what purpose was it meant to serve? 

One of the key primary sources I used in my thesis was archival photographs.  Photographs are often seen as objective, unbiased records of the past, but photographs are usually taken for specific reasons.  Some represent Newcastle at its best (many of these images were sold as postcards); some show the city in transition, and depict the laying of tramlines or the demolition and erection of buildings.  Others chronicle major public events, such as royal visits and civic ceremonies.  We have to ask who took these images and why.

That was a summary of historical sources, but there are different types of research. You might use experimental or statistical methods of research, in which case, you’ll be generating your own results. 

A lot of students compile a questionnaire and send it to practicing designers.  If you can get first-hand comments from a designer, that’s absolutely unique and it’s going to have a huge impact on your dissertation.  Now, you might think these designers are never going to get back to you, but I think you’d be surprised by how many do reply to the students.  They were students once and most of them are willing to help.  Of course, you have to approach them correctly.  Be polite and respectful.  If you send them an email, try to make the subject heading intriguing so that it stands out.

You could also construct a survey to gather empirical data.  This constitutes primary research.  For example, I supervised a student who was asking how book cover design influences people in their reading habits.  She produced this survey with reproductions of the book covers she was investigating.  She sent it out to various people of different age groups and backgrounds.

Online resources

I now have to talk about online resources.  The first point to make is that a dissertation shouldn’t be substantially based on online resources.  There is some good academic content on the internet, but it doesn’t look good if you’ve only used websites.  It’s better to use published books and articles, because anyone can put material on the internet but to get a book published you have to reach a certain standard.  Publications are peer-reviewed, which means everything has been verified by academics.

You have to cite any websites you use, so try to use reputable ones.  Above all, I urge you not to use Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is not good enough to use in an academic essay or a dissertation.  Examiners don’t want to see it.  You’ve got to realise that Wikipedia is notorious among academics for its superficiality. 

This is going to sound contradictory.  I’ve said that you don’t want to rely too heavily on the internet; it’s always better to use published sources.  However, the internet is a great resource and it does have a lot of good material.  You should take full advantage of all that the Web has to offer, but try to use reputable sources.  These are good examples:

  • University library catalogues
  • British Library Public Catalogue
  • RIBA website –
  • Design Museum website


Material in other libraries can be obtained on inter-library loan.  The British Library is one of the best libraries in the world.  It has a massive online catalogue which you can use to find out what’s been published on your subject.  You can also use design sites like the RIBA website or the Design Museum’s site.

If you’re writing about any aspect of architecture, one of the best resources is the Royal Institute of British Architects website, which is just called  It has an online catalogue, which searches the collection of the British Architectural Library and the RIBA archive in London.  You can use this to search for published books and articles.  This is essentially just a library catalogue, but it’s a specialist library, so this is a brilliant resource. 

You might be wondering how much should you read for the dissertation?  There’s no precise answer to that, but as a rough guide, you should read at least ten books or articles relevant to the topic.  These should be serious pieces of secondary literature from research journals or books, rather than introductory texts.  Of course, you can read introductory texts as well – they can be helpful for getting an understanding of the subject.


Every dissertation should include a section on methodology.  This is a summary of the various methods you’ve used to find sources of information.  This can include reading secondary literature, doing interviews with designers, sending out questionnaires, fieldwork and so on.  The more you can say you’ve done, the better.  You have to explain the various strategies you’re using to answer your research question.  What methods will you use – books, questionnaires; interviews with designers; contact with companies etc.  Explain how the methods will help you answer the research question.


In conclusion, start with background reading.  For each book, check the bibliography for further sources.  Use a range of research methods and write them up for your methodology section.

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One Response to “Dissertation Guidance 3: Research Methods”
  • RS Wing
    April 9th, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Another detailed and well presented article on the most important aspect of fact based written articles. Very helpful to me and others exploring this genre of the written word. At times, researching knowledge can take longer than actually writing the article/essay, but necessary and pleasurable at the same time. Great work!

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