Sustainability: Research Methods

Organization in the Proposal

The Methods section generally has multiple headings to distinguish the various different elements.

  • A Research Design section describes general elements of sample or case selection, along with the context and decisions about which cases or samples were included in the study
  • The next Methods section might detail how specific variables were estimated or measured
  • Additional major sections can describe analyses, such as statistical tests, cost-benefit analysis, GIS analysis, construction of survey questionnaires, etc.

Link your Methods section to your Research Questions, Hypotheses and Specific Aims

  • The Methods section follows these in the proposal, so it should be easy to structure the Methods section around these tasks or specific aims, in the form of “In order to examine/obtain/etc.” that clearly ties methods to the necessary steps of the research
  • Subheadings should reflect these different tasks
  • The more detail you can provide, the better - this is the critical step in evaluating the validity of the research questions and hypotheses in terms of whether they can be adequately addressed with available data or the prescribed methods

This evaluation often leads to looping back to re-examine and re-formulate research questions to be compatible with available data, research design or methods of analysis

Research Methods in Sustainability

The range of methods is as broad as the subject matter, but here are some guidelines:

Sustainability is an evidence based field - hence an appropriate application of statistical methods, sensitivity analysis of multivariate modeling, objective tests of hypotheses from an unbiased set of samples, and other practices are all meant to draw objective conclusions. Some examples of this are:

  • Tests of statistical hypotheses using regression, analysis of variance (ANOVA), or many other techniques to distinguish relationships among variables or compare treatments or types
  • Modeling of complex interacting variables, such as cost-benefit analysis (CBA), life cycle analysis (LCA), or GIS databases

Depending on the development stage of some topics, good research may deviate from this.

  • Important single cases (e.g., a nuclear power plant, effects of an important policy) can be critically evaluated and contribute significantly to general knowledge
  • A larger set of cases might offer important contrasts but be insufficient for statistical analysis comparing different types of associations among variables

See the Sustainability sections under Conducting Research for more guidance