Understanding the Research Onion

The research onion model was presented by Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill in their book titled Research Methods for Business Students. This model aims to explain the different stages of writing a dissertation to help students create a better organised methodology. The below Research Onion model symbolically illustrates the ways in which different elements involved in the research could be examined to develop the final research design.


Research Onion

The research onion consists of six main layers, which can be explained as:

  1. Philosophy

It refers to the set of principles concerning the worldview or stance from which the research is conducted. It is usually studied in terms of ontology and epistemology. Here, ontology refers to the authenticity of the information and how one understands its existence, whereas epistemology refers to the valid information required for the research and how one can obtain it. Philosophical positions used in academic studies are often divided into positivism and interpretivism, where positivism assumes that knowledge is independent of the subject being studied, and interpretivism claims that individual observers have their own perception and understanding of reality. Hence positivist studies are often more scientific and result in testing phenomena, whereas interpretivist studies are often qualitative in nature.

  1. Approach

Once the student has chosen the appropriate methodology, the research onion suggests that an appropriate research must be picked. The deductive approach starts with a specific hypothesis development based on the literature review that has been observed by the researcher, and gradually tries to test this hypothesis and check if it holds in particular contexts. In contrast, the inductive approach starts with observations that the researcher uses to create a new theory.

  1. Strategy

After this, the student is expected to devise the strategy of the study. The research onion suggests that strategies can include action research, experimental research, interviews, surveys, case study research or a systematic literature review. The strategy is chosen based on the data required for the research and the purpose of the study.

  1. Choices of Methods

The research onion suggests mono-method, mixed method and multi-method as possible choices for conducting research. The mono-method comprises only one method for the study. The mixed method is based on the use of two or more methods of research and commonly refers to the use of qualitative and quantitative methodology. Finally, the multi-method uses a wider selection of methods.

  1. Time Horizons

It refers to the time frame of the research. Generally, observations can be of two types based on time horizons, namely cross-sectional and longitudinal. The cross-sectional data is used when all observations are for a single point of time such as in most surveys. Longitudinal data, in contrast, implies the observations for a particular variable that are available for several years, quarters, months or days.

  1. Data Collection and Analysis

This is the final layer of the research onion and consists of the techniques and procedures used. It is used to clearly explain the ways and purposes of the research conducted. At this stage, the student is expected to choose between the primary and secondary data and between qualitative and quantitative data collected from different sources. Data is considered the central piece in the research onion framework.


If you are struggling with choosing the right methods for your dissertation, feel free to use our methodology generator tool that uses elements of the research onion.

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