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Research Onion: An Alternative

  •  Dec 2019

  •  7-minute read

  •  Research Methods

This post gives a very brief review of Creswell and Creswell’s (2018) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. It then explains how the framework for research design given in the book can be used as an alternative to Saunders et al.’s (2011) so-called “Research Onion”. Finally, the “elements of inquiry” part of the framework is discussed.

In 2018, J. W. Creswell and J. D. Creswell published a revised and updated edition of their seminal work, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. Having made my way through this text for the past year or so, having used it to guide my own research, and having leveraged its insights to critique the research conducted by other academics, I have many things to say about it.

Most of the things I would say are incredibly positive. Therefore, I really do encourage you to study the text carefully, and perhaps even to purchase it. If you are an undergraduate, a postgraduate, an independent researcher, or an academic working in the social sciences, then I suspect you will have already come across this text. If you haven’t, then now is the time to take a look.

The book is extremely rich and diverse in terms of its content. It describes how research problems can be developed systematically; it discusses ethical issues in research; it examines purpose statements, research questions, and hypotheses; it presents rigorous definitions of the various design processes, approaches, knowledge claims, and elements associated with research; and – in valuable detail – it guides the researcher towards the development of methodologically sound pieces of research.

An especially notable thing about Creswell and Creswell’s (2018) Research Design is its presentation and discussion of a novel “framework” for designing a piece of research (see Figure 1). This was first proposed in the 2002 version of the text. After reading about it, I began to think about how it compares to the so-called “Research Onion” of Saunders et al. (2011) (see Figure 2) (for more detail, check out my other article on the Research Onion).

There are a great many similarities and differences between the two frameworks. However, discussing these similarities and differences is beyond the scope of the present article. Instead, I want to highlight that, if you – as a researcher or a student – are looking for an alternative to the Research Onion (for whatever reason!), then Creswell and Creswell’s (2018) framework is a reasonable choice. To demonstrate that this is the case, let me offer a brief introduction to the framework.

Figure 1: Creswell and Creswell's (2018) Framework

Elements of Inquiry in Creswell and Creswell’s (2018) Framework

Unlike the Research Onion, Creswell and Creswell’s (2018) framework is divided into three parts: (i) elements of inquiry; (ii) approaches to research; and (iii) design process. Let’s go through the first of these. It will be a helpful exercise for the reader to turn to the text itself and learn about the other two parts. Even better, learn about the framework and apply it in your next research project!

Alternative knowledge claims are the first aspect to consider in the elements of inquiry part of this framework. Essentially, what the researcher needs to think about here are the philosophical assumptions (axiological, ontological, and epistemological) that will undergird their research process. Comprehensive introductions to the complex topic of research philosophy will be available at your university library, and I strongly encourage exploring this fascinating topic in greater depth.

As for strategies of inquiry, these offer specific directions for the various procedures that are undertaken in a piece of research. Examples of strategies of inquiry include experiments and surveys (associated with the quantitative approach); ethnographies, grounded theory, case studies, and phenomenological research (associated with the qualitative approach); and sequential, concurrent, and transformative procedures (associated with the mixed methods approach).

The final aspect of the elements of inquiry part of the framework is referred to as methods. This represents the broad set of techniques and procedures for data collection and data analysis that will be used in the design process part of the framework. The reason why it is included in the first part of the framework is because, according to Creswell and Creswell (2018), it is useful to consider the full range of possibilities in this area before embarking on the practical parts of the research (in particular, the design process itself).

Figure 2: Saunders et al.'s (2011) Research Onion


Saunders, M., Lewis, P., and Thornhill, A. (2011) Research Methods for Business Students. Pearson, New York.

Creswell, J. W. and Creswell, J. D. (2018) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (5th edn). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.