Saunders' Research Onion 2007
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Saunders’ Research Onion: Explained Easily

You’ve already chosen your research topic and reviewed the relevant literature. Now, it’s time to work on the methodology section. However, a question pops up. How do you describe the decisions you must make when developing a research methodology? For your thesis, dissertation, or any other official research assignment. 

The answer to all your questions is ‘Saunders’ Research Onion’. It’s a popular model developed by Saunders et al in 2007. This method can guide you in creating your methodology section. If you’re unfamiliar with this term and need to figure out how it can assist you in writing your methodology, then you’re likely eager to learn more about this model. Moreover, in this blog post, we’ll break down Saunders’ research onion into bite-sized pieces to make it easier to understand.

Saunders’ (2007) Research Onion – What is it?

Saunders’ research onion describes different decisions you must make while developing a research methodology. Let me explain with an example: think of this like if you peel an onion from the outer layer to the inner core, you’ll see all the different layers in it. Similarly, when you use this method you’ll encounter a variety of decisions (layers). These decisions start from broad, theoretical aspects and gradually become more specific and practical. That is the structure you should use for your methodology chapter in your thesis or research paper.

While Saunders’ research onion is not perfect, it’s a valuable tool for holistically thinking about methodology. At bare minimum, it will help you understand quickly what decisions you must make regarding your research design and methodology.

Layers of Saunders’ research onion

The research onion model is made up of 6 layers, which you’ll need to peel one at a time when you are ready to develop your research methodology: 

  • Research Philosophy
  • Approach of Research
  • Strategy of Research
  • Choices
  • Time horizon
  • Techniques & procedures

Onion Layer 1: Research Philosophy

The first layer is the research philosophy. What is it all about? Well, it is the foundation of any study. It outlines the set of assumptions that underpin the research. Additionally, research philosophy is explained from an ontological or epistemological perspective. “A what?!” you ask.

In simple words, ontology is “what” and “how”. In other words, what is the nature of reality? Are we able to know and understand? Let’s learn from a simple example: Does reality exist as a single objective thing, or is it different for each person? Just consider the augmented reality in the film The Matrix.

Moving to Epistemology, this is about “how” we can gain knowledge and come to understand things. In simple words, how can we figure out what reality is and what the limits of this knowledge are? 

Just because fluffy stuff is out of the way, let’s look at three of the leading research philosophies that operate on different ontological and epistemological assumptions:

  • Positivism
  • Interpretivism
  • Pragmatism


Positivist research views the knowledge that exists outside of what’s being studied. Simply put, what is being learned can only be done objectively and cannot include opinions or personal viewpoints. Researchers don’t interpret; they only observe. Positivism states that there is only one reality, and that means consistency between subjects.

Moreover, according to the positivist point of view, information can only be acquired through empirical research. Which is based on measurement and observation. Knowledge can only be true, false, or meaningless, according to positivists. Additionally, Claims lacking evidence to support their truth or falsity are often dismissed as lacking credibility.


Interpretivism emphasises the influence of social and cultural factors on an individual. This focuses on people’s thoughts and ideas with the interpretivist; the researcher plays a vital and active role in the study, as drawing a holistic view of thoughts and meanings if necessary.


Lastly, pragmatism highlights the importance of using the best tools possible to investigate the problem. The main aim of pragmatism is to research from a practical point of view, where knowledge is not fixed. But it is constantly questioned. Moreover, they also consist of an element of researcher involvement and subjectivity. Specifically when drawing conclusions based on participants’ decisions. In simpler terms, pragmatism embraces various philosophies rather than being confined to just one.

Onion Layer 2: Research Approach

It’s time to peel off another layer and examine the research approach. Your research method is the one you’ll use for your research, either inductive or deductive. More importantly, it is to identify the research approach for data collection and analysis in your study.

If we talk about Inductive approaches, it will generate theories from research rather than starting a project with a theory as a foundation. Conversely, deductive approaches start with a theory and use research to expand upon (or test) it

This section also covers qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research comprises of Textual, graphic, or audio-based data. Quantitative research, on the other hand, emphasises numerical data. 

Lastly, before you pick the best method for your study, you need to think about what kind of research you want to do. Consider if your study will expand on existing knowledge or if you’ll be exploring something new. If it’s the former, a deductive approach is suggested. If it’s the latter, an inductive approach is more suitable.

Onion Layer 3Research Strategy

You will see the research strategy when you peel the 3rd layer of the research onion. This layer contains the details of how research can be conducted based on the study’s aims. There are 06 strategies you can take, so let’s look at them all one by one.

  • Experimental research
  • Action research
  • Case study research
  • Grounded theory
  • Ethnography
  • Archival research


In Experimental research, you can change one thing (independent variable) to see if it affects something else (dependent variable). This helps you understand if there’s a relationship between these two things. This type of research is used to test existing theories, not make new ones. 


Next, we have action research. The simplest way to describe action research is by saying it involves complete learning. This research, conducted in real-world settings like classrooms, is primarily used in the social sciences. It caters especially to professionals seeking self-improvement and advancement in their work.


A case study is a thorough examination of a particular topic. In this, the subject is analysed to gain an in-depth understanding of issues in a real-world setting. However, it is vital when you consider the social context and culture, which means that this type of research is qualitative and tends to be inductive. 


Next is grounded theory. It is about “letting the data speak for itself”. Specifically, grounded theory allows researchers to develop new theories, models, or frameworks using the data as a guide. Moreover, Ground theory is beneficial for research into entirely new or under-researched issues.


It is a research strategy that involves observing people in their natural settings and interpreting their cultural interactions. Ethnography aims to understand participants’ subjective experiences from their perspective. This method can study various contexts, such as online discussion boards or isolated tribes. Typically, qualitative and interpretivist are variations of quantitative ethnography.


Last but not least, Archival research involves analysing existing materials like manuscripts. It’s beneficial for historical research, such as studying beliefs about supernatural phenomena in the medieval period. The choice of research strategy, including archival research, depends on your research aims, objectives, and philosophical approach.

Onion Layer 4: Choices

The 4th layer is “choices” In every case, this layer is simply about deciding how many data types you’ll use in your research. There are three ways to go about it mono, mixed, and multi-method.

  • The Mono method means you’ll only use one data type – qualitative or quantitative. 
  • In mixed-method, you will use both quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Lastly, multi-method, in which you use a more comprehensive range of approaches, with more than one quantitative and one qualitative approach. 

As with all the layers of the research onion, the right choice depends on the nature of your research and your research’s aims and objectives.

Onion Layer 5: Time horizon

We are ready to peal the 5th layer, the Time Horizon. Therefore, the project’s time framework is intended for completion. Two types of time horizons are specified within the research onion: the cross-sectional and the longitudinal. 

First, the cross-sectional time horizon is already established, whereby the data must be collected. On the other hand, the longitudinal time horizon for data collection refers to the prolonged duration of time spent collecting data repeatedly. Moreover, research that requires examining change over time utilizes the operator.

Onion Layer 6: Techniques and Procedures

Finally, we are at the last layer of research onion model. At this point, you get down to the actual practicalities of your research to make choices regarding specific techniques and procedures.

  • Decide on what data you’ll collect and methods you’ll use 
  • how you will be sampling the population 
  • Determine the type of data analysis you’ll use to answer your research questions. 
  • Set up the materials you like to use for your study 


Finally, we’ve finished peeling the onion, so let’s get cooking! Most importantly, always remember that your research methodology starts with research aims and objectives. Thus, before you begin, ensure that those are completely obvious. Besides, if you need to learn how to write the methodology part, our Top Assignment Writers are available 24/7, ready to assist you. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today.