Selecting the Right Tool

'Tools' is a term used in public health work to denote methods or methodologies. There are an array of tools due to the different disciplines that feed into public health such as epidemiology, statistics, medical sciences, social sciences, medical geography, social marketing, health economics and management studies. Each discipline brings its own theories, methodologies and epistemology (i.e. the type of knowledge that is being produced). This may seem daunting but there are a few tricks to help you decide which tool to use, such as picking the right approach (see below).  

The following are a list of the different tools we use in public health research and studies:

Selecting the Right Approach

Before you start your research project or your evaluation, you will need to choose the appropriate approach. The trick is to ask yourself at the onset of your project do you wish to test a theory or generalise your findings to a wider population (e.g. "80% of women in the UK read women's magazines") or do you want to devise a theory from your observations of how people feel or think about an issue? The former would be a quantitative approach, the latter is qualitative

An easy way to remember the different approaches is to pretend you're a detective in a crime novel or tv-series. Do you have a 'hunch' that someone is the murderer? In which case you'll need to find the evidence to build your case (quantitative). Or do you need to analyze the evidence to put together the story of what happened and derive at a list of suspects? (qualitative).  See the dropbox icon for more details on the differences between quantitative and qualitative approaches.  

Purpose of a study 

Epistemological approaches (philosophical research paradigms) are used to guide research methods and analysis in social sciences.  These are: positivism, interpretivism and critical theory.   Many researchers use these paradigms to decide which is appropriate for a study and to inform its design, methodology and analysis.  There are plenty of textbooks and web resources to help you understand these, for example  and futurelearn have informative pages and videos. 

For public health research, it may be easier to think of what type of research you want to do.  This will help you pick the right methodology.  There are three types of research: exploration, descriptive and explanatory.  


  • The goal is to formulate more precise questions that future research can answer
  • It can be the first stage in a sequence of studies (done to know enough to design a more systematic and extensive study)
  • It can be used to develop techniques and a sense of direction for future research or to become familiar with the basic facts, people and concerns involved 
  • These studies often go unpublished as they rarely yield definitive answers.  They can determine feasibility of doing more research 
  • They are usually qualitative and they can generate many ideas
  • Addresses the 'what' question

Descriptive Research

  • The goal is to describe a process, mechanism or relationship
  • It gives a numerical or verbal profile of a group including creating a set of categories or classifying types
  • It finds information to stimulate new explanations
  • It can be qualitative or quantitative (e.g. surveys, field research)
  • It answers the 'how' and 'who' questions 

Explanatory Research

  • The goal is to determine the accuracy of a principle or theory or to advance knowledge about an underlying process
  • It provides evidence to support or refute an explanation or prediction
  • It is sometimes used to find out which competing explanation is better
  • It builds and elaborates a theory so it becomes more complete
  • It can be qualitative or quantitative
  • It answers the 'why' question

Useful Links for Writing & Publishing - Useful guidelines and toolkits for structuring your research and for publishing your findings in peer review journals. - Elesevier's Research Academy which is full of e-learning modules, blogs,  videos, tools and downloads and research careers section. - Article on preventing plagiarism.  This is useful in today's world of internet resources.