Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Standard Issue Methods

The methods section is perhaps the most conventional part of a standard research paper in the social sciences. There is a certain amount of room for creative syntheses of theory, and often a great deal of freedom in how the results themselves are presented. But the methods you use, and they way you talk about them, have to make your reader trust you. After all, you are setting the reader up for an artful disappointment. It is the methods section that ensures that the reader will actually feel that disappointment rather than merely doubt your results.

The most important thing, however, is that you tell the reader the truth about what you did. This section must accurately describe how you gathered the data on which you base your conclusions. How many interviews did you do? Over how long a period did you do onsite observation? How many surveys did you send out? How did you select your subjects and informants? How big was the data set you drew from industry databases?

But you must also show an awareness of the standard methodologies in your field. Though the distinction is sometimes blurred, method is what you did, methodology is the account of why it is the right thing to do. The standards here are often expressed by others in classic papers or handbooks. In the fields I normally work with, for example, if you're doing a case study you are likely to cite Kathleen Eisenhardt's paper "Building Theories from Case Study Research" (AMR, 1989) and, just as likely, Robert Yin's widely read handbook, Case Study Research (Sage, 2009). You do not have to agree with everything they say, and both approaches themselves have a history of reception, i.e., their views have been adapted and modified in particular studies that may look more like your own. The point is merely that in order to be taken seriously as a "case study", your paper must acknowledge precisely the tradition of case-study research that is informed and guided by such "standard" statements (accounts) of method.

The good news is that once you have shown that you are an intelligent reader of the methodologies that are available in your field, your reader is likely to trust even your intelligent breaches of those methods. In one sense, it is true what Paul Feyerabend said many years ago in Against Method: "The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes" (p. 7). But once you've done "whatever" it takes to reach your conclusions, you must make a compelling case for what you've done. And here it is always a good idea to gesture respectfully at the conventional wisdom that constitutes your field of research.


Gareth Hughes said...

How might you break down the 40-paragraph structure for a humanities paper?

Thomas said...

Thanks for asking. I've posted some thoughts about that before. See "Form in the Humanities" (in two parts). But I think I might want to update those ideas a bit. Maybe a new post soon.

Gareth Hughes said...

Thanks for that. I hadn't read as far back as those posts. I find the twin movements of arousal and fulfilment, which does make academic writing sound much sexier than the reality, and your emphasis on style both useful and thought provoking. As my partner is a social scientist, I often feel somewhat trumped by her talk of theory and method, to the extent that I feel, somewhat naively, that 'I just write stuff'. I wonder whether in the humanities a sense of academic lineage takes the place of methodology. Theory in literature and social history is increasingly important, leaving fewer 'dark corners' of the humanities where theory is not on the agenda. I wonder about 'text' as the subject of the humanities, and how the re-presentation of the subject as text in the social sciences is a far more involved process. I then wonder how style, as you have shown it, navigates this sea. Generally, I would like to read you say more on style. Practically, I would like to explore suggestions of how the hypothetical forty-paragraph text might be analysed into different structures of smaller blocks in the humanities.

Thomas said...

That's a great summer project! I'll work out some of my ideas about the humanities. Looking through my archives, I think my "philosophy of writing" might be of interest. And, yes, I will definitely translate my general reflections on style into suggestions for how to carve the problem of writing a paper into about 40 discrete tasks.