Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Methods Papers

Like theory development, the evolution of research methods normally happens in the context of original empirical work. A researcher finds that existing methods are unable to generate the data needed to answer a particular research question and goes looking for new ways of observing the world. If a theory is a "program of perception", a method is a program of observation. It is not just a way of seeing the world but a way of getting a good look at a particular part of it. It is therefore quite reasonable to ask someone who claims to have developed a new method what it has made them able to see. That is, we want to hear about that original empirical work.

Still, sometimes researchers will want to make contributions to methodological debates in their field without at the same time presenting original empirical results. That is, they'll want to write a "methods paper". I encourage such writers to begin as they would with any other paper:

First, identify some interesting set of real-world social practices.

Second, present the current state of the art as to the observation of those practices, emphasizing its limitations or, at least, its potential to develop.

Third, present your paper. This will include a short description of your methodological innovation, emphasizing how it overcomes those limitations, or realizes that potential. It will also outline your paper.

Write a paragraph—that is, about six sentences, and no more than 200 words— for each of these. Then, as a "background" section, develop your description of the real-world social practices you think we need to be better at studying in about five paragraphs. Next, develop the state of the art in another five paragraphs. Then provide some sense of your role in methods development. What has forced you to take up these questions? How did you run into the limitations? How did you notice this potential? This is where you build your credibility with the reader.

Now, write about 15 paragraphs that develops your methodological innovation. Make sure you provide real or imagined examples of how the methods would be applied in practice, i.e., in a research project.

Finally, write about 5 paragraphs that make the benefits of this method explicit. And then write a short, two-paragraph conclusion that brings us back to the still-interesting, but now more readily observable, "real" world of social practices. As in a theory paper, you will not actually have made any claims about this world. You will only have proposed a better way generating data to support such claims.

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