Since I’ve been posting about methods and methodology, I’ve been asked several times to discuss the difference between methodology and methods and how these appear in a methods chapter.
This post is by way of an answer.
Not all dissertations have a methods chapter. Although much of the how-to-write-it material (including my own) suggests that there is a distinct chapter called methods, some disciplines and many research projects don’t have one per se.
However, most (but not all) arts, humanities and social science theses do have to include, somewhere in the first few chapters, something about the way that the researcher has approached the task of researching, how they think about themselves as a researcher, and how they have designed the actual piece of research that they are doing, and why it is the way that it is (in the textbooks these things are usually called epistemology, methodology, and methods).
Discussions of epistemology and methodology generally go together.
Sometimes, there is no need to go into a great deal of detail about epistemology. It will be sufficient to say something like … this research has been conducted from a critical perspective, that is, I understand that … and then the writer goes on to offer some basic principles which underpin a critical research tradition (or interpretive, or social constructivist - whatever …).
Sometimes this discussion can be quite lengthy. It’s not at all uncommon for historians for example to devote a whole chapter to discussions of what counts as historical knowledge, where they stand in relation to a series of key debates and how they have approached their research.
It’s also not at all uncommon for ethnographers to write a very extended piece about how they are approaching their research.
For anthropologists and others working in the ethnographic tradition, understanding that knowledge is a social construction has an enormous set of implications - about the role of the researcher, the way that access is obtained and the relationships that are set up with research participants, the way in which the researcher wrestles with who they are … and more.
A well-handled ethnographic discussion will blend together questions of epistemology and methodology quite seamlessly.
And I would always expect to see somebody who claimed a feminist position to not only argue that knowledge is socially constructed, and in particular gendered interests, but also to be very specific about which feminism[s] they actually work with and against. This would clearly require quite an extended discussion since they also need to spell out the implications for their research.
Writing about methodology is always about fitting the discussion to the discipline and the topic - it’s writing about what is most important for the reader to understand in order to appreciate/ comprehend the research that is about to be reported.
So, after all that, what do I mean by methodology?
Well I understand methodology to be theory; it’s theory about the research methods that will be used.
It’s theory which underpins the decisions made about the researcher’s range of choices of - for example - what to study; who to study; where to study; which research tradition to work within; what knowledges to draw on; what to include and exclude, foreground and background and the consequences of this decision; what counts as data and why; relational and ethical concerns; and how to represent the findings/ how to write the research.
And I see methods as the ‘tools’ that are used to do the research.
Finally, a research design is the way that the researcher assembles and sequences the tools, and the ways in which these are applied, according to the principles elaborated through the methodological choices.
As an examiner I would therefore always expect to see a methods chapter, if it is presented as such, to cover:
(1) a brief restatement of the research question
(2) a methodological discussion, including discussion of epistemology and ontology as relevant
(3) the research design, including a discussion of methods with due recognition of their blank and blind spots
I also expect to see:
(4) a clear audit trail of what the researcher has actually done, with whom, when and where, how much data was produced and how it connects to the research question(s), how the data was analysed, and a pointer to any particular problems/ issues that arose.