Methods and Methodologies (and Methodoxies)

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Yesterday, our group of job market hopefuls met to review drafts of their application letters. For obvious reasons, I can't really talk about that process in much detail, although I think I can say that nearly every student who goes through this process realizes eventually that (a) such letters are more difficult to write than they first appear, and (b) the best such letters go through several drafts. The job letter is a very specific genre, one that requires most of us to unlearn (at least temporarily) some of our more cherished habits of academic prose.

One thing I was thinking about over the past few days was the question of method, or more specifically, the question of method vs. methodology. I don't think I'm bursting anyone's bubble when I say that the vast majority of us, myself included, use the word methodology when in fact we mean method. "Methodology" sounds more sophisticated; honestly, I'm not sure it's any more complicated than that. And I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people ask job candidates to explain their methodology.

Maybe it's just my own sensitivity to the terms, but I get the sense that, in recent years, we've placed more explicit emphasis in our field on "having a methodology," to the extent that we engage in a great deal of unnecessary nominalization. In other words, where at one time, folk might ask about the theories we use or draw on, that proliferation now feels to me as though it's coming under the umbrella of methodology. And I get the sense that many of us feel compelled to distinguish our projects from others on the basis of methodology rather than say site, theory, material, etc.

And yet. I don't think you can "have a methodology." For me, a method is a particular practice, one that can range from the algorithmic (coding discourse for certain textual features) to the heuristic (the application of various cultural or critical theories) to the aleatory (fun!). Nobody just uses one method; most of us blend several at any given moment. You might draw on one method to test, qualify, or nuance another. My own thought, though, is that there really aren't huge numbers of actual methods--where our projects really differ from each other is in the collection and selection of materials and the choice of particular filters (i.e., theories) to guide our practice.

My understanding of methodology, then, is sort of armchair etymological. Methodology is the study or account of methods, in the way that a graduate survey course on methods might proceed. Why a body uses method X instead of method Y is a methodological question, but the answer to a methodological question is a method, not (for me) a methodology. I don't think I have a methodology; what I have instead are a range of methods (and that range has broadened in recent years), some of which will show up in a given piece of writing.

As I was browsing around, I came across an interesting piece from a few years back, by a fellow named Eduardo Corte-Real, who suggests reserving methodology for that broader usage (the science/logic of methods), and offers the term "methodoxy" as a lighter term that replaces the heaviness of logos with the idea of teaching and/or opinion implied by doxa. I must say, I'm a little enchanted by the word--it seems to me that much of what passes for methodological discussion is in fact methodoxical. In a field like Writing Studies, we will never achieve the kind of methodological rigor found in the sciences, natural or social. Nor honestly should we want to. But there's something of that pressure that lurks behind the question "what's your methodology?" I'm not sure that we could answer that question on behalf of the discipline, much less ourselves. I like the idea, though, of methodoxy as the term that describes our field's debates over method, our own practices of blending various methods to accomplish research aims, and our processes of choosing from among the methods that are available to us.

No grand conclusion, but I may sneak methodoxy into an essay soon. And I'm going to try and keep myself honest about not saying methodology when I mean method.

That's all.


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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on June 13, 2009 12:36 AM.

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