In the last two weeks I’ve spoken to three doctoral researchers about writing on methodology and methods. They were in the social sciences, and this post is written from that perspective, although I suspect it may apply to some humanities areas too.
The first doctoral researcher – let’s call her A – was writing an assignment for one of those compulsory ‘training’ modules that everyone in their first full time year in the UK now has to do. The course was about philosophy and the entirely reasonable assignment question was to outline the philosophical position she would take in her proposed research. A had read a lot, and her draft paper went through this reading, starting with epistemology, and then going on to methodology, and then ended with a discussion of some possible methods.
The problem was that there was no sense in the draft text of a researcher explaining their own thinking, reasoning why she might take a particular set of decisions, arguing on what basis she would make ‘truth’ claims, arguing why anyone should think her research trustworthy.
A had written an assignment, answering somebody else’s question, rather than writing about her own concerns. It was written for marks and for official approval, rather than being an articulation of a positioning that would be the foundation for her own research. Because A had been successful in her taught postgraduate work, this was what she thought she had to do.
A classic essayist assignment genre, typical of under and taught postgraduate writing, is performative. It is intended to demonstrate not only a certain amount of knowledge but also the capacity to write clearly, to marshall evidence in logical order, to show coverage of particular reading, to use appropriate terminology. It is intended to convince the marker that the writer knows their stuff. It enacts ‘good student’. That’s what A had understood to be the task of this assignment, and there seemed to be nothing in the written handouts to suggest this wasn’t what she should do.
The second two doctoral researchers – let’s call them B and C – were in their third year. They’d both completed their field work and analysis, and started writing the actual thesis. B had started her ‘methods chapter’, and said she didn’t like doing it. It was somehow going through the motions. C hadn’t yet started on hers, but said it was the chapter she least wanted to write. Dreading it, was the actual phrase used. I asked both of them if it was because this chapter felt like the kind of assignment they had written before for a research methods course, and they both agreed that this was the case.
Now this seems a worry. I’m worried that in instituting doctoral ‘training’ courses, we might have extended the under and taught postgraduate assignment genre, and everything it means, into doctoral research. I’m even more concerned if there is any chance that this means that methodological discussions in ‘training’ and in the thesis are seen as something that has to be done, as wading through treacle simply to get a lecturer’s or examiner’s approval.
Getting a tick is certainly part of what is at stake in methodological discussions in the doctoral thesis. An unconvincing methods chapter with inadequate discussion will cause examiners to question what’s understood about researching, and they will often ask for corrections in order to make sure the research is textually grounded.
But I think more is at stake in thesis discussions of methodologies. Becoming a researcher is ontological, as well as epistemological. It’s about who we are and the ways in which we are oriented to the world and our practice. It’s about how we understand what we do, why, and how. We need not only to spell that out for others, but also for ourselves. What do we think we are doing when we do research… on what basis can we reasonably justify what we’ve done as research, as knowledge, as some kind of ‘truth’… we need to own the methodologies we use, and write about them from our own point of view.
If we do write as researchers, and not as students answering a question, then both the philosophy essay and the methods chapter become much less a trawl through a mandatory set of other people’s views. They become much more a careful explication of the premises we researchers make about what we are doing in our own research. We argue our case, not present a version of a selected reading of a set of research methods textbooks and lectures. We write as researchers. That’s the rub.
I just wonder in all this ‘training’ how and where this shift from student and assignment to researcher and explaining our practice and its premises is actually discussed and dealt with.
Maybe my anecdotes are just aberrations. Any experiences or opinions to offer?