I recently posted some misgivings I had about methods chapters. I suggested in that post that one of the most frequent problems I saw in dissertations was when the methods chapter was written as if it was an essay rather than the researcher putting themselves in the conversation.
Since then, I’ve decided that the metaphor of a party may be helpful in thinking about the way that the methods writing task might be approached.
So….. imagine that you are at a party, it’s full of academics, it might even be conference drinks. You only know one or two people there to speak to – but you know some others by reputation, and some by sight because you’ve heard them speak and you’ve read some of the things that they’ve written. You clearly have a choice about what to do.
Lets consider the strategies you might use.
Option one: The eavesdropper.
Because you are so much in awe of the gathering, you move around from group to group, not contributing to the conversation, but nodding appreciatively when someone speaks, laughing when they make a joke and then moving on when it looks as if you might have to say something. You will of course be able to regale your friends the next day with details of the conversations that you overheard, but your story of the evening is told totally in terms of what other people did and said, rather than what you did. You are invisible in your account of the evening.
The eavesdropper produces a methods chapter which reports either on other people’s conversations about the approach that they have taken in their own research, or summarises information gleaned from methods texts. [It's an essay.]
Option two: The fan
You decide to movie around the room and attach yourself to a particular person. You hang on their every word, making approving noises at whatever they say. If you are lucky, they won’t make an excuse and wander off to talk to somebody else less persistent. They will see that you are a newcomer and take you under their wing. However, at the end of the evening, you have really only met this one person and have engaged in only the conversations that they have been having. There have been all manner of other people and other conversations at the event that you have missed out on. You have lived the event in the shadow of an academic star. In particular you have chosen to ignore people like you in favour of a well established and/or famous singleton.
The fan writes the methods chapter using one major source, a big fat popular methods textbook in its fourteenth edition. While they may include other references, it is this one mainstream source which provides the line of argument through which their methods for the research are presented. Cutting edge and critical debates are ignored in favour of the same old same old.
Option three: The tourist
You are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people whose work you have read who are present at this event. You decide that you want to make a connection with all of them. The way to do this is, you think, to have your photo taken with them. In order for this to happen, you have to interrupt ongoing conversations, remove your target from their social setting, and ask someone standing by if they will take a picture on your phone camera. At the end of the evening, you have a record of meetings with professors A to Z. You are able to scroll through them on your phone at any time. However, you have not really had a serious conversation with any of them and they only know you as someone who removed them from a social group.
The tourist writes a methods chapter which offers a whistle-stop tour through almost every conceivable method and numerous writers. The text bristles with citations, sections and subsections which often put together conflicting points of view on the same subject as if to suggest there is agreement. At no point is there a sense that the tourist is working in a particular research tradition (post coming up) and that particular methods are required for their proposed study.
Option four: The wallflower
You are very nervous in this august gathering. You know you cannot possibly see everyone that you want to meet. So you go and sit with the one or two people that you know and talk to them all night. The next day you realize you had a perfectly pleasant evening, but you had learnt nothing, had no new encounters, and basically stayed in the same metaphorical place you were in before the event took place.
The wallflower writes a methods chapter which discusses the decisions that they have made about the approach that they want to take as if nobody else but themselves and one or two other people have ever done any research at all. They present themselves as singular and isolated, and not part of a scholarly community.
Option five: The newcomer with something to say
You don’t try to meet everybody in the room. You select some groups to meet, you choose a mix of established and new scholars, joining some conversations when you have something constructive to say. But you also initiate conversation about topics that you would like other views on. If the conversation isn‘t of interest to you, you make your excuses and slip away. At the end of the evening you have made new connections, engaged in some interesting conversations about things that matter to you – and you can recount your evening in a way that shows your engagement with other people and the interactions that took place. And, it wasn’t a dull affair either, but actually engaging and enjoyable to put yourself out there, despite your initial nervousness.
Congratulations newcomer. You have written a methods chapter which your examiners will be pleased to read and rate.