Sunday, January 16, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Harding and Others on Research Terminology)

Originally posted: Sun, 16 Jan 2005 04:47:05

I've been reading a lot about research approaches, both for my own work and for the qualitative research class I'm about to teach. What has struck me lately is how much slippage there seems to be among terms commonly used in discussing research: methodology, method, technique, paradigm, epistemology, etc.

To see how others have straightened these terms out, I've gone back to Sandra Harding's classic essay "Introduction: Is there a feminist method?" and looked at her taxonomy. Here are a few quotes from her, along with my comments.

"One reason it is difficult to find a satisfactory answer to questions about a distinctive feminist method is that discussions of method (techniques for gathering evidence) and methodology (a theory and analysis of how research should proceed) have been intertwined with each other and with epistemological issues (issues about an adequate theory of knowledge or justificatory strategy) in both the traditional and feminist discourses. This chain is a complex one and we shall sort out its components. But the point here is simply that 'method' is often used to refer to all three aspects of research. Consequently, it is not at all clear what one is supposed to be looking for when trying to identify a distinctive 'feminist method of research.'" (p.2)

Comment: It may be useful to conceptually separate these aspects, but in practice they are intertwined and considerable slippage occurs. Notice that Harding equates method with technique, but it's clear in the following paragraph that she is talking about technique in a very general way (e.g., interviews) rather than very specifically (e.g., structured interviews; contextual inquiry). Others have separated method and technique, which after all have very different etymologies (methodos, techne); see my "Lost in the Translation" (in press, Technical Communication Quarterly) for a couple of examples. Also see Long et al. (2000) and Kensing (1998) for discussions of technique that separate it from method.

"A research method is a technique for (or way of proceeding in) gathering evidence. One can reasonably argue that all evidence-gathering techniques fall into one of the following three categories: listening to (or interrogating) informants, observing behavior, or examining historical traces and records. In this sense, there are only three methods of social inquiry." (p.2)

Comment: Again, method is technique in so general a sense that we might as well separate it from technique. See also Chin's piece in Smagorinsky's edited collection Speaking About Writing : Reflections on Research Methodology, where she calls interviewing a method.

"A methodology is a theory and analysis of how research does or should proceed; it includes accounts of how 'the general structure of theory finds its application in particular scientific disciplines.'" (p.3)

Comment: The quote is from Peter Caws, "Scientific Method" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967).

"An epistemology is a theory of knowledge. It answers questions about who can be a 'knower' (can women?); what tests beliefs must pass in order to be legitimated as knowledge (only tests against men's experiences and observations?); what kinds of things can be known (can 'subjective truths' count as knowledge?), and so forth. (p.3)

Comment: Harding leaves out a lot here. Creswell, in contrast, identifies five different axes of philosophical assumptions that together constitute a paradigm framework: epistemological, axiological, ontological, rhetorical, and methodological. Another source says that the paradigm framework is made up of philosophy, ontology, epistemology, and methodology.

John Law does a good job of questioning these separations, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari to describe a "method assemblage" in which all parts continuously reconfigure the others. Sullivan and Porter, endorsing Harding's general scheme, criticize "the traditional distinction between methodology-as-theory-codifying and method-as-application-of-methodology." In their taxonomy, praxis is problematized method. Methodology and research questions shift as the situation affects the unfolding method (p.66).

Works cited

Creswell, J. W. (1997). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. SAGE Publications.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Athlone Press, London.

Harding, S. (1987). Introduction: Is there a feminist method? In Harding, S., editor, Feminism and methodology, pages 1?14. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Kensing, F. (1998). Prompted reflections: a technique for understanding complex work. interactions, 5(1):7?15.

Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. Routledge, New York.

Long, R. G., White, M. C., Friedman, W. H., and Brazeal, D. V. (2000). The ?qualitative? versus ?quantitative? research debate: A question of metaphorical assumptions? International Journal of Value-Based Management, 13(2):189?197.

Smagorinsky, P., editor. (1994). Speaking about writing: Reflections on research methodology. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Spinuzzi, C. (2005). Lost in the translation: Shifting claims in the migration of a research technique. Technical Communication Quarterly, 14(4).

Sullivan, P. and Porter, J. E. (1997). Opening spaces: Writing technologies and critical research practices. Ablex Pub. Corp., Greenwich, CT.


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