This post draws on an Australian textbook entitled Social Research Methods (Oxford University Press, 2013 [4th edition now available]) edited by Maggie Walter (Distinguished Professor of sociology at the University of Tasmania) to consider one perspective on the difference between method and methodology. I mainly draw on the introductory chapter authored by Walter entitled ‘The Nature of Social Science Research’ which discusses social research methodology, but I also briefly comment on other kinds of research.
Walter distinguishes between method and methodology as follows:
- Method refers to “a technique for gathering information, such as interview, questionnaire, or documentary analysis”; and
- Methodology “is the worldview-influenced lens through which the research is understood, designed, and conducted”
Walter further adds that “methodology includes our method, but the method is a component of our methodology and not even the most important” (p.10).
I was initially a little puzzled when I read her description of methodology. The emphasis placed on worldviews initially surprised me (this aspect is elaborated below). I also have some lingering broader confusions about terminology – I recall being unsure whether I should title the second chapter of my thesis ‘Research Design’ (or Methods) instead of ‘Methodology. As an “ology” it perhaps makes more sense for ‘methodology’ to refer to the systematic study of research methods used in an area of research. But more informally we do tend to speak of a particular study having a strong or weak methodology.
But let’s consider Walter’s conceptualisation of a social research methodology and what makes for a good one. In the context of social research Walter contends that a research methodology has three components. The components are as follows:
- Your standpoint: Walter defines a ‘standpoint’ as “the way people view the world and their position in it in relation to others and society”. Walter defines four elements: i) our social position, which “sets the frame for our standpoint” (p.11) and “shapes how we understand the research topic” (p.397); ii) epistemology (theory of knowledge); iii) axiology (theory of values); and iv) ontology (a theory of being which “at its most concentrated is about how the world is understood: what reality is” [p.14]). A ‘standpoint’ is “theoretically summarised as the way research is guided by researchers’ social position and epistemological, axiological, and ontological frameworks” (p.11);
- The researcher’s theoretical ‘conceptual framework’ and ‘paradigm’: the second aspect is primarily a conceptual framework and some related elements. Walter emphasises the researcher’s standpoint-influenced “theoretical frame” (p.11) which is described as “a theoretical map for how we will conceptualise our data, its analysis, and its interpretation to answer our research questions”. Walter also suggests that the theories we use are related to an underpinning ‘paradigm’ which she defines as “a shared framework of viewing and approaching the investigation and research of social phenomena” (p.392); and
- Method(s) such as interviews, questionnaire / survey-based research, etc.
Against pure empiricism Walter asserts that “unless we have theoretical understanding of the social terrain we are traversing, our research is likely doomed to failure” (p.16). This is in part because she believes that empirical data is “relatively meaningless” (p.16) unless we have “a theoretical framework in which they can be understood” (p.16). This is a point I suspect many empirically-focussed social scientists may dispute, but it does have some solid philosophical linkages to the notion of theory-ladenness (e.g. the idea that observations are affected by the theoretical suppositions guiding the ‘seeing’ and/or the inquiry etc).
Walter views social scientists as people who can’t avoid having a standpoint related to “who we are socially, economically, culturally, even politically” (p11) which shapes their work. She argues that “how we see the world is not a neutral, objective understanding” (p.11) and that, in this respect, social scientists are no different from other people.
There’s much more to could be added, but I’ll just quote a passage in which Walter further discusses how she sees the importance of theoretical conceptual frameworks:
I am also often asked whether a theoretical conceptual framework is always necessary in social research. Can’t we just identify the issue, such as low rates of take-up of breast screening services by Aboriginal women, then move straight into developing strategies to address the problems? The answer is most strongly no. As Babbie (2002) points out, no matter how practical or idealistic our aims, unless we have a theoretical understanding of the social terrain we are traversing, our research is likely doomed to failure. Even worse, the lack of an acknowledged theoretical base can disguise the unacknowledged concepts and understandings that inform our work. Operating without a clearly established conceptual framework significantly constrains the value of our work and undermines its value and its rigour” (p.16)
Moreover, for Walter a methodology is, essentially, “the theoretical lens through which the research is designed and conducted. This methodological lens is made up of our standpoint, our theoretical frame and our method” (p.390)
Related to these ideas is her underlying set of beliefs about the nature of social science and social scientific knowledge: “We need to understand and acknowledge that our research process, our research findings, and the theories we develop are not core truths, but that they are shaped and influenced by our particular values and understandings” (p.20). As such Walter is elaborating a standpoint epistemological position which other social scientists may not fully subscribe to (or they may in fact outright oppose this position).
Reflecting on these ideas and some of my own research
One of the interesting aspects of these ideas is that they can be read as a provocation to consider the potential differences between social science knowledge and research and other forms of inquiry in, say, the natural sciences (as well as being read as a methodological framework). Putting to one side broader critical questions about some scientific research, I doubt research methods texts in the natural sciences would give much attention to notions like a ‘worldview-influenced lens’ or the broader ‘standpoint’ of scientists.
A second point is related to the wider notion of research methodology defined in the glossary section (of Social Research Methods) as defining an overall approach to the research process which is “justified in terms of pre-existing theories about how to do research” (p.395). As such, Walter’s views on methodology articulate her theory about how to do social research. In her view social science is strongly shaped in by a social scientist’s standpoint, social position, and their worldview and it needs to explicitly take this account in the conceptualisation and implementation of the study. I agree that a methodology should be grounded in specific theories about how to do research – and I agree that the definition of a methodology should go beyond describing the methods used – but I’m not sure I agree that all social research should be conceptualised in terms of a standpoint epistemology.
That said, I can see how an implicit standpoint did shape my doctoral research. For example, when I began to reconceptualise the study as a piece of evaluation research I considered the relations between the evaluator, the thing(s) being evaluated, and the practitioners involved in the practice or program which is being evaluated. I had seen many poor examples of practitioners doing their own assessments (i.e. self-evaluation), for which there can be strong incentives to come up with a positive evaluation (e.g. for marketing purposes) and avoid tough questions. I also think that the positive storytelling style approach is a constraint on learning and evidence-based practice. A related evaluation standpoint can be one of trying to provide an independent perspective which tries to avoid the biases that can corrupt the process (though other standpoints can be adopted [see Mertens & Wilson, 2018]). In this respect, I did my best to achieve the sort of neutral and objective understanding that Walter thinks is unattainable. I felt (or hoped) that the fact I personally didn’t have something at stake in the evaluation might assist me with this. Additionally, my contacts at the partner organisation (CSIRO) strongly emphasised rigour and evidence: they wanted to know the evidential and logical basis of any claim and the overall research process.
Moreover, I adopted an approach (realist evaluation) which also contributed to additional epistemological and ontological dimensions of my research methodology. I had to do a crash course on ‘realist’ perspectives on causal processes and causal explanation (e.g. the idea that non-observable/hidden context-sensitive causal mechanisms produce outcomes) along with ‘critical realist’ perspectives on qualitative research. Despite its importance this was only given brief attention in relevant chapters (e.g. the methodology chapter).
This research and the dissertation itself may have been enhanced by further considering how the adoption of a different standpoint and overall methodology may have led to a very different study and/or different interpretations of the data I collected.
So, whilst I’m not sure that I agree that “our standpoint is the most important aspect in defining our methodology” (p.11) I can see its importance in social science research.
I also applaud the effort to more clearly differentiate method and methodology. Too often the ‘methodology’ sections of papers and theses are just a short description of the research methods that were used and an overview of how the study was conducted.