Gorman, G. (2011), "Method (or methodology) in their madness? How researchers confuse "method" and "methodology"", Online Information Review, Vol. 35 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/oir.2011.26435aaa.002Download as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Method (or methodology) in their madness? How researchers confuse "method" and "methodology"
Article Type: Editorial From: Online Information Review, Volume 35, Issue 1
I am currently examining a pair of PhD theses while also reading an interesting new book by Lessem and Schieffer (2010) in which appears this statement:
There was a vast gulf between methodology (incorporating philosophy) and method (incorporating technique) of which only the enlightened few had become aware. We had discovered that, amongst colleagues and students alike, reference to method and methodology tended to be intertwined rather than clearly differentiated. This mix of terms was replicated in much of the literature (Lessem and Schieffer, 2010, p. 13).
Yes, that’s it – this is part of the problem in both theses. Neither researcher makes an adequate distinction between methodology and method (“philosophy” and “technique” in Lessem and Schieffer’s understanding), and this is leading both researchers into some rather deep, muddy water. But this is nothing unique – take a look at most of the literature in our domain of information management/systems/services, and here we find a genuine confusion of terminology. For example, a recent editorial in another Emerald journal, Library Hi Tech, addresses research methods in these terms:
The research method offers a way to answer the research question. The research method generally grows from the way that an established social science like anthropology, sociology, psychology, or economics has trained their students to think about problems. Such methods may use tools such as questionnaires, interviews, observation, or statistical data analysis, but the questions they pose and the data they gather will vary depending on the research method. A good research article explains the reason for the choice of method and the reason for the related tool (Seadle et al., 2010).
Here, then, the writers speak of method as a means of answering a research question, and indicate that method grows from the unique domain of specific disciplines (this could be called methodology, but isn’t in the editorial). We have no problem with this, and the editorial offers a fairly clear statement of what methods are. But then, just when we think the sun will shine, the editors drop this clanger: “Some research questions imply a very specific method. For example, the methodology that Kathrin chose grew necessarily out of the previous study” (Seadle et al., 2010). From my emphasis on the terms “method” and “methodology” in this statement, it is easy to see how they have slipped perhaps unknowingly from one to the other.
Is it only researchers and editors who make this error? What do the textbooks tell us? Picking one at random from my shelves, which contain at least 20 research methods texts, we have on page 132 of Silverman and Marvasti (2008) a standard statement that “methods are specific research techniques”. They further add that “… methodology defines how we will go about studying any phenomenon” – for example, grounded theory, conversation analysis. (Silverman and Marvasti, 2008, p. 134). So far, so good. But on a previous page they define “methodology” as “a general approach to studying research topics” (which is fine) and “method” as “a specific research technique and methodology” [italics mine] (Silverman and Marvasti, 2008, p. 132). Once again, they have confused the two terms, referring to “method” as a “methodology”.
And it goes on. The generally useful Sage Handbook of Social Research Methods has a number of chapters that disclose varying kinds of confusion regarding methodology/method and how the terms are defined. Thus, Alastalo (2010) says that “Methodology is often understood and defined as a normative attempt to find and discuss “the good and the bad practices”. However, here methodology is understood as research performed on research methods” (Alastalo, 2010, p. 26). This is less than useful in our attempt to differentiate between methodology and method and indeed clouds the issue further by referring to methodology as research on research methods.
Nilsen, in the same Handbook, offers sight of a possible indulgence by admitting that “methodology is a concept often used synonymously with the term method” (Nilsen, 2010, p. 82). Methodology and method are “often intertwined” according to Lessem and Schieffer (2010), and now “used synonymously” according to Nielsen. To this Gorman would add, “used inaccurately and without understanding of their differentiation”.
If method refers to procedures and techniques for data gathering, and methodology refers to describing, explaining and justifying these methods, then it might help if we visualize methodology and method as concentric circles, with methodology the outer circle and method, the inner. But surely methodology is more than this, as it spills over into the still broader area of conceptualization: theory. In 1987 Harding made a quite clear statement of what 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 specific scientific disciplines” (Harding, 1987, p. 3, cited in Nilsen, 2010, p. 82). Does this suggest that we have three concentric circles, with theory as the outer, methodology as the middle, and method as the inner? This may prove to be so, but it then begs the question of what “theory” is, and why so much of our research may be described as “atheoretical”. That is the topic of another editorial.
For the moment, what do these musings imply for scholarship, particularly that published in a journal such as Online Information Review? Authors who confuse methodology and method should not be allowed into print until they have learned the difference between the two; reviewers must be diligent to pick up the failure to distinguish, or even the tendency to confuse the two; and editors must begin to set an example by reminding researchers and authors that we are dealing with an important issue here, and that respectable research must clearly distinguish between methodology and method, and must state both in a publishable paper.
Alastalo, M. (2010), “The history of social research methods”, in Alasuutari, P., Bickman, L. and Brannen, J.H. (Eds), The Sage Handbook of Social Research Methods, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA
Harding, S. (1987), “Introduction: is there a feminist method?”, in Harding, S. (Ed.), Feminism and Methodology, Open University Press, Milton Keynes
Lessem, R. and Schieffer, A. (2010), Integral Research and Innovation: Transforming Enterprise and Society, Transformation and Innovation Series, Gower Publishing, Farnham
Nilsen, A. (2010), “From questions of methods to epistemological issues: the case of biographical research”, in Alasuutari, P. , Bickman, L. and Brannen, J.H. (Eds), The Sage Handbook of Social Research Methods, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA
Seadle, M., Greifender, E. and Grzeschik, K. (2010), “New faces and transparent standards: writing for Library Hi Tech”, Library Hi Tech, Vol. 28 No. 3
Silverman, D. and Marvasti, A. (2008), Doing Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Guide., Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA