Sunday, 11 May 2014

Post 18: What is Methodology?

I've been stewing over this question for the last 12 months or so, and more seriously the last 8, because I've been trying to figure out, What is methodology for my project?

I had a meeting with my committee in September, where I outlined a few books I would read in order to help me answer this question, and among them: Hugh Gusterson's "Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the end of the Cold War"; Sharon Traweek's "Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists"; Donna Haraway's "Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science", and a couple other texts that I'm still working my way through, including "States of Knowledge: The co-production of science and social order," edited by Sheila Jasanoff, and "Actor Network Theory and after" by John Law and John Hassard.

Trying to understand and track down what methodology is, is not very easy. I've spoken with a number of different people, to find that I'm easily discouraged by the somewhat contradictory things I've heard: there are so many different ideas of what methodology is! (And from what I understand, it's very much the experience of a master's trying to figure out, What is methodology.). So, despair not if you're like me, and struggling to sort this all out.

One friend's advice? It doesn't make sense to stew about methodology in the abstract. It will make a lot more sense by the time that you start to sit down and ready yourself for writing, because it'll help direct you for what you need to say. And I think that now that I feel like I'm on the brink of starting to get everything together, that makes a lot of sense. (Now would be a great time for a research methods and methodology class!)

Here, Google's definition:

"Methodology is the systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods applied to a field of study, or the theoretical analysis of the body of methods and principles associated with a branch of knowledge. It, typically, encompasses concepts such as paradigm, theoretical model, phases and quantitative or qualitative techniques.[1]

A methodology does not set out to provide solutions but offers the theoretical underpinning for understanding which method, set of methods or so called “best practices” can be applied to a specific case.

                                    A pause for some bright swamp lantern (Symplocarpus foetidus).

It has been defined also as follows:
  1. "the analysis of the principles of methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline";[2]
  2. "the systematic study of methods that are, can be, or have been applied within a discipline";[2]
  3. "the study or description of methods".[3]"

Which kinds of gets us somewhere, but I certainly struggled to make heads or tails of this definition months ago.

Some people said really confusing things like 'methodology is interchangeable with methods, but that doesn't make sense to me. The methods that I'm using are semi-structured interviews (my primary method), along with selective document analysis, and journaling. So, there's something missing here that isn't captured by just saying methodology is the set of methods that I'm using.

What I've arrived to more recently, is deciding that methodology means 'approach', and being able to justify why you made the decisions you made, including which methods to go with (empirical, qualitative, quantitative, etc), and why that suite of methods together, in order to best answer the research questions you posed.

So, where does that leave me? I've been trying to articulate my approach to myself for some time now. I interviewed scientists directly because the kinds of perspectives and ideas I wanted to know are not apparent in the published work that's publicly available. I wanted to focus on the intersection of the mountain pine beetle and scientists because I wanted to be sensitive to other non-human beings and their influence on the practice and perspectives of humans -- does the scale of the ecological/environmental change associated with the beetle challenge or change any of the key perspectives of scientists, and what does that look like? In so doing, I needed to read widely and deeply about the mountain pine beetle, and hone in on a group or network of scientists that I thought would be manageable to interview. I decided to focus on what I saw as a coming together of 5 research hubs, some closely linked, others not so, and I think it went reasonably well. Of course there are other people that I would have loved to interview, but as it was, there were only so many positive responses that I received, and could proceed with.

The other major focus of my thesis project has been the concept of novel ecosystems, and I speculate that the mountain pine beetle moving into the boreal forest (an ecosystem it's never historically been in, from what scientists can see), is a hybrid ecosystem with novel characteristics (following a classification system outlined by recent work done for the concept). I'm still trying to grapple with the dimensions and differences with the epidemic and endemic mountain pine beetle population patterns, and what that means for the idea of the novel ecosystem.

Now, I'm also preoccupied with describing the key relationships I saw forming and developing because of research that ensued in the context of climate change and the the climate-exacerbated mountain pine beetle, and what that tells us about scientists' capacities for change and adaptation, and where that is applicable elsewhere! There were a number of comments about the 'novel' habitat of the mountain pine beetle; my analysis will need to make sense of exactly how that relates to my ideas of the novel ecosystems concept.

My methodological approach will help me to explain why I focused on the information out there as I did, why I then went on to analyze my interviews and look for certain themes and ideas arising (as well as others that emerged from the interviews), and to reconcile that with the shaping ideas that I have forming from the whole process of undertaking such an empirical, qualitative study.

So, I feel like while I have sort of been able to describe for myself what my idea of methodology is, sorting that out will need a little bit more care in the coming weeks as I wrap up analyzing my interviews and laying out my thesis and writing.

I was reading somewhere the other day again in Laurie Waye's Thesis Handbook (apologies, I was quickly looking into the text, and don't have it with me currently), who mentioned that there will undoubtedly be a lot more research that I've done that won't make it into the thesis. There are also countless methodologies and methods that one can use -- different lenses, if you'll permit the analogy a la Haraway, that can be used to undertake projects and interpret data, so, it really comes down to committing to one and running with it. Students who struggle to complete their theses are likely those who dig too broadly, instead of focusing and digging in deep, and in part, that really resonates with me.

So, here's to sorting out just a little bit more, exactly what my lens and my approach is in the coming little while!

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