What is the best way to distinguish between 'method' and 'methodology'?
September 4, 2014 2:35 AM   Subscribe

I would like to be able to understand, and explain articulately to colleagues and students should the need arise, the distinction between these two terms.

I've spent plenty of time drifting around the web trying to find succinct, accurate descriptions of these terms, the difference between them, and when their use is correct and incorrect, but I can't find anything satisfactory and memorable.

It seems that these two terms are increasingly misused, mainly with 'methodology' being applied where 'method' would be most fitting, either out of academic pomposity or just generally not knowing any better. There's a fundamental and important difference between them though, and I'd like to be able to grasp it myself and communicate it to others (preferably without sounding hectoring!).

An example might be of a paper that has simply reviewed 10-20 research papers in the field to assess the frequency and depth with which a certain issue has been discussed. It's a mini literature review, and the process needs to be explained in the write-up. This section would correctly be titled 'Methods', rather than 'Methodology', correct? A discussion of the methodology would need to tell us why this approach generates something of value.

Similar such examples of both or either would be much appreciated. Accessability is the key!

Many thanks.
posted by fishingforthewhale to Education (2 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

"Method" is what you do. "Methodology" is the reasons you do it that way, and the reason is that it produces a trustworthy kind of knowledge (and not because it's easier or cheaper to do it that way - even though that's often a real world reason.)

That's how I've always understood it and how I've always explained it.

The problem I've run into is with the Instrumentalists. They'll say - "I did it that way because that's how you (or "they") told me to. That's how you do a lit review by definition". To which I respond "how do you know that you're generating the kind of knowledge you need? What are the implications of each decision you make along the way on your final product?" I use the word "product" because I'm talking to the Instrumentalists.

Taking it further: "which journals will you look at? How many? Why that many? Why those journals? Books? Or just journals? How far back in time will you go? Why not farther? Will you look across disciplines? Why or why not? How do you know you're done and ready to write? How will you judge 'depth' -- if a journal is well-read, does that mean the coverage of your topic in it is more important, more likely to be seen/read - is that an indication of 'depth'? But what if they treat the topic with only a surface analysis? Is that important? Perhaps the popular journal is really providing 'reach' but not 'depth', is that okay with you? Maybe that's something to write about?"
posted by vitabellosi at 3:50 AM on September 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

"Methodology, as reflection on the correct procedure of science, is necessarily reflection on the limitations of science. If science is indeed the highest form of human knowledge, it is reflection on the limitations of human knowledge."

- Leo Strauss

Methodology is the study of the implications, possibilities, conditions, problems etc of various methods. Method is the thing you actually use.

But I like this quote from Giorgio Agamben best:

"Anyone familiar with research in the human sciences knows that, contrary to common opinion, a reflection on method usually follows practical application, rather than preceding it. It is a matter, then, of ultimate or penultimate thoughts, to be discussed among friends and colleagues, which can legitimately be articulated only after extensive research."

I'll be giving a course on Methodology of Semiotic Analysis, with the first lecture starting in two hours. :)
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:16 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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