The methodology section of a long piece of academic writing can be very tricky. Researchers often have an intuitive, gut feel about what they want to find out and how they intend to do so. Having to define this in the technical terms of what often seems a very abstruse field of inquiry can present challenges. There’s also the fact that social scientific methodology has developed into a field in its own right. As distant as it may be from what you’re actually wanting to be concentrating on, and as contrary to your interests and aptitudes, you still need to get to grips with its ideas and arguments. I’ll leave it up to you to do that.

As a professional editor who has looked at hundreds (if not thousands) of such pieces of writing, I can give you some idea of the methodology section problems that frequently crop up and how you can guard against them.

  1. Confusion regarding how various aspects relate to one another.

It’s often the case that the relationship among various aspects of the methodology is confused, and confusing. For example, if you’re doing a qualitative survey-based phenomenological inquiry, there are three parts to the method: qualitative, survey-based, and phenomenological. You need to think about the relationship between these from most to least general.

Qualitative is the most general, as it describes the very broad nature of the data you’re trying to obtain (numerical – quantitative; verbal/descriptive – qualitative).

Phenomenological research is a type of qualitative research, informed by certain beliefs about how one goes about obtaining a specific type of information. This has implications for the method one uses: the practical matter of how one goes about obtaining the information. In this case, it’s by survey (“survey-based”). In the example we’re looking at, this is the least general.

Your research will obviously not necessarily be a qualitative survey-based phenomenological inquiry, but if you follow the principle of thinking about the component parts of your methodology as moving from broad theoretical categories to the particular, practical consequences of these, your writing about it will be clear.

I often get the impression that, because a writer is concerned about whether they’re getting the material right, they’ll return to it more than they need to in order to supplement or qualify their earlier treatments. If you’re not quite sure you understand phenomenology, for instance, you may try to explain how you see it in three or four slightly different ways. Most colleges have clear and helpful schematic plans for social science dissertations, which specify what sections go where. If you follow this scheme, discussing what you’re asked to at each point, once and once only, and expressing it as clearly, economically, and simply as possible, your ideas stand their best chance of receiving the most favorable possible hearing.

Vagueness tends to come from a slightly different type of writer, and a slightly different type of dissertation, than the above two. My guess would be that, with the above two, the writer has spent a fair amount of time trying to understand methodological terms and ideas and is anxious about getting it wrong. With this one, I often think that the writer sees the section more as a box to be ticked before moving on to the real research. They have general ideas about how they’re going to proceed, and are pretty confident the approach will work, and hence don’t see much need to explain it in the sort of detail that is often required. This sort of writer will leave out, for example, an explanation of why the chosen method of obtaining data is appropriate to the data itself. You need to explain these sort of things to demonstrate that you’ve thought about the practical implications of your methodological choices. Most of the time, you have, but they can seem too obvious to require stating: “Focus groups were an appropriate method because I wanted to discover what groups of middle-aged men thought about libraries.” The important thing with this example, though, would be showing why focus groups were considered more appropriate than interviews, say, or surveys, as this indicates that you’ve considered all the ramifications of your methodological choices.

Yet another approach is to throw jargon and technical terminology at the problem. Certain writers pick up catch-phrases and specialist terms that they then pepper their sentences with. The terms, though, which have very precise meanings in the discourse in which they’re employed, are used imprecisely and inconsistently, creating confusion about what they themselves understand by the term. There’s obviously no getting around the need for some technical language. When you use it, though, make sure you know exactly what you mean by it, and ensure that this meaning remains consistent throughout. Also, if it’s possible to say something in simpler and more accessible language, do so.

  1. Stating the obvious.

Having just told you to state the obvious, I’m now going to tell you not to state the obvious—too often. There’s bound to be a certain amount of this in academic writing for the social sciences, given that the primary concern is with clarity, lack of ambiguity, and detail. In moments of doubt, you’d be better off putting something in and sounding tedious, rather than leaving it out and potentially being unclear or vague. Tedium might not be ideal, but it’ll detract from the quality of your ideas less than obscurity will do.

Nevertheless, if you’ve already said it, you probably don’t need to say it again. You can take it for granted that your reader knows what a survey or interview is (although you might need to be explicit about the respective benefits of these), and that quantitative methods seek to collect numerical data.

It’s a good idea to read some examples from your department or school—ask your supervisor to suggest some good ones—to see what’s expected and what you need to include. There are different degrees of flexibility regarding structure from discipline to discipline and college to college. It is helpful, though, to look closely at the suggested structure, as it’ll give you a sense of what you need to provide, and how you’re asked to provide it.

There are also many excellent books out there that will be of help. Research Methods in the Social Sciences Paperback (Sage, 2004), edited by Bridget Somekh and Cathy Lewin, is one such, but there are many more. A professional editor will also be able to assist you in tightening up your ideas and expressing them clearly and eloquently.

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