Category Archives: big abstract ideas

methodology as recipe

A challenging idea for many graduate students learning how to do interpretive and critical research is that one must make a commitment to a research methodology. The two most common errors/scenarios are that students want to begin with research methods (ways of making and analyzing data) or research design features (the most common is to say they want to do a case study, a topic I discuss in some detail here.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.34.21 PMI find Michael Crotty’s definitions and relationships among the elements that frame research helpful. See this image and here, for a short note on this.

A methodology is a framework that contains core ideas reflecting more fundamental epistemological and ontological groundings, but it also provides guidance on the focus of our inquiry, key concepts, values, and often a hint at methods (although this is a separate matter). A methodology contains core definitional foci and cue us to what to expect in a research project. Methodologies also give us a sense of what we might expect the outcome/product of the research to be, even though there is tremendous variation in representational forms within any methodology.

Methodology as Recipeimgres

To help students understand what a methodology is and why we need one, I use the metaphor of methodology as recipe. A recipe is a framework for preparing food: it has a name that reflects what the outcome will be; a list of ingredients, procedural guidelines; tools and techniques; and often a color photo to show us what the food should look like when we are finished. And, different recipes illustrate fundamental differences. For example, a recipe for a chocolate cake and one for beef stew vary on all of these features and are therefore about something quite different. One would never follow a recipe for a chocolate cake and expect to end up with beef stew.

Chocolate Cake                                                            Beef Stew

flour, sugar, cocoa, eggs, butter                            beef, broth, carrots, potatoes, onions

whisking, stirring, mixing                                         chopping, browning, deglazing

mixer, cake pan, whisk                                              knives, heavy pot

baking                                                                               braising, stewing

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.47.08 PM Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.47.34 PM

A methodology is a framework for doing research: it contains a name that reflects the outcome; what is needed to identify the research as being within that framework; procedures and tools; and we often have a general notion of what the outcome will look like.


culture, language, rituals, artifacts

field work: prolonged engagement, participant observation, interviewing, kinship charts, mapping, SNA

field notes, photographs, transcripts

thick description; analysis with cultural categories; emic perspective

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 5.03.37 PM




Novice cooks and researchers are more likely to follow recipes closely, developing the knowledge and skills that will in time free them from a specific recipe while still working within the recipe framework. A good cook might substitute Guinness beer for some broth in the beef stew, but she is still making beef stew. An ethnographer might substitute live field note taking using social media for more traditional field notes, but she is still taking field notes.

Without a methodology a research project is ungrounded, drifting and has a high probability of being atheoretical. With a methodology, with a recipe, the researcher plans on making an ethnography or a narrative analysis or a hermeneutic investigation because the core ideas, the ingredients, the tools are valued and indeed reflect deeper senses of the nature of both the world and knowledge about it.

case study ~ research design, methodology, method?

Since the early 80s when I did my MA degree I have been steeped in “case study research,” and I have the deepest respect for those who have articulated the importance of focusing on the particular in social science research (Robert Yin, Robert Stake, Sharon Merriam, for example). The work of these individuals is valuable ~ Yin provides a valuable foundation for why we should look at cases, and Stake has added detail about different motivations for looking at cases.

With a background in sociology and cultural anthropology my early exposure to case studies created little confusion ~ I was and remain interested in the particular. So researching and understanding a case make conceptual sense. Being schooled in ethnography as a methodology meant that using the language of case study provided a way to engage the tools of ethnography in a flexible way, focusing on pretty much anything that can be identified as a case, that is, a bounded system. Indeed, Creswell defines case study as “an in-depth exploration of a bounded system (e.g., an activity, event, process, or individuals) based on extensive data collection” and he goes on to clarify what a bounded system is: “the case is separated out for research in terms of time, place, or some physical boundaries.” The coupling of a bounded case in naturalistic settings aligns these methodological ideas with interpretivist and critical perspectives on research, but a case can also be investigated within a post-positivist perspective.

In his 2000 book, The Art of Case Study Research, Bob Stake characterized case studies as intrinsic, instrumental or collective. Intrinsic cases are those that are inherently interesting to a researcher, perhaps because of their uniqueness or peculiarity. Instrumental cases are those that researchers study because they have features connected to bigger concepts and that provide an empirical instance to study a bigger idea. Collective case study is looking at multiple cases often with a desire to compare and understand variation, in other words it is a collection of instrumental cases.

So far, we have case study as the investigation of bounded systems that we are motivated to investigate with three possible intentions. Sounds like a very important feature of research design.

But is it a methodology?

Research methodology is a framework that guides research practice ~ it is the theoretical frame that pulls epistemology forward into a discourse that further articulates the nature of knowledge and that guides our choice of methods. Crotty describes it as: “the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and methods to the desired [research] outcomes.” Note that methodology is a theoretical framework. An important feature of methodologies is that they have substantive content, notions about what the focus of the research will be. If one does ethnography, for example, some notion of culture (even if adapted substantially from cultural anthropology) is central to the investigation. If one does critical research, some notion of power (and likely inequity) is central to the investigation. If one does narrative research, some notion of storying is central. So methodologies bring together salient, foundational social constructs with features of doing research. One could argue that certain methodologies logically entail the investigation of cases, in which case, case study could be an element of a methodology, but that it is only one among a number of elements.

So where does this leave case study as a methodology? What are the foundational social constructs that are central to it as a methodology? Here is where the logic breaks down. Looking at a case, in a natural setting, doing extensive data collection in natural settings doesn’t begin to hint at any particular foundational social constructs… inevitably researchers must draw on some other methodology for those. There is considerable variation in methodologies that inform what one does when investigating a case, and even when researchers do not articulate their methodology it lurks in the articulation of what those central social constructs are and the means by which we investigate them (reflection on pre-reflected experience in phenomenology; story telling in narrative analysis; culture in ethnography; and so on).

Terminology is inconsistent in discussions of research ~ there is a bewildering, often rolling sea of ideas, concepts, and practices to navigate in learning about research. There is no single ship of understanding, but thoughtful (re)articulation of the ideas underlying the theoretical and practical aspects of research is part of being in a community of social science researchers.


Further reading: This recently published comparative analysis of Yin, Stake & Merriam‘s take on what case study research is explicates their positions well, and I think still leaves unanswered the fundamental question of what case study is. My view of case study as a feature of research design is unchanged.

The role of empathy in research

Our ability to empathize is key to our success as researchers. To understand the human conditions, social relations, cultural meanings we must first understand and only after that to engage in the conversations of what if.imgres I recently came across a FB post by Kirstie Elgersma. I’ve extracted some parts of her post to illustrate what empathy is and, more importantly, is not:

A monologue on Empathy:
If someone said to me today,’Holy crap, Kristie. Life freakin’ sucks. I’m so broke. And I feel so scared. I’ve never been this far down before. I don’t know how I’m going to make it…’

– I would rarely say:
‘Well where do you live? I can help you find a job….’
That’s fixing it. And no one needs to be ‘fixed’.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘I think you should figure out your life and get your shit together!’
That’s advising and unless they specifically asked for it, they aren’t needing that from me.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Ohhh shit! How could you let that happen?!?’
That’s interrogating… And they didn’t come looking for the Spanish Inquisition.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘It’s only that way because you aren’t being positive or you aren’t trying hard enough…. You did this to yourself.’
They aren’t looking for an explanation.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Hey, you shouldn’t see it that way! There are many things in life to be thankful for.’
That would be me correcting them and they are not needing ‘correction’.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Well, there is much to be learned from this…’
They don’t need an education on what the fuck is happening to them.

– I would rarely say:
‘None of this is your fault.’
They don’t need me to console them.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Wellllll if you hadn’t quit that job you had then none if this shit might be happening right now…’
They don’t need me to evaluate their lives. And most people hate hearing,’I told you so’.

– I would rarely say:
‘Those FUCKERZ. The 1%. Fuck I wish they would die so we can all be free.’
They don’t need me to commiserate with them as much as I would want to. That serves no one.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Oh fuck you think you got it bad! You should hear what happened to this one guy I met… etc etc.’
That’s ‘one upping’ them. They don’t need to hear who has it worse than them. I could imagine that that would make people feel shitty for how they feel or feel shitty that they even shared anything with me in the first place.

– I would rarely say:
‘Hey, that reminds me of the time when I was in my early twenties….’
Telling tales distracts people from what is alive in them. And although that may be a great stall tactic it still serves nothing or no one but my furiously ‘telling tales’ thumbs.

– I would rarely say:
‘Omg! That’s so fucking awful!! I feel so bad for you!! What are you going to do?!?’
They don’t need sympathy from me either. Sympathy can dis-able a person further…..


None of these responses is empathetic, although these responses are frequently confused with empathy. To use our capacity for empathy in research and in everyday life what is called for is to listen, to be curious, to try our very best to understand, and of course to care. Demonstrating empathy is never about telling anyone anything, it is about asking and seeking understanding. This is the first step researchers need to take before presuming they know both what the problem and its solution are.


An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. — Richard P. Feynman

In addition to being amusing, this little book is a great introduction to argumentation and more specifically the various common errors in logic. From hasty generalizations (see cartoon) to appeals to irrelevant authorities to straw man arguments, each is described with examples and a clever cartoon as illustration. Scholarship always involves making arguments and budding scholars might find this useful in honing their skills.