Method versus Methodology

7 April 2007 at 11:40 pm 30 comments

| Peter Klein |

Speaking of pet peeves, here’s another of mine: the regular misuse of the word “methodology” in academic papers. Methodology is the study of scientific methods, a branch of epistemology. Econometric techniques, strategies for gathering data, means of testing hypotheses, etc. are methods, not methodologies. Yet how many empirical papers include a section titled “Methodology” or “Data and Methodology”? It makes me cringe. “We use an instrumental-variables methodology,” or “our methodology employs case studies and structured interviews.” No, those are your methods. Unless you’re citing Popper or Kuhn or Lakatos or Feyerabend or Blaug or Mäki you probably don’t have a methodology section.

This passage from the American Heritage Dictionary (1992 edition) makes the point well:

In recent years . . . “methodology” has been increasingly used as a pretentious substitute for “method” in scientific and technical contexts, as in “The oil company has not yet decided on a methodology for restoring the beaches.” This usage may have been fostered in part by the tendency to use the adjective “methodological” to mean “pertaining to methods,” inasmuch as the regularly formed adjective “methodical” has been preempted to mean “orderly, systematic.” But the misuse of methodology obscures an important conceptual distinction between the tools of scientific investigation (properly “methods”) and the principles that determine how such tools are deployed and interpreted — a distinction that the scientific and scholarly communities, if not the wider public, should be expected to maintain.

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30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe Mahoney  |  7 April 2007 at 11:56 pm

    Yeah! Rules on the proper use of the word methodology, which are to govern me and thee, and which will be enforced by an intellectual hue and cry, and we will stone thee if thou resisth and expel thee from the tribe.

    Or perhaps we could lighten up a little? After a Full day of Karl Marx, a little Groucho Marx is in order:

    “I just shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

    Good night, my good friend Peter :-)

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  8 April 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Touché! But if I can’t be a curmudgeon, what am I going to blog about?

  • 3. Chihmao Hsieh  |  9 April 2007 at 6:40 pm

    It is truly amazing just how much the etymological structure of words can throw a wrench in semantics.

    Here’s my own first-hand anecdote, a true recent story. Essentially I have a paper that makes the distinction between learning domains ‘separately’ versus ‘together.’ Colleagues repeatedly asked me to reconsider those labels. First, it was because the label ‘together’ can’t be used to modify ‘learning’ from the front: While ‘separated learning’ might make sense, ‘together learning’ does not. And then I found I couldn’t put it in back, because ‘learning together’ often was unnecessarily confused as PEOPLE learning together not DOMAINS learned together. And ‘learning togetherly’ sounded truly hopeless.

    So then, I changed the term ‘together’ to ‘simultaneous,’ which wasn’t quite what I wanted. Then somebody said that if I use ‘simultaneous’ I should naturally change ‘separately’ to ‘sequentially,’ which definitely wasn’t my intent semantically.

    Oh man. Then I tried out ‘blocked’ versus ‘interleaved’ a la the cognitive psychology literature. I also tried ‘blocked’ versus ‘intermittent.’ How do those cognitive psychologists manage?! ‘Blockedly’? ‘Interleavedly’? Really!

    In the end now I’ve pretty much settled on ‘separated’ versus ‘concomitant’ learning. Both terms can accept the (-ly) suffix and when combined with the word ‘learning’ legitimately appear to describe the term ‘learning’ without appearing to describe people themselves.

    I hope this paper goes somewhere nice.

  • 4. JiE  |  10 April 2007 at 7:47 am

    Thanks for reminding!

  • 5. Peter Klein  |  10 April 2007 at 11:27 am

    Chihmao, your story reminds me of Orwell’s remark about always following the rules of grammar, except when you shouldn’t.

    Ah, thanks to Google, here’s the whole bit, from Politics and the English Language (see especially last bullet):

    * Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    * Never us a long word where a short one will do.

    * If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    * Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    * Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    * Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  • 6. Chihmao Hsieh  |  10 April 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Speaking of cringing from English: What used to make me cringe before — poor spelling — now no longer pains me so. Observe:

    “I cdnuolt bleveiee taht I cloud aulacity uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervy lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh, and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!”

  • 7. Method or Methodology? « Soft Thoughts  |  18 October 2008 at 3:59 pm

    [...] 18, 2008 by softthoughts In the following post a reminder is made of the correct use of the word method and methodology. In a lot of software [...]

  • 8. Rafe Champion  |  25 December 2008 at 1:09 am

    A nice point.
    It would be good to keep alive the distinction between disinterested and uninterested as well. It seems that in journalism the decline in comprehension of the term “disinterested” has marched in parallel with the rise of partisan reporting.
    The good news on George Orwell’s essays is that all four volumes of the collected essays are on line at Questia.
    http://www.questia.com/Index.jsp
    Also Hayek on Hayek (which is never on the shelf in the library at Sydney Uni).
    Another good read every few years (in additon to Orwell on the English language) is the appendix to C Wright Mills “The Sociological Imagination” on Intellectual Craftsmanship.
    http://www.amazon.com/review/R17CAPGSQLDA68/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

  • 9. Derek  |  17 March 2009 at 9:55 am

    Arise old thread…!

    I would like to add the stupid use of the term ‘fully’. I.e. “are you fully qualified?” and “the car is fully airconditioned”

    I contend that qualified is as it says, and nything short of that should be referred to as part-qualified. (and partly- airconditioned)

    My (2c)

  • 10. cosmo  |  26 May 2010 at 11:49 pm

    words and meanings mutate over time. to illustrate this i visited a german dance parlor a while back. the band and most folks attending were 3rd 4th or 5th generation germans. i myself would describe myself half german
    so anyways when the band started i was surprised to hear them sing in their own language. i could recognize some tunes only by their melody. occassionally a word sounded german but put in context it made only sense to those in the band, or to those frequently attending.
    to come back to methodology. this would be worth studying. to develop a methodology which would allow to forecast and prepare for shifts in language. you could say that derrida had such a methodology but nobody could understand him. so there is no practical use for it, and that is how methods became methodology. its just more practical

  • 11. Didja Readette  |  2 June 2010 at 10:09 am

    Check your understanding, “The United States and foreign governments maintain strict rules about the methodology for goods exchanged across their borders. ”

    [ ] Method
    [ ] Methodology

    Please makr the correct choice in under 5 minutes. A time-sensitive nail is placed under your office chair. Cubicle alarms will engage in 300 seconds.

    Thank you for your participation.

  • 12. samara  |  8 June 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Re: “method” and “methodology”: I think you need to understand how these are used within scientific fields. My understanding is that “methodology” indicates the logical underpinnings or philosophical approach to the work (e.g., research). “Method” is used to designate the specific techniques used in the work. In a journal, I suppose either of these words could be used, depending on what the author is describing. True – some people do misuse the words, but others sometimes don’t understand when they are being used appropriately.

  • 13. Hung Nguyen  |  10 November 2011 at 7:32 am

    Dear Peter,

    Thanks for confirming that. There are two types of people who use the word ‘methodology’ instead of ‘method': those who are ignorant and those who would like to use it just for its sound – a kind of big word.

  • 14. Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net Redux « Russ' space  |  12 August 2012 at 11:24 pm

    [...] as a pretentious substitute for “method” in scientific and technical contexts, . . .”. Method versus Methodology Footnote 2 From Inflationary Language, written and performed by the incomparable Victor [...]

  • 15. danielm  |  15 November 2012 at 2:20 pm

    True enough, the language is abused by all range of folk (business, media, science), but in this case, they may actually be using the word correctly more often than you think. The problem is that in the (pitiful) English language, you don’t have a separate term for “body of methods”. In Polish and German, for instance, we have three words that nicely distinguish between three related concepts:

    metoda (pl); Methode (de)
    an ordered sequence of actions chosen to economically and efficiently achieve a desired end

    metodyka (pl); Methodik (de)
    a set of methods chosen for the purpose of achieving a common end or related ends (e.g. the cluster of methods used in molecular biology)

    metodologia (pl); Methodologie (de)
    the science whose proper objects of study are the previous two

    In English, the first is “method”, but the last two are each translated to “methodology”. It’s something I find thoroughly irritating and nearly impossible to translate to my satisfaction. I’ve thought of coining a new term, but it’s not clear what it could be. Methodics? Methodic? Not so appealing.

  • 16. danielm  |  15 November 2012 at 2:32 pm

    samara: Sounds like BS to me (as in, I have never heard of anyone abusing the term so grotesquely to mean something so hideously vague and inappropriate; presuppositions is the preferable term). And you misuse the word “philosophy”, as do so many moronic business people (“Our company’s philosophy is…blah blah blah”). Philosophy is field, not some stupid mental fiction or “approach”.

    Methodology is used exactly in the way I have described above, save for those who drink infusions of lead oxide for breakfast.

  • 17. Maz Leonard  |  4 December 2012 at 7:57 pm

    I’m not sure what you mean by philosophy is a field? Does that mean individual philosophy doesn’t exist?

    I really appreciate reading this topic right now as I am trying to clear my own confusion regarding method and methodology. I certainly don’t want my first attempt at a BA thesis. My problem is primary information and those two nouns play an important role.

  • 18. T  |  23 August 2013 at 7:02 am

    So what methodology did you use for this article?

  • 19. Warren Miller  |  4 September 2013 at 6:15 pm

    What a great posting. I’ve been pounding my spoon on my high-chair for years about the highfalutin pretentiousness of ‘methodology.’ It’s great to know I’m in such rarefied company.

  • 20. Andrew  |  12 April 2014 at 11:28 am

    I’d have to agree wholeheartedly with the passage from the American Heritage Dictionary. The scientific and technical communities’ misappropriate use of ‘methodology’ is misleading and overtly pretentious. I can only conclude it pertains to the general need to “sound” knowledgable and self-promote. It does nothing to inform or edify.

  • 21. Andrew  |  12 April 2014 at 11:48 am

    samara: The distinctions between “method” and “methodology” as you describe do indeed sound like BS made up for the sake of verbosity, as the use of “method” can already address the latter. “Methodology” in the context you indicate is redundant if authors of technical content spend more time actually describing the associated underpinnings or the relevant, overarching philosophy, as opposed to cryptic references to the subject matter they address.Lo and behold, we may even collectively make progress in technical endeavors instead of them just wanting to make a name for themselves.

  • 22. Magnus Norberg  |  5 May 2014 at 9:47 am

    It’s an interesting discussion. The following quotes is taken from The SAGE Dictionary of Qualitative inquiry by Thomas Schwandt from 2007, 3rd ed, page 193.

    In this dictionary is says that “methodologies explicate and define:
    (a) the kinds of problems that are worth investigating, (b) what comprises a researchable problem, testable hypothesis, and so on,
    (c) how to frame a problem in such way that it can be investigated using particular designs and procedures, (d) how to understand what constitutes a legitimate and warranted explanation, (e) how to judge matters of generalizability, (f) how to select or develop appropriate means of generating data, (g) how to develop the logic linking…” “Methodology is a particular scientific discourse (a way of acting, thinking and speaking) that occupies a middle ground between discussions of method (procedures, techniques) and discussions of issues in philosophy of social science”.

    Any comments on this?

  • 23. Peter Klein  |  5 May 2014 at 9:49 am

    That seems like a reasonable definition of methodology to me, thanks. Again, most scientific papers that include a “methodology” section do not cover any of those things, just “what I did in this particular paper.”

  • 24. Warren Miller  |  5 May 2014 at 10:39 am

    With the greatest of respect and admiration for my good friend, Peter Klein, I disagree. I think that, in most usages, there’s not a shred of daylight between the meaning of ‘methodology’ and of ‘method’. It is just using a highfalutin 50-cent word when the penny version will suffice much better.

  • 25. Peter Klein  |  5 May 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Warren, I agree, if “in most usages” means “as used in most academic papers.” Which is the point of my post!

  • 26. Warren Miller  |  5 May 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Ummm, Peter, as a practical matter, do you really believe that ‘most academic papers’ could or should “explicate and define (a) the kinds of problems that are worth investigating, (b) what comprises [another widely misused word, as it is in Magnus Norberg's post above] a researchable problem, testable hypothesis, and so on, (c) how to frame a problem in such [a] way that it can be investigated using particular designs and procedures, etc.”?

    Aren’t those questions a tad broad and totally impractical for the typical narrowly focused research paper? Sounds as if we have a straw man going here.

  • 27. Klein, Peter G.  |  5 May 2014 at 7:54 pm

    No, no, you’re misunderstanding me. I’m complaining about the misuse of the word “methodology” when the correct word is “method.” The majority of research papers properly include a methods section, they just mislabel it the “methodology” section. I’m certainly not suggesting that the typical research paper include a methodology section!

  • 28. Warren Miller  |  6 May 2014 at 8:17 am

    We agree, Peter. Sorry I was so muddled.

  • 29. AdrianG  |  28 May 2014 at 4:01 am

    To simplify, potentially at the expense of grammar. Does not the appending of “ology” to a word pertain to the study of that which the word denotes. Thus methodology would be the study of methods whereas the method would would revolve more around how something is done.

    I could go further with regard “etym_ology” or “Proct_ology” but as a methodologist I am fully occupied in the study of ologies.

    As a footnote to Danielm on number 15, I propose we refer to a “murder of methods” for why should crows have all the fun?

  • 30. Warren Miller  |  28 May 2014 at 6:58 am

    Hmmm, Adrian. Does that make a proctologist a rear admiral?

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