What is gained and lost when you classify data? How do you proceed if journal reviewers ask you to "rethink your methodology"? Do you start over? Can methodology itself be challenged? How can the readership of a journal impact your methodological definitions and theoretical framework? What is methodology anyway?
These questions were recently discussed by researchers participating in the Research Roundtable at the 1995 Association for Business Communication International Conference in Orlando, Florida. Each researcher recounted methodological struggles experienced when completing a research article that had recently been published. Charlotte Thralls related some of the philosophical issues she and Nancy Roundy Blyler grappled with to complete their 1993 article entitled "The Social Perspective and Pedagogy in Technical Communication" (Technical Communication Quarterly); Carol S. David and Margaret Baker Graham described the "battles" over the qualitative methods they used for their 1994 Journal of Business Communication article, "Rereading Bad News: Compliance-Gaining Features in Management Memos, an article which recently won the Alpha Kappa Psi award for distinguished publication in business communication; Geoffrey A. Cross recalled his difficulties bringing ethnographic methods to composition studies, as suggested in his 1994 Journal of Business and Technical Communication publication, "Ethnographic Research in Business and Technical Writing: Between Extremes and Margins."
Using a dialogue format, this column captures some of their insights.
What Is Methodology?
Charlotte Thralls: Most of us think of methodology in a literal sense as the concepts and procedural apparatus researchers employ to analyze information. To define methodology so narrowly, however, is to overlook the fact that methodologies exist within the larger framework of research narratives - stories or discourses that shape the way disciplines make knowledge. These narratives are tremendously powerful because they authorize, to paraphrase Foucault (1983), a possible field of conduct for doing research. Research narratives circumscribe the kind of knowledge deemed worthy of inquiry, the methodological procedures for conducting that inquiry, and the rhetorical strategies employed in published work.
Carol David: Yes, methodology is often regarded simply as a way of applying theory to data, or, when a researcher works inductively, the converse. But, in the larger picture, it is a way of connecting the research to the world; a way of supplying a framework for posing questions and answering them. Ultimately, the methodology a researcher chooses represents a world view.
Charlotte Thralls: One 'world view' seen recently in much research in business communication has been conducted according to an objectivist, or empiricist, narrative. This narrative, which posits a world external to the individual researcher, views methodology as a means for researchers to collect and analyze data that will allow objective discovery of that external world. Careful methodological design thus serves as a control mechanism for factoring out researcher influence.
Carol David: In my experience if the methodology is quantitative, as much of the business communication research is, the researcher applies statistical tests to the results. On the other hand, if it is qualitative, the researcher makes use of interpretations. However, the quantitative methods require the interpretive step as well, and readers may be lulled into accepting statistical conclusions as valid because they supply numbers, whereas some business communication researchers are apt to be more skeptical of the results of qualitative work.
Geoffrey Cross: Other researchers may rely on statistical methods to try to ensure the reliability of field research. Before I did my dissertation, I had taken graduate courses in educational qualitative research methods. After my dissertation fieldwork, amidst data analysis, I attended a colloquium and presented some of my research. …