Trust and Authority

Simplifying somewhat, your theory section either activates your reader’s expectations of your object or stimulates their curiosity about it. Your analysis (which I will talk about next week) will either disappoint those expectations or satisfy that curiosity. With this in mind, I will talk about how to write the methods section of a research project tomorrow afternoon. The important thing to remember is that there should be an interesting tension between the theory and the analysis. Your method operates in that tension.

In general, your methodology is just an account of what you did and why you did it that way. This has the interesting consequence that you can write it based directly on your own experience. As I’ve said before, you won’t tell the whole story, but you will be talking about things you did yourself for reasons you yourself determined. If you conducted interviews, you chose some people to talk to, decided what to ask them about, and then met with them, recorded the conversation, perhaps even transcribed and coded it. If you did field work in an organization you decided when you would be where and what you would be doing there. You then tried to be there and do that at the planned time. All of these actions can be described and the main task of your methods section is provide those descriptions.

One of my favorite statements of method can be found in Erving Goffman’s preface to Asylums:

In 1955-56 I did a year’s field work at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington D.C., a federal institution of somewhat over 7000 inmates. …

I started out in the role of assistant to the athletic director, when pressed avowing to be a student of recreation and community life, and I passed the day with patients, avoiding sociable contact with the staff and the carrying of a key. I did not sleep in the wards, and the top hospital management knew what my aims were.

Here, in plain language, we are told the conditions under which he made his observations. We can decide whether we think they are valid before we read his conclusions. This is especially important if those conclusions intend to teach us something new.

If you are going to disappoint your reader’s expectations, for example, (and, don’t worry, I’ll say more about this “disappointment” next week) you are going to need to gain your reader’s trust in your data. Otherwise the reader is more likely to reject your analysis than let you use it to challenge their theory. Since the reader has all kinds of good reasons to presume that the theory is true (as do you, I should say), it would be natural to resolve its tension with your analysis by suspecting there is something wrong with your data. You anticipate this suspicion (which is really just some healthy skepticism) by explaining, in your methods section, how you avoided the most familiar sources of error. You also point out the limitations of your method so that the reader doesn’t make too much of your conclusions (making them too challenging). Overall, you tell the reader everything they need to know to be as confident as you are about the quality and relevance of your data to your research question.

Here’s another sample from Goffman’s preface:

The limits, of both my method and my application of it, are obvious: I did not allow myself to be committed even nominally, and had I done so my my range of movements and roles, and hence my data, would have been restricted even more than they were.

Notice that he presents this as both a limit and a strength. He takes the measure of the scope of his data.

If, on the other hand, you intend to satisfy your reader’s curiosity, you have to establish your authority to relate the facts of the story. This could involve classical methodological issues, like the ones I’ve already mentioned: Who did you talk to? For how long? With what questions in mind? Did you make a recording, a transcription? Did you keep careful notes of events that you witnessed? But it can also involve something that especially researchers in qualitative fields are taking increasingly seriously, what they call your “positionality”*. Who are you to tell this story? What gives you the authority to state these facts? How did you get yourself into a position to speak credibly on the issues you have studied? We can find at least two examples of this kind of statement in Goffman:

I want to warn that my view is probably too much that of a middle-class male; perhaps I suffered vicariously about conditions that lower-class patients handled with little pain.

Permission to study St. Elizabeths was negotiated through the then First Assistant Physician, the late Dr. Jay Hoffman. He agreed that the hospital would expect pre-publication criticism rights but exert no final censorship or clearance privileges.

Note, again, that he simply and plainly describes how he got into possession of his data, and why we can trust his presentation of his results. In my view, it is an exemplary statement of method in the sense that, after we have read it, we’re inclined to trust the basis of analysis of the institutions he is about to present to us. He presents himself as both thoughtful and experienced with his subject matter. He constructs himself as a plausible authority on the subject.

*This is a relatively new trend in academia, though the “reflexivity” it implies is older even than Goffman’s nascent example. At the moment I’m reading Katja Thieme’s paper “Spacious Grammar” in Discourse and Writing 32, 2022, which has led me to Gillian Rose’s “Situating Knowledges” in Progress in Human Geography 21(3), 1997, which led me to Linda McDowell’s “Doing Gender” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 17(4), 1992. I’m going to write a follow-up post of “positionality statements” sometime soon.

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