How to Write the Methods Section

[See also: How to write a research project. How to write the background, theory, analysis and discussion sections. How to write the introduction and conclusion. How to review the literature and how to structure a research paper. How to finish on time and how to reference properly. Part of the Craft of Research series. Full program here.]

Video from the 2023 talk

The purpose of a methods section is to get the reader to trust your data. You will need this trust because your data will, hopefully, constitute some of sort of challenge for either the currently accepted theories or the currently dominant practices in your area. That is, the reader is prepared to learn something from your analysis, and this will require a change in the way they see the world or what they propose to do about it. But don’t imagine your reader is a naively open-minded pushover. They came by their current theories and practices honestly, and they will only be won over when presented with solid results. So you will have to engage with their natural, healthy skepticism.

In this talk, I begin with a little exercise that I came up with a few years ago. Choose a place you know well, and that you think a peer would be grateful to learn how to find. Then spend two and a half hours writing five paragraphs (27 minutes at a time) that explain how to get there. Begin by telling them what they will find and where they should start. Then lay out three stages on the quest to get there. Conclude by telling them how they know they have arrived and what they should do to enjoy their time there. As you write, remind yourself that, given your experience, you have all the authority you need to talk about this. Also, since your reader is a peer, you know what you can assume they already understand (how to find a metro station, how find their bearings in the woods, etc.) and you can use this effectively communicate what you mean.

In order to win the reader’s trust or establish your authority (which are closely related operations, of course), you must respect the standards your share with your reader, you must position yourself with respect to your object in a way your reader will approve of. If the theme of your theory section is your reader’s expectations or curiosity, the theme of the methods section is your competence to challenge them or satisfy it. You are telling the reader the true story of the way (Gr. hodos) you came to your data, i.e., what you take as given in your analysis. But remember that you can only take it for granted after you have made the required effort. “Some Huxley or Haldane,” said Ezra Pound, “has remarked that in inventing the telescope Galileo had to commit a definite technical victory over materials.” In principle, it is your victory over your empirical materials that you are describing in your methods section. Since it is a school assignment, however, please don’t worry too much about winning. Pound described his magnum opus, The Cantos, as “the record of a struggle”; and even a “document of failure” can get you a perfectly good grade if you present it as, let’s say, an “object lesson” in research.

Do the best you can to learn about the world, and tell the truth about what you’ve done. That’s your methodology.

I’m not sure how much it shows, but I ran out of steam near the end and forgot to say something about how I suggest you write your methods section paragraph for paragraph. I had set it up nicely with my little exercise about finding a place you know well, but then missed the cue to return to it in my notes. In any case, my suggestion is to use Hemingway’s “sequence of motion and fact” as a guide. Sometimes you are telling the reader what you did (and why); sometimes you are stating the facts of the case. In each paragraph, decide whether you are describing your sampling method or the population you are sampling from, the interview or setting. Are you present a moving or a static image? It can be easier to write (and ultimately easier to read) if you choose one.

Here is what I say in the “How to Structure” lecture:

Here are some more posts on the subject:

“Trust and Authority”

“Methodology and Experience”

“Method, Data, and Ethics”

“A Sense of Accomplishment”

“The Key and the Content”