Do you need to defend your methodology or theory?

This is a conversation I’ve had twice in the last two days with doctoral candidates, so I thought it might be useful to talk about here.

Graduate researchers often feel the need to produce a long, detailed defence of the theory or methodology they plan to use in their thesis. Usually, this is not necessary.

What you do need is to show what the method/theory enables you to do with your data, and how that helps you produce the kind of conclusions you are aiming for. 

As with all advice, there are exceptions. For my thesis: My methodology is to do a social historical study of the period (focusing on the economic transactions and social networks of artists and patrons), and then do close analysis of the art work. If I were only doing literary study, or musicology, that sentence would be sufficient. However, in order to do an interdisciplinary thesis I had to work out a new methodology. So yes, I had to talk a lot about why the current methods weren’t sufficient (they could do literature or music but not both together, but to talk about songs we need to be able to talk about both). I had to find evidence that other scholars had identified that this was a gap. I had to talk about other attempts to fill this gap, and why they were problematic. And I had to think quite carefully about how it would work and explain it so others could use it too (and the first monograph to use my method has just been published). 

If you are using experimental new theories or methods, methods that are highly contentious, or have become unpopular, you need to defend your method.

But, if you are using a well established, well known, big method like Grounded Theory or Content Analysis, you don’t need to do that work. Just tell me:

  • Which theory or method you are using, 
  • One or two people who are using the theory in very similar ways to you
    (a seminal paper, a paper doing roughly the same research in a nearby field).
  • How the theory or method will help you frame your question
  • How it will help you analyse your data
  • What kind of conclusions you would expect it to help you develop.

That’s it.

Good luck!


  1. Believe it or not, I also see this kind of thing in faculty grant proposals. They way I explain it is that you need to consider the audience: is this a usual method for that audience? If so, you only have to say what you are doing so they can locate you in the field. If it’s unusual, you need to say more.

    Also, what whoever is evaluating your proposal is looking for is 3 things: appropriateness (can you achieve those objectives if you do it this way), feasibility (can it be done), and rigour (does this count as scholarship; another thing that varies by discipline/field). To demonstrate those things you don’t need a lot of epistemological hand-wringing, defensiveness or whatever. You need some practical details about what sources you are using, how you are going to get access to them, and what you are going to do with those sources to create knowledge.

  2. I’ve always wondered about maintaining the balance. I get extreme feedback; either I’m “too academic”, or I’m far away from academic writing. I just cannot seem to strike that balance! I fear writing methodology because it can be personally motivated while being validated by other works. How does one eliminate or use appropriately one’s own motivations?

    1. That’s a really hard question to answer without reading your work… But what I think both Jo and I are suggesting that examiners are less interested in why you selected a topic or method (the real reason for which might well be I enjoyed it in undergrad, my supervisor suggested it, etc), and instead focus on what using that topic or method will do for the thesis.
      Focusing on what it will do for your research means you really don’t need to talk about motive.
      There are, however, two theses you are writing. The description of your research journey–full of emotions and motivations and mistakes and detours and messy first drafts. Then there is the thesis, where all of this is edited out to form a nice straightforward piece of academic writing.
      So, maybe, my advice is to relax and write the first draft the way you want to, then when you edit it some of those vestiges will balance the greater academic focus of the final version?

      1. That sounds positive and good. I suppose presenting one’s position may help in some situations? Although, I guess that would just be ‘journalistic’ writing, then.
        Thanks for this. Will keep it in mind.

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