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!


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Between the paragraph and the word is the ‘line edit’

There is another intermediate stage of editing, which is typically called ‘line edits’ in creative writing. This is the edit that is all about style and grace, about flow, about clarity and voice. In other words, this the edit that is absolutely not essential and many academic writers don’t bother with it. It’s a ‘nice to have’, a cherry on the cake, which is why I haven’t written about it before.

Read More

Getting back into the swing of this

The book is now in with the series editor and going out to reviewers (2 weeks late, but also 2 weeks before the deadline I had written on my otherwise trusty whiteboard… a story for a later post!!). So in this little writing block I had in my day—too small for getting back into another big project—I thought I’d warm up the blog machine.

Read More

Five finger exercises for academic writing

If you have ever learned the piano, you may have had to do ‘five finger exercises’—little pieces that are less about their musical value, and more about making you use all five fingers on your hands, to improve your technique. They are warm-ups, strengthening and skill-building exercises. They are part of the invisible part of performing music—I have never seen a concert performance of these exercises, but I’m also certain that every concert pianist I have ever paid to listen to, has done hours and hours of them in their time.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts