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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!

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