the methods chapter as a party

I recently posted some misgivings I had about methods chapters. I suggested in that post that one of the most frequent problems I saw in dissertations was when the methods chapter was written as if it was an essay rather than the researcher putting themselves in the conversation.

Since then, I’ve decided that the metaphor of a party may be helpful in thinking about the way that the methods writing task might be approached.

So….. imagine that you are at a party, it’s full of academics, it might even be conference drinks. You only know one or two people there to speak to – but you know some others by reputation, and some by sight because you’ve heard them speak and you’ve read some of the things that they’ve written. You clearly have a choice about what to do.

Lets consider the strategies you might use.

Option one: The eavesdropper.

Because you are so much in awe of the gathering, you move around from group to group, not contributing to the conversation, but nodding appreciatively when someone speaks, laughing when they make a joke and then moving on when it looks as if you might have to say something. You will of course be able to regale your friends the next day with details of the conversations that you overheard, but your story of the evening is told totally in terms of what other people did and said, rather than what you did. You are invisible in your account of the evening.

The eavesdropper produces a methods chapter which reports either on other people’s conversations about the approach that they have taken in their own research, or summarises information gleaned from methods texts. [It’s an essay.]

Option two: The fan

You decide to movie around the room and attach yourself to a particular person. You hang on their every word, making approving noises at whatever they say. If you are lucky, they won’t make an excuse and wander off to talk to somebody else less persistent. They will see that you are a newcomer and take you under their wing. However, at the end of the evening, you have really only met this one person and have engaged in only the conversations that they have been having. There have been all manner of other people and other conversations at the event that you have missed out on. You have lived the event in the shadow of an academic star. In particular you have chosen to ignore people like you in favour of a well established and/or famous singleton.

The fan writes the methods chapter using one major source, a big fat popular methods textbook in its fourteenth edition. While they may include other references, it is this one mainstream source which provides the line of argument through which their methods for the research are presented. Cutting edge and critical debates are ignored in favour of the same old same old.

Option three: The tourist
You are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people whose work you have read who are present at this event. You decide that you want to make a connection with all of them. The way to do this is, you think, to have your photo taken with them. In order for this to happen, you have to interrupt ongoing conversations, remove your target from their social setting, and ask someone standing by if they will take a picture on your phone camera. At the end of the evening, you have a record of meetings with professors A to Z. You are able to scroll through them on your phone at any time. However, you have not really had a serious conversation with any of them and they only know you as someone who removed them from a social group.

The tourist writes a methods chapter which offers a whistle-stop tour through almost every conceivable method and numerous writers. The text bristles with citations, sections and subsections which often put together conflicting points of view on the same subject as if to suggest there is agreement. At no point is there a sense that the tourist is working in a particular research tradition (post coming up) and that particular methods are required for their proposed study.

Option four: The wallflower

You are very nervous in this august gathering. You know you cannot possibly see everyone that you want to meet. So you go and sit with the one or two people that you know and talk to them all night. The next day you realize you had a perfectly pleasant evening, but you had learnt nothing, had no new encounters, and basically stayed in the same metaphorical place you were in before the event took place.

The wallflower writes a methods chapter which discusses the decisions that they have made about the approach that they want to take as if nobody else but themselves and one or two other people have ever done any research at all. They present themselves as singular and isolated, and not part of a scholarly community.

Option five: The newcomer with something to say

You don’t try to meet everybody in the room. You select some groups to meet, you choose a mix of established and new scholars, joining some conversations when you have something constructive to say. But you also initiate conversation about topics that you would like other views on. If the conversation isn‘t of interest to you, you make your excuses and slip away. At the end of the evening you have made new connections, engaged in some interesting conversations about things that matter to you – and you can recount your evening in a way that shows your engagement with other people and the interactions that took place. And, it wasn’t a dull affair either, but actually engaging and enjoyable to put yourself out there, despite your initial nervousness.

Congratulations newcomer. You have written a methods chapter which your examiners will be pleased to read and rate.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in dissertation, methods chapter, the party metaphor and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to the methods chapter as a party

  1. I am writing my methods chapter now – bit by bit. Thanks for this metaphor, Pat. It really helped. newcomer I shall be, I hope! I’m a bit of a wallflower/eavesdropper right now. 🙂


  2. Thanks, Pat–a really useful way of looking at it. I’ve taken the liberty of linking to it from my page on the structure of a dissertation:


  3. cblancog says:

    Thanks, Pat, for the methaphors. I’m a master degree student in Colombia. Can you describe some kind of text examples, like you did in your book (Helping Doctoral…), for this case?


  4. ailsahaxell says:

    What a great way of describing it! This metaphor would have helped me in having a clearer idea of the purpose of the chapter.
    My first draft of my methods chapter I certainly felt like I was a descriptive spectator.
    I remember thinking what was the point if it just felt like a synopsis of someones else’s book, or even if it stood as a collection of several people’s idea.
    Fortunately it morphed.


  5. Pingback: Methodology in humanities | Creative Writer PhD

  6. Huh… been going to all the wrong parties!! Now I know why I can’t do the newcomer thing…
    Joke aside, this is a very nice way to illustrate different approaches in writing about methods. Sometimes we can know what is expected though, recognise it in the writing of others but still fail to get the balance right with our own. But I can see this party metaphor helping me assess my writing of the methods chapter when I get down to it – I think particularly as I feel (and used to be told in France!) that I lack “la fibre littéraire” to make any sound judgment on ‘good’ writing.


  7. Mark NK Saunders says:

    Loved the metaphor as a party… got me thinking about further party types and their implications for the methods chapter. Here are a couple…
    The DJ plays the work of others loudly, but often without making any connections between them. The DJ thinks they understandhow different ideas link, but even if they don’t a few choice links words will make it seem as if they do!
    The “no show” promises you they will be at the part but does not turn up… a bit like that promised chapter which will always arrive in a few days!


  8. Pingback: Warp and Woof (1.25.2013) | Cataclysmic

  9. danceswithcloud says:

    Wonderful metaphor that should really help any author tackle a methods chapter – and might even help me at Conferences! thank you. Sandra


  10. Pingback: the methods chapter as a party | PhD Research Beginners |

  11. Roger Sharp says:

    How interesting. I’m looking at a pattern of human behaviour on that we call what we call the “Laurel and Hardy” principal. Anyone who has ever given a seminar or presentation will know that sinking feeling you get when you aren’t getting any feedback. No one raises a hand. There are no questions. Very often the audience may at some point be required to do something like stand up, introduce themselves, and talk for a minute about their job. “Who’s first ?” you ask. Dead silence – everybody stares at their feet. And so on….
    What would have helped you was someone who was the perfect attendee – The Stan Laurel to match your Oliver Hardy. They would ask questions, smile & laugh at your jokes. They would always be ready to do something, but not to the exclusion of someone else. If asked to speak they would be OK – a little self-deprecating. If they’re too good it will make other people feel even worse. But why on earth would anyone do this?
    It turns out that if they do there are even greater benefits in it for them. They gain in dozens of ways – not just on the day but subsequently. They don’t just do it at the seminar. They do it all the time in just about any human interaction. It’s second nature. They scan the horizon for opportunities to do it. Some are born, others learn. It’s effortless. They certainly aren’t extroverts. They don’t stand out because it wouldn’t work if they did. Nobody ever notices what’s going on – they see the results but miss everything else.
    I’d welcome any observations or suggestions of other types of similar behaviours. P.S. The reason I’ve left this … you should see these people at a party!


  12. Pingback: the methods chapter as a party | ohthirtydaisies

  13. Pingback: Methods chapter – welcome to the party | Thesis Talk / Trácht ar Thráchtais

  14. Umme Salma says:

    Wonderful writing. I have only first draft of my methods fortunately…hope to be a newcomer!


  15. Pingback: Research design and methods - Enhancing Postgraduate Environments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s