Beki Grinter

Writing about Methods

In discipline, empirical, research on July 6, 2011 at 6:22 am

I’ve been meaning to read Kathy Charmaz’s book on Grounded Theory for a while and now I have I want to blog about something she drew my attention to: a paper by Howard Becker.In this paper he describes some of the discussions he had with Erving Goffman. One was about elaborating on research methods. Becker writes

I don’t remember, though I haven’t made an exhaustive search through his works to verify this, Goffman ever writing about any of the standard questions that inevitably arise in doing field research, such questions as access of research sites, relations with the people studied, ways of recording or analysing data, problems of reliability. All of thee were much discussed at the time, and many of us (I was among them) write about them, in an effort to clarify for ourselves what we were doing. Goffman never did.

This was a principled refusal, which he and I discussed a number of times. He felt very strongly that you could not elaborate any useful rules of procedure for doing field research and taht if you attempted to do that, people would misinterpret what you had written, do it (whatever it was) wrong, and then blame you for the resulting mess. He refused to accept responsibility for such unfortunate possibilities.

I find this really interesting. The rest of the paper is also a fascinating read, but I want to pause here. I’ve written before that I think that one of the reasons that Grounded Theory is so popular in HCI is because it has well specified methods. It tells someone what to do and how. In so doing it provides a justification. And as Charmaz argues that was quite intentional for at the time when Grounded Theory was being developed Qualitative Sociology was in decline, and not taken seriously.

Writing about our methods is common in HCI. A common genre of reporting empirical HCI research is to have a section on Methods and Participants. And I’ve heard people discuss whether a paper is clear enough about methods in committee meetings. Once a long time ago, I tried something somewhat different, I wrote a methods section that had a section on the Methods I had followed and then a section called Practice, on how they actually worked out. I would have done this again, but I never got any feedback, either positive or negative, from anyone about whether this was valuable.

One major argument for writing about methods in HCI is so that we the reviewers/audience can assess the results based on the methods. But, I am now reminded of the arguments about inter-rater reliability, for some types of analysis will knowing the methods actually lead to understanding of whether the analysis is correct. For now, I’ll continue to write about methods when I write about HCI. But I think its worth asking, does what you read about the methods actually explain the analysis?


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