Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 1991, 1-5.

Being methodical in educational research

John R. Hall
Curtin University of Technology

What does it mean to be methodical in educational research? In the course of answering this question I make passing reference to the qualitative versus quantitative methods debate, but the main thrusts of this paper are a reconceptualisation of "being methodical " and a recommendation for more explication of one's methodicalness in educational research.

It is a "bedrock assumption" of scientists and mainstream educational researchers that their research entails a deliberate use of clear procedures - what we might call, for the time being, method - so that others can at least follow how the research findings were produced (Cuff & Payne, 1979, p.4). In this paper I wish to contemplate what it means to be methodical in scientific/educational research. But before proceeding with this main business I shall engage in some prefatory work: personal concerns and assumptions.

Personal concerns

One of my most absorbing work tasks is to teach a postgraduate research methods course called Naturalistic Research Methods. This represents the qualitative side of the dichotomy that we, along with our counterparts in most teacher education institutions in the Western world, manage to sustain. It occurs to me that by persisting with this division we may be confusing our students about the relationship between so-called qualitative and quantitative methods and about the very nature of "method" in educational research.

For one thing, by using the nomenclature "Naturalistic Research Methods" we are indicating that doing educational research is first and foremost a technical matter. Certainly many of my students express surprise at the attention I give to the nexus between methods and their epistemological underpinnings, probably because they enrol for the course expecting it to be more "practical" and less "theoretical".

But the problem runs deeper than this. Since positivism provides the epistemological basis for the alternative quantitative methods course, I have been inclined to teach the qualitative course within an interpretivist framework, in contradistinction to positivism. And no doubt this helps to reinforce the notion that educational research is conducted from opposing camps or paradigms that are by and large incommensurable - which some educational philosophers have called to question (Walker & Evers, 1987).


Firstly, I categorise educational research as a scientific activity, indistinguishable from applied research in the social sciences. This is not to say that in practice educational research is concerned only with data which are observable or testable; much of what counts as doing educational research dwells on mentalistic, non-empirical considerations of what is valued and believed. Nevertheless, the preferred basis for knowledge claims is a materialistic (physical), empirical one and this is where "method" comes into play - for better or for worse.

Secondly, I assume that "method" in educational research is inextricably linked to one's frame of reference. "Frame of reference" includes both personal and epistemological orientations, the latter referring to the assumptions and beliefs about how educational knowledge might be located or constructed. It follows that no method or technique is without its epistemological (and, arguably, ideological) underpinnings.

Thirdly, I take it that "method" in educational research is not confined to the so-called gathering of data and to the transforming of data into "findings". Thus, according to one's epistemological orientation, one would strive to be "methodical" in all aspects of the enterprise, for example, in the selecting of displays of data and analysis, and in the doing and packaging of "discussion". However, this is not to say that all educational researchers are fully aware of their "methodical" practices, or that they are committed to making them explicit. This point will be taken up in the conclusion below.

Fourthly, following the theoretical leanings of ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), I assume that members of all cultural groups (including educational researchers) possess commonsense methods upon which they rely for their doing of everyday competent member behaviours. Furthermore, it is assumed that members of both groups involved in the research enterprise - the subject and the researcher - are typically not fully aware of their member methodicalness, at least while they are acting as competent members (Bourdieu, 1977); although, on reflection, members are able to realise and explicate much of the tacit knowledge they have hitherto taken for granted (Carr & Kemmis, 1983).

What it means to be methodical

"Method" is typically regarded as "an orderly or systematic mode of procedure" (Macquarie Dictionary, 1981). Based on such a definition, "being methodical" would mean following an orderly procedure. This conceptualisation implies that it is possible to prescribe a method or technique objectively so that others may follow it. However, in practice I have found it problematic. For example, I find that no matter how careful I am about instructing my students on how to carry out a relatively simple piece of fieldwork, some students run into difficulties in following my instructions. Of course these difficulties could have something to do with poor communication in the sending and/or the receiving of the instructions, but even with the best of communication there seems to be a fundamental problem in formulating a set of general procedures/methods that others can apply "properly" in particular circumstances.

To illustrate the nature of this problem, I now draw on Silverman's (1975) account of how the young anthropologist Carlos Castaneda seeks to gain an insider's perspective of the behaviour of Yaqui Indian sorcerers through the informant, Don Juan. As Silverman tells it, Castaneda finds himself, in the early phase of his fieldwork, in the typical bind of the outsider: he does not know enough about his informant's world to ask the "proper" questions, or to interpret properly the responses which these incompetent questions yield (Silverman, 1975, p.36). In other words, Castaneda lacks sufficient prior knowledge of Don Juan's cultural common sense to be able to decode or tap into its methodicalness.

And the problem for Castaneda - of "cracking the Yaqui code" and discovering the rules for "being methodical" Yaqui style - is compounded by his research epistemology: Castaneda frequently pleads with Don Juan to explain "what is really happening", presumably so Castaneda can construct generalisations that are invariant or context free. However, this plea does not fit in with Don Juan's understanding that

without knowing the occasion and the instance to which one is referring, making sense of experience is a worthless exercise .... for Don Juan the interpretation and application of a rule is always an entirely practical matter, related to concrete occasions at which we try to make sense of an activity for the purposes which are relevant at the time. (Ibid, p.39)
But, since he has been trained in a scientific world where "social facts exist in the realm of solid objectivity quite outside human subjectivity" (Ibid., p.44), Castaneda is not about to give up his (positivist) m ethodical ways.

At this juncture Silverman digresses from Castaneda's plight to pose the hypothetical case of a person from another culture needing to be instructed on our standard ways for writing letters (Ibid., pp.48-49). It transpires that any set of method rules prescribed for writing letters "properly" does not inform the newcomer how to apply the rules under all circumstances, such as the occasions when it is appropriate for the rules to be relaxed. So a second set of method rules is duly formulated to qualify the application of the first. But, alas, the second set also falls short in practice.

This episode is designed to show that even in a society which prides itself on an epistemic foundation of objectivity, in reality rules or methods are not and cannot be followed literally; rather, rules/methods are applied according to common sense understanding of what is warranted by the circumstances. Thus, Silverman contends (Ibid., pp.42-48), in practice "being methodical" involves moving easily and appropriately back and forth from objective applications to indexical (ie. context specific) applications of rules/method - with appropriateness being determined by cultural common sense.

Now, by applying this realisation to the Castaneda saga we can see the problem in striving to produce a purely objective or invariant account of "what is really happening" with Yaqui sorcery. Moreover, there may be hidden costs in emphasising technique:

For technique (methods, rules as we conceive them), by specifying discrete paths to knowledge, closes off other paths and diverts our attention away from those experiences which, because they seem perversely valid for us, seem to transcend technique. (Ibid., pp.38-39)
But, for Silverman, insisting on context-free rules for a method or technique does more than limit what is seeable:
In using our methods and rules, we get a sense of exerting mastery over a technique. We feel that we are using this technique for our purposes. Yet this occurs in forgetfulness of the community that the application of a rule in a "proper" context necessarily recollects. So in applying techniques, we become forgetful of the claim to community which is always present in our speech. Which is to say, we fail to remember ourselves. In exerting mastery over technique, we are mastered by technique; in using it, it uses us. (Ibid., pp.41)
Thus, the argument goes, by invoking an objectivity based epistemology in his application of method/technique and thereby posing as a "hard" scientist, Castaneda forgets his self and the cultural/community grounding which enables him to be methodical in the first place. This is not to argue that method is not possible under any circumstances. The point being made is that, except for the most menial of tasks, methodicalness should be regarded as not a matter of objectivity and technique but rather as community sanctioned common sense practice. Then, methodical actions
no longer present themselves as isolated "techniques" to be used, as necessary, by an isolated person concerned with his private ends. Instead, in acting as in accord-with-a-rule, in recognizing the methodic character of an activity, we collect ourselves into a community which always pre-figures any rule and any method. (Ibid., p.41)
Therefore, whilst it may be commonplace, the successful application of method never just happens. It is always a person accomplishing sense making and that accomplishment is always both personal and interpersonal, orienting towards and reproducing (or modifying) an established community tradition.

So, if we follow Silverman's reasoning, "being methodical" is quite a different form of activity from that which is regarded as being "scientific" or, as critics would have it, as being "scientistic" (see, for example, Barber, 1969) within the positivist epistemological framework. According to positivists indexicality is not an issue because items of human behaviour are subject to "unproblematic and unhesitant singular interpretation" (Woolgar, 1988, p.28). On the other hand, extremists within the interpretivist camp may claim that indexicality is irremediable and objectivity impossible - thus adopting a position of solipsism (Blum, 1974).

The Silverman position would seem to be a mediatory one, providing the possibility of a link between these epistemic extremes - allowing for the researcher to move artfully back and forth between indexical and objective expressions. According to this conceptualisation the success of "being methodical" lies not in the crispness and power of its prescriptions but in commonsense member practice. However, unless we can be reflective and articulate about our methodical practices we will be oblivious to our constitutiveness.

In our confidence in such methods, in our conviction that we are being methodical, we both guarantee the practical success of our activities and conceal the membership that always pre-figures and grounds the "good sense" of what we see and do. (Ibid, p.55)


In this paper I have argued, among other things, that educational research is indubitably a double layered social and cultural production. Those of us who aspire to rule governed and materialist epistemologies should appreciate that "being methodical" in research is an accomplishment within two cultural frames: our methodicalness always relies and builds upon our subjects' methodicalness. By emphasising only the objectivity and technical skill of our methods, we are privileging our methods over those of our subjects and this bias carries a double headed penalty: first, that we distance and alienate ourselves from our subjects; second, that we become forgetful of the cultural grounds for our accomplishment.

Hopefully, my reconceptualisation of educational research (a la Silverman) points the way for us to resist a narrow attachment to method and to overcome the forgetfulness so induced. "The way" has to do with being more reflective about what we do in the name of method, and with sustaining and capitalising on the inherent uncertainty of our human endeavour, as well as with striving for "precision", "efficiency" and other symbols of objectivity.

But "being methodical" in practice - as researcher or otherwise - is not the same as reflecting upon and accounting for one's methodicalness. And it seems that when one is acting qua member it is difficult to be simultaneously reflective; however, Woolgar (1988, p.28) contends that it is possible to build reflexivity into practice, and this may lead to less mystification and concealment.

As intimated above, it is such concealment which allows for paradigmatic divisions to be sustained - such as that between the so-called qualitative and quantitative methodologies. By being more explicit about our methods in educational research, we would have to admit to fallibility rather than certainty, and this admission could pave the way to recognising that we have much more in common with our subjects and fellow researchers than we have differences. After all, "being methodical" is uniquely human accomplishment and something to be heralded in and out of educational research!


Barber, B. (1969). Science, salience and comparative education: Some reflections on social scientific enquiry. In R. Edwards, B. Holmes and J. Van de Graff (eds.), Relevant methods in comparative education. Hamburg: Unesco Institute for Education.

Blum, A. (1974). Theorizing. London: Heinemann.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1983). Becoming critical: Knowing through action research. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Cuff, E. and Payne, G. (1979). Perspectives in sociology. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Silverman, D. (1975). Reading Castaneda. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Walker, J. and Evers, C. (1988). The epistemological unity of educational research. In J. P. Keeves (ed.), Educational research methodology, measurement and evaluation: An international handbook. Oxford: Pergamon.

Woolgar, S. (1988). Reflexivity is the ethnographer of the text. In S. Woolgar (ed.), Knowledge and reflexivity. London: Sage Publications.

Author: John Hall teaches cross-cultural education and qualitative research methods at Curtin University of Technology. He came to Curtin in 1981 after having obtained his PhD from the University of Calgary. Prior to that he spent 20 years as a school teacher and school principal in Australia, UK and Canada. He is currently engaged in developing curriculum materials and a policy in cross-cultural education at Curtin. He is interested in non-hierarchical and collaborative forms of research, critical ethnography and discourse analysis.

Please cite as: Hall, J. R. (1991). Being methodical in educational research. Issues In Educational Research, 1(1), 1-5.

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