Guest Article by Geordan Graetz
I don’t like methodology; indeed, the very language of methodology frustrates me. Arguably, the focus on methodology in research is part of a global trend towards more structured and formulaic research, which often results in little societal benefit. In my view, the need to have or develop formalized processes and structures to guide one’s research trajectory can inhibit—and limit—the conduct of research, or what I prefer to call intellectual inquiry. I understand that methodological discourses and theories have their utility in certain contexts, but I don’t put much stock in a pre-determined or scripted methodology. This is because our ideas and processes invariably change as one progresses through one’s intellectual journey. Our preconceptions are challenged as we discover new knowledge, and the facts that we started with, and the bases on which our research is planned, are challenged. And this is how it should be. Knowledge isn’t neat in the study of the Social Sciences and the Humanities, and instead of being captive to a preconceived and off-the-shelf methodology, we should feel freer as inquiring minds to follow a more organic path.
My Masters thesis was in political theory. This essentially means that I have been trained to ponder, reflect, critique and propose. These activities cannot neatly be boiled down into a single methodology, or even a series of methodologies; they require time, engagement with other people and ideas, observation, the application of one’s own experiences to societal questions and challenges, and multifarious other activities. In my view, the now ubiquitous focus on structured methodology ignores the role of reflection in the development of knowledge, and the necessarily spontaneous nature of intellectual inquiry.
The methodology that I am employing in my doctoral research is relatively straightforward. It involves conducting interviews with key stakeholders and knowledgeable informants, the gathering, analysis and interpretation of information, as well as comparison and critique. I couch this approach in the language of methodology, but really, it is intuitive and common sense. If I have knowledge gaps, I ask knowledgeable people for their answers to, or perspectives on, my questions; I read the available literature and verify the validity of the information by comparing it against other sources. This is standard intellectual practice, whether you are in the academe or another field.
I would argue that the transfer and deification of the scientific method has in some ways tainted and corrupted the conduct of social research. We have seen the progressive imposition of scientific practice and theory on the conduct of social research and, sadly, in the Humanities, the importance of which is woefully undervalued. Indeed, we have the meta-field of Social Science. This means that we now must adopt the nomenclature of science when we propose or conduct research in the Social Sciences. We speak of hypotheses, methods, results and discussion. Implicit in this structure is the notion of replication, which I find unfortunate, because some things don’t need to be replicated. We use big words and phrases like ‘dialectical materialism’, ‘postmodernism’, ‘hermeneutics’, ‘social constructionism’, ‘conceptual framework’, and ‘methodological validity’; all of which mean different things to different people, or nothing at all. Instead, I would rather see, and what I have been trained to do, is to subjectively discern a subject of inquiry that warrants attention, reflect on the options and best courses of action, and then to mount a well-supported argument for how change may be achieved, or why it may be necessary.
As scholars, we need more time to engage with the big questions. This means more time for engagement with the various literatures in our disciplines or field of research, more time for reflection and more time for the crafting of thoughtful prose. We should push back against the current trend that says we should be heard immediately and often, in spite of the commercial imperatives. My particular research area focuses on the mining industry, and the big questions that face us as participants in, or friends or critics of, the industry invariably have political and public policy dimensions. We therefore shouldn’t be afraid of having and/or expressing political or policy views and arguments. The big questions that are facing us as citizens also are very human questions: they go to relationships and ethical practice, our political discourse and the expression of identity and culture. I believe that the imposition of the scientific mentality on social research, the promise of which is to contribute in some meaningful way to debates on these questions, is more hindrance than facilitative, and that the allocation of more time, deeper and more meaningful engagement with the literature and our peers would result in higher quality and more socially beneficial outputs.
I would also like to draw a distinction between academic practice and intellectual practice. What is academically rigorous by current standards is not necessarily intellectually rigorous. By this I mean that critically unreflective adherence to methodological theories and the conduct of what I have termed formulaic research may be common, and it also may lead to successful dissertation submissions, grant applications and completions of other milestones, but it is hardly intellectually rigorous. To be intellectually rigorous is to be forensic in one’s questioning and pursuit of ‘the story’, whatever that story may be. It involves the formulation of ideas that may be right or wrong, the testing of these ideas, for example, with peers and against other sources of knowledge, and the acceptance that one’s field of inquiry may lead to a dead-end or to a new subject of inquiry altogether.
Finally, I want to reflect on the requirement that, as doctoral students, we must somehow contribute to knowledge and that we must be able to articulate this contribution at the commencement of our doctoral journey. This is an unfortunate development, and sadly one that has commercial imperatives at its core. It may not be very politically astute of me, but I will admit that I am not doing a PhD to contribute to knowledge or, for that matter, to be politically astute. I commenced my PhD knowing very little about the mining industry—I still know very little—but I undertook a PhD with the specific aim of developing my own knowledge about a subject that interested me and that I deemed important. Far better it would be if higher education institutions were to return to focus on educating doctoral students so that we may subsequently take the knowledge that we have gained into society in order that we may make more meaningful contributions.
I wish to close with a quotation from the former Illinois Governor and Democratic Presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson Jr.: “If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is no barking dog to be tethered on a ten-foot chain.”
About the Author
Geordan Graetz is a doctoral candidate in the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, Sustainable Minerals Institute, at The University of Queensland. He holds a Master of Arts (Research) in political theory, a Bachelor of International Studies (Hons. Class 1) and a Graduate Certificate in Mineral Resources – Sustainable Development.