Via Andrew, I found a wonderful article arguing that in the humanities, “method” is mere rhetoric forced upon us by social scientists. Method is not how the humanities work. Asking a humanities scholar to explain his or her method is like asking somebody whether they’ve stopped beating their spouse. (Is this question famous in English, too? “Har De sluttet Â slÂ Deres kone?”) It’s a question that sets premises that make any answer wrong – unless you refuse to answer, and instead change the terms.
Studying literature I’d never have thought of this at all. Method was irrelevant, something social scientists did. We read and thought and compared and combined theories with texts. But when I applied for a PhD the research council asked for more details about my “method”. Now I’m supervising Masters students here at Humanistic Informatics who all have to do a “method” course. As I’ve understood it, this method is mostly if not completely comprised of methodology from the social sciences: interview technique and analysis, statistical analysis, correspondence analysis, these sorts of thing. Great for doing surveys, irrelevant for close readings or considerations of the nature of net.art or pervasive gaming. But every grad student I’m supervising comes to me and asks me anxiously about method.
Andrew may have saved me. An article, by Arild Fetveit, controversial, says Andrew. If it’s controversial, so am I: “The Trojan horse: how the concept of “method” serves to marginalise humanities perspectives within media studies.” Only the abstract, and this translated title, are in English. Here’s the abstract:
Since the concept of “method” is central to much social science research, it is easily assumed that the concept is as central within the humanities. However, the concept is today only marginally used within the humanities. Thus, attempts to give “method” a strong position within media studies happens at the risk of marginalising humanist and other research perspectives that have a peripheral relation to this concept.
The full text of the article is online; it was published in Norsk Medietidsskrift 2/00. It’s quite a dense discussion of what method is, has been, and isn’t, with a lot of useful points and quotes. An important point is that humanistic, or culture-analytical research, as Fetveit calls it, seeks to find productive, fruitful interpretations, ideas and connections that help us see new aspects of events, objects, texts – it’s beside the point to talk about measurable verifiable generalisable outcomes:
Hun ser ikke her noe behov, knapt noen relevant mulighet, for Â mÂle denne fortolkningens gyldighet og generaliserbarhet. Hun ¯nsker Â argumentere for dens fruktbarhet, for dens bidrag til Â la oss se nye aspekter ved disse kavalkadene.
Fetveit also notes that some humanistic research does attempt to generalise based on a data sample, giving Barthes on photography and Todorov on the fantastic as examples in this category. Much games studies research does this too, attempting to define games, and here, perhaps over-generalisation is a problem. He quotes Heidegger saying that calling thought theory is merely a strategy to try and fight the hard sciences (though obviously we theorise..)
Oh, and there are problems with using “method”: ureflektert empirisme, begrenset dialog med tidligere forskning, svak teori- og begrepsutvikling, upresise og brede problemstillinger som s¯kes kompensert av systematiske datainnsamlingsmetoder. – unreflective empiricism, limited dialogues with earlier research, weak development of theory and concepts, imprecise and broad hypotheses compensated for with systematic data collection methods.
So how is humanistic research different from thorough journalism? Fetveit answers his own question: the development of a deeper theoretical understanding of one’s field, through precise terms, strigent argumentation and an active dialogue with previous research.
I’d be grateful for other discussions of “method” in the humanities to fight back the questions: “Oh, but I need a chapter about method“.
No. You probably don’t. Not unless you want to do a survey or other empirical collection of data.
Oh, I’ve ordered Against Method : Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge from the library, too. Ha.