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  sl 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:

The Trojan horse: how the concept of “method” serves to marginalise humanities perspectives within media studies
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  mÂle denne fortolkningens gyldighet og generaliserbarhet. Hun ¯nsker  argumentere for dens fruktbarhet, for dens bidrag til  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.

Det som skiller forskning fra dyptpl¯yende journalistikk er ikke f¯rst og fremst bruk av andre datainnsamlings- og kildebehandlingsteknikker, men utvikling av en dypere teoretisk forstÂelse av sitt felt, gjennom presise begreper, stringent argumentasjon og en aktiv dialog med tidligere forskning.

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.

19 thoughts on “no method

  1. Hilde

    I haven’t read the article you are discussing, but to me it seems that this discussion takes for granted that ‘method’ should lead to some kind of generalisation. It’s not all research that seeks to make generalisations (mine for instance, and yours too, I guess?) and I don’t quite see the problem, becaue qualitative analysis, based on qualitative analytical methods, has been and still is important in humanistic disciplines.
    Is your question triggered by an idea of research/science (vitenskapelighet) which comes from the precedence that has been given to natural science?

  2. torill

    I’ll grab that reference – this is what we were discussing before Christmas, and yes, definitly something I have experienced in the media studies. And I keep telling my students exactly that: social sciences have this thing they call method, we have theory – and method is really theory about how to find an answer to a question, and not any more precise than other theory.

    Another problem is when students in the humanities think they can get away with half-baked information-gathering strategies without learning anything about methods, just because they are in the humanities. So we get bad interviews and horrible ethnography mingled with unprocessed information and all the wrong theory. I used to fight to have the barrier fall between the two directions of academic pursuit… now I need to redefine the borderlines and point out the useful differences in approach.

  3. zephoria

    Wouldn’t “deep reading” be considered a method? It certainly has been in most of the humanities classes i’ve taken… Kinda like the counterpart to “thick description.”

  4. Rory

    In response to your aside, yes, the English equivalent is “When did you stop beating your wife?”… which makes me wonder why we don’t have a gender-neutral version.

  5. vika

    Thanks for the ref, Jill. So far, the only method-related information I’ve found useful is teaching methodology. (Mostly, my formal brush with that is language teaching, but I’ve worked out tricks to try when I’m teaching non-language subjects as well.) Teaching foreign languages successfully, however, requires a basic idea of how people learn; and so I’ve applied pointers from that, to greater or lesser degree, to my own approach to research. Needless to say, such approach begs to *not* be generalized.

  6. Jill

    Hm. Thanks for the comments. I’ve had some reactions from my collegues at my department, too – I sent them the link to the article. My colleagues point out that method can definitely be a part of the humanities – in linguistics and history, for instance, it can be crucial. And I suppose, in a way, yes, deep reading, close reading, comparison, all this can be method.

    I’m not sure what my ultimate position on this is. I do think that the demand for method is not often suited to research on aesthetical subjects, art, literature, writing. I suspect it’ll take me a few years to hone a solidly based opinion on this.

    Pragmatically I know that I don’t want my department to train students to think that they have to do surveys to answer every possible research question. Yes, IF they do surveys, it’s important they’re done properly (I agree with Torill completely there) but don’t do surveys just cos you think you need method!

    Anyway, my department’s going to discuss this on Monday (I love our small, flexible and speedy department!) and perhaps, in time, we’ll figure something out.

    Meanwhile I think I’ll reread Fetveit. And perhaps we can get hold of him to give a guest talk at our department!

  7. Ian

    I think the issue is not that method has NO place in humanistic approaches to media, but rather that the carrying-out of methodology doesn’t necessarily double as analysis.

    And I’m presuming that everyone is interested in analysis as a primary research practice.

    This is part of the conflict you and I have been discussing elsewhere, Jill. We set the table for 12, with the best china, but no one shows up to dinner.

  8. Jill

    Analysis. Wow, this discussion is brilliant – the trackbacking posts are great too. Patrik has more references, too. My mind is opening!

    But Ian, yes, this totally fits into our discussion – but what table? Did we set a table? Or am I just too literal and dense this evening?

  9. Lars

    “Hun ser ikke her noe behov, knapt noen relevant mulighet, for  mÂle denne fortolkningens gyldighet og generaliserbarhet. Hun ¯nsker  argumentere for dens fruktbarhet, for dens bidrag til  la oss se nye aspekter ved disse kavalkadene”.

    Eg skal lesa heile artikkelen ved eit h¯ve, men det slÂr meg jo kor kj¯nna akkurat denne motsetnaden er – p eine sida det fruktbare(=kj¯delege, kvinnelege), p den andre det Âlment gyldige(=andelege, mannlege) – stadfesting av ein stereotypi om (einskilde fag innan) humaniora?

  10. Jill

    No, no, the gendered thing is just because Fetveit’s discussing Vivian Sobcheck’s interpretation of TV news and using it as an example of a humanistic approach. I guess I took the quote out of its context and yes, seen like that it does rather do the pregnant vs objective gendered thing. Here’s the sentence again with the sentence that comes before it:

    “Dette gjelder ogs nÂr Vivian Sobchack leser nyhetskavalkader p TV i lys av Benjamins historiefilosofiske teser og hans begrep om dialektiske bilder (under utgivelse). Hun ser ikke her noe behov, knapt noen relevant mulighet, for  mÂle denne fortolkningens gyldighet og generaliserbarhet. Hun ¯nsker  argumentere for dens fruktbarhet, for dens bidrag til  la oss se nye aspekter ved disse kavalkadene.”

  11. Ian

    Jill — Maybe I was just hungry 😉 I was looking for metaphor… it must have been a pretty poor one!

    Anyway, what I meant is, the fear I have about terminology and formalism is that we spend all this time setting ourselves up to do really great work (setting the table) with the best research and the best minds (the china), but we never get around to actually doing any material research 🙂

    It reminds me of the dangers of object technology. You can spend all this time setting up your software classes so that they are as abstract as possible, ready to be reused in later projects and subclassed by your friends, but then you never actually get your application built, cos you spent all your time architecting, and then nobody uses your objects again anyway.

  12. Jamie

    At the risk of being pedantic and accussed of being overly concerned about definitions, I feel I must tell you this:
    the question is famous in Englsh (as you suspected) but even more, the rhetorical technique has a name. It is called `begging the question’ as in saying that capital punishment is good because it is a deterent begs the question.

  13. Katja

    This is a marvellous discussion. Thanks to all contributors.

    On the topic of close reading as a humanities method, may I recommend Heather Murray’s “Close Reading, Closed Writing” in her book Working in English? She critiques how close reading has historically been used as a teaching strategy. She says it serves not so much as an exercise in critical thinking, but as a test of admission. A rather opaque procedure that it used as a form of academic initiation rite. While her chapter doesn’t explicitly discuss humanities’ research methods, I think it’s a fascinating reflection on the workings of terministic screens (a term Clancy added to the discussion). Illustrating how there are always methodical assumptions, even if there doesn’t seem to be a method, and what ideological implications they might have.

  14. Solveig

    Humanities may have methods. But if you can do your research, and then afterwards figure out what method you have used, it can hardly be said to be a method.

  15. Katja

    Oh, but I think it can. Because it’s not something that is newly invented for each project. It’s something that is taught, and that we spend years and years learning.
    Every time when we instruct students on how to write their essay assignments, or when we write comments and grades on their papers, we teach them what kinds of methods we find acceptable. In most cases we’re not very upfront about it, and in many ways we can’t be. Although students would like us to. So many times they’ve asked me for the definite ABC of how to write a good essay, and all I can say is: well, you can do this or this, but I can’t really say if it’s going to work until I see your finished paper.
    I think that humanities methods (all methods?) are so deeply entwined with the projects to which they belong that we can hardly tell them apart. But that doesn’t mean that there are no methods. We produce our insights in particular ways, i.e. methods. And our insights vary with different methods.

  16. Historiological Notes

    Humanistic theory and method
    Jill/txt has a post today (No Method) on method in the humanities. She refers to an article on this topic in Medietidskriftet (in Norwegian). Jill Walker’s point seems to be that the humanities do not really have any method; at

  17. CultureCat: Rhetoric and Feminism

    Reflections on (No) Method
    Jill has some good stuff to say about method. It takes me back to when I was working on my master’s thesis, and my advisor asked me what my method was. I was frustrated and flummoxed, and thought, “I’m writing a freakin’ essay! I guess that’s it.” Havi…

  18. Patrik's Sprawl

    methods, theories and the humanities
    Jill had a very interesting post today about methods and humanities based on an article by Arild Fetveit. The article is in Norwegian and the focus is media research. I read the article and find it interesting – and I…

  19. this Public Address 3.0

    Theory and Method
    Theory and Method Jill’s post regarding method in the humanities triggered some thoughts. I have sympathies with the idea that…

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