Tag Archives: writing

‘Methods in Action’: a practical resource for teaching research methods

This autumn I had a chance to shake up my academic writing style. I loved it. The piece I wrote wasn’t for a book chapter, a magazine article or a blog post. It was for a new initiative commissioned by SAGE: Cases in Methodology.

Editors at SAGE have been collecting over 500 case studies from researchers around the world, who are working from a range of disciplines and with all number of different research methods, to compile a resource for the teaching of research methods.

This resource aims to provide its readers with succinct descriptions and examples of particular research projects conducted in recent real-world settings, providing a bridge between abstract methodological concepts and the realities of practice. These cases either describe the course of the whole ‘research project’ (with a specific focus on the methodology, any problems encountered and how these were addressed) OR a ‘methods in action case’, which explores how a particular method, say conversation analysis, can be applied to a research project (with an emphasis on the resulting strengths and weaknesses of the method).

Presented to students, these ‘cases’ aim to disrupt the neat, idealistic research methods presented in charts and textbooks, and offer insights into the messier, more fluid and emergent reality of conducting research in the ‘real world’.

What I particularly enjoyed about writing for this publication was that the driving objective of openness encouraged a different style of writing.  This meant letting go of the often distanced, formal style of journal writing and engaging in a more personal, reflective and honest narrative.  Working with two colleagues, I compiled a ‘methods in action case’, that focused on the strengths and weaknesses of using a mixed methods approach in a Higher Education research project that explored feedback initiatives. So ingrained were all of our writing styles to fit with ‘typical’ journal publications that we had to rewrite the piece a number of times to break out of our habits. Drafts were all peer-reviewed and critically appraised for quality, interest and accessibility, yet the ‘typical’ journal formatting and style was turned on its head. For example, we were encouraged to include:

  • lots of bullet points and subheadings
  • first person pronouns
  • limited citations, jargon and references
  • practical conclusions, learning outcomes and discussion questions
  • a ‘further reading’ list

Furthermore, the reflective and open writing style of this case collection demonstrates that – be it for a student or a professor – every research project provides an opportunity for the researcher to learn more about research methods. How can we not keep learning, when each real-word research situation is open to so much variation and uncertainty?

For me, the mixed methods project we presented in our case was a huge learning experience, not least because I had a limited understanding of statistical analysis. To share my thoughts, mistakes and insights about using a mixed methods approach with other students through this ‘methods in action case’ I think will equal, and even surpass, the value and usefulness we would gain from publishing the project findings.

In a future blog, I will share some of my learning outcomes, strengths and weaknesses from using a mixed methods approach. For now, SAGE Cases in Methodology will be available in libraries shortly so look out for it!

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Writing it right: Getting back to basics

The time has come. I am committing words to Word and beginning the official drafting of my thesis. The main aim of my thesis is to present, in writing, an original piece of research. In my case, I have been tracing the social connections of professionals in an emerging organisation in order to explore their knowledge practices. For six months, I have followed engineers and the objects of their practice in a renewable energy organisation, gathering transcribed interviews, jotting down observations and writing-up descriptions.  As I draw all of this written data together to start my thesis writing, I am reminded of one of Latour’s[1] (2005) questions: what are we actually doing when we trace these social connections?

In answer to his own query, he states that we trace social connections by writing down accounts. But what is an ‘account’? Latour maintains that an account is a text, written on paper that is read by a (normally small!) number of people. He contends that this writing of a textual account should not be sniffed at as:

the simple act of recording anything on paper is already an immense transformation that requires as much skill and just as much artifice as painting a landscape or setting up some elaborate biochemical reaction.  No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. p. 136-7

Although Latour admits that the social scientist should not be concerned with ‘good style’ when writing their account, as we are rarely likely to achieve the skill of a poet or a playwright, I can’t help but think differently as a PhD student. When it comes to submitting your thesis you know the examiner’s critical gaze is judging not only how ‘good’ the account is in tracing the social connections but also the accuracy of the grammar, the exactness of the punctuation marks and how successfully the style engages the reader.

At this stage in your education, it is assumed by many (both supervisors and students) that the main capacity required to draft this staggering tome – one’s dexterity of the English language – is finely honed and primed for use at a moment’s notice. Passive or active verb structure turmoil, semi colon or colon anxiety, and second person pronoun confusion should be the least of the student’s worries at this point. Shouldn’t  learning the rules of grammar and punctuation belong to the English classes of our early school years?

Yet I have noticed that friends and colleagues seem to have had different experiences of learning grammar and punctuation at school. Then, when we come to actually writing one of the most important documents of our careers, we seem to have varying levels of understanding as to what constitutes ‘correct’ grammar and punctuation[2]. If we take to heart Latour’s counsel, ‘that good sociology has to be well written; if not the social doesn’t appear through it’ (p.124), I feel there is a need to ensure PhD students are equipped with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation during their PhD journey – and this level of training should not be sniffed at either. After all, in qualitative work, the written word and the ‘thick description’ is the essence of your thesis. This grammatical top-up can be as simple and effective as a couple of day-workshops. For example, at Stirling we have the option of attending workshops focused on writing for each particular year of our PhD (an external trainer at Grammatology runs these for us). These are by far the most useful training days I have been on as a PhD student. And I can now go forth on my academic journey having learnt that you never start a sentence with a conjunction…

[1] Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] I know I am still learning how to be grammatically ‘correct’ in my writing, but I like to think I have an awareness of when a sentence ‘looks’ and ‘sounds’ right. I can thank my 5th grade English teacher for this – Ms B. had a penchant for endless grammatical workbook exercises.

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