The Duck of Minerva

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Methodology411: defining “methodology”

March 6, 2010

Vikash’s comment on my announcement post suggests to me that it might be useful to have a less elliptical and, so to speak, inside-baseball-y declaration of intent for the Methodology411. Even though I’ve written about and railed against it on numerous occasions, I often forget how firmly ingrained the equation of the terms “methodology” and “statistical methods” is in anglophone Political Science and IR — and that equation (combined with my reference to fantasy baseball) would, I now see, make my initial announcement of the Methodology411 look like a call for exclusively discussing statistical techniques.

Therefore, to set the record straight: Methodology411 is about methodology rather than method, and it is about social-scientific methodology broadly defined rather than about statistical (or, better, neopositivist) methodology in particular. I envision a forum for the discussion of the logic of inquiry understood in a pluralist sense. This means that although there is no single universally correct form of social-scientific practice, there are concrete implications and conclusions for the conduct of research on the social world (and on world politics in particular, since there is a general but not exclusive commitment to “IR” around here) to be drawn from different stances on or wagers about the epistemic status of worldly knowledge-claims. One need not be a statistician to have interesting and valid things to say about world politics, but given the unreflective dominance of neopositivist methodology throughout our field, it is especially important to be clear about what one is if one is participating in a different tradition of inquiry. Not that neopositivists shouldn’t have to be equally clear, but the plain fact is that they all-too-often are not, relying instead on the already-established common-sensical nature of their methodology between and among the members of the audience to whom they are normally speaking and writing.

The in-your-face version of this point that I have used as the summary paragraph for talks that I’ve given on this goes as follows:

For decades, IR scholars have labored under a delusion: that there is One True Scientific Method, and that strict adherence to that method will guarantee the scientific status of their empirical researches and pronouncements. Even a cursory examination of the literature in the philosophy of science shows us that this is simply not the case — and yet the cultural valence of the notion of “science” remains, making it imperative that the field have some kind of answer to “the science question.” I present a pluralist solution, one that acknowledges the existence of significant differences between philosophical ontologies (ways of thinking about the mind-world hook-up) and the methodological perspectives to which they give rise, but organizes that diversity so as to promote internal consistency, public discussion, and worldly insight as the hallmark of a scientific study of world politics.

Now, the implication of this kind of pluralism is not that we shouldn’t do neopositivist work that is designed to test hypothetical propositions about systematic cross-case covariations between variables. It is, rather, that we should regard neopositivism as one methodological perspective among others, enjoying no special relationship with “scientific knowledge” per se. And in consequence, scholars utilizing every social-scientific methodology ought to be relatively explicit about the philosophical presuppositions of their approach to knowledge-production, striving to be internally consistent and coherent when they apply and enact those presuppositions in conducting their substantive work.

Methodology411, then, is animated by this kind of commitment to pluralism, and will be a place for the discussion of what pragmatists might call the “cash value” of varying ways of producing knowledge: what our philosophical ontologies get us in practice. The precondition of such a discussion is, of course, that practitioners are clear on the logic of their approach and its implications, and part of the Methodology411’s mission is to help promote that kind of clarity regardless of which methodological approach one is utilizing or of which tradition of inquiry one is working within. Internal consistency and global diversity within a broadly social-scientific frame, where “social science” means something like “systematic efforts to produce worldly knowledge about the social, and to so do in such a way that the results are publicly evaluable according to standards shared by a community of researchers.” So: neither art, nor politics, nor ethical critique, but the pursuit of factual knowledge with the clear understanding at the outset that there is more than one way to skin a fact, er, a cat.

Puns, alliteration, and ultra-geeky sci-fi and baseball references (and the occasional song-lyric from a progressive rock tune) are a bonus feature. With that, open wide the floodgates, and let the dance begin!

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.