Invitation for feedback–a paper on method versus anti-method

Jul 24th, 2014 | By | Category: Uncategorized


ApplebaumI invite our readers to participate in a conversation about method and anti-method in qualitative research. I’m posing the question this way–maybe polemically!–because if you reads the work of some qualitative writers, you might have the impression that the qualitative researcher is free to improvise at will, switch strategies, create their own process for data analysis on the fly–while if you read some other authors, you might have the impression that research is only defensible if it is based upon clearly delineated steps which must always be executed in precisely the same order, seeking to replicate precisely a predetermined attitude, intention, and set of expectations.

In fact both of these positions are caricatures! All of the approaches to qualitative research I’ve encountered are some mixture of form and freedom, rigor and exploration. I’m currently writing a journal article, rooted in my ten years of wrestling with Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method and its meanings for qualitative psychological research. I wanted to share core pieces of the argument I’ll be making in order to invite commentary from our online community. Do these issues matter to you? How do they bear on your current practice as scholars, students, or practitioners in clinical, organizational, or other fields?

I appreciate Gadamer as a philosopher, yet I have had a strong sense that his words in Truth and Method are often lifted out of their philosophical context and used as ammunition in an argument against methodical human science research. In the journal article I’m writing, I want to stake the following claims, to which I invite your responses:

  1. Method is constitutive of science as such. In other words, without a method that can be articulated, we don’t have scientific work. This is because science of whatever sort is based upon the assumption that we can “compare notes” and interrogate not only what a researcher discovers but how she or he discovered it.
  2. Method, in scientific praxis, is intrinsically prescriptive. What I mean is that a method is a describable way of inquiry– the Greek word μέθοδος (methodos) comes from root θοδος (hodos), the word for a path or road. A method delineates a particular way of arriving at a goal–not the only way, but a distinct way that can be described and followed, or not. And as with any path, it’s possible for one’s steps to stay on it or to stray from it–in other words, a method is intrinsically prescriptive because without prescription there’s no direction.
  3. Whereas method is sometimes equated with positivism, disclosure (viewed as unrelated to method or even anti-methodical) is often identified with hermeneutical understanding. Some qualitative writers argue, citing Gadamer’s words for support, that whereas the natural scientific method is used to generate empirical facts, the human sciences have no method and aim at the disclosure of truth. Disclosure and truth are regarded by these writers as incompatible with, or at least unsupported by methodical research in the sense of approaches to research that specify and “prescribe” their steps.
  4. What if methodical inquiry is a precondition for the experience of disclosure, lived scientifically? I want to propose that engaging in qualitative psychological inquiry is a lived-experience, one of the constituents of which is an experience of discovery that we can describe as “disclosure” (an important term in Heidegger and Gadamer’s work). I want to claim that when this experience of disclosure is situated within a scientific inquiry, disclosure is not obstructed by method, but in fact facilitated by method. In other words for the qualitative researcher, method prepares the way for disclosure.

I invite you to share your responses to this bare-bones outline by adding your comments in PhenomenologyBlog or in the other platforms in which we work. My aim in writing is to reach others in dialogue, and if you choose to respond, you become a participant in that project.

many thanks,


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6 Comments to “Invitation for feedback–a paper on method versus anti-method”

  1. Davood Gozli says:

    Dear Marc,

    Thanks for sharing this. I am not familiar with Gadamer and my comments are partly based on my experience and training in experimental cognitive psychology.

    The propositions 1 and 4 (i.e., method as constitutive) are very difficult to object to, and their soundness is best demonstrated in cases of theoretical conflict – when rival theories compete, they tend to expose each other’s reliance on aspects of methodology. Often the “right” theory wishes to claim that the “wrong” theory’s claim is contingent on a [non-essential] set of methodological choices. Similarly, when breaks from old theories are made, old observations are accommodated by reference to old methodology – suddenly method becomes relevant, and relatively more explicit.

    The second proposition seems a little problematic for two reasons. First, it suggests that application of method must always precede disclosure of data. First we engage in method and then the findings will present themselves to us. But what if we become aware of some key aspects of our method only after the fact? What if I describe, through reflection, parts of my method that I implemented pre-reflectively? In that way, my post-hoc, descriptive method could become prescriptive for someone else. Similarly, after following my prescriptions they could become aware of even more components of the method that could be explicitly addressed (again, after application).

    Since we agree that method is constitutive of our findings, then our findings do not only teach us about the world, but about our method. By treating method as exclusively prescriptive, it seems like we might close the door to the latter kind of disclosure.

    Somewhat related, proposition 2 implies that we can be aware of all aspects of our method prior to its application. And this just doesn’t seem right. There are always background assumptions and practices that escape explicit mention when we are “prescribing” a method – in that way, a method is always open to post-hoc analysis and further description. I believe viewed in this manner, method is not incompatible with hermeneutical understanding (#3).

    • Marc Applebaum says:

      Dear Davood, Thank you very much for your comments. Yes, I think you’re right that method ought not to be viewed in a too-absolute way as a “precondition” for any type of disclosure. Experiences of disclosure, if I correctly understand the way that word is used in the hermeneutic tradition, are intrinsically unpredictable, and I think that when I wrote “facilitates,” what I have in mind is that methodical inquiry like phenomenological research constitutes a situation, or a horizon, within which understandings can arise but not in a predictable way. For example, a methodical examination of interview data, over time, sensitizes me as researcher to a variety of meanings or partial meanings in the transcripts. But the emerging of new understandings of that data is unpredictable…it’s not mechanical and though it’s a process that can be tended, it can’t be forced. Days or weeks after working closely with an interview protocol, a new insight or sense of the meaning of the interviews may strike me while I’m brushing my teeth or talking to a friend. Is that “caused” by the method? I wouldn’t say caused, but “prepared for” I think is right. Does this make sense to you?

      • Davood Gozli says:

        It does — it seems to me that the kind of research you practice attributes a very real role to the researcher, whereas the spirit of the natural-scientific method aims to remove this role. I think the idea of “person as an aspect of method” is what the tension is really about. The issue of trust, I feel, is also significant here — if I develop a method whose successful implementation depends on individual researchers, would I trust that they would fulfill their role as a component of the method. Can I trust them in the same way I could trust computerized tools of measurement? If I choose not to trust that which is revealed to the person (and not to the instruments of measurement), if I trust not to treat the researcher as a real, indispensable component of the method, then of course I would close the door to any finding that cannot be captured by those computerized tools of measurement.

        • Dan Martin says:

          Hi Marc,

          Maybe this comment is not what you are looking for but I think it applies to points #1-3.

          If it weren’t for the fact that you wanted to explain something to another human being who didn’t have your experience there would be no purpose to scientific inquiry. Its very foundation is intersubjective communication. The other person cannot repeat your experience, especially in qualitative terms, without following a method which you provide. Once you begin exploring qualitative topics especially if they are akin to meditation, which many positivists consider obscurantist mysticism (Zizek, Badiou), how could you explain what you did or experienced phenomenally without a method?

          The late Eugene Taylor of Saybrook wrote a paper, Against Method, where here convincingly argues against standard methodologies based on the hermeneutic tradition of the Western world. However, there is nothing like empiricism to uncover counterintuitive things that reason and logic alone will never uncover. Most of the worlds various wisdom traditions have methods for students to follow in order to reach so-called higher states of consciousness, even if some mystics have argued against such methods (Krishnamurti). The whole point, in the non-scientific realm of consciousness research (i.e. spiritual practice) is to use a method until you no longer need a method. But to begin with no methodology is just to be lost. I think the same position can be argued within qualitative scientific research.

          That is probably why Nishida Kitaro (of the so-called Kyoto school), even though a Zen practitioner, was interested in the Epoche of Husserl. Because it provided a methodology within consciousness in order to explore qualitative phenomena. A method ignored in the West because it lacked positive rigor and ignored in the East because all thought, on the path toward enlightenment, is considered a hindrance. While operating in ordinary daily consciousness, the realm of scientific inquiry, we need methodologies in order to communicate. [Is the Husserlian epoche ordinary daily consciousness; I’ll let Marc and others debate that.]Ignoring method as some social symbolic fiction forcing authoritarian demands on qualitative researchers is to miss the point. One needs order (method) to be free from being misunderstood, especially within the scientific community. Once you are understood then be free from method (know the rules so you can break them properly).

  2. Ces Tajale says:

    Dear Mark,

    I am a current PhD student and is embarking a study on the lived experience of educational leaders who have led their schools through the process of accreditation.

    One question that I have after reading your article about the method of Moustakas vs. that of Giorgi’s:
    Would Giorgi’s approach be appropriate to use for my planned study?
    I have already indicated in my proposal Giorgi’s method.

    Thanks and best regards.


  3. At the very least, it is a methodical step to decide to take up the phenomenological stance, bracketing, or epoche; and it’s a necessary methodical step, to approach qualitative data in a way that renders it possible for phenomenological structures and insights to be made explicit.