On methods, methodology, and academic prolixity

For various reasons I have spent the day revisiting the writings of Richard Gombrich, a great contributor to Buddhist studies. Although his scholarship divides opinion, most would agree that Gombrich’s style of writing is a pleasure to read, being direct, clear and often humourous. I have just come across the following paragraph in his 2009 book What the Buddha Thought (on p.92):

Unfortunately, nowadays students are taught that when they embark on research they first have to learn methodology, and that when they write up that research they should start by explaining their methodology. Even worse, they are often led to believe that there is such a subject as methodology. This needs to be unravelled.

There is no such subject as methodology. Mediocre academics like using long words, and at some point in the past generation someone decided it would be more impressive to call method ‘methodology’. Obviously it is true that when one tries to find something out, one uses one or more methods, and it is often appropriate to explain which method or methods one is using. … But there is no such thing as a general study of ‘methods’ which will reveal to one which method is appropriate.

As well as making me chuckle, this passage led me to my nice weighty OED to see exactly how ‘methodology’ is defined. My dictionary defines ‘methodology’, a term that apparently goes back to 1800, as “The science of method; a treatise or dissertation on method.” Thus we don’t use a methodology, or have a methodology; we use a method.

Or, to draw on another example of mis-use of the English language to make oneself appear more grand, one does not utilise a methodology. Although I suppose one may utilise methodology in order to extract an appropriate method to use…

And Gombrich has another thing right too: the best academic writing is clear and concise. He leads by example, as do other leading scholars such as Johannes Bronkhorst. I will always admire such writing, even as I ponder the extent to which I agree with the theories and arguments contained within.

Back to the books…

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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4 Responses to On methods, methodology, and academic prolixity

  1. Hmm,
    that’s great to see you are like revolutionary to the word “methodology.
    As there is no such thing as methodology but it will lead you to your destination.
    And certain methods will lead you to it.
    That’s what I think.

  2. It was always my impression that this is quite true for the use of the word in English: It seems that often “methodology” and “method” are used interchangeable, and that the former is just a fancier term for the latter.

    However, I think in the German tradition, there is a distinction between the two (at least that is what I have come to believe): A method is a specific set of tools and guidelines for empirical work. A methodology, in contrast, is the theoretical and epistemological foundation of a method. So the reflection on why a certain method should yield valid results, based on a certain model of the empirical reality, would then be methodology.

    • Thanks for your comment! Yes, these days “methodology” is often used to mean “method”, and indeed the most up-to-date OED acknowledges this as a possible general use. My own copy of the OED is a few decades old, and does not acknowledge the possibility. Personally I think it is useful to keep the two terms distinct, as you say they are in German, not least because talking about “methods” is more likely to keep a scholar or student grounded and thinking in practical terms of “what am I going to do?” I like simple language!

  3. Pingback: More thoughts on method and methodology | Naomi Appleton's blog

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