The equivalent of the ‘Is it potato cake or potato scallop?’ debate in academia is ‘Why should we care about research method?’ It’s a zero-stakes argument because the people who care about methods mostly ignore the people who don’t, and the people who don’t care about methods don’t understand the people who do. If anything, the argument has subzero-stakes as the people who argue against method largely don’t know what methods they’re arguing against. Giants really didn’t care that Don Quixote was tilting at a windmill.
As a person who would very, very happily teach research methods for the rest of his life, I am on the ‘Research method is good!’ side of the argument and, fundamentally, I don’t really care about what the ‘Research method is bad!’ side of the argument is talking about. The arguments I see from them don’t seem to be discussing research methods at all, but some kind of imagined dogmatism that I don’t think I’ve encountered from serious research methods people. What I do care about is good scholarship, and the thing that distinguishes good scholarship from bad scholarship is good research method. It is as simple as that. If people want to disagree with that, then they’re going to need to start explaining at which windmill they are tilting.
Let’s narrow the discussion right down to legal research because it’s one of the fields with which I’m familiar and it’s where I encounter the most hostility towards research method. Even this morning, a tweet in my feed said: ‘My research method is reading books!’
In a really rather good book review in the Alternative Law Journal, a PhD student at the ANU who researches the public understanding of law–his name escapes me for the moment–said one of the current problems in legal scholarship was being able to distinguish meaningful legal claims from legal gibberish. On the one hand, you want to say that there are some legal facts. There is a Constitution of Australia, for example, and the Constitution gives the Commonwealth Parliament the ability to make laws related to external affairs. And, on the other hand, you want to say that some legal claims are nonsense. The Constitution of Australia is invalid, for example, and the Commonwealth Parliament is invalidly creating laws. The problem with this set up is that there are a lot of grey areas in the law, and so you might want to say that there are arguable claims and unarguable claims and no clear dividing line between the two. This dividing line–according to the PhD student whom I imagine to have had quite a nice haircut that he is still getting used to–was named the ‘Asymptote of the Arguable’. If you come at it from one direction, you can get increasingly fine-tuned arguable claims; if you come at it from the other direction, you get increasingly fine-tuned unarguable claims; you will never reach the dividing line between the two categories.
Even the person who says ‘My research method is reading books!’ would agree that some legal claims are meaningful and other legal claims are not. So what informs their selection of books? How do they synthesise new meaningful legal claims out of old meaningful legal claims? How do they know that they are saying legally meaningful things?
Framed more bluntly, if I do not believe that you are making a legally meaningful claim, how could you convince me that you were? Even better: if we disagree about the best way to understand the law, how can we confirm that both of us are making legally meaningful claims?
Research method is about giving the reader a recipe so that they can bake a similar cake to yours and verify that it is, indeed, a cake. If you detail your research method, I no longer have to trust that you’re a good scholar, I can verify it. And this last point means that detailing your research method depersonalises the research output. If you’re tired of the cliquishness in academia and would like to have reasonable, constructive discussions in which people disagree, then research method is the tool for you. Why? Because if I used this research method and came up with this result, and you used that research method and came up with that result, we can discuss which research method is better or find ways of harmonising these research methods to get a clearer view of the object that we are studying. If you don’t have a research method and it’s just your vibes and feels, then all I can do is disagree with you personally. And academia is infamous for its personal disagreements. Good research methods leads to good research environments.
‘My research method is reading books’ was the same research method used by Naomi Wolf when she was producing her book, Outrages… except she didn’t understand what she was reading and thought a legal term meant the opposite of what it actually meant. Okay, so maybe you adjust your research method: ‘My research method is reading books and I actually understand what they mean’. Okay, but how do you confirm that you understand what they mean? ‘Well, I’m going to look for other authoritative sources.’ Oh, look at that, you’re starting to describe your research method.
We also use research method to discuss the ethics of what we are doing as researchers. A widely derided piece of research that was circulated recently had, as its research method, an authoethnographic study of the author’s experience with highly objectionable pornographic content. Very few people cared about the conclusions of the study because practically every rational person on the planet could look at the research method and say: ‘Under no circumstances do I think this is a worthwhile piece of research.’ Interestingly, a lot of the people who criticised that ‘study’ on the research method alone are also the people in my Twitter feed doubting the importance of research method.
Part of the confusion is that research method skeptics seem generally terrified of quantitative research. Fair enough. But quantitative methods are not the only research methods. I argue with anybody who will listen that doctrinal method has to come first in empirical legal research so that you know that the numbers are saying something worth saying. In fact, I argue that the best researchers are going to be competent at a few different types of research method because research questions should inform which methods you use and not the other way around. Being generally terrified of quantitative research is not a serious reason to avoid thinking about research methods.
In conclusion, the thing that distinguishes good scholarship from bad scholarship is good research method. Good scholars who find themselves on the opposite side of the research method discussion are probably already using decent research methods but don’t realise and haven’t learnt the skills to articulate their methods. Bad scholars on the other side of the research method discussion aren’t people I care about.
And it’s potato cake.