Understanding the Theory/Method Nexus

At Erasmus Research, we stress the importance of understanding what we call the theory / method nexus.  Thinking about ‘method’ encroaches on theory since the decision of what method to use involves a cognitive process which is inescapably theoretical.  Likewise, no attempt to apply a theory can be done without some form of methodological consideration.  Indeed, any application of a theory is by definition, a method.  It therefore becomes easy to see that the ‘division’ between the two is not only false, but represents a concrete impediment to research.  This makes the possibilities of adopting a wide range of mixed methods all the more attractive for the researcher who must make use, not only of every possible technique for data collection, but also of the methods for analysis.

Tools and Technologies

Methods are both tools and technologies for the development and application of theories, the aims of which are to understand and make sense of the world. We employ a mixed methods approach in order to maximize our research potential.  Our flexible and pragmatic methodological approach is always determined by the empirical requirements of each project.  In the same way that theory should never be the master but the servant of empirical inquiry, methods should never lead, but always be responsive to the needs of the research project.  The combinations of research techniques are therefore, almost limitless,  However, as a rough guide, some of the key methods we use are outlined below.

Frame Analysis – The activity of ‘framing’ sits at the very heart of how people perceive and understand the social world in which they live.  Individuals, groups and organizations construct the world through frames.  The collective conventions, categories of perception and shared norms that help structure the frames through which we make sense of the world are ideal objects of analysis.  Our particular approach to using frames as a tool for understanding the social world is founded upon the idea that although people construct their own reality, they do not do so under the conditions of their own choosing.  The external world, the objective environment within which people are situated, has a profound effect on how people come to see and understand the world.  Our dialectical approach to research captures this duality.

Ethnographic Observation – This technique is based on the researcher being embedded within the environment they wish to observe.  ‘Strong’ ethnography involves the researcher living ‘as if’ they were part of the group or community they want to research or to understand.  ‘Weak’ ethnography allows the researcher to spend protracted periods in the research environment without having to become an integral part of it.  This method is useful for understanding particular social worlds from different perspectives and for gaining valuable insights into the practices, beliefs and collective conventions of those who inhabit these worlds.

Discourse Analysis – All forms of communication can be analysed to uncover the deeply hidden intentions that often lurk behind the ‘apparent’ meaning presented by forms of discourse.  By analyzing writing, speeches, conversations, guidelines, orders, and other communicative events, it becomes possible to gain an understanding of discourse that might otherwise be obfuscated by euphemisms, metaphors and other rhetorical devices.

Grounded Theory – an inductive method for the construction of theories through methodical gathering and analysis of data.  This method involves rigorous and intensive analysis of the data, from which common elements, concepts and ideas begin to emerge.  As more data is processed, categorized and coded, a clearer picture emerges.  The new data can form the basis for an entirely new theoretical approach.  This is where a bottom up or grounded theory approach differs from methods where a specific theory is selected before the study begins and applied to the data in order to extract certain information.

Archaeological Method – This Foucauldian inspired method is an analytical tool for uncovering the ‘History of the Present’.  Through an archaeological excavation of what we believe to be ‘legitimate’ concepts and ‘official’ meanings, and by uncovering the alternative concepts and definitions that were thwarted and excluded through the struggles between competing groups, it is possible to construct a thoroughly historicized understanding of the power/knowledge nexus.  Given that the purpose of critical inquiry is to highlight the extent to which the apparently ‘natural’ and ‘necessary’ are of course ‘arbitrary’ and ‘historically contingent’, this approach is an essential tool for breaking with common sense, which is always a political construct.  This method is a useful tool on its own for understanding power and its effects in any academic investigation.  However, it is particularly valuable as a preliminary means by which to tease out research questions and to shape research design early in the process, particularly when dealing with contentious, contested or under-researched subjects.