Method No Madness

Picking the right tool for the right question? Read on.

In research, the question of method often seems to be the focal point: “how do we answer the question?” seems to be the question in itself. This is also one of the most common misconceptions about what constitutes good research, methodological chops being our everything.

The truth is that the question of how is always secondary, outranked by the what and, even better, the why (closely followed by the rest of the Ws). Any research project, unless it sets out to test a specific methodology, is driven by our desire to find an answer, which means it is all about the question that we ask, not about the method we intend to apply.

Therefore, the question drives the method, and not the other way.

Practice, however, often shows differently: the method is king. The drive to make method the decisive factor can stem, equally, fromĀ  the place of comfort and the place of discomfort. In the first case, we are drawn to the familiar tool set, allowing ourselves to ask questions we could answer using the tools we know. In the second, it’s the lack of familiarity with tools that makes us retreat and mold the question into its plausible alternative that could be answered with the tools we have.

Both, proficiency and fear, are natural experiences familiar to any researcher. Yet, regardless of the origin, the results of such approach are the same: by being wedded to a specific methodology, we are not answering the questions that are being asked.

Naturally, some projects are born out of curiosity: what can we study using this cool tool (hello, survival analysis!)? And, not to say that, at times, there are plausible substitutes to original questions allowing us to arrive at answers faster and cheaper using a different method.

None of this, however, negates the rule: for best results, don’t chase the method – follow the question instead.

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