In Praise of Flowers and Pebbles, or Why We Push Back Against Methodology

by | 25 Jan 2023

Views From a PhD Student

Imagine for a moment that you are planning a walk through a well-known, popular forest. It has clear trails marked by those who went before. You could, perhaps, rigidly plan out in advance which trails you will follow. Or you could approach with almost no plan at all – with an awareness of the trails but also a deliberate sense of exploration and wonder that will lead you to new discoveries. The flowers, moss, rare mushrooms, and other surprises that await are what make the walk worthwhile. A unique moment in time, just for you.

As a PhD student, the sense of an obligation to articulate my ‘methodology’ during the first phase of my studies feels rather like taking the first approach. A constrictive limitation on what could otherwise be a decidedly creative endeavour. Indeed, in this regard methodology can sometimes be a tool of obfuscation rather than one of discovery which tends to undermine the fact that a PhD is intended to make a distinct contribution to knowledge, however small. It was for this reason that I complained on Twitter that methodology makes me angry and resentful. I view my research not as measuring, counting, or mapping but rather as exploring, investigating, pondering, and reflecting. I am travelling through the woods with the flowers and the moss, not to count and catalogue their presence, but to sit with them, see them, and simply notice them.

My flowery point is supported by several senior scholars, particularly in my discipline of international law. Judge Hilary Charlesworth offers the ‘pebble in your shoe’ approach to research – simply investigate those things that keep bothering you and go from there. Professor Anne Orford has also argued against rigidity; suggesting that scholars should ‘evaluate, choose among, or create methods based not on whether they are ‘correct’ but on what they help to make visible or possible.’ 

If methodology is conceived as a description of the path that was taken after you emerge from the forest, rather than a declaration of the path that you will take prior to entry, then methodology is fine. As Professor Sundhya Pahuja suggests, it can be about ‘cultivating a scholarly ethos rather than either indoctrination into a particular school, or the presentation of a marketplace of approaches from which to ‘choose’’. As for me, I am grateful that my supervisor expressly told me “no fancy methodology needed”. This advice has freed me to simply go wherever the forest of research into which I have wandered may take me. 

Views from an HDR Supervisor

“So today we’re meeting our new PhD student, that’s exciting!”

“Yes, very! Should we catch up beforehand to talk about what we should discuss in the first meeting?”

“Oh, in the first meeting I always get them going on methodology, that’s really what it’s all about at the start”

This conversation, which occurred in pretty much these exact terms a few years ago as I was about to embark in a co-supervision, encapsulates most of my scepticism about the methodological turn in legal research. A disclaimer: this is not meant to be a denial of the importance of method. Believing as I do that law is primarily an argumentative discipline, I maintain that no argument can be plausibly crafted unless one clearly states what they intend to argue, how they will do it, and can show that they have built their argument in the form intended.

The proposition that does not sit well with me is rather that which assigns intrinsic value to method, to the point of, at times (whether consciously or not), prioritising methodological rigour over substantive analysis. This is particularly detrimental in the context of HDR legal studies and supervision. 

When I started my PhD in 2009 my supervisor gave me one simple task: “go to the library and read”. For the first six to twelve months of my candidature, it did not matter to him what I read, it simply mattered that I did. His focus was very much on the substance of what interested me, the how would come later. That first period of my PhD remains, to this date, the most precious intellectual experience of my academic life. It was like being in candy land and absorbing ideas from a broad spectrum of disciplines and research fields. It did not matter that many of these did not end up in my thesis. It mattered to my intellectual growth that I was exposed to them. 

This started to change in the later stages of my candidature. First year students were increasingly facing bureaucratic hoops (e.g. a standardised research proposal after 6 months) that constrained their intellectual freedom with a compliance model focused on deliverables more than substance. Methodology, and references to methodology, have played a central role in this turn of events. Suddenly candidates were required to reflect on methods before having properly settled on what it is that they sought to achieve. In extreme cases, methodology became the focal point of students’ first exchange with their supervisor. 

Much of the angst about methods trickles in from cognate disciplines in the social sciences, and there is no doubt that methodological rigour has its time and place – you cannot conduct an empirical study without it. But the risk in shifting so much attention towards method is that one may lose sight of why they are doing what they are doing. Indeed, for a pebble to find its way into your shoe, you first need to take a walk in the woods, allowing yourself to get lost. And the best method to do that … is not to think about it too much. Just go and explore first.

*Marco Rizzi is Associate Professor and Deputy Head of School (Students) at the University of Western Australia Law School. He teaches and researches in the areas of Torts, Health Law & Policy, and Risk Regulation. Juliette McIntyre is a Lecturer in Law at the University of South Australia and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis considers the procedure of the International Court of Justice.

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