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October 16, 2004

The value of having a mutliple methodology tool chest

I have long railed against what I am now thinking of as methodological realism, the idea that there is only one methodology (or methodological stream) that gives the "right" and most useful answers. I have sat through presentations and defenses where significant portions of the questioning period were taken up with heated discussions of which methodology would have been more worthwhile than the one chosen by the author. These debates were not structured around say the methodology's ability to answer the question being asked, no they were much more philosophical debates about the rightness of one perspective verses the wrongness of another. The underlying and agonizing debate of qualitative verses quantitative methods or quantitative verses qualitative, depending on your perspective.

Long ago a professor told me that academics become more tightly bound to their methodologies then to their research areas. You see, we can change research areas but we tend to port our methodological perferences with us to the new venue. I pondered on this off and on for many years and decided that if I did make my dream come true and work toward a PhD I would do everything in my power to avoid this cliché. While I clearly have methodologies that I have used more often I am always trying to broaden my perspective by adding new tools to my personal methodological toolbox. As such I am constantly reading guides and articles on methodologies that are new to me or in areas where I want to garner new insight.

I am currently reading: McKee, Alan (2003). Textual Analysis : A Beginner's Guide. London: Sage. I have finished reading McKee's excellent first chapter discussing "What is Textual Analysis?" and want to share part of it with you. The chapter is arranged in a general question and answer format, that will make it very useful for the beginner it is targeting. The secton reprinted here spans pages 1 - 3.

What is textual analysis?

Textual analysis is a way for researchers to gather information about how other human beings make sense of the world. It is a methodology - a data-gathering process - for those researchers who want to understand the ways in which members of various cultures and subcultures make sense of who they are, and of how they fit into the world in which they live. Textual analysis is useful for researchers working in cultural studies, media studies, in mass communication, and perhaps sociology and philosophy.

Let's open with a straightforward description

What is textual analysis?

When we perform textual analysis on a text, we make an educated guess at some of the most likely interpretations that might be made of the text.

We interpret texts (film, television programmes, magazines, advertisements, clothes, graffiti, and so on) in order to try and obtain a sense of the ways in which, in particular cultures at particular times, people make sense of the world around them. And, importantly, by seeing the variety of ways in which it is possible to interpret reality, we also understand our own cultures better because we can start to see the limitations and advantages of our own sense-making practices.

Is that the only way to study texts?

Of course, I'm trying to make things simple here, and nothing is really that simple. This book only introduces one version of textual analysis. Academics who do 'textual analysis' actually practice a huge range of methodologies - many of which are mutually contradictory and incompatible (for a sense of this range see Allen, 1992) This book explains a form of 'textual analysis' whereby we attempt to understand the likely interpretations of texts made by people who consume them. This is not the only 'correct' methodology for gathering information about texts. Other approaches can also profuse useful information: no approach tells us the 'truth' about a culture. It's important to realize that different methodologies will produce different kinds of information - even if they are used for analysing similar questions.

For example, suppose you were interested in what the responses of television viewers to an imported American programme (like the 1980's soap opera Dynasty) have to tell us about how audiences make sense of the nation in which they live. You could try to find out this information in a number of ways. Professor Jostein Gripsrud includes two of these in his book The Dynasty Years (1995). On the one hand, Gripsrud draws on large-scale, numerical surveys about Dynasty viewers. He uses ratings information, for example, to tell us how many people watched the programme - finding out that in December 1988, 63 per cent of women and 57 per cent of the men surveyed in his home country of Norway had seen at least one episode of Dynasty in the season that had just run. This is useful information - but it doesn't tell us anything about the ways in which viewers watch this programme. It doesn't tell us how they interpreted it, what they thought it was about, what relationship they thought it had to their lives (Gripsrud, 1995: 113). Gripsrud goes on to investigate other issues in this large-scale survey asking viewers what they disliked about the programme. He points out that less than 25 per cent of the people surveyed thought that the program was 'unrealistic', for example. He uses this evidence to suggest that the viewers of the programme are likely to be relating it to their own life in some way (ibid.: 116).

But this methodology still doesn't produce any information about how these viewers might have been watching Dynasty. In order to produce large-scale, generalizable information, it is necessary to turn people into numbers. There's no other way to handle the information. So Gripsrud does this. He produces categories, and he fits people into them but this information doesn't give us any sense of how audience members actually use a programme. To produce that kind of information would require a different kind of approach, different kinds of questions - a quite different methodology. Gripsrud quotes an interview one viewer of Dynasty. The amounr of detail and specificity about this one viewer is amazing compared with her status in the official rating as a single unit:

[This Dynasty fan] is an intelligent bank employee in her thirties…her husband has a bit more education but…far less intelligence…her husband regularly beats her and humiliates her in carious other ways…When telling the interviewer about her sexual misery, the wife on her own initiative started talking about Dynasty 'You know, I'm quite romantic, you see…What I like to watch on television is Dynasty…I dream that I'd like some tenderness and compassion.' (ibid.: 156)

In the methodology of large-scale surveys, processed as numbers, such a view becomes, perhaps 0.1 per cent of the people who don't thing that Dynasty is 'unrealistic'. Using that methodology, the similarity of her position to that of other viewers is emphasized. But in an interview like this, it is the uniqueness of her situation that becomes obvious - the individual ways in which her own life experience informs the use she makes of this television programme, and the interpretations she produces of it.

These two different methodologies produce quite different pictures of television viewers and their interpretive practices. This is because the questions that you ask have an effect on the information that you find. Different methodologies produce different kinds of answers.

This is an important point. There isn't one true answer to the question of how many viewers watch this television programme. Depending on how you gather your information, you will find different answers. And you can't just fir these different pieces of information together like a jigsaw to produce the 'truth' about how viewers watch Dynasty. You can know in detail how a small number of people watch a programme; or you can know in a more abstract way how lots of people watch. But you can't really know both at once. If we simply interviewed every one of the millions of Norwegian Dynasty viewers in this way, we still wouldn't end up with a perfectly accurate picture of how they really interpret this text. Quite apart from the inconceivable cost of such a project, at some point it would be necessary to boil down the information, to look for patterns, to reduce viewers' experiences to the things that they have in common, in order to produce an account that wasn't twenty million words long. As soon as the information is boiled down into categories, it presents a different type of picture to that which emerges from the individual interview - but no less of a true one. Different methodologies produce different kinds of information - they might not even be compatible.


Allen, Robert C. (ed.) (1992). Channels of Discourse Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Gripsrud, Jostein (1995). The Dynasty Years: Hollywood Television and Critical Media Studies. London: Comedia/Routledge.

I think this is an excellent discussion of how methodologies, as nested perspectives and framing mechanisms, each give us ways of looking at our research and each produces meaningful information. But it can never be forgotten that no methodology is the "right" one to produce the "truth" about any phenomena involving complex systems such as people and their cultures, etc.

One of the realizations I have come to after sitting through many of the painful debates mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, is that purely quantitative researchers and purely qualitative researchers would say they begin their "research" at different points. The quantitative researcher, and here I am talking about the purist, would likely say he begins his research once a question has been formulated and the methodology set down, and data gathering is about to begin. The qualitative researcher would likely say that research begins when he starts to develop the research question through thought and reading prior to his articulation of a methodology.

The difference between these two perspectives, I believe, drives much of the debate between the two methodologies die-hard practitioners. As you can see the quantitative researcher has excluded the purely qualitative activities of question development from the realm of "research." While the qualitative researcher embraces question development as a research activity in much the same way the quantitative researcher see data gathering as "research."

Which way is better? As with most intellectual activities the answer is "It depends."

Posted by prolurkr at October 16, 2004 10:39 PM

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