A Note on Methodology

Often the term ‘methodology’ sounds intimidating and hard to understand. It is basically a collection of methods, or ways and principles. In accordance with these methods and principles a scholar or scientist conducts research within the framework of their discipline (subject), such as physics, chemistry, history, sociology or literary studies.

The term ‘methodology’ is a western European neologism (newly formed word) coined (formed) at the turn of the 19th century. It is composed of two elements ‘method’ and ‘-logy.’ The former is another western European neologism, that is, Latin methodus, which was coined at the turn of the 15th century for denoting a ‘systematic way’ of doing something, such as a medical procedure or a theological exegesis (explanation) of a biblical issue. In turn, this medieval Latin word methodus is composed from two Greek words, namely, met(a) for ‘beyond’ and hodós for ‘way, road.’ So method is not a ‘simple way of doing something,’ but a way that was developed through a prolonged practice that was thoroughly reflected upon (discussed), described, and finally standardized as the ‘best’ or ‘normal’ way of proceeding in a given case.

An element of the social reality superimposed on the material reality

Nowadays, ‘method’ means a planned, preconceived, standardized way of doing something. It may be a specific technique of steel production or in scholarship a way of orderly, logical, systematic and empirical (based on observable facts and phenomena, that is, evidence-based) research (explanation) on a development, be it the reasons for ending the Thirty Years’ War or how beta-blockers lower blood pressure.

The suffix (ending) ‘–logy’ in the word ‘methodology’ is yet another western European neologism, which emerged in the late 16th century. It stems from Greek lógos for ‘word, saying, speech, discourse, or thought.’ In Latin it was written –logia, as in the aforementioned medieval Latin term methodologia. Since then this ending has been used for forming abstract words that mean a body of theory, approved ways of research (‘doctrine’), knowledge gained and questions remaining to be answered in a specific thematic area. One of the earliest coinages of this type was ‘theology’ (formed in the 14th century), while in the 19th and 20th centuries, in a similar fashion names of new scholarly disciplines were developed, for instance, ‘bio-logy,’ ‘socio-logy,’ or ‘anthropo-logy.’ Obviously, names of some other scholarly and scientific disciplines were formed differently. In astronomy the ending ‘-nomy’ is a neologism stemming from Greek -nomia for ‘law or custom’, while in physics the ending ‘-ics’ is the 16th-century neologic plural of -ic, representing Latin -ica, from Greek –ika for ‘matters relevant to.’ The akin term ‘history’ for a discipline developed yet in another manner. In the 14th century it was borrowed from Latin historia, which in turn had been borrowed from Greek historía for ‘learning or knowing by inquiry about the past, that is, history.’ The origin of the Greek word lies in hístōr or ‘one who knows or sees,’ nowadays, we would say ‘expert.’

Methodology can be likened to a toolbox of instruments appropriate or traditional employed for probing into a specific subject matter within the confines of a given discipline. For instance, in physics it may be a thermometer for establishing the temperature of an object. The thermometer as a device may be based on expanding and contracting substance, be it mercury or alcohol for showing the detected temperature. The reading, on the other hand, can be shown in the Fahrenheit or Celsius scale. The beginning of the latter scale, or 0 °C, is the freezing point of water, while in the former case it is the temperature of a solution of brine made from equal parts of ice and salt. In essence these different approaches to measuring temperature are seen as methodological differences. Likewise, distance can be measured either in miles or kilometres, and the very measurement can be executed with the use of different methods.

The fundamental methodological difference between sciences, on the one hand, and the social sciences and humanities (history included) on the other is caused by their respective subjects and goals of research. The subject matter of sciences is the entire material reality accessible to human perception (often enhanced by detecting devices, such as the microscope or the telescope), or in simple words, the universe from dark matter, galaxies, stars and planets to trees, elephants and insects, to atoms, quarks and radiation waves. The material reality exists independently of human will, equally perceptible (detectable) to humans, animals, plants, amoebas, or extraterrestrials. Through research scientists aspire to discover invariable universal laws that govern the functioning of the material reality. These laws are the same be it on earth, in the atom, in the sun or in another galaxy, that is, across the entire known Universe.

The subject matter of the social sciences and humanities is the social reality, or the reality created by humans through the social (bonding, communicative) use of language. This social reality is composed from entities and principles that are imagined (willed) by humans and their groups into being. These entities and principles are stored in the brain and shared by humans and their groups. The aforesaid entities and principles exist as long as humans believe in them and act in line with them. None of these entities (good, evil, university, state, a language, church, decency, nation, citizenship, friendship, war, money, or peace) or principles (Thou shalt not steal, the month of January is composed of 31 days, a good law cannot be retroactive, or an excellent essay is assessed at 19 or 20 in the grading scale as employed at the University of St Andrews) is detectable with measuring instruments employed by sciences. Thermometers, distance-meters, microscopes or telescopes are of no help. The social reality is fully dependant on human will and perceptible only those ‘in the know,’ that is to humans and their groups who practice specific elements of the social reality. For instance, it is next to impossible for a human with no concept of university in her mind to perceive a university, even when others tell her that now she is at the University of St Andrews.

Unlike the material reality that is the same as the universe, the social reality pops up only there where humans reside, that is, in the inhabited parts of Earth’s landmasses. Should you wish to learn more on the distinction between the material and social reality, have a look at: T Kamusella (2017) Imagining the Nation: Ontological and Epistemic Objectivity (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLji27SjSJ4 ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69yob0ZGcak).

The aspiration of scholars working in the social sciences and humanities (history included) is to understand and explain the dynamics of the material reality, how it works. But unlike scientists, scholars (or practitioners of the social sciences and humanities) do not hope to discover some universal laws. They settle for discovering regularities that work in a certain type of societies in a specific region in a given period. For instance, such a regularity in the modern period is that too steep an economic stratification of society in a state is almost certain to lead to disturbances, and perhaps, even to a revolution. Economic inequality can be measured with the use of the Gini coefficient (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient) or the Lorenz curve (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorenz_curve).

Scholars are always uncertain of their predictions and explanations, because of the staggering contingency of humans who at the spur of a moment may decide to re-imagine an element of social reality differently than previously. The seven million humans living nowadays on Earth have free will to do whatever they want with the social reality that surrounds them (or more appropriately, is generated by them), and they often do. No human can look directly into the mind of another human, so at most what scholars can do is to scrutinize the effects of such ‘a change of heart.’

The only instrument of probing into the social reality is language, which is also the very medium of social reality. ‘Thermometers’ or ‘telescopes’ of the social sciences and humanities are definitions. They are the basic instrument of researching the social reality. Upon the completion of a study on a certain phenomenon or regularity observed in the social reality, the finding is encapsulated in a definition. When a development occurs within this phenomenon or regularity that falsifies the accepted definition, another more capacious and better working definition is worked out to cover such a development. This is the only kind of ‘progress’ available in the social sciences and humanities.

Let us take as an example of the phenomenon of genocide. This phenomenon started occurring during the modern period when states had acquired ubiquitous bureaucracies and systems of mass physical enforcement. Such invasive bureaucracies allowed for gathering information on each inhabitant living on the state’s territory and for forcing groups of individuals selected according to a criterion to move from point A to point B (for instance, from their homes to a concentration camp). But until the Holocaust of Jews by Germans and Austrians during World War II, genocides had been known by the inadequate labels of ‘massacres’ or ‘atrocities.’ This inadequacy stared many into the face so that during the war they began dubbing genocide as ‘a crime without a name.’ In 1944, the Polish jurist of Jewish origin, Raphael Lemkin, coined the term for this as yet nameless phenomenon, namely, ‘genocide.’ This neologism is constructed from Greek géno(s) for ‘ethnic group, nation, race, tribe, religious community’ and Latin -cīda for ‘killer,’ or -cīdium for ‘an act of killing.’

Lemkin also provided quite a detailed and all-encompassing definition of genocide, which aspired to cover all types of human groups that from the 18th to the mid-20th century had suffered the tragedy of genocide. In 1948 the United Nations adopted The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However, in the run-up negotiations, on the insistence of the Soviet Union ‘social groups’ and ‘political groups’ were excluded from the convention’s legal definition of genocide. As such the Soviet Union made itself immune to legally-minded accusations that it was guilty of genocide for mass killings of political opponents (non-Bolshevik-style communists) or kulaks (‘rich peasants’).

Nowadays when a scholar researches the 1965 extermination of about 0.6 million (suspected) communists and their families in Indonesia, she can say that it was a genocide according to Lemkin’s definition, or that it was no genocide, according to the 1948 convention’s definition. The legal principle is that no law should be applied retroactively. Hence, some scholars say that the Ottoman (‘Turkish’) extermination of Armenians in 1915 could not be a genocide, because this term was coined twenty years later. On the other hand, scholars contesting this approach, propose that it was a genocide, only in 1915 we had not yet had an appropriate name for this crime. However, Turkey is not legally answerable for this crime. Why not? First, the 1948 Genocide Convention is not applicable retroactively. Second, it was the Ottoman Empire, which committed this genocide in 1915, not Turkey, which was founded as a state only seven years later, in 1922. Yet another scholar may add that Turkey as the recognized direct successor to the Ottoman Empire has the moral duty at least to acknowledge that what happened was a genocide.

As you can see above, different approaches – or methodologies – can be applied to defining genocide and for arguing whether a part was or was not guilty of this crime against humanity. This is methodology at work.

Often, to work with and apply methodology consciously and effectively, we need to jostle ourselves from the comfort zone of believing that we know well even the seemingly simplest things and ideas that we take for granted. For instance, we talk of language and languages as the singular and plural of the same word. However the uncountable term ‘language’ for the ‘biological capacity for speech primarily employed for group bonding and secondarily for communication’ does not take any article (definite or indefinite) or the plural ending –s. Hence, the plural form ‘languages’ is not directly related to this article-less and plural-less ‘language,’ but to another word. This countable word is ‘a language’ that always takes an article in front. It means ‘an entity employed for bonding and communicative purposes by a specific human group (ethnic group, nation), nowadays, this entity is imagined into being through dictionaries, grammars, a specific writing system, principles of spelling, official bodies certifying the sufficient command of such an entity, and the like.’

In German, to clearly distinguish between the uncountable and article-less language and the countable language that always takes an article, the respective specialized opposition Sprache vs Einzelsprache was developed in the late 18th century. In English this distinction must be explained at length as above, because – quite confusingly – the same word is employed for denoting it, the difference in meanings showing only in the grammatical functioning of the word ‘language.’ In German the difference in meaning is visible at the level of these two cognate but yet different words.

The very concept of Einzelsprache (‘a language’) that the article-less language comes in a multitude of discrete (separate and bounded) and countable entities known as ‘languages’ (Einzelsprachen) is a western European idea. Until the modern times, outside the west, people had construed about speech (or the artic-less language, Sprache) differently. However, the western (European) concept of Einzepsprache was imposed on the rest of the world by the west in the wake of colonization and imperial domination.

This example shows how ideas, concepts and actual words are imagined into being and deployed for action. Basically, how the social reality is built and changed. Should you like to learn more about the history of the concept of Einzelsprache and its uses, have a look at: T Kamusella (2016) The History of the Normative Opposition of ‘Language versus Dialect:’ From Its Graeco-Latin Origin to Central Europe’s Ethnolinguistic Nation-States (pp 189-198) Colloquia Humanistica Vol 5. (http://www.academia.edu/30502826/The_History_of_the_Normative_Opposition_of_Language_versus_Dialect_From_Its_Graeco-Latin_Origin_to_Central_Europe_s_Ethnolinguistic_Nation-States_pp_189-198_._2016._Colloquia_Humanistica._Vol_5._http_ispan.waw.pl_journals_index.php_ch_article_download_ch.2016.011_2342).

August 17, 2017