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BERA’s postgraduate symposium: A lifebelt in the methodological mire

Emma Clarke

As a doctoral student, BERA’s Postgraduate Forum symposium on research methodology seemed the perfect opportunity to present the methodological aspects of my research to a critical audience before I had to defend my decisions in the viva. Descriptions of the ‘muddy ambiguity’ (Finlay, 2002) of undertaking research rang true for me, and at times the ‘messiness’ of the process (Letherby, 2003) and methodological ‘swamp’ (Finlay, 2002) threatened to halt my research entirely. I looked for sure footing among the ‘pure’ methodologies (Maggs‐Rapport, 2000) that formed a major component of many books I had bought. However, the more I searched for a single methodology that would help me answer my research question, the more ‘restrictive’ (Morse and Chung, 2003) the process became.

White (2013) has warned new researchers about the dangers of ‘identifying’ with specific ‘research traditions’ due to their limiting effects, or what Janesick (1994) had described as ‘methodolotry’. These views steered me away from the prescribed ways of working in the more traditional methodologies, and made me consider methodological issues more carefully.

A pragmatic methodology, defined by (2010) simply as ‘the use of more than one qualitative approach with another’, was identified as ‘the most sensible and practical method to answer a research question’. Methodological pragmatism, rather than being prescriptive, was proposed as a way of ‘un-thinking’, as ‘anti-philosophy’ and advocating action (Biesta and Burbules, 2003; Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004). This suited my research question perfectly, and it was along these ‘anti-philosophy’, action centred lines that I finally progressed.

During my presentation at the symposium, when one of the moderating professors folded her arms with the slightest sigh, I began to question my thinking. She proposed that using a pragmatic methodology did in fact involve a great deal of philosophising. Over the coming weeks I reflected on the feedback: had I in fact been engaged in thinking rather than ‘un-thinking’, and ‘philosophising’ as well as action in my research?

Through considering methodology deeply in order to arrive at the decision to utilise pragmatism, I belatedly realised that much philosophising had been undertaken. This had resulted in a deep understanding of the importance and influence of methodological choices, and I subconsciously developed a questioning as opposed to an accepting stance. The feedback gained at the BERA symposium had altered my perspective. Methodological pragmatism changed from something that had caused problems due to its lack of prescription and the resultant, significant amount of additional reading and deliberation, to something that emphasised the ‘why’ in research (Morgan, 2014). I became more confident that a pragmatic methodology was not simply a good choice but the only choice for my research, agreeing with those who argued that ‘methodological pluralism’ was both ‘absolutely necessary’ and ‘increasingly inevitable’ (Johnson et al 2008).


Biesta G and Burbules N (2003) Pragmatism and Educational Research, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Finlay L (2002) ‘Negotiating the swamp: The opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice’, Qualitative Research 2(2): 209–230

Frost N, Nolas S M, Brooks-Gordon B, Esin C, Holt A, Mehdizadeh L and Shinebourne P (2010) ‘Pluralism in qualitative research: The impact of different researchers and qualitative approaches on the analysis of qualitative data’, Qualitative Research 10(4): 441–460

Janesick V (1994) ‘The dance of qualitative research design: metaphor, methodolatry and meaning’, in Denzin Y and Lincoln N (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research, London: SAGE Publications

Johnson R B and Onwuegbuzie A J (2004) ‘Mixed methods research: A research paradigm whose time has come’, Educational Researcher 33(7): 14–26

Johnson M, Long T and White A (2008) ‘Arguments for “British Pluralism” in qualitative health research’, Journal of Advanced Nursing 33(2): 243–249

Letherby G (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice, Buckingham: Open University Press

Maggs‐Rapport F (2000) ‘Combining methodological approaches in research: Ethnography and interpretive phenomenology’, Journal of Advanced Nursing 31(1): 219–225

Morgan D L (2014) ‘Pragmatism as a paradigm for social research’, Qualitative Inquiry 20(8): 1045–1053

Morse J M and Chung S E (2003) ‘Toward holism: the significance of methodological pluralism’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2(3): 13–20

White P (2013) ‘Who’s afraid of research questions? The neglect of research questions in the methods literature and a call for question-led methods teaching’, International Journal of Research and Method in Education 36(3): 213–227