I notice that the two terms methods and methodology are often mixed up. It is actually quite simple to remember the difference if you consider the etymology. The “-logy” part suggests that “methodology” concerns the knowledge of methods. Here is a quick run-down of how to differentiate between them in academic writing.

A methods section in a paper

In a conference paper or journal article, you typically want to describe the method you used. What data collection approach did you employ? What equipment did you use? What did you ask your participants to do? A methods section in a paper describes such things with a level of detail necessary for others to understand what you did.

In an empirical paper, you often don’t have space to write much of a reflection on the methods used. However, it may be worth including a methodological reflection in the discussion section of your paper. For example, if you used video analysis as the core method in your study, you can reflect on whether it would have been better to use motion capture instead. How would that have been better? Moreover, what problems may it have caused?

A methodology chapter in a thesis

A thesis is written to prove that you have attained research skills at a certain level (bachelor, master, or PhD). Some students (and supervisors) need to remember that writing the thesis is in itself an achievement. Of course, there needs to be a scientific contribution in a thesis, but often it is modest in content. That is fine; learning the craft of writing a thesis is part of the game.

I have written another blog post on what a PhD dissertation should look like. There, I suggest that the third chapter should be called “Methodology.” Nowadays, I am mostly supervising paper-based dissertations, meaning that the main research contributions are written in separate papers. The dissertation text works as a “framing” of those articles.

In such a paper-based dissertation, the methods used in the various studies are already described in each paper. Thus, there is no need to repeat those descriptions. It is more important to provide a methodological reflection on why the different methods were chosen and their pros and cons. That is the point of a methodology chapter.

The challenge of interdisciplinarity

There are both joys and sorrows in working in an interdisciplinary setting. I am working at the crossroads between music technology and music psychology, which means that I constantly have to deal with different disciplinary traditions. Researchers in psychology and technology use a variety of methods, to begin with, and adding music to the mix complicates things even more.

Fortunately, the positive side of working in such a “messy” field is that one needs to find one’s way and adapt to various publication channels. This also requires careful thinking about which methods to use and the resulting methodological reflections.

Throughout my career, I have worked on methods development and am becoming increasingly interested in methodological reflections. Now, I am also trying to push my students to join me in understanding the difference!