Methodology of Postmodernism Research Paper

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If methodology is defined as referring to the foundations of knowledge, as how we perceive and understand reality, as well as how we study it, then there is not only a single implicit postmodern methodology. There are several. But all challenge the methodological assumptions associated with rigorous, modern social science inquiry, be it qualitative or quantitative (Dickens and Fontana 1994). Indeed, there are serious philosophical differences between postmodernism and the enlightenment norms of traditional science. Some postmodernists are uninterested in generalization, definitive explanation, replication, validity, reliability, etc. Neither prediction nor theory building are a major concern. They look to deconstruction as method. Deconstruction tears a text apart, revealing its contradictions and assumptions. Other postmodernists criticize modern methodology and seek to revise it, to build upon it. They look for alternatives to what they call the old, past, closed conventional social science methods inherited from the natural sciences. But they do so without entirely rejecting reason, consistency and coherence of argument. Although they abandon foundations, they retain what they call preferences.



Many postmodernists see the need for new standards for evaluating knowledge. Their criteria are likely to be subjective in nature, including, for example, flexibility, sensitivity, and interactivity. They look for beauty, strength, or force in a text. Some value elegance of expression and style, and seductiveness of content while others say that such criteria are community specific and so cannot be enumerated. Still other postmodernists willingly employ more direct valuations, such as negation of oppression, exploitation, and domination, or the affirmation of liberation, freedom, insubordination, and resistance as key standards (Rosenau 1992).

1. A Postmodern Methodological Focus

Postmodern methodology focuses on the margins and postmodern social scientists highlight the unique and the unusual. They concentrate on the enigmatic and appreciate the unrepeatable. They seek to multiply paradox, to invent ever more elaborate repertoires of questions as much as to determine answers. They look to ‘differance’ (Derrida 1972) rather than sameness, regularity, and synthesis. ‘Differance’ is a structuring principle that tells us that definition rests not on some inherent characteristics of a thing but rather in terms of its negative and positive references to other texts. It also suggests that in the end, definition is never final, always postponed, deferred forever (Derrida 1981).

Postmodern methodology seems driven by substantive concerns quite different from those modern social scientists focus upon. Postmodernists direct their attention to everyday life and they gravitate toward mininarratives or stories. Postmodern social science is a ‘systematic commentary on the knowledge of daily life’ (Bauman 1990). This means examining what is assumed to be quite ordinary and attributing a new importance to it. Postmodern social science makes room for the unexpected, the mystical, and the metaphysical. Concepts such as fate and spirituality are, once again, legitimate (Griffin 1988).

1.1 Linking Substance And Method

If there is a close association of substance and method, then conventional social science methods are not helpful given the postmodern focus on the margins, the unexpected, the paradoxical, and the unrepeatable. Empirical methods require repeatability so that careful measurement can be carried out and statistical norms met. But the subject matter of interest to postmodernists does not recur necessarily and its very interest may be in the fact that it is transient, constantly in flux, and difficult to capture. Because of their substantive foci, these postmodernists require methods that are open and flexible, rather than highly structured, codified, and technically detailed. They must be adaptable to a great variety of situations because of the range of potential application. There is no easy methodological recipe for doing this type of research.

1.2 Going Beyond Qualitative Methods

Postmodernists would reject any argument that their methodology is simply qualitative social science in a different guise. The gamut of modern qualitative approaches developed over the years (from observation to participant observation) retains a preoccupation with generalization and replication as much as an appreciation of complexity. Those employing conventional qualitative methods in social science have invested enormous energy in separating out what is procedurally acceptable from the unqualified. All this is abandoned in the postmodern methodology that embodies an attitude of humility and respect. It does not try to convince others that its own methodological perspective is right, superior, truthful, objective, the best assessment, or the source of the only correct answer. It does not settle on solutions or give privileged voice to any particular, singular point of view. It does not attribute authority to authorship. It queries and interrogates constantly. It follows its own advice: no new metanarrative. A metanarrative is a global worldview, a ‘mastercode’ that assumes the validity of its own truth claims.

2. An Upbeat Postmodern Methodology

What methodological alternatives does postmodernism have to offer vis-a-vis modern social science methodology? It emphasizes personal wisdom, lived experience, and knowledge as rich sources of material that inform writing and research. We are counseled to look to music, art, poetry, and literature instead of census data and public opinion polls. A postmodern social scientist would have more confidence in feelings, faith, empathy, emotion, insight, sensitivity, intuition, imagination, subjective judgment, and introspection as method. Postmodern social scientists are obviously and openly more comfortable with these than with an exclusive confidence in reason and logic. But by praxis, if not discourse, some postmodernists communicate that their alternative methodologies are of most value if disciplined by reason and logic. This amounts to coming to terms with the best of the Enlightenment heritage but without being intimidated by it. It suggests a refusal to accept the authority of modern science but also a desire to salvage from it whatever is of interest, such as the possibility of an interactive and reciprocal relationship between, say, reliable knowledge and meaningful participation in the public sphere, the creation of social life and political action, the enhancement of personal development, self-expression, self-determination and collective praxis (Jennings and Graham 1996). Doing social science might also have to be fun, enjoyable, entertaining rather than somber, listless, and mundane (Bakhtin 1973, Todorov 1984). It would not seek to demonstrate the obvious so much as to highlight the overlooked and the unrecognized.

2.1 Methodology As Art And Literature

Postmodern social science is often viewed as vision and art more than trained observation. It disperses any clear distinction between self and other; fact and values; author, text, and reader. It is inspired by the cultural and contextual preoccupations of anthropology where the distinction between literature and science was never clearly established. Anthropology had to be content with differing ‘evocative devices of metaphor and imagery’ because it was so difficult to arbitrate between different narratives from the past (Richardson 1988). Postmodern social science methodology centers on ‘listening to,’ and ‘talking with’ the other (Tyler 1986). The reader ‘writes’ the postmodern text and in so doing postmodern social science gives voice to those previously silent. It empowers through the methods of interpretation and criticism.

Postmodern methodology employs a literary capacity and it re-invigorates the mininarrative as a story that is worthy of notice even if it is not necessarily true in the modern sense of science. Storytelling is both a method and a means to emancipatory power (Newman and Holzman 1999). The need to reconcile various stories, narratives or research findings may or may not be urgent. The postmodernism tolerance for diversity and its indulgence of discrepancy reflect the fact that there is no rush to create, to construct, to accumulate, and to impose new knowledge in the modern sense.

2.2 Methodology As Interpretation

Postmodern methodology is interpretive but postmodern interpretation bears but slight resemblance to the more conventional social science forms of interpretation. Modern social science understands interpretation to be the careful consideration of data with the goal of locating patterns. Meaning is not arbitrary and some interpretations are assumed to be better than others. But neither does postmodernism resemble hermeneutic interpretation that is more subjective and less ambitious than modern social science’s interpretation. Hermeneutic interpretation, unlike postmodern interpretation, seeks to probe the ‘silences,’ to uncover a deeper meaning, masked and hidden perhaps, but waiting to be discovered (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983, Madison 1988). There is a current within postmodernism that says there simply is no ‘meaning’ to uncover. In many ways hermeneutic interpretation accepts truth, universality, and a shared discourse (a community of understanding).

Postmodern interpretation is introspective, intersubjective, and anti-objectivist, a form of individualized understanding. Postmodern theories of interpretation no longer ‘ground,’ they rather ‘mediate (Kugler 1988). They range from ‘interpretative reason’ (Bauman 1990) to prayer and chanting as ‘interpretative communication.’

2.3 Methodology For A Complex Intertextual World

Postmodernists see the world as so complex that any direct causal statements relating to reality would necessarily be simplistic. They argue that it is impossible to established temporal priority in a simple fashion. They similarly are suspicious of modern versions of time that clearly delineate the past from the present, and include a strict version of linear time or geography. Their preference is for a present-oriented social science that erases linear time and ignores strictly bounded forms of geography. Their analysis emphasizes postmodern intertextuality, including, for example, chaos theory with its view of nonlinear social dynamics, and a definitely more complex version of reality (Young 1992).

If the social universe for these postmodernists is intertextual, this has an impact on their methodology. Relationships, interconnections, and interactions are areas of substantial interest. Conventional research tools are hardly appropriate. Quantitative methods isolate and simplify what is being studied, holding as many extraneous variables as possible constant so as to tease out causal, predictive associations. These postmodernists seek methodologies that integrate what is being studied with all that is related to it even if this complicates the research task, because in the end explanation in any absolute sense may be impossible.

2.4 Relativism And Questioning Postmodernists

Postmodernism is plagued, because of its European philosophical precursors, with the charge of relativism (Gellner 1992) but many postmodernists defy this heritage and reject relativism. This is especially true for the postmodernists who come from a philosophically committed heritage: Marxism, feminism, environmentalism, peace movements, ecology groups, and religious studies (Griffin 1988, 1990, Kumar 1995, Leonard 1997). This leads them to argue that while deconstruction is an interesting first step to a postmodern methodology, it is limited because its goal is to undo all constructions. Deconstruction’s intent is not to improve, revise, or offer a better version of the text, so they reject it. Postmodernism, in this view, must ultimately move to reconstruction and by extension, methodology remains essential.

3. Methodology Defined Narrowly

If methodology is defined narrowly as the rules and regulations of inquiry, then postmodernists must question the whole undertaking, arguing that there is no such thing as a post-modern methodology. ‘Rules,’ as such, are modern, not postmodern in character because they imply hierarchy, a series of good–bad evaluative criteria, an assessment on the basis of a set of agreed upon standards. Postmodernists reject rulebound approaches as ‘metanarratives.’ Critics of postmodernism, however, respond that the absence of rules is itself a rule, the rule that ‘anything goes’ (Feyerabend 1975, Heller 1987) and that there is, thus, a postmodern methodology.

4. Rejecting Methodology Altogether

Postmodernists, inspired by Heidegger and Neitzsche, are antiscience and anti-Enlightenment, and this leads to an absolute relativism and to methodological nihilism. This postmodern orientation emphasizes the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life; theirs is the pessimistic, dark side of postmodernism (Rosenau 1992).

Some such postmodernists practice epistemological impossibilism. They do not intend to provide ‘clear reasoned defense.’ They tell us their texts offer ‘no consistent argument’ and that ‘not all points made are ‘‘necessary.’’’ They boast that by design ‘some essential matters are forgotten’ (Corlett 1989). To insist that these postmodernists develop a self-conscious methodology is to ‘do violence’ to their views, to impose one’s own perspective, and thus diminish them by forcing them to acknowledge your views (Ashley and Walker 1990a, 1990b, Lyotard 1988). In the end, from this postmodernist methodological perspective, we can never really know anything, not even our own feelings and emotions. These postmodernists speak of the death of the author (as agent) and of the absence of the subject (as a real person) with a specific identify. This means that they escape agency, accountability, and responsibility. They deny causality, question efforts to represent reality (through social science theory), and they contend that all interpretations are equally interesting (Miller 1981).

All textual meaning, all interpretation, is undecidable within this postmodern perspective, because there is no final sense of a text and everything is a text in this postmodern world. No interpretation can be regarded as superior to any other (Latour 1988). There is a multiplicity of readings and these postmodernists refuse to privilege one statement over another. ‘Every understanding is a misunderstanding’ (Culler 1982, Norris 1988). Within this intellectual framework there is no need to bother about methodology at all.

5. Conclusion

Postmodern methodologies will be judged in the long term by their product. In the arts and literature, postmodern methods can be fascinating, challenging, and interesting. They stimulate creativity and innovation as exemplified by the writings of Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Milorad Pavic, and Salman Rushdie. They dissolve the boundary between fiction and social critique as the works of Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault so well illustrate. The fruitfulness of postmodern methodologies in the applied social sciences is yet to be demonstrated. Many feel them to be seriously flawed and epistemologically dubious. Post-modern methods contributed little toward the solution of the greatest social problems of the twentieth century. But then, that is not what they set out to do; it was never the intent.


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