In search of a methodology

One of the things I’ve found most difficult about my research is settling on a methodology. I’ve never been expected to have a methodology before.

In the past, I’ve more or less just read stuff and written about it and while I’ve had some idea of how I was going to tackle my material, I haven’t needed to articulate it up front. I’ve always been wary of methodologies because I’ve seen too many people select a methodology for their research and then twist their material to fit the methodology. The results range from odd to downright worrying.

The example of this that springs most immediately to mind (because I’ve just read about it) is Douglas Oakman’s “peasant reading” of the story of the Good Samaritan (“Was Jesus a Peasant? Implications for Reading the Samaritan Story (Luke 10:30-35)” BTB 22 (1992) 117-25). I think that it’s important that we remember that Jesus was not a white twenty-first century westerner. I also think that the various “peasant readings” of parables are very useful to provide a different perspective on how Jesus’ audience might have perceived what he said, but I am not sure why you would choose the Samaritan story as an example. The context is Jesus having a conversation with a lawyer who is trying to justify himself and his conduct. The encounter, without the parable, appears in Matthew and Mark as well and in both cases, the audience is Pharisees and Sadducees, so it seems to me not particularly useful to speculate on what a peasant audience might have made of the story.

Jesus is portrayed in the Synoptics as a crowd-gatherer. Therefore I think we must assume that he was a charismatic speaker and teacher, one who would tailor his material to his audience. The Synoptics also show him talking to a range of audiences that were not peasants, as well as to those who would have been. I think the more traditional “Pharisee and Sadducee” reading is a better one for this particular parable, fascinating though Oakman’s version is.

That’s why the title of Morna Hooker’s paper “On Using the Wrong Tool” (Theology 75 (1972): 570-81) appealed to me enough to get a copy, even though it didn’t appear to be directly relevant to my study of Thomas. (I have also found Hooker’s work helpful in the past.) The paper was written in the early 1970s and Hooker was looking at form-criticism, which she suggested was a useful tool but not capable of doing what was being required of it – uncovering the authentic teachings of Jesus (570).

April DeConick is looking at the paper in more detail on her Forbidden Gospels Blog. I simply want to comment that it put a name for me to my dis-ease with the notion of settling on a methodology – it is a fear of “using the wrong tool”. Indeed, my original intention was to write my methodology chapter just before I wrote the acknowledgments and abstract. The methodology chapter appears in my thesis outline, but it has nothing next to it. I have, however, come to the realisation that I can’t get much further without at least a provisional methodology because to do so it to run the risk of asking the wrong questions.

My stay in Texas has reinforced for me the problem with asking the wrong questions – you get the wrong answers, or sometimes no real answer at all! “Did I leave my handbag here?” and “Can you tell me where the lift is?” are inclined to be met with blank stares until I realise that I need to ask about my purse and the elevator.

So, in order to analyse my text, I need to have defined what it is that I think I am looking at, so I can ask the right questions, which is part of developing the right tool.

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4 thoughts on “In search of a methodology

  1. Pingback: On the Tool : Theology for the Masses

  2. Pingback: On asking the right questions « Judy’s research blog

  3. Pingback: It must be summer again . . . « Judy’s research blog

  4. Pingback: On the Tool | Henry M Imler

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