Methodology refers to the philosophic & theoretical underpinnings of research methods. It is the systematic discussion of research methods, often the methods common in a particular field of study. Unfortunately, in common use, it slides toward use as a synonym for method. When writing up one’s methodology, one discusses WHY one chose a particular method of research. A method is what one actually does in the research process.
When researching history, researchers have to think about what sources to use, and how to handle these sources. I’m reading two books which would claim to be History in some sense. Because the authors are working with different bits of history, they use different kinds of source material, and approach these sources in different ways.
In The Bletchley Girls, Tessa Dunlop’s editor decided that it was best to tell the stories of living women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II. Dunlop’s research was carried out quite recently, more than 70 years after the beginning of the war and the conversion of Bletchley Park into a code-breaking facility. This meant she was interviewing women in their 90s. It also means that the stories of many women who worked at Bletchley Park were not accessed because those women were dead, or were suffering from memory loss. Deciding to interview living women about their war-time experiences limited the data Dunlop used in her book. Any methodological discussion of this method of gathering history (oral history, interviews of participants long after an episode of their life is concluded) must include a discussion of memory, and how memory is shaped both by later events and later understandings of the past.
In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright discusses the meaning of “resurrection” in the ancient world, and what it might mean that Jesus was resurrected. Wright uses ancient documents, both biblical texts, and texts from times before and after the biblical accounts were written. He attempts to access and understand the different ways the concept of resurrection was understood by different groups of people, including ancient Christians. Wright accesses history primarily through documents. Any methodological discussion of Wright’s work must include reflections on which documents survive from the ancient world, and how to best understand the writings which do survive. Further, if language use shifts over time, how do current readers access ancient use of particular words and concepts?
Methodological discussions of historical research involves all kinds of complications of memory, shifts in language, social changes, and imaginative expectations of historians. How do we best gain access to the foreign country that is the past? Time travel is ruled out at the moment, so a balance of other methods with their inherent difficulties must do for now.