What is inframethodology?

We all know what meta-theory is, right? Although the Greek word “meta” actually just means “after” (“metaphysics” is just the book that Aristotle dictated after his Physics) we generally think of “going meta” as taking things “up a level”, going “above” or “beyond” whatever we were currently talking about. Meta-theory is the theory of theory, a metatheory is the theory of a theory, i.e., it is a conceptual framework for describing another conceptual framework, like a meta-language is a language for talking about another language (the “object-language”). Meta-theory, we might say, is the application of the philosophy of science to a particular scientific theory,  asking, “How is this a theory?” although sometimes it’s also simply a branch of the philosophy of science, one that answers the question, “What is a theory?”

In order to understand what “inframethodology” is we have to first notice that there’s a difference between method and methodology. Scientists have theories and methods, and they use method-ology to reflect on their methods just as they use metatheory to reflect on their theories. Inframethodology is an account (“logos”), not of our methods, but of that which lies “beneath method”, it investigates the subtle joints of the craft we call research. One way to illustrate it is by noting the difference between the methods astronomers use to analyse images the have collected from telescopes and the skills with which they operate those telescopes. “Method” guides the decisions they make; “inframethodology” is about how they execute those decisions. Inframethodology also includes the art of keeping records of data and taking notes from reading, as well as library and presentation skills. Not least, it includes the craft of writing, i.e., of communicating your results to your peers. An inframethodologist is interested in the rich array of informal practices that support our formalized methods.

In an important sense, inframethodology is the study of the care the we take in doing our research. High-quality research depends not just on sophisticated theories and methods, or expensive equipment or many hours in the field; it depends on how we make use of those resources. It involves the careful reading of other people’s work and its accurate representation (and citation) in our own; it involves the careful observation of empirical facts and their accurate representation in our prose. Inframethodology is the study of how that care is taken and how we learn to be good at practicing it.

If Heidegger is to be believed, this makes inframethodology an “existential” matter. Indeed, I would argue that it is part of what he called “the existential conception of science”; science becomes a “mode of care”, a way of being-in-the-world. But, while I do like to think of myself as a philosopher, at least on some days, I think I should admit that inframethodology is perhaps more closely related to the rhetoric of science than its philosophy proper. It is very much about how discourse of science is maintained and transformed. But the stakes are grave enough, profound enough (i.e., deep enough, i.e., “below”) to justify an occasional philosophical excursion. At the end of the day, however, we are truly thrown into it. It’s very practical problem.

I’m going to be talking about this at the BALEAP/ALDinHE conference on Academic Literacies and EAP at the University of Essex in a couple of weeks. So I’m going to rehearse some of my thoughts here in the coming days. Your questions and comments will be very much appreciated.

3 thoughts on “What is inframethodology?

  1. Thomas, I like this statement. I have shared it with my graduate students. But allow me to exercise a caution that I have dragged out in recent discussions of microfoundations in management, especially strategy. The recent work on the “new” mechanistic explanation or mechanical philosophy doesn’t rely on the metaphor of levels, as we see in the Coleman bathtub model. Mechanistic explanation is more aptly depicted as nested or interior elements and interactions within the system of interest. I see the same phenomenon here. Inframethodology strikes me as being interior to the system of scientific discourse, rather than beneath or below, just as mechanical design is integral to crafted objects.

  2. I really like this approach but I’m not sure how well this plays in the normative mode.

    To me it makes better sense as an ethnomethodology of method. Starting with a meticulous description without an a priori goal of improving the practice. For example, there’s a whole set of practics underneath the method of shaking hands. And they are worth investigating in parallel to whether we think the shaking of hands can be improved.

    1. You are right that an ethnomethodology of method would address more or less the same level of research practices. But, as I understand it, ethnomethodology is staunchly “indifferent” to the quality or value of those practices. Inframethodology is, as you point out, much more engaged, normative. It really cares about the methods. It is always looking for ways to improve them. It watches with affection how people grow.

      I would argue that there are things you can’t see if you’re not actively looking for the room for improvement. There are simply things you miss if you’re not trying to make a practice work better. But I’ll grant that it works the other way too. There are no doubt empirical features of research practices that go unnoticed because of the methodological optimism of the inframethodologist.

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