Permit some metaphors. I generally think of our research as being based on method and framed by theory. I have occasion to insist on this when an author I’m working with writes that their paper is “based on NN’s theory of X”. The paper isn’t based on your theory but, perhaps, “guided by” it, I suggest. Indeed, you perceptions are framed by your theory. Your concepts are observational categories. Properly speaking, your research is based on “observation”, but since we’re doing science, we call the results of your observations, “data”.
It’s the mutually supporting structure of theory and method, frame and basis, that allow us to make “objective” assertions about the real world, or to discover “the truth”. Having a frame and a basis gives our observations the stability they need to inform our statements about reality. And those statements carry this stability with them into the discourse, where our peers can give the matter their own careful consideration. But what puts the “care” into “careful” here? That’s what I wanted to say a few words about.
A theory frames the way we see the world. Since our peers see the world (more or less) as we do (that’s what makes them “peers”) our theories also frame the way we present our research to them. By assuming our readers are our peers, we assume that a particular set of concepts and assumptions is available to them. It’s the same set of concepts and assumptions that guided the design of our study. The theory, we might say, “prepares” us to see the world in a particular way. But the world itself must be “prepared” to be seen that way. It must be “set up” or “readied” for us to see it as the theory demands. That’s where method comes in, telling us how to generate data that can be “given” to the theory. It’s only when the world is given to our experience as specially prepared data that our theory knows what to do with it. And if our theory knows what to do with it, so, presumably, does our reader.
So we carefully prepare the world to be observed within the framework of the theory. And the reader then carefully imagines what we have done to see the world in this way. To guide them in their interpretation of our theory–to help them see that our theory is also their theory–our readers might make use of a “meta-theory”. It will contain some overarching principles that govern, for example, theory selection and theory development in our discipline. We might have a choice between two or three theories in designing our study. Our meta-theory helps us decide which is most appropriate. Sometimes we need to be explicit about how we have used these principles; other times it will be completely obvious. The point is just that a theory is a frame within a frame. Our care shows in the way we situate one within the other.
Likewise, underneath our methodologies, there is an area of concern that comes before our collection of data. Here too, things may happen without thinking too much about it. Much of this concern is dealt with by developing good habits of seeing and listening, noticing and note-taking. It hardly matters how sound your methods of analysis are if you don’t keep your test tubes clean, after all. Your methods tell you what to measure; your theories tell you what your measurements mean. But you must yourself take the measurement accurately. And once you have taken it, you must make sure you write it down in the correct column.
After a life in research, these habits become second nature. (As do the bad habits that can emerge if you’re not paying attention.) But, just as we will sometimes make use of a meta-theory to make explicit the principles that guide our choice of theory and the changes we make to it, so too can an inframethodology sometimes help to remind us what to be careful about in the everyday conduct of research. This care is the underlying basis of the craft of research.