I'm currently having a hard time understanding if authors are using the word methodology correctly, or if their papers should be classified as BS. Hence, I set out to get a better feeling for the correct use of the word, but now I'm even more confused than before:

First I had a look at wikipedia which states:

Methodology is the systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods applied to a field of study, or the theoretical analysis of the body of methods and principles associated with a branch of knowledge.

This sentence is followed by a second sentence with reference to a paper from S.I. Irny, which as far as I could see, states something very contracting:

Methodology is generally a guideline for solving a problem, with specific components such as phases, tasks, methods, techniques and tools [two sources are given]

Even though I think the wikipedia description is identical with my understanding of the term, the reference is confusion. I then asked Merriam & Webster for help. Here it says:

1: a body of methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline : a particular procedure or set of procedures 2: the analysis of the principles or procedures of inquiry in a particular field

Oxford says a discipline is branch of knowledge, which I would interpret as things like math, sociology, computer science and psychology, but not things like UML modeling, crossword solving, methods for solving a problem, or even sticking together methods to solve a problem. This does not match the discipline : a particular procedure or a set of procedures part of the definition.

And then again they give a weird example:

«for solving crossword puzzles my usual methodology is to begin by filling in all of the answers I'm reasonably sure of»

Maybe the « and » brackets indicate that they chose a poor example, or they consider crosswords a discipline (case 1). It obviously doesn't qualify for case 2, as the example does not analyse methods used in the crossword domain.

Sadly, Oxford defines the term as:

a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity: a methodology for investigating the concept of focal points

Which again is used as a method/solution for a problem and not the theorecial study of methods in that field. Only the "Methodology as a buzzword" section on wikipedia seems to back up my understanding of the term:

Many recent uses of the word methodology mistakenly treat it a synonym for method or body of methods. Doing this shifts it away from its true epistemological meaning and reduces it to being the procedure itself, the set of tools or the instruments that should have been its outcome. A methodology is the design process for carrying out research or the development of a procedure and is not in itself an instrument for doing those things. Using it as a synonym for method or set of methods, leads to misinterpretation and undermines the proper analysis that should go into designing research.

Question 1: Is my understanding that a methodology is, as the name suggests it, a logic behind methods, and consequently must not deal with the topic per se, but address some meta level of the used methods, wrong?

Question 2: For my particular academic problem in CS: Is the combination of general priciples and rules as part of a standard for creating a particular type of operating system a methodology (e.g. as used in AUTOSAR)? Such principles and rules govern and describe communication mechanisms, memory access methods, scheduling and the like. I would call this a body of methods, hence this must be a buzzword?

Additional fact: My Sixth edition Oxford from 1976 says:

Science of method; body of methods used in a particular branch of activity;

So in the current version they dumped the actual meaning and only used that weird body of method definition.

I'm happy about any source bringing some clarity into this mess. Don't worry if you can't answer the CS specific question, a general purpose answer may well be just as good.

  • 1
    Your pre-questions about the use of colon and brackets in a specific dictionary (the Merriam-Webster) is clearly not on topic here. However, the question below (difference between method and methodology) is actually excellent, so I wonder if you could edit all the irrelevant bits out?
    – F'x
    Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 19:53

4 Answers 4


Words don't have a fixed meaning, and dictionaries only follow usage here. That is what is happening here.

The “classical” meaning of methodology is (my own words): a branch of epistemology that studies scientific methods, i.e. the systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods applied in science. (Epistemology, in turn, is a branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge).

This classical meaning is what the eponym Wikipedia article discusses (WP being an encyclopedia, not a dictionary, it doesn't have to list all meanings of a given word). It's also what one of the Merriam-Webster definitions says:

the analysis of the principles or procedures of inquiry in a particular field

Now, language evolves, and in addition to this “classical” meaning of methodology (which is, in that sense, a mass noun), a second meaning is developing. This new meaning is “a collection of methods used in conjunction”, as you noted.

Now, as with every language evolution, some people complain about it (and the Wikipedia article on Methodology is clearly written from this point of view; see “Methodology as a buzzword” section). The Wiktionary article goes on to say:

Etymologically, methodology refers to the study of methods. Thus the use of methodology as a synonym for methods (or other simple terms such as means, technique, or procedure) is proscribed as both inaccurate and pretentious.

Well, sod them to Hades! It is clear that this newer meaning is abundantly used in the academic literature these days, and can thus be considered acceptable.

(If you've never seen it, this wonderful tirade by Stephen Fry should cure you of prescriptivism. It is delightful to hear… “They're no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.”)


One meaning of "methodology" is a synonym for method. That is how it is used, both in technical literature and in common use.

Another of its meanings is the study of methods.

And yet another is the body of methods in a particular field.

You will find writers who are celebrated for being experts in that craft who use the word with any and all of those meanings; so this is not a question of technical usage versus casual usage.

Etymology is not destiny. As F'x writes, language is defined by usage, and evolves constantly.

Nevertheless, as writers we not only have the expectations of our readers in mind, but also (and primarily) the expectations of our commissioning editor - the gatekeeper to publication. If they are a descriptivist, you may have to work with that in order to get published. If they have a style guide to work to, then you must work to it too. Your goal is to get your paper published: fighting to change the publisher's style guide is a different and separate battle, so don't mix them up.

So, to find out whether you should be using "methodology", "method" or "paradigm", read some comparable papers in your target journal, and see what's most commonly used, in contexts that are most analagous to yours. If that doesn't clear it up, ask your contact editor at the journal.

  • +1 In fact, ISO/IEC 24744, a standard on methodologies, defines "method" and "methodology" as synonyms.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 17:46

Since there exists also the word "method", then one could argue that we should use "methodology" in its full epistemological meaning (definition 2 in Merriam & Webster), which is the discourse about science and its methods. In practice, a lot of people use the two words almost interchangeably.

There is a reason for that: "method" has a rather narrow applied and descriptive flavor, while "methodology" invokes the knowledge of the fundamental principles of logic, science or whatever else is pertinent to the case, from which specific methods descend. So when we write "the methodology that was followed in this paper is...", we do mean to refer to the fact that we are aware of the philosophical, epistemological foundations (and weaknesses) of our methods. Even if we are not aware of that, in a sense, it makes us accountable: we cannot afterwards claim that "we just employed a widely used method" -by using the word "methodology" we accept responsibility of having a clear opinion of what we are doing and why we are doing it this way (even if we really don't).


Maybe it's my strictness for definitions. Maybe it's that I have some friends who speak Greek. But I've always understood "log" as part, and the "-y" as just a declension. So methodology would be in regards to the parts of methods. Given that when discussing methodologys, writers go into great detail, this definition seems to fit.

Part of why I treat "log" as a synonym for part has to do with how it's used, independently, in English. Consider logs from a tree, the tree has been sliced, with each slice being a part or log. A timelog or datalog is essentially just a bunch of separate entries in a single document.

You can find a lot of similar use here: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Log

Some thoughts: I think a lot of the more recent use of "methodology" stems from it being a "bigger word" and therefore sounding more sophisticated or intellectual.

  • 3
    I don't think that "-logy" in methodology has anything to do with "log". AFAIK, suffix "-logy" ultimately comes from Ancient Greek word "lego". Additional details are available in this article, which clarifies (emphasis mine): "Originally a word meaning "a ground", "a plea", "an opinion", "an expectation", "word", "speech", "account", "to reason"... it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge." Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 4:05
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    Thus, "-logy" means a principle of order and/or knowledge. Therefore, "method"-o-"logy" should mean nothing else than knowledge about methods, in other words, science about methods. Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 4:07
  • As the sciences ultimately try to understand the atomic parts of a field, isn't this the same thing? Two alternative approaches to defining what is fundamentally the same? It seems like synonyms to me. Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 15:17
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    Not really. You write: "... methodology would be in regards to the parts of methods". This point (or assumption) is not only not equivalent to my (and, general) interpretation, but, actually, is quite opposite - methodology is a discipline that studies whole methods and their interconnections, not parts of methods or, alternatively, parts of scientific fields. This is my understanding and it seems to be a common knowledge, supported by references I cited and many more. Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 15:33
  • 1
    Yes, everyone has their own unique experience, which shapes their perspective on every topic. The point of my comments is not to argue with you, but to introduce / mention / share my perspective (which happen to be based on a popular interpretation, as you can see). If you want to learn more about it, I shared the starting points. I think that, if you will take any textbook of research methodology (even in your university's library), you will find something similar to what I'm talking about. Interconnections is my term in this context - to clarify that many methods are related to each other. Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 0:45

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