During my student days, I had very little, if any, formal instruction in how to actually go about the research process. Of course, I had writing classes and instruction on how to outline a paper and so on. But the proper way to do research often went unaddressed and over the years there were times when I found myself buried in a pile of books, sticky notes, and legal pads, not quite sure how I got there, or how to get out.
So, I thought I would write a brief and simplistic description of the approach that I now use, which I mostly developed during my PhD studies through a process of trial and error. This is the cliff notes version, though and meant to be very simple. A complex project, in my view, needs a simple beginning. And for me, this is it. These are five basic questions that I use to start the research process, to help get things moving in the right direction. I’ll be sharing these with an undergrad class next week, and so I thought perhaps others might find them helpful as well. So here goes:
- How’s the view from up there? Start with a bird’s-eye-view of your subject. Get a good overview and discern the crucial peaks (and valleys) related to your topic. Topical dictionaries are a good place to start. The peaks would be those issues that rise above everything else and command the most attention. These often will feature prominently in your outlines. But don’t neglect the valleys, or the less noticeable, and seeming less interesting places. Treasures lurk in the shadows!
- Who are the main actors? What names come up over and over again in the literature? What are the classic texts to which everyone who writes on this issue refers? A word of warning though: its not enough to just know the key players; you also have to understand why they are key! For example, some key players have prominent positions related to this topic simply because of their historical importance. But this does not mean that their argument still stands. Another word of caution: good research isn’t just about summarizing the arguments of others and using their perspective to defend yours. Its about getting into the nuts and bolts of those arguments and finding the lose parts. Good research crafts a new proposal that borrows from yesterday and reaches into tomorrow. It is not creativity for the sake of novelty, but reasoned and learned creativity for the sake of resolution.
- What’s the question? Your not ready to really begin a research project until you can state your topic in the form of a question. Without a question, you don’t have a problem, and without a problem you don’t have a reason to conduct the research to begin with. As you survey the material, some questions should emerge. Write them down and somewhere along the way, one or two very interesting but unanswered questions should appear. That is your topic.
- What’s the dominant story line? Every research question is likely to have some standing answer that dominates current thinking. Or, sometimes there will be competing story lines that are widely supported. Competing story lines often hold great promise for new research projects, especially if you can locate a false presupposition or untenable position in one line of thought.
- Where do you fit in? I think this is the most important and the most often neglected aspect of research. The researcher forgets to ask where they fit into the equation. Yes, you are to try as much as you can to set aside your prejudices and strive for objectivity. Good research depends on this. But you can never set aside yourself (entirely) nor should you. There is something in you that is driving you to consider this topic. Some part of you must genuinely care about it, because you (hopefully) chose it. So why? Why does this topic matter to you and why do you think YOU have something unique to contribute? Perhaps you have an interest in an aspect of this topic that most have not cared about or thought irrelevant. Because of this you will discern a long neglected aspect. It doesn’t matter (so much) that others have studied and written on this topic (of course they have!). But the exciting part is that YOU have not (yet) studied and written on this topic, and surely what you bring that is unique, is, well, you!
Finally, I would add that these are not sequential questions to explore, but rather ones that sometimes you have to examine and kick around simultaneously. For me, yellow legal pads are an invaluable part of the kicking around part. This is especially true if you have a general idea of what you want to tackle, but don’t yet have the precise question. So don’t be afraid to chase the occasional rabbit now and then. Just know when to give up and move on (hint: when you’ve forgotten why you’re chasing that rabbit is generally a good time!).