How to do good research?
March 24, 2011 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out how to do better research.

I'm working on a PhD in the humantities, and I have been getting some consistent feedback on my papers that has been making me realize that I need some help. One is that I tend to "tell" more than "show" that something is the case. The other is that I tend to lean a bit too much on secondary sources at times. Instead of engaging them in conversation, I tend to use them too uncriticially.

I understand this in theory. However, in practice, I'm not sure when this is appropriate and when it is not. At some point, scholars lean a bit on the people who have gone prior, without having to reprove the wheel every time. Somteimes I want to be able to make assumptions that don't need an insane level of analysis.

I feel that on some level, I'm actually emulating what I see in the literature, but that the expectations are higher than things that have been published. Might this actually be the case?

So what, then, makes a good researcher at the PhD level, especially in the humanities? I know that this is likely program specific, but any advice would be helpful, either personal insight or resources that I could read. I'm not sure that I need a "how to" book on how to conduct research, as much as I do a primer on scholarly tone and how to engage secondary sources in a way that is critical and reflects unique contributions to the discussion.
posted by SpacemanStix to Education (6 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It's a little hard to respond with advice without having seen a sample of your writing, but I'll take a stab at it.

At some point, scholars lean a bit on the people who have gone prior, without having to reprove the wheel every time. Somteimes I want to be able to make assumptions that don't need an insane level of analysis.

I'm basically with you there, although the word "assumptions" seems potentially troublesome.

When you concur with or adopt an earlier scholar's methods or conclusions, do you make explicit a) why you are doing so, b) what the limitations of your agreement are, and c) what the limitations of the other scholar's work are? You can accept and agree with something, and build on it, while still treating it in a "critical" manner—in the sense of "using critical thinking" rather than in the sense of "negatively." Making up an example off the top of my head: "Although BigScholar's analysis of [thing] is grounded in the historical specifics of [whatever], I have adopted BigScholar's terminology in analyzing [different thing] because [reasons]. SecondScholar has asserted that BigScholar's work [falls short somehow], but [defense of BigScholar and/or your specific use of BigScholar]." You might not need to do the full critical work-up on every single source you cite, but it sounds like the people giving you feedback think you may not be doing it often enough, or in the right places.

Suggested exercise: Grab eight or ten journal articles in your field. Skim through them with a highlighter, marking up the language of agreement and disagreement. Where do the authors indicate their stance in relationship to prior work, and what kind of language do they use?

I feel that on some level, I'm actually emulating what I see in the literature, but that the expectations are higher than things that have been published. Might this actually be the case?

You know what makes scholarship publishable, right? It has to intervene (in an enlightening or revelatory way, ideally) in the ongoing discussion. It's often not enough to take an existing theory or method and apply it to new material. You have to address a gap or fault in the existing state of scholarly knowledge and understanding. What are we missing? What have we failed to understand? Where have we fallen short? You have to make that explicit. Where is the problem in the status quo, and how are you solving it?

It sounds like the feedback you're getting is that although you may have a solid and interesting analysis to present, you're failing to explain how it differs from, and adds to, existing scholarship.
posted by Orinda at 5:34 PM on March 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just went looking for an example. I wandered through JSTOR looking for articles available off-site in full text, and arrived at this one by no particular method. Notice how in the first paragraph, the author reminds us what is already known about the subject (Dorothea Lange). Then the author points out what previous scholarship has failed to do:
Yet none of the scholarship about that unique visual project has made farm workers central to its analysis.
And then she explains why this fault or omission in the previous scholarship matters, and how her own work is going to add something new to the discussion:
One consequence of the omission has been underestimating the policy specificity of the FSA's and Lange's exposé. We understand her work, and that of the whole FSA photography project, differently if we see it as a contested part of New Deal farm policy. Putting Lange's photography back into that context makes the sharpness of its critical edge more apparent.
Those three sentences are crucial to the article's publishability.
posted by Orinda at 6:04 PM on March 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't say much about the "show" and "tell" question, without knowing what you're doing.

Good skills in dealing with secondary literature are in my view absolutely critical. The central task is to gain enough knowledge about a secondary source to be able to judge whether one can rely on it or not. To this belongs checking up on the primary material that the author has been using, to identify whether the author's interpretation of it makes sense, and whether her/his presentation is sound as and of itself (very often, even famous writers make a mess of chronology, or causality, for example). If you find problems, your task is to either drop that author, or indeed to reprove. Don't expect that everything you read from trusted sources equals "the wheel" in quality and roundness.

"Engaging in conversation" does however not automatically mean that you must find fault with your secondary source, but rather that you must reach a level of understanding of her/his approach to judge whether it is at all useful for you, and how useful and why. To this belongs to understand where your secondary source fits into the general discussion of your field. This has little to do with reproving the wheel, but a lot with becoming ever more skillful in navigating the topography of your discipline.

You can then imagine you own work as a secondary source. If you were the reader, would you have expected the author of the work to have checked up on the sources? Do you trust what's standing on the page? If you feel that your own work would not pass as a useful secondary source, you need to dig deeper.

One tactic to absolutely avoid is what I call alibi-citation, of which I've seen a lot in sociological approaches to my own discipline. In alibi-citation, people describe a phenomenon, and instead of analyzing it, they jump to theory and say, 'what I've just presented works like what *great dude* said before.'1) The proper process is reverted. You use what *great dude* has said for the shaping of your approach; it informs your filter, your technique of sorting and presenting, your assumed mindset and selection of questions. In short it shapes the way you approach your material, and this should lead to your original analysis of that material according to those guidelines. *Great dude* now gets an honorary place in a footnote, but your research is yours alone.

1) Example: In a thesis that included the interpretation of some interviews with musicians, one of whom at some point in his career began to play more unknown works in his concerts, I once read this explanation: the artist had, by playing his mainstream repertoire well, accumulated sufficient cultural capital [footnote Bourdieu and alibi-mention of Bourdieu in main text], and on the basis of that surplus of cultural capital he was now able to play less popular works in his concerts. This not only horribly simplistic and over-blown at the same time, it's backward and explains nothing. Bourdieu might well have used that musician in order to explain an aspect of his theory of cultural capital, but a slapdash application of that theory explains dramatically less of the specific mechanisms that made our musician do what he did. Because what happened was really only this: our musician got famous because he was good, and so he made use of the fact that he had enough gigs to play, and began to experiment around with his repertoire. Unless there is a deeper point to make (which may well be the case), an over-eager application of theory is useless most of the time.
posted by Namlit at 6:05 PM on March 24, 2011

I think that the advice you've received her so far is top notch, and I'm marking this thread so I can read it from time to time.

I've been thinking about the show/tell problem you've mentioned, and I think what that might mean is simply that you're making your claims without providing sufficient evidence. If you are in English, for example, you might run into this problem if you're leaning too hard on the theory without providing the textual basis that your argument will need.

In terms of not engaging sufficiently with your secondary sources, I wonder if it would help to think about ways to emphasize the differences in your primary text and the way that those difference add/complicate your secondary source. If you're just saying "Jones says this. I'm applying that to the novel," you're not doing much. However, if you say "Jones says this. That's all well and good for the primary texts he studies, but when I think about his work in relation to my topic, I can add something / problematize his discussion in the following ways."

I also wonder if in your writing you are assuming too much of your audience. I can almost guarantee that journal articles are not only being held to a higher standard than your graduate school writing, but also a different standard. They're of an entirely other genre. Part of that is that journals often have a specialized audience. If I'm writing something for my dissertation, even if I specialize in, say, Canadian Literature, I have to write it understanding that some of my audience (i.e. examiners) might not be experts in Canadian Literature, or the particular author I study, or the particular period I study. I'll need to provide different information for that audience than I would if I was writing on the same piece for "The Journal of Western Canadian Literature," for which I can assume a readership that is interested in, and has a familiarity with, a vocabulary of the sub-field that a more generalist audience does not. So some of the assumptions I can make in a journal article about that sub-field would not work in a dissertation chapter or a paper for a course.
posted by synecdoche at 6:05 AM on March 25, 2011

You don't have to reinvent the wheel based on past scholarship but you have to make sure the wheel is designed for your application. Back check past scholarship to the primary sources it cites to make sure that the information applies to your research.
posted by JJ86 at 6:08 AM on March 25, 2011

It can be useful (temporarily) to find published work that can be a model for the way you want to write and consciously imitate the form. Plenty of crappy stuff is published, but if you find work that is in some way parallel to yours, and has been well received, it can be helpful. In the one Orinda cites, the positioning of "the intervention" (as a friend of mine calls it) in the field is extremely useful, especially to a reader who may not be a specialist on the topic.
posted by Mngo at 8:23 AM on March 25, 2011

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