Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Strachan Research Method

Without further ado, here is a suggested method for doing research. I use this not only with history papers but with papers of various disciplines. I'm no expert, and there are lots of ways to do research, but I thought I would share mine as I begin the last semester of my master's degree. I should also note that my former professor Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College influenced certain parts of this method.

1) Select a topic. Should be something that interests you. Don't pick a topic you're not interested in. You won't be able to sustain research for very long, you'll struggle with motivation and doubt, and you won't likely do a very good job. Pick something to study that you really enjoy. Consider whether it will benefit you in the future. Will it broaden you and challenge you? Or is this merely something easy to study? Pick something challenging and interesting and dive into it. You'll be ready to take up the process of research.

2) Identify the best secondary sources on this topic. Find them and read them carefully. Don't browse through them. That will come later. At this point in your research, you need to get a very clear idea of the issues regarding your topic. Thus you need to read the secondary sources, not the primaries, as the secondaries explain what the primaries are saying. They answer important questions like: What is the scholarly consensus on this matter? What do the different sides say? Who are the main players, and what are their most significant works? Read these sources exhaustively, and you'll come away with a basic understanding of your topic that will allow you to sift other materials. Don't read twelve books here. Read one or two good books by respected authors and perhaps an article or two. Remember, you're not doing all your research at this point--you're getting a base for your future research, which you will narrow considerably in the coming stages.

3) Propose a thesis. This is huge. Your early reading will help you to develop an argument. This is what most higher-level academic writing is about: making an argument in the midst of a scholarly conversation, and making it well, with proofs and rhetorical force. If you're reading about seventeenth-century Baptists, you should be looking for topics within your topic that interest you and then form a thesis out of that. In other words, don't simply write a paper about seventeenth-century Baptists. Read the secondary literature of these people, and identify a person, an idea, a debate, or an even that interests you. As you read, formulate a position on the matter. "Seventeenth-century Baptists believed that missions were important but were subordinate to the life of the church," or something like that (a fake thesis, of course). When you do so, you will have a thesis, and you can then proceed to further study and research, albeit with a much sharper focus than before. This will hugely help you as it will allow you to quickly determine what books and materials you need to read from here. If you do not formulate a thesis early on, you relegate yourself to reading lots of books that may touch on your topic in a general sense but will not sharpen and strengthen your paper. The key here is argument: from a general topic, you're making a specific argument that you're going to support with a body of evidence, sound thinking, and sharp writing.

Tomorrow we will continue the method. I hope that this is helpful so far, though I'm sure others do their research differently and may have comments, questions, or suggestions. Feel free to offer them in the comments.


Anonymous Danny McDonald said...

Owen, thank you for this post (and the prequela and part II). I've always enjoyed writing research papers (and the research itself), but am always looking for wasy to improve. I look forward to reading your next post on this.
Danny McDonald

12:13 PM  

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