planning research: the early thought processes and decisions

In any research project larger than, say, 8-10,000 words, from an academic article, or an undergrad dissertation, right through to a PhD thesis or monograph, have a number of required elements which need to be considered at the beginning of the research project.

I’m actually starting the research for my 20,000 word MA dissertation now. I’m in a funny position because I’ve known for some months (since early last summer) what the subject would be, and I’ve been collecting source material for it for a while – it’s researching something that has already been covered by another historian, but I’m going to be tackling the same material, with totally different questions, so it makes for an easy beginning to the project, because all I need to do is to follow the other person’s references to the source material (to begin with, at least). But only now am I actually considering the planning of it, which is quite the wrong way to do things. I was struck by this yesterday, as I drove to pick up my partner at the end of the day from the station (good thinking time that, driving), and it occurred to me that knowing the subject, and having that list of references and source material making it easy, meant that I’d not really stopped to think about really key elements that do have to be considered in any research project, and at a fairly early stage.

First up – its not enough to say, for example, that you plan to research XYZ. Anyone can say that, can say, oh, for example, that they plan to research the impact of the Queen on British Society in the twentieth century. However, attempting to research a project with only a topic like that will struggle to succeed – at least, at academic levels – partly because it’s a huge topic that would be difficult to do well in a smaller project (e.g. dissertation) and partly because it’s unlikely to undertake the critical analysis that is required at these levels. A good way to do that is to have Research Questions (caps intentional!). These serve to both limit the project so that more indepth analysis of the subject is possible, and to prod critical thought. One way to think of research questions is to think about the wider themes that the material or subject includes. So, to take the Queen again, these could be women, fashion, monarchy, society, economics, politics, political structures (there are more), then slowly narrow the themes down till at a point where its sufficiently narrow that a question can be constructed. So, going with our previous example, Research questions for this might be: Did the Queen have an ongoing impact on what society thought was socially acceptable during the period (politics, political hierarchy)? How much influence did her style of clothing have on British fashion (fashion, economics)? It is possible to see the expression of her own opinion in her Christmas broadcasts (politics)? These kinds of questions lend themselves well to further restriction and definition, such as – what’s ‘socially acceptable’? what period of British fashion are we discussing? Should we include, for analysis, the audio-visual material that is presented as part of the Christmas broadcast as well?

In addition, further elements need to be decided on. A line of argument is absolutely critical – whether a simple one, which you might have in a smaller essay – through to a much more complex piece of work, a line of argument is what keeps you focused on maintaining a tight thread all the way through. In the former example it might be that the Queen had a massive impact on British Society – but it could also be that the Queen only had a massive impact after a certain date, or before a certain date, or that she had no impact at all. Whatever your line of argument, every point, every paragraph has to contribute to that argument, even if you temporarily take another perspective to show why an alternative argument just won’t wash.

In larger projects, an extension of the line of argument is how you’re going to break it down – what chapters are you going to have, how many, how big will they be, what are their individual lines of argument, how do those individual lines contribute to the larger whole? Some academics correlate a key research question to each chapter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. In the Queen example, the book could take a chronological approach, discussing her contribution to social mores, fashion and the christmas broadcasts in first the 1950s, then the 1960s, then… you get the idea. It could also do a chapter on each – the social mores, then fashion, then the christmas broadcasts.

Needless to say, I’m not researching the Queen’s impact on British society in the twentieth Century! I’m actually examining the case of a vicar who, in the post-Restoration period, had an affair with a parishioner. His other parishioners found out, and took him to court to try to get him removed from the parish as their clergyman. There are a number of different ways in which this material can be approached, exploring different themes. In writing and thinking about this blog post, I’ve had the themes playing in my mind, and I’ve been slowly writing ideas down in a seperate file. I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have a better idea of how I’m going to take this material forward. Suddenly, my 20,000 word MA dissertation doesn’t seem quite so daunting after all!

[I think it’s important to say – I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to doing research. I’m still learning myself! I just enjoy the process of learning by writing: by explaining here, to some imaginary, nebulous blog reader, I’m also explaining to myself. If, however, you are interested in reading something by someone who does know what they’re doing when it comes to research, then these two books may be a good starting point:

I hope they’re of use!]

 

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