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!]

 

immersed in the archives

I spent last week immersed in the archives in Hereford, and I had a great time while I was down there. I am lucky enough that my mother lives nearby so I at least have somewhere to crash; this makes doing this research vastly easier. I went there with three aims:

  1. to check out the sources for my proposed PhD subject, to ensure that there are enough sources for me to study what I plan to study, and what kind of sources there are;
  2. to look at (and photograph) some of the sources for my planned MA dissertation;
  3. to look at (and photograph) some of the sources for an article I’ve got in mind.

But before I get into that, I want to spend a little bit of time writing about Herefordshire Record Office. It’s a great place to work! They’ve recently moved into a new, purpose-built building (with a coffee machine that absolutely rocks!) that is… well. Don’t take my word for it.. !

Record Office Main working Room

Record Office Main working Room

The main working room is lovely and bright – behind me, the room extends a little bit further, and since someone there needed the blinds drawn, it has made the area around where I’m standing, holding the camera, a bit dark. But otherwise, it’s lovely – certainly more than enough natural light to take photographs without a flash on a good digital camera. The building also has good toilets, smaller meeting rooms, a display area, and best of all… a mixed reception and small area where you can sit to eat your packed lunch or sip coffee from the aforementioned machine!

Reception/lunch area

Reception/lunch area

Outside is just as nice, a modernist building but I think those wooden tiles are going to colour beautifully, shading to a lovely silvery colour – they’re already on their way. The archivists are so fortunate to be working there – I know other record offices around the country are really struggling with space and with their working environments, not just for themselves, but for the people that visit their offices. I wish more record offices were able to have similar working conditions – hopefully one day. But in the meantime, its to HRO’s credit that they DO have these lovely offices, and I for one will be taking as much advantage as I can!

The outside of the building

The outside of the building

But onto my work. I left home Wednesday morning, and after a quick pub lunch, got there early enough to fit in about 3 hour’s work. They were immensely helpful and I was able to quickly assess what kind of records they have there. More importantly, I was able to assess that the methodology that I have in mind should work too, hopefully! I won’t know for sure until I actually try it and I don’t have time for that at the moment, what with my MA studies about to kick off again. But it is good news.

Thursday I was there all day, working on the second of my three aims, copying material for my MA dissertation. This is very much linked to my PhD proposal, in that its covering similar material (the MA, of course, being much smaller than the PhD) but since the MA gives me an ‘in’, it’s a way to get used to handling material that is notorious for being difficult to read and transcribe – namely church court records & depositions. Some of what I copied was in Latin, but I was able to make out enough to work out which records out of the stack were to do with my subject, I think, so I only copied those. I came home with a phone that was almost full of data and had to upload everything to dropbox that evening, hammering my mother’s internet connection in the process!

Depositions to the courts - basically witness statements. I had to copy one of these bundles, and it took me the best part of a couple of hours. Ouch!

Depositions to the courts – basically witness statements. I had to copy one of these bundles, and it took me the best part of a couple of hours. Ouch!

Friday I went with my mother to Brampton Bryan. Herefordshire Victoria County History had arranged a fantastic afternoon there, with two talks, one by Professor Timothy Mawl on eighteenth century garden design in Herefordshire, and the other by Dr. Jane Bradney on the Historic Gardens at Brampton. Both really interesting talks, then we got to see the castle and grounds at Brampton, in what is now a private home, so this was a real treat. I was also fortunate enough to meet some of the people who do a lot of work on local history in Herefordshire. The day was really good, although tiring, and I slept really well that evening. Many thanks to the people who organised the day!

Brampton Bryan Castle, ruined during the Civil War

Brampton Bryan Castle, ruined during the Civil War

Saturday I was back into the archives, researching the working woman in the seventeenth century in Herefordshire. My most productive foray that afternoon seemed to be in weights and measures – these are the records of people who have been flagged up for arrest as selling items with incorrect weights or measures (a form of scam), and since there are women’s names on the list, it shows that women were working in that period. I did a lot of photographing, so after this, I need to transcribe the names and then start doing further work from there, but still, it is a starting point.

My working space at the record office

My working space at the record office

What became very clear over the last week is that I am going to be spending a lot of time in the record office over the next year or so, if not the next 4 years! It’s probably a good thing I DO like it there, and that I have access to a readily available bed. In some ways being a historian is a bit like being in the armed forces. There, the oft-quoted quote is: “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. For historians, it’s “long periods of nose-to-the-grindstone, not seeming to achieve too much, punctuated by moments of sheer exhilaration, excitement, and joy”. I think the latter is better, personally, even if it does mean the next few weeks will see long periods of nose-to-the-grindstone…!