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Boatwright Memorial Library

MLA 500U: Research Methods

Research guide created by Marcia Whitehead for class taught by Dr. Daniel Hocutt

Purpose of this guide

Since no single guide can include even the most important resources for understanding the research methods of all humanities and social sciences disciplines, and certainly not all the resources for undertaking that research, this guide will focus on the principal concerns and resources of academic research and provide links to some helpful guides to research in particular disciplines.

Game Plan for Research Process

Developing a Research Question

At the graduate-level (and beyond), research is expected to discover or create something new. Even if the question has been identified and articulated by others, the answer provided should be either more complete, more convincing, or more useful than any offered previously. So the first stage of the research process is to have an idea.

Idea stage--this can include reading for inspiration and to learn what topics are trending in the field; talking to people, especially other researchers and teachers.  Ask: What do you wish you had time to research? What do you wish someone else would research? Think about anything you have read, seen, or heard that left you or your classmates with unanswered questions--questions you could not find answers to in the literature of the field.

Be practical; an idea is necessary, but you also have to have strategy to pursue it. Ask yourself: Is the question easily and fully researchable? What type of information do I need to answer the research question? Is the scope of this information reasonable (e.g., can I really research 30 online writing programs developed over a span of 10 years?). Given the type and scope of the information that I need, is my question too broad, too narrow, or okay?  Part of this process is the elaboration and framing of your question--taking your interest and making it researchable.

Elaboration and framing stage: Developing and elaborating a topic based on what you find interesting and have learned is worth pursuing; understanding and articulating intellectual context.

Once you are satisfied that your project is not only right for you, but right for your circumstances, you are ready to begin preparing yourself for substantive research.

Preparation Stage: this includes reading what has already been done in the field related to your topic; studying original sources, annotating texts and making notes (especially in the humanities); summarizing most important ideas and questions raised; identifying key authorities, experiments, case studies,theories, rebuttals, etc.

Once you know the intellectual scope and context of your question, you can formulate a plan. What sources will have the type of information that you need to answer the research question (journals, books, Internet resources, government documents, people)? Do you have access to those resources? The environmental myths of a remote Buddhist sect in Siberia might be interesting, but the resources for researching them are probably not available to you. In the humanities, knowledge of other languages is often essential. Social scientists often need to know statistics. Your plan need not be formal and will probably develop over time.

Developing evidence stage: gathering primary and secondary sources in all relevant formats; data analyses; creating a working bibliography; organizing and evaluating resources.


Identifying and Reading Research Articles

Each of these documents offers useful concepts and strategies for reading scholarly journal articles.  Different disciplines observe different standards. Articles in the humanities rarely have the formal structures described on many of these sites. For example, the "literature review" often consists of a paragraph or two in which the authors name previous scholars who have asked related questions (and then declare their inadequacies).  But they always explain the focus of their question, justifying it as worthy of their attention, are explicit about the stages of their analysis, providing evidence for each claim, and document  their sources.

Searching for Articles

The most effective researchers use what they know to find what they don't know. So here's where the notes you made on the seed articles and background articles will come in handy.  The databases also have some special features that will aid your search.

1. You can use keywords from the original articles or the background aricles as search terms. Look at the subject headings assigned  to the articles you find; you may want to use some of them in a new search.

2. You can use the names of authors of known articles to see if they have written other articles on the same or similar topics.

3. You can use articles cited in the bibliographies of articles you  already know about.

4. You can use articles that cite the articles you know about in their bibiliographies.

5. You can look at the tables of contents of the journals that have published relevant articles, to see if they have published other, similar articles.

Types of Research Materials Characteristic of the Humanities

Any object of material or intellectual, or performative culture may become the subject of humanistic research, which is typically interpretive, historical, contextual, and/or iterative (or dialogic, meaning it is always conducted with the expectation of feedback or pushback). Research  can also be materials based (as in painting or sculpture), sociological (feminist, Marxist, etc). There are many variants of all of these, which are explicated in this document from Harvard University. [ Note that they have no identifying information on their pdf. Don't ever make that mistake!]



The materials of humanities research are, in the first instance, primary texts: literature, diaries, letters, photographs, advertisements, eyewitness accounts, films, music, choreography, architecture, gardens, etc.

Secondary texts, offering interpretations of their own, are also an important part of research for the student of literature, history, the arts, philosophy, and other humanities disciplines. Texts that primarily put forth a theory may serve either role.

Types of Research and Research Data in the Social Sciences

There are several types of research characteristic of the social sciences:  Basic research, Applied Research, Problem oriented research, Problem solving, Quantitative Research, Qualitative Research.   

          Here are some of the typical materials:

  • Documents (published or unpublished)
  • Lab notebooks, field notebooks, diaries
  • Questionnaires, transcripts, surveys
  • Experimental data
  • Films, audio or video tapes/files
  • Photographs, image files
  • Sensor readings
  • Test and survey responses
  • Artifacts, specimens, physical samples
  • Models, algorithms, scripts
  • Content analysis
  • Focus group recordings; interview notes