Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Craft of Research: chapter 3

This chapter shows how to get from interests to topics to narrower topics to generated questions. At the end is the beginning of that process applied to an interest of mine.

To get from an interest to a topic: what do you most deeply care about? Use a bibliographical resource (e.g. the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature). Do a general search to see whether there's enough material to cover your topic, which will be much more specific.

To get from a broad topic ("too broad if you can state it in fewer than four or five words") to a narrower one: good words to use are conflict, describe, contribute, and develop, and the corresponding nouns where applicable. Then make a sentence out of your narrower topic; doing so helps you to see gaps and issues more easily, aiding in generation of questions. An example (from the book) of this progression...
  • Broad topic: Free will and historical inevitability in Tolstoy's War and Peace.
  • Narrower topic: The conflict of free will and historical inevitability in Tolstoy's description of three battles in War and Peace.
  • Sentence: Tolstoy describes three battles in a way that makes free will conflict with historical inevitability [emphasis in orig.].
Example of a too-narrow topic:
The decision to lengthen the wing tips on the DC-3 prototype as a result of the military desire to use the DC-3 as a cargo carrier.
How to generate questions? In other words, how to make the paper more interesting than an encyclopedia article? How to make the paper matter? "Start by barraging your topic with question after question, first with the obvious..." Ask who, what, when, and where, recording those questions for later investigation. Categories:
  • Parts and wholes - what are its parts? and to what wholes does it belong?
  • History and changes - how is it a dynamic entity? and of what larger trend is it an episode?
  • Categories and characteristics - what is its range of variation? and in what larger categories does it belong?
  • Value - how is it used? and of what value are its parts?
Then mix and match; as you may have done as a youngster with a jar of buttons, try sorting the answers in different ways. Now concentrate on how and why, i.e. questions that need detailed answers. That will be helpful in the next stage, judging a question's significance (a.k.a. developing a research question...

So what? Why should others care about your topic, and why should you? The book offers three steps, the second and third being indirect questions.

1. Name the topic: "I am learning about/working on/studying ______."
2. Imply the question: "I am studying X because I want to find out who/ what/ when/ where/ whether/ why/ how ______."
3. Motivate the question: "I am studying X ... in order to understand how/why _______."

The authors liken this to the audience checklist; you probably cannot fill it out completely at the start. "You will know that you have an advanced research project when what follows the in order to understand is important not just to you but to your readers as well" (emphasis in orig.).

Quick Tips: How in the world to find a topic? Some places to look:
  • A more advanced textbook in the field of interest (for me, one such course is Cosmogony)
  • A public lecture
  • Abstracts (esp. in databases - check library)
  • General reference (library search, encyclopedia, etc.)
  • Hot topics
  • Museums
  • Newspapers, magazines, TV, radio
  • Popular opinion that may not be right - find out what is
  • Brainstorm with friends!
* * * * * * *

One interest of mine is the debate between scientific theories, namely creationism (which is not equivalent to ID) versus macroevolutionism. This debate is framed another way in the discipline of cosmogony, the study of origins and the models proposed. First, a general search of "cosmogony" in several places:
  • Google Scholar: about 19,600 hits.
  • Academic Search Premier (college-purchased database): 102 papers.
  • A community college library subject search: 16 items (if most are books, that's a good number, especially if I choose later to rely more on papers).
  • Expanded Academic ASAP (another database): 90 papers. Subdivisions given are analysis; beliefs, opinions and attitudes; cases; comparative analysis; conferences, meetings and seminars; criticism and interpretation; evaluation; history; influence; laws, regulations and rules; models; myths and legends; observations; origin; portrayals; public opinion; religious aspects; research; services; social aspects; social policy; and study and teaching.
The subdivisions suggest narrower topics. But that is for another day.

Update 7/7/08: I had time to brainstorm questions. Got any better ones? Below, they're sorted (topic: cosmogony - not a very good article; sorry) by the who/what/where/when/why/how system.

  • Who were the first discrete (as opposed to mingling it with other fields) cosmogonists?
  • Who should learn about it?
  • Who studies it these days?
  • Who works (non-scholarly) with it?
  • Who influenced its change?
  • What is its definition?
  • What are its subdivisions?
  • What sorts of written etc. material are there about it?
  • What are important tangential/related topics?
  • What other models are there besides Creation and Evolution?
  • What jobs involve using and creating knowledge about it?
  • What causes/caused the theories/models to change over time?
  • What other fields are similar to it in characteristics?
  • What are its characteristics?
  • Where was it originally begun? developed? used?
  • When did inklings of it (as a discrete discipline) start?
  • When did it become a discrete field of study?
  • Why does studying it matter?
  • Why do people decide to study cosmogony?
  • Why was it developed?
  • How does one do research in cosmogony?
  • How does it influence/be influenced by related fields and topics?
  • How is research about it used?
  • How was it developed?
  • How has the study of it changed over time?
  • How have the involved models changed over time?
  • How can its subdivisions be used?

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