In the humanities, as in the sciences, research begins with formulating a hypothesis about a subject and “testing” it out by engaging with evidence. But the nature of the evidence, the method of testing, and the kind of knowledge produced in humanities research differ from those in the sciences.
Rather than using quantitative or qualitative evidence as researchers do in the sciences, humanities researchers rely for evidence on their own close readings of primary and secondary texts. Whereas research in the sciences is grounded in the empirical method, humanities research uses a diverse array of methodologies, sometimes combining historical, conceptual, and/or critical methodologies in a single study. And instead of attempting to “prove” their hypotheses once and for all, humanities researchers develop arguments using their hypotheses in order to contribute and extend to ongoing critical conversations. These conversations themselves, one might say, constitute knowledge in the humanities.
Doing research into what has already been written about on your topic will allow you not only to situate your hypothesis within these conversations, but also to come up with questions that haven’t yet been asked. Through critical reading, you can identify gaps in previous writing on your topic and orient your own project to address these gaps if they seem like meaningful oversights. Your aim as a humanities researcher, then, is to develop a fuller understanding of your subject matter in dialogue with other scholars, and thus to move this ongoing conversation forward.
To develop a research question, you might start by making a bulleted list of topics or issues that you might want to pursue, based on your interests and the concerns of your course. When making this list, you should be expansive. Don’t limit yourself: your goal at this stage is to generate ideas, not evaluate them.
Next, you could try free-writing on the themes you see emerging from your list of potential topics. Are there any areas of interest that seem to repeat or echo? Can you start to create umbrella terms? Are you noticing friction within or between some of these concerns? These are just a few of the questions that may lead to a more focused line of investigation.
Then, see if you can reframe your topic or theme as a research question by asking “How?” or “Why?” Keep in mind that your research question should be debatable and defendable: you may find that other scholars have very different points of view on this question or its answer. This is a good sign, and an invitation for you to step in and contribute to the scholarly discussion.
Here are some helpful suggestions for broadening, narrowing, or otherwise tweaking a preliminary research topic so that you will be poised to write a well-focused essay.
And here is a concise overview that will guide you on the road to finding your research question.
To engage fully with your secondary sources, you will need to read critically. But reading sources critically doesn’t necessarily mean disagreeing with them or reading them in a negative way. Rather, it means analyzing the details of an argument-driven piece of popular or scholarly writing that you may ultimately use towards fashioning your own argument. It means asking how these details reflect the assumptions, values, and stakes of the writer’s argument. Reading critically means navigating between doubting and believing what you read.
When reading critically, we treat what we read less like objective, self-evident data and more like evidence being presented to persuade us of something. Sometimes it’s obvious that what we’re reading is trying to persuade us of something—think of an editorial that takes an explicitly controversial stance or a scholarly article that clearly signposts its position using phrases like “here I argue…” Other texts may make their arguments more subtly or indirectly. But either way, reading critically involves considering how the components and structure of the argument contribute to its actual or intended effect upon the reader.
One approach to reading critically is to investigate a text’s “way of thinking.” Rather than reading simply for comprehension or information, you can also attend to a text’s claims, contexts, kinds of reasoning, and evidence in order to evaluate the effectiveness of its argument and to think about what you might add to the discussion or redirect it.
Another approach involves asking questions about the relationship between the parts and the whole of an argument. These questions might address the role of pattern, process, sequence, causality, and other elements of argumentation and structure.
Since you can’t write an interesting research paper without engaging with other scholars’ ideas, you’ll have to find secondary sources that are accurate and pertinent to your argument.
You’ll almost certainly want to start online, but the internet is an enormously complex—and just plain enormous!—compendium of resources. You can use Wikipedia to check out some basic facts and get some rough background information, but it’s not a reliable, scholarly source–see What’s Wrong With Wikipedia. Likewise, Googling, even using Google Scholar, can only get you so far, since there are valuable scholarly resources out there that are discoverable only by using humanities-specific Web directories (Voice of the Shuttle, started in 1994, is the granddaddy of all online humanities research directories) and databases (JSTOR, Project Muse, and the MLA International Bibliography, among others), along with the Berkeley library’s online catalogue.
Before you begin searching in a library catalog or journal database, familiarize yourself with using advanced search functions, such as “Boolean operators” (the basic ones are AND, OR, and NOT), truncation and wildcards (*, !, ?, or #), and keywords and subject headings. Here are some suggestions for coming up with searchable keywords.
You can read many of the sources (especially the articles) that you find through databases entirely online; you’ll need to track down other sources (like most books and book chapters) in the library. Once you’ve found a book in the library, take some time to scan nearby shelves for other books on the same topic that might not have come up in your catalog search. Also scan the bibliographies and footnotes of books and articles you’ve already found: these are great places to find more sources on your topic.
“Good” here means two different things: “good” as in relevant to your topic and useful for the kind of argument you’re making, but also “good” as in scholarly, reputable, and current.
To determine the usefulness and relevance of a secondary source, begin by skimming it. If the source at hand is an article, read the abstract. If it doesn’t have an abstract, read the opening paragraph, the section headings, and/or first sentences of a few of the body paragraphs, plus the concluding paragraph. If it is a book, read the blurb on the back cover, the table of contents, and the beginning and ending of the introduction and/or conclusion. From this quick but strategic dip into a secondary source, you should be able to glean something about its overall argument and whether it provides useful material for your own project.
Remember: don’t discard a scholarly source just because it contradicts what you want to say. Do you disagree with its premises, its use of evidence, or its conclusions? Any of these points of disagreement might provide a foothold for advancing your own argument. Or if a secondary source does not address your primary text directly, does it put forth a theory or provide information that will help you to analyze your text?
Your quick dip into a source may also give you a feel for the quality of its scholarship. But there are also many concrete questions you can ask about a source to evaluate its reliability. What are the credentials of the author? Who is the publisher and the intended audience? When was it published? What sources does it cite? For a more detailed breakdown of ways to evaluate print and online sources, consult one or more of the following (reliable!) resources:
Evaluating Resources (UC Berkeley Library)
Quality of Sources (Dartmouth College)
Critically Analyzing Information Sources (Cornell University Library)
Evaluating Web Pages (Cornell University Library)
Evaluating Print vs. Internet Sources (Purdue OWL)
Interpreting Sources (University of Michigan)
Skimming is a valuable reading technique. It can give you a general sense of what a text is about, and it can help you to locate key arguments and passages relevant to your own research and writing. Skimming is also useful when you’re short on time. Let’s be honest: skimming is sometimes the only reading you have time to do!
But skimming does not mean speed-reading an entire text; zooming through a whole story or story at breakneck speed is, generally speaking, a waste of your time. Instead, skim strategically. Read the first and last pages of the whole work, and then read the beginning and ending of each chapter. Look for words, especially names, which appear repeatedly, dipping selectively into the text to get a sense of the style and “texture” of the writing.
Scholarly and critical texts, typically used as secondary sources, often have abstracts that give a summary of their main argument, and they also often have section headings, topic sentences, and transitions to guide readers through their discussion. Introductions are good places to look for roadmaps and thesis statements, while conclusions often summarize the whole argument. Focusing on these signposts will help you get the gist of an article or book without reading the whole thing in depth. These techniques are especially useful when your research turns up multiple secondary sources and you need to select the ones most relevant to your own topic.
You can find some pointers on skimming in this very thorough set of instructions on How to Read a Book.
Taking notes is an essential part of doing research. Obviously, the notes you take should provide a clear record of what you’ve read. But the very act of note-taking can help you to develop your thinking about your research question and ultimately to use evidence to support your argument.
To help yourself read secondary sources critically, you should take thorough but not overly detailed notes. Make sure to record key terms but don’t write out everything word for word; paraphrase whenever possible to make sure you have a grasp of relevant points; and don’t highlight or underline without also making marginal notes about the significance of the marked words or passages and any questions you might have about them.
Make sure to include complete bibliographic data with your notes on each source so that you can retrace your steps if you end up needing to go back for more information or to check that you are quoting accurately. There are many different formats for note-taking—in the margins of the text or on Post-Its; on paper or in a Word document—and you’ll need to experiment to figure out what works best for you. You will also need to work out a good system for organizing and reviewing the notes you take. If you are juggling multiple sources, for example, consider using index cards or a citation management software (Zotero and Mendeley are two popular ones) to organize and annotate your sources. You can even use these programs to generate properly formatted endnotes and Works Cited lists.
You can use your notes as the basis for an annotated bibliography; here are some additional resources on writing annotated bibliographies. Even if your instructor does not require you to produce a formal bibliography as a preliminary phase of your research paper, your own notes will still serve as the basis for situating and differentiating your own argument within a field of existing literature. Your notes should help you to take a strong, well-informed, and original stance in your writing.
Research, like writing, is not a linear process. You will probably begin with a broad topic that will gradually become more focused over the course of your research and writing. You’ll then have to do additional research on this more focused and developed version of your original topic. Remember that the evolution of your topic depends not only on your reading but also on your writing throughout the research process. Such preliminary writing might include producing an annotated bibliography and/or a prospectus, as well as in less formal modes such as freewriting, mind mapping, outlining, and drafting.
The process of researching and refining, and researching and refining again, could go on endlessly, but don’t let it. You have to strike a balance between your responsibility as a researcher—citing and integrating the sources most relevant to your topic (not just the first three sources you find!)—and what is humanly possible. You can’t read every source ever written on your topic, and you shouldn’t. Remember that your goal is to develop and answer your specific research question. When you have a good sense of how your argument fits into the existing conversation, you can stop.
How do you know when enough is enough? Here are some diagnostic questions to help you answer the question: “When Can I Stop Researching?”
It’s not enough to use secondary sources merely for factual or historical information, although this is certainly one thing that sources can do for you. It’s also not enough to simply say “I agree” or “I disagree” with what other scholars have written, although this can be a starting place for developing a tentative research question and even a tentative thesis. Through thoughtful selection of and engagement with secondary sources, you can participate in ongoing critical conversations and even propel them in new directions. (Of course, the initial phases of your attempt to enter one of these conversations might reveal to you that you need to find different or additional sources!)
You might begin by considering how your sources are using their own sources. They probably cite other research to support their own claims (“Yes, and…”), to make a new claim instead (“No, because…”), or acknowledge other arguments in order to show a critical “gap” in the conversation, which their own argument will fill (“Although X and Y, nonetheless Z…”). In turn, you can use the specifics of their critical positioning to situate yourself in the discussion.
There are any number of ways of navigating secondary sources effectively, most of them involving either limited alignment or partial dissent. Some of these modes of engagement include adopting a term, adapting a theory, and changing the question, using moves that might be described as “picking a fight,” “drawing battle lines,” “piggybacking,” “leapfrogging,” and “matchmaking.” Here are two overviews of basic maneuvers and fundamental strategies for using secondary sources to develop an argument.
In order to effectively use your secondary sources to develop an argument, you need to clearly and gracefully integrate material from those sources into your sentences. Whether you paraphrase, quote, or summarize this material, you must fully signpost its relation to your argument, whether via limited alignment or focused dissent. As when you are making an argument about a primary text, you need to ensure that you are analyzing your source rather than leaving it undigested for your reader. Toward that end, there are a few things you should consider when integrating sources:
- Evaluate whether you need to quote, paraphrase, or summarize. Here are some tips on when and how to summarize effectively. And here is some advice for determining whether paraphrasing or quoting will best serve your purposes.
- When paraphrasing, be sure to do so accurately and fairly. You can practice this skill by doing this quick paraphrasing exercise. Just as when you quote word-for-word from a text, it is crucial to avoid plagiarizing when paraphrasing. For more information on avoiding plagiarism when quoting and paraphrasing, jump to the next section, “How do I responsibly cite my sources and avoid plagiarism?”
- Always be sure to Introduce, Cite, and Explain (“ICE,”for short) your evidence! Another way that you can ICE your evidence is by “sandwiching” it between a claim and analysis, much as you would introduce and analyze a primary text.
- Familiarize yourself with guidelines about when quoting is most effective rhetorically and how to avoid quoting extraneous material. Determine which type of quotation—a block, spliced, or signaled quote—best suits your purposes.
- Before you submit your essay, be sure to review the nuts and bolts of integrating source material into your prose, including using proper punctuation. Bonus: here’s a list of signal verbs and phrases to help you synthesize the words and ideas of other scholars.
Whenever you use language, ideas, or arguments from others, you need to cite them. The Berkeley Campus Student Code of Conduct frames improper citation as a form of academic misconduct—failure to cite one’s sources properly constitutes the theft of intellectual property. Plagiarism can make you subject to penalties ranging from failing an assignment to failing a course. Under some circumstances, suspension or even dismissal from the university may be imposed as a sanction.
Correct citation is not only a matter of personal and scholarly integrity. There’s another important reason to cite the arguments of other scholars who have written on your topic: citing them accurately and fully allows other scholars to track down those sources themselves . . . and it also allows you to check your own work. This practice might be compared to writing a detailed account of your experimental method in the sciences—citation is what gives research in the humanities its “replicability.” In sum, citation allows the scholarly conversation to continue moving forward.
What counts as plagiarism? It can take a wide variety of forms, not just the act of submitting the work of another person as your own. Copying language directly from a source, like “patch-working” together sentences or paragraphs or ideas from multiple sources, is also plagiarism. And paraphrasing or rewording of sources without attribution can also be considered plagiarism. Even if you discover that a source makes the same point that you made first on your own, you still have to cite it!
The easiest way to avoid plagiarism? If you’re in doubt about whether or not you should cite something, cite it! Accidental plagiarism is still considered plagiarism and is subject to the same repercussions. Keeping scrupulous notes throughout the research and writing process will help you to remember which ideas and phrasings are your own and which came directly from your sources.
There are several different formats for citing sources; your instructor will tell you which style—MLA style, Chicago, style etc.—to use. For more details on MLA style, the most common citation format in the humanities, try the Purdue OWL or The MLA Style Center.
There is a wealth of resources–guides, grants, mentoring, awards, and more–for undergraduate research across the humanities at UC Berkeley. Here are some of the best-known ones, though you may be able to find others under the auspices of specific departments or programs.
You can begin searching for materials through the Library Guide to Research, which is organized by discipline or area of study. You can also find here the contact information for the particular UC Berkeley librarian who is an expert on research offerings in each subject area, and who can guide you to these resources. There are many research databases and subject-specific guides listed here under each heading. One that you won’t find listed there, A Guide to the Archive Resources of the Bay Area, lists some of the primary research offerings at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and other university archives around the Bay.
The Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships (OURS) is a clearing house for information about university-wide research grants and mentoring programs across the disciplines including the Haas Scholars Program, Student Mentoring and Research Teams (SMART), Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF), Underrepresented Researchers of Color (UROC), and Undergraduate Research Apprentices Project (URAP). They have databases with information about many other internal and external grants and programs, as well as offering help with finding and applying for these. Don’t forget to check with individual departments for major-specific prizes. UC Berkeley’s English Department, for example, offers travel grants for undergraduates to attend conferences and to do research at archives elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad.
When your research is done or close to being finished (the submission deadline is in mid-April!), you should consider applying for the Library Prize for Undergraduate Research.