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Writing Essays

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Strategies for Writing Essays

 

Choosing A Topic

In some writing situations, your instructor will assign the topic. In others, your instructor will allow you to choose your own topic, perhaps selecting from a number of possibilities. When you choose your own topic, don’t just grab the first one that comes to mind. Rather, look for a topic that is appropriate to the assignment, you know something about or want to learn about, and will maintain your interest.

 

In addition to Internet browsing to search for a topic, don’t overlook topics discussed in your classes or related to your entries in your writing journal, daily activities such as sports or social events, programs you’ve heard or seen on radio or television, or the world around you: people, objects, and social interactions.

 

Narrowing A Topic

Once you have chosen a topic, narrow it to make it manageable within the required length of your essay. For example, if you are assigned a two- to the four-page essay, a broad topic such as divorce is too large. However, you might write about one specific cause of divorce or its effects on children. Skipping this step is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. You can waste a great deal of time working on an essay only to discover later that the topic is too broad.

 

To narrow a topic, limit it to a specific part or aspect. Two techniques — branching and questioning — will help you.

 

What Is A Thesis Statement?

Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is the main point of an essay. It is usually expressed in a single sentence. An effective thesis statement should accomplish three goals. It should:

 

Developing Your Thesis Statement

Keep the following guidelines in mind as you develop your thesis statement.

 

Expect your thesis statement to evolve during prewriting. Exploring your topic may lead you to discover a new focus or a more interesting way to approach your topic.

 

Expect to do research to revise your thesis. You may need to do some reading or research to learn more about your topic or tentative thesis.

 

Expect to revise your thesis as you draft and revise your essay. You may write several versions of a thesis statement before you find one that works, and you may revise your thesis as you gather and organize supporting evidence, draft, and revise your essay.

 

When you write, think of a thesis statement as a promise to your reader. The rest of your essay delivers on your promise. The example thesis promises the audience, that by reading this essay, they will discover how football and baseball players learn communication, teamwork, and responsibility and how these skills and qualities contribute to the players’ success in life.

 

Your learning style can influence how you develop a thesis statement. Pragmatic and concrete learners find it helpful to generate facts and details about a narrow topic and then write a thesis statement that reveals a large idea that is demonstrated by the details. Creative and abstract learners find it easier to begin with a broad idea, focus it in a thesis statement, and then generate details to support the thesis.

 

A Working Thesis Statement

Coming up with a working thesis statement involves reviewing your prewriting to determine how some or all of the ideas you discovered fit together. It is a process of looking for similarities among ideas and grouping them in related categories. Use the following steps, adapting the process to your learning style.

 

1. Reread your prewriting, identify details that relate to the same subtopic, and cut and paste them so they appear together; then write a word or phrase that describes each of the two groups of related ideas.

 

Placing the Thesis Statement

Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement can appear anywhere in your essay, but it is usually best to place it in the first paragraph as part of your introduction. When your thesis appears at the beginning of the essay, your readers will know what to pay attention to and what to expect in the rest of the essay. If you place your thesis later in the essay, you need to build up to it gradually in order to prepare readers for it.

 

Using an Implied Thesis

In some professional writing, especially in narrative or descriptive essays, the writer may not state the thesis directly. Instead, the thesis may be strongly implied by the details the writer chose and the way he or she organized them. Although some professional writers use an implied thesis, academic writers, including professors and students, generally state their thesis. You should always include a clear statement of your thesis in your college papers.

 

After you have written a working thesis statement, the next step is to develop evidence that supports your thesis. Evidence is any type of information, such as examples and anecdotes, facts and statistics, or expert opinion, that will convince your reader that your thesis is reasonable or correct. This evidence, organized into well-developed paragraphs, makes up the body of your essay.

 

Choosing the Best Evidence

In collecting evidence in support of a thesis, you will probably generate more than you need. Consequently, you will need to identify the evidence that (1) best supports your thesis and (2) best suits your purpose and audience. Your learning style can influence the way you select evidence and the kinds of evidence you favor.

 

If you are a creative or an abstract learner, for example, you may tend to focus on large ideas and overlook the need for supporting detail. If you are a pragmatic or concrete learner, you may tend to include too many details or fail to organize them logically.

 

The following guidelines will help you select the types of evidence that will best support your thesis.

 

1. Make sure the evidence is relevant. All of your evidence must clearly and directly support your thesis. Irrelevant evidence will distract and puzzle (or annoy) your readers. If your thesis is that acupuncture is useful for controlling pain, you would not need to describe other alternative therapies.

 

2. Provide specific evidence. Avoid general statements that will not help you make a convincing case for your thesis. For instance, to support the thesis that acupuncture is becoming more widely accepted by patients in the United States, citing statistics that demonstrate an increase in the number of practicing acupuncturists in the United States over the past five years would be most convincing. (You may need to return to your prewriting or conduct research to find evidence for your thesis.)

 

3. Offer a variety of evidence. Using different kinds of evidence increases the likelihood that your evidence will convince your readers. If you provide only four examples of people who have found acupuncture helpful, for instance, your readers may conclude that four people’s experiences do not mean that acupuncture is becoming more popular nationally.

 

If you also provide statistics and quotations from experts, however, more readers will be likely to accept your thesis. Using different types of evidence also enhances your credibility, showing readers you are well informed about your topic.

 

4. Provide a sufficient amount of evidence. The amount of evidence you need varies according to your audience and your topic. To discover whether you have provided enough evidence, ask a classmate to read your essay and tell you whether he or she is convinced. If your reader is not convinced, ask him or her what additional evidence is needed.

 

5. Provide representative evidence. Do not provide unusual, rare, or exceptional situations as evidence. Suppose your thesis is that acupuncture is widely used for various types of surgery. An example of one person who underwent painless heart surgery using only acupuncture will not support your thesis unless the use of acupuncture in heart surgery is common. Including such an example would mislead your reader and may bring your credibility into question.

 

6. Provide accurate evidence from reliable sources. Do not make vague statements, guess at statistics, or make estimates. For example, do not simply say that many medical doctors are licensed to practice acupuncture in the United States or estimate the number. Instead, find out exactly how many U.S. physicians are licensed for this practice.

 

Choosing Evidence For Academic Writing

Academic Writing

For most kinds of academic writing, certain types of evidence are preferred over others. In general, your personal experiences and opinions are not considered as useful as more objective evidence such as facts, statistics, historical background, and expert testimony.

 

Suppose you are writing an academic paper on the effects of global warming. Your observations about climate changes in your city would not be considered adequate or appropriate evidence to support the idea of climatic change as an effect of global warming. To support your thesis, you would need to provide facts, statistics, and expert testimony on climatic change in a wide geographic area and demonstrate their relationship to global warming.

 

Incorporating Visuals into An Essay

Visuals

Today’s readers are used to seeing more than words on a page, and since your task is to engage readers and communicate meaning effectively, using appropriate visuals can help. Of course, a visual is not a substitute for an explanation in your essay, and including a visual merely to brighten up your document is inappropriate in academic writing projects. But visuals can complement and support your ideas if they

 

Writing A Strong Introduction introductions often start with a fairly general statement of the topic and narrow their focus until they reach the thesis statement at the end of the paragraph. However you begin, your readers should be able to form an expectation of what the essay will be about from this section. Because the introduction creates a first, and often lasting, impression, take the time to get it right.

 

An effective introduction should:

establish your topic and indicate your focus, approach, and point of view, set the tone of your essay — how you “sound” to your readers and what relationship you have with them, interest your readers and provide any background information they may need, and present your thesis statement.

 

An introduction can be difficult to write. If you have trouble, return to it later, once you have written the body of your essay. As you draft, you may think of a better way to grab your readers, set your tone, and establish your focus.

 

The following suggestions for writing a strong introduction will help you capture your readers’ interest:

1. ask a provocative or disturbing question, or pose a series of related questions to direct readers’ attention to your key points.

Should health insurance companies pay for more than one stay in a drug rehabilitation center? Should insurance continue to pay for rehab services when patients consistently put themselves back into danger by using drugs again?

 

2. Begin with a dramatic or engaging anecdote or an example that is relevant to your thesis.

The penal system sometimes protects the rights of the criminal instead of those of the victim. For example, during a rape trial, the defense attorney can question the victim about his or her sexual history, but the prosecuting attorney is forbidden by law to mention that the defendant was charged with rape in a previous trial. In fact, if the prosecution even hints at the defendant’s sexual history, the defense can request a mistrial.

 

3. offer a quotation that illustrates or emphasizes your thesis.

As Indira Gandhi once said, “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.” This truism is important to remember whenever people communicate with one another but particularly when they are attempting to resolve a conflict. Both parties need to agree that there is a problem and then agree to listen to each other with an open mind. Shaking hands is a productive way to begin working toward a resolution.

 

4. Cite a little-known fact or shocking statistic.

Recent research has shown that the color pink has a calming effect on people. In fact, a prison detention center in western New York was recently painted pink to make prisoners more controllable in the days following their arrest.

 

6. Describe a hypothetical situation.

Suppose you were in a serious car accident and became unconscious. Suppose further that you slipped into a coma, with little hope for recovery. Unless you had a prewritten health-care proxy that designated someone familiar with your wishes to act on your behalf, your fate would be left in the hands of doctors who knew nothing about you or your preferences for treatment.

 

Compare your topic with one that is familiar or of special interest to your readers.

The process a researcher uses to locate a specific piece of information in the library is similar to the process an investigator follows in tracking a criminal; both pose a series of questions and follow clues to answer them.

 

Writing An Effective Conclusion

Write a conclusion that brings your essay to a satisfying close. For most essays, your conclusion should reaffirm your thesis without directly restating it. For lengthy essays, you may want to summarize your main points. Shorter essays can be ended more memorably and forcefully by using one of the following suggestions.

 

1. take your readers beyond the scope and time frame of your essay.

For now, then, the present system for policing the Internet appears to be working. In the future, though, it may be necessary to put a more formal, structured procedure in place.

 

2. remind readers of the relevance of the issue or suggest why your thesis is important.

As stated earlier, research has shown that the seat-belt law has saved thousands of lives. These lives would almost certainly have been lost had this law not been enacted.

 

3. offer a recommendation or urge your readers to take action.

To convince the local cable company to eliminate pornographic material, concerned citizens should organize, contact their local cable station, and threaten to cancel their subscriptions.

 

4. Discuss broader implications not fully addressed in the essay (but do not introduce a completely new issue).

When fair-minded people consider whether the FBI should be allowed to tap private phone lines, the issue inevitably leads them to the larger issue of First Amendment rights.

 

5. Conclude with a fact, quotation, anecdote, or example that emphasizes your thesis.

The next time you are tempted to send a strongly worded email, consider this fact: Your friends and your enemies can forward those messages, with unforeseen consequences to you.

 

Useful Techniques For Revision

The following techniques will help you evaluate and revise your essays. Allow time between drafting and revising, so you can approach your essay from a fresh perspective. Try to leave enough time to set your draft aside over-night if possible.

 

Listen for problems as you or a friend reads your draft aloud. Listening carefully can help you identify awkward wording, vague or overused expressions, or main points that are unclear or lack adequate support. A reader less familiar with the text than you may also slow down when reading or misread confusing passages, providing a hint for areas that need revision. Ask a classmate to read and comment on your paper. This process, called peer review.

 

Look for consistent problem areas in your writing. Develop a checklist of common problems — such as a confusing organization or a lack of concrete supporting details — by listing issues from several essays you have written; then check for these problem areas as you revise.

 

Read a printed copy. You will be able to analyze and evaluate your writing more impartially, and you can write marginal annotations, circle troublesome words or sentences, and draw arrows to connect details more easily.

 

Draw a graphic organizer or outline your draft. A graphic organizer or outline allows you to see how your thesis and topic sentences relate to one another and helps you evaluate content and organization. If you spot a problem, such as a detail or an example that does not support a topic sentence, write notes to the right of your organizer (or outline).

 

Key Questions For Revision

Key Questions

To identify broad areas of weakness in your essay, ask yourself these five key questions.

 

1. Does my essay clearly convey a purpose, address an appropriate audience, and follow the conventions of the genre?

2. Does my essay state a clear, well-focused thesis and provide enough reasons and evidence to support the thesis?

3. Does each paragraph include a clear main idea (usually stated in a topic sentence) and enough details to develop the idea fully?

4. Do the ideas in my essay fit together logically?

5. Does my essay have a strong introduction and conclusion, and an appropriate title?

 

After you have identified areas that need reworking, refer to the self-help flowcharts that follow.

 

Analyzing Your Purpose And Audience

First drafts often lack focus. They may go off in several directions rather than have a clear purpose. For instance, one section of an essay on divorce may inform readers of its causes, and another section may argue that it harms children. A first draft may also contain sections that appeal to different audiences.

 

For instance, one section of an essay on counseling teenagers about drug abuse might seem to be written for parents; other sections might be more appropriate for teenagers.

 

To determine if your paper has a clear focus, write a sentence stating what your essay is supposed to accomplish. If you cannot write such a sentence, your paper probably lacks a clear purpose. To find a purpose, reread your draft. Does one purpose predominate? If so, revise the sections that do not fit in. If not, do some additional thinking or brainstorming, listing as many possible purposes as you can think of and revising to address the purpose you find most appropriate.

 

To determine if your essay is directed to a specific audience, write a few sentences describing your intended readers. Describe their knowledge, beliefs, and experience with your topic. If you are unable to do so, focus on a particular audience and revise your essay with them in mind.

 

DEVELOPING STRATEGIES FOR WRITING

Writing

The section below covers strategies that will make a big difference in your writing.

 

START WITH A POSITIVE ATTITUDE

You have the ability to be a successful writer. To approach your writing course with a positive attitude and get the most out of it, use the following suggestions.

 

1. Think of writing as a process. Writing is not a single act of getting words down on paper. It is a series of steps — planning, organizing, drafting, revising, and editing and proofreading — all of which can be done in whatever order makes sense and repeated as needed. (Most writers go back and forth among these steps.)

 

2. Be patient. Writing is a skill that improves with practice. On some days, writing will be easier than on other days, but as you draft and revise your essays, your writing will improve in small ways that build on one another.

 

3. Expect writing to take time, often more time than you planned. Build in extra time for completing writing assignments.

 

FIND A GOOD REVIEWER

Your instructor may pair you with another class member or let you find your own reviewer, either a classmate or someone outside class. If you can select your own reviewer, use these tips.

 

Select a classmate who is attentive in class, so he or she will be familiar with the assignment and with what you have learned so far in the course. If you need to find someone outside of class, choose a person who has already taken the course, preferably someone who did well in it.

 

Avoid choosing close friends; they are not necessarily the best reviewers because they may be reluctant to offer criticism or may be too critical. Instead, choose someone who is serious, skillful, objective, and willing to spend the time needed to provide useful comments.

 

If your college has a writing center, ask a tutor in the center to read and comment on your draft. Use more than one reviewer if possible, so you can get several perspectives.

 

SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITERS

suggestions

To get the greatest benefit from peer review, use the following suggestions.

 

1. Provide readable copy. A typed, double-spaced draft is best.

 

2. Do some revision yourself first. Think through your draft, and try to fix obvious problems. The more developed your draft is, the more helpful your reviewer’s comments will be.

 

3. Offer specific questions or guidelines. Give your reviewer a copy of the “Questions for Peer Reviewers” below, and add other questions that you want answered. You might also give your reviewer one of the revision flowcharts in this (or another) chapter.

 

4. Be open to criticism and new ideas. Try not to be defensive. Look at your essay objectively, seeing it from your reader’s perspective.

 

5. Don’t feel obligated to accept all of the advice you are given. A reviewer might suggest a change that will not work well in your paper or wrongly identify something as an error. If you are uncertain about a suggestion, discuss it with your instructor or other reviewers.

 

QUESTIONS FOR PEER REVIEWERS

 

Does each paragraph offer a clear topic sentence and relevant and convincing evidence to support the main point? Where is more evidence needed? (Identify specific paragraphs.)

 

 

 

SUGGESTIONS FOR REVIEWERS

draft

Reviewers should be honest but tactful. Criticism is never easy to accept, so keep your reader’s feelings in mind. These tips will help you provide useful comments.

 

1. Read the draft through twice before making any judgments or comments.

 

2. Focus on the main points and how clearly they are expressed. If you notice a misspelling or a grammatical error, you can circle it, but correcting errors is not your primary task.

 

3. Offer praise. It will help the writer to know what works as well as what needs improvement.

 

4. Be specific. For instance, instead of saying that more examples are needed, tell the writer which ideas in which paragraphs are unclear or unconvincing without examples. Suggest useful examples in each case.

 

5. Use the Questions for Peer Reviewers above as well as any additional questions that the writer provides to guide your review. If the essay was written in response to an assignment in one of the chapters in Part 3 or 4, consult the revision flowchart in that chapter.

 

6. Write notes and comments directly on the draft. At the end of the essay, write a note that summarizes your overall reaction, pointing out both strengths and weaknesses. Here is one reviewer’s sample final note:

 

Overall, I think your paper has great ideas. It definitely held my interest, and the example about the judge proved your point well. But it could be organized better. The last three paragraphs don’t seem connected to the rest of the essay. Maybe better transitions would help. Also the conclusion just repeats your thesis statement. It needs to be developed more.

 

7. Use the Comments feature or insert comments in brackets or in a different color following the passage. Make it easy for the writer to find and delete your comments after reading them.

 

8. Do not rewrite paragraphs or sections of the essay. Instead, suggest how the writer might revise them.

 

Your Essay Assignment

Essay Assignment

Write an illustration essay explaining a topic your readers might find unfamiliar or challenging and that you can illustrate effectively with examples. Imagine you are writing for your campus newspaper, and choose a topic that you think might interest your readers. Below are some options:

 

The problems of balancing school, work, and family, effective (or ineffective) parenting, or a concept from one of your courses, such as stress management or ergonomic design.

*The writing process is recursive; that is, you may find yourself revising as you draft or prewriting as you revise.

 

This is especially true when writing on a computer. Your writing process may also differ from that of your classmates, depending on your preferred learning style.

 

1 Select a topic or create your own. Use one or more of the following suggestions to generate topic ideas.

 

Peruse your textbooks, looking for boldfaced terms that you find interesting or want to learn about. List several and then, alone or with another student, brainstorm examples that would help to illustrate or explain the concept. You may need to read your textbook for models. (If you are an abstract thinker, starting from a generalization and then coming up with examples may work better for you.)

 

Work backward: Make a list of the things you do for fun or find challenging and then consider what they have in common. Use that common thread as your topic.After you have chosen your topic, make sure that you can develop your main idea into a well-focused working thesis.

 

2 Consider your purpose, audience, and point of view. Ask yourself these questions.

questions

Will my essay’s purpose be to express myself, inform, or persuade? Several examples may be needed to persuade. One extended example may be sufficient to inform readers about a very narrow topic (for example, how to select an educational toy for a child).

 

Who is my audience? Will readers need any background information to understand my essay? What types of examples will be most effective with these readers? Straightforward examples, based on everyday experience, may be appropriate for an audience unfamiliar with your topic; more technical examples may be appropriate for an expert audience.

 

What other evidence (such as facts and statistics, expert opinion) will I need to make my case with my audience? Do I have enough information to write about this topic, or must I consult additional sources? How might I use additional patterns of development within my illustration essay?

 

(For example, you might use narration to present an extended example from your own life.)

 

What point of view best suits my purpose and audience? (Unless the examples you use are all drawn from your personal experience, you will probably use the third person when using examples to explain.)

 

3 Narrow your topic and generate examples.

 

Conduct research to find examples used by experts and relevant news reports and to locate other supporting information, like facts and statistics.

 

Review textbooks for examples used there.

Creative and abstract learners may have trouble focusing on details. If you have trouble, try teaming up with a classmate who has a pragmatic or concrete learning style for help.

 

Hint: Keep track of where you found each example so that you can cite your sources accurately.

 

4 Evaluate your examples.

Try these suggestions to help you evaluate your examples. Reread everything you have written. (Sometimes reading your notes aloud is helpful.)

 

Highlight examples that are representative (or typical) yet striking. Make sure they are relevant (they clearly illustrate your point). Unless you are using just one extended example, make sure your examples are varied. Then copy and paste the usable ideas to a new document to consult while drafting.

 

Collaborate. In small groups, take turns giving examples and having classmates tell you . . .

 

Organizing & Drafting

Drafting

Try one or more of the following strategies to develop a generalization that your examples support. (Your generalization will become your working thesis.)

 

Systematically review your examples asking yourself what they have in common. Discuss your thesis with a classmate. Do the examples support the thesis? If not, try to improve on each other’s examples or revise the thesis.

 

In a two-column list, write words in the left column describing how you feel about your narrowed topic. (For example, the topic cheating on college exams might generate such feelings as anger, surprise, and confusion.) In the right column, add details about specific situations in which these feelings arose. (For example, your thesis might focus on your surprise on discovering that a good friend cheated on an exam.)

 

Research your topic in the library or on the Internet to uncover examples outside your own experience. Then ask yourself what the examples from your experience and your research have in common.

 

Note: As you draft, you may think of situations or examples that illustrate a different or more interesting thesis. Don’t hesitate to revise your thesis as you discover more about your topic.

 

Collaborate with classmates to make sure your examples support your thesis statement.

 

6 Select a method of organization.

If you are using a single, extended example, you are most likely to use chronological order to relate events in the sequence in which they happened.

 

If you are using several examples, you are most likely to organize the examples from most to least or least to most important. If you are using many examples, you may want to group them into categories. For instance, in an essay about the use of slang, you might classify examples according to regions or age groups in which they are used.

 

Hint: An outline or graphic organizer will allow you to experiment to find the best order for supporting paragraphs. (Spatial learners may prefer to draw a graphic organizer, while verbal learners may prefer to write an outline.)

 

Write the first draft of your illustration essay. Use the following guidelines to keep your illustration essay on track. The introduction should spark readers’ interest and include background information (if needed by readers). Most illustration essays include a thesis near the beginning to help readers understand the point of upcoming examples.

 

The body paragraphs should include topic sentences to focus each paragraph (or paragraph cluster) on one key idea. Craft one or more examples for each paragraph (or cluster) to illustrate that key idea. Use vivid descriptive language to make readers feel as if they are experiencing or observing the situation. Include transitions, such as for example or in particular, to guide readers from one example to another. 

 

The conclusion should include a final statement that pulls together your ideas and reminds readers of your thesis.

 

8 Evaluate your draft, and revise as necessary.

 

9 Edit and proofread your essay.

editing sentences to avoid wordiness, making your verb choices strong and active, and making your sentences clear, varied, and parallel, and editing words for tone and diction, connotation, and concrete and specific language.

 

Pay particular attention to the following:

 

Keep verb tenses consistent in your extended examples. When using an event from the past as an example, however, always use the past tense to describe it. Example: Special events are an important part of children’s lives. Parent visitation day at school was an event my daughter talked about for an entire week. Children are also excited by . . .

 

Use first person (I, me, we, us), second person (you), or third person (he, she, it, him, her, they, them) consistently.

 

Descriptive Research

Descriptive Research

Although several factors distinguish different types of research from one another, probably the most important factor is the type of question that you want to answer. If you are conducting descriptive research, you are trying to understand events that are occurring in the present and how they might relate to other factors. You generate questions and hypotheses, collect data, and continue as if you were conducting any type of research.

 

Descriptive research describes the current state of some phenomenon.

The purpose of descriptive research is to describe the current state of affairs at the time of the study. For example, if you want to know how many teachers use a particular teaching method, you could ask a group of students to complete a questionnaire, thereby measuring the outcome as it occurs.

 

If you wanted to know whether there were differences in the frequency of use of particular types of words among 3-, 5-, and 7-year-olds, you would describe those differences within a descriptive or developmental framework.

 

The most significant difference between descriptive research and causal-comparative or experimental research is that descriptive research does not include a treatment or a control group. You are not trying to test the influence of any variable upon another. In other words, all you are doing for readers of your research is painting a picture.

 

When people read a report that includes one of the several descriptive methods that will be discussed, they should be able to envision the larger picture of what occurred. There may be room to discuss why it occurred, but that question is usually left to a more experimental approach.

 

Although there are many different types of descriptive research, the focus of this discussion will be on survey research, and correlational studies in which relationships between variables are described.

 

Survey Research

Survey Research

Survey researchers attempt to study directly the characteristics of populations through the use of surveys. You may be most familiar with the types of surveys done around election time, wherein relatively small samples of potential voters (about 1,200) are questioned about their voting intentions. To the credit of the survey designers, the results are often very close to the actual outcomes following the election.

 

Survey research, also called sample surveys, examines the frequency and relationships between psychological and sociological variables and taps into constructs such as attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, preferences, and opinions. For example, a sample survey could be used to assess the following:

 

 

THE INTERVIEW

interview

The basic tool used in survey research is the interview. Interviews (or oral questionnaires) can take the form of the most informal question-and-answer session on the street to a highly structured, detailed interaction between interviewer and interviewee. In fact, many of the points that were listed for questionnaires also apply to interviews.

 

For example, although you need not be concerned about the physical format of the questions in an interview (because the respondent never sees them), you do need to address such issues as transitioning between sections, being sensitive to the type of information you are requesting, and being objective and straightforward.

 

Interviews are much more challenging and difficult to do well than just discussing a topic with someone.

 

Most interviews begin with what is called face-sheet information, or neutral information, about the respondent such as age, living arrangements, number of children, income, gender, and educational level. Such information helps the interviewer accomplish several things.

 

First, it helps establish a rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee. Such questions as “Where did you go to college?” or “How many children do you have?” are relatively non-threatening.

 

Second, it establishes a set of data that characterizes the person being interviewed. These data can prove invaluable in the analysis of the main focus of the interview which comes later on in the survey.

 

Interviews contain two general types of questions: structured and unstructured questions. Structured or closed-ended questions have a clear and apparent focus and call for an explicit answer. They are comprehensible to the interviewer as to the interviewee. Such questions as “At what age did you start smoking?” and “How many times have you visited this store?” call for explicit answers.

 

On the other hand, unstructured or open-ended questions allow the interviewee to elaborate upon responses. Such questions as “Why were you opposed to the first Persian Gulf War?” or “How would you address the issue of teenage pregnancy?” allow for a more broad response by the interviewee. In both cases, the interviewer can follow up with additional questions.

 

Interviews can be especially helpful if you want to obtain information that might otherwise be difficult to come by, including firsthand knowledge of people’s feelings and perceptions. For example, in a study conducted by M. L. Smith and L. A. Shepard , interviews with teachers and parents were part of a multifaceted approach to understanding kindergarten readiness and retention.

 

In this study, interviewing was combined with other techniques such as in-class observations and the analysis of important documents. These researchers put the interview results to good use when they examined these outcomes in light of other information they collected throughout the study.

 

On the positive side, interviews offer great flexibility by letting you pursue any direction (within the scope of the project) with the questions. You could also note the interviewee’s nonverbal behavior, the setting, and other information that might provide valuable information. Another advantage of interviews is that you can set the general tone and agenda at your own convenience (to a point, of course).

 

There is also a downside to interviews. They take time, and time is expensive. Interviewing 10 people could take 20–30 hours including travel time and such. Also, because interviews have less anonymity than, for example, a questionnaire, respondents might be reluctant to come forward as honestly as they might otherwise.

 

Other disadvantages are your own biases and the lack of a standardized set of questions. A good interviewer will probe deeply for additional information, perhaps of a different type, than would another interviewer who started with the same questions. Asking follow-up questions is an excellent practice, but what do you do about the interview where probing did not lead to the same information and thus produced different results?

 

DEVELOPING AN INTERVIEW

interview begins

The development of an interview begins much like that for any proposal for a research project. Your first step is to state the purpose of the interview by taking into account your goals for the project.

 

Then, as before, you review the relevant literature to find out what has been done in the past and whether other interview studies have been conducted. You may even find an actual interview that was previously used and be able to use parts of that in your own research. This is a very common practice when researchers use the same interview, say, 10 years later to look for changes in trends.

 

Second, select a sample that is appropriate for your study, both in characteristics and in size. If you want to know about feelings regarding racial unrest, you cannot question only white citizens—you need to address all minorities. Similarly, even if interviews take lots of time and effort, you cannot skimp on sample size with the thought that what is lost in sample size can be made up in richness and detail. It does not work that way.

 

Next, the interview questions need to be developed. As you know by now, questions, whether structured or unstructured, need to be clear and concise without any hidden agenda, double negatives, 75-cent words that can- not be understood, and so forth. One of the best ways to determine the appropriateness of your interview is by field-testing it. Use it with people who have the same characteristics as the intended audience. Listen to their feedback and make whatever changes you find necessary.

 

After the interview form is (more or less) finished, it is time to train the interviewers. Most of the traits you want in an interviewer are obvious: They should be polite, neatly dressed, uncontroversial in appearance, and responsible enough to get to the interview site on time. These qualities, however, are not enough.

 

Interviewers must learn how to go beyond the question should the need arise. For example, if you are asking questions about racial discrimination, the respondent might mention, “Yes, I sometimes feel as if I am being discriminated against.” For you not to ask “Why?” and to follow up on the respondent’s answer would result in the loss of potentially valuable and interesting information. The best way to train is to have an experienced interviewer watch the trainees interview a practice respondent and then provide feedback.

 

Finally, it is time to conduct the actual interviews. Allow plenty of time, and go to it. Do not be shy, but do not be too aggressive either.

 

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF INTERVIEWING If

No one is perfect, but you should strive to adhere to these 10 guidelines about interviewing as well as you can. With that in mind, here are the 10 commandments of interviewing. Keep in mind that many, if not all of these, could also be classified as interviewer effects, in which the behavior of the interviewer can significantly affect the outcome.

 

1. Do not begin the interview cold. Warm up with some conversation about everything from the weather to the World Series (especially if there is a game that night and you know that the interviewee is a fan). Use anything you can to break the ice and warm up the interaction. If you are offered coffee, accept (and they do not drink all of it if you don’t want to). If you do not like coffee, politely refuse or ask for a substitute.

 

2. Remember that you are there to get information. Stay on task and use a printed set of questions to help you.

 

3. Be direct. Know your questions well enough so that you do not have to refer constantly to your sheet, but do not give the appearance that you are being too casual or uninterested.

 

4. Dress appropriately. Remove five of your six earrings if you feel wearing six would put off respondents. No shorts, no shirt, no interview, got it?

 

5. Find a quiet place where you and the interviewee will not be distracted. When you make the appointment for the interview, decide where this place will be. If a proposed location is not acceptable (such as “in the snack bar”), then suggest another (such as the lounge in the library). Call the day before your interview to confirm your visit. You will be amazed at how many interviewees forget.

 

6. If your interviewee does not give you a satisfactory answer the first time you ask a question, rephrase it. Continue to rephrase it in part or in whole until you get closer and closer to what you believe you need.

 

7. If possible, use a digital recorder. If you do, you should be aware of several things. First, ask permission to tape the session before you begin. Second, the tape recorder should not be used as a crutch. Do not let the tape run without your taking notes and getting all the information you can while the interview is underway. When digitized, oral records can then be easily transcribed into written documents.

 

8. Make the interviewee feel like an important part of an important project, not just someone who is taking a test. Most people like to talk about things if given the chance. Tell interviewees you recognize how valuable their time is and how much you appreciate their participation. Be sure to promise them a copy of the results!

 

9. You become a good interviewer the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Your first interview, like everyone else’s, can be full of apprehension and doubt. As you do more of these, your increased confidence and mastery of the questions will produce a smoother process, which will result in more useful information.

 

10. Thank the interviewee and ask if he or she has any questions. Offer to send (or call) the interviewee a summary of the results of your work.

 

OTHER TYPES OF SURVEYS

SURVEYS

Have you ever been at home during the dinner hour and the phone rings, and the person on the other end of the line wants to know how often you ride the bus, recycle your newspaper, use a computer, or rent a car?

 

Those calls represent one of several types of survey research, all of which are descriptive in nature. In addition to interviews—the primary survey research method—and telephone surveys, surveys include panels or focus groups (in which a small group of respondents is interviewed and re-interviewed) and mail questionnaires.

 

How to Conduct Survey Research

Survey Research

Survey research starts out with a general plan (a flow plan) of what activities will occur when. The plan begins with the objective of the study, leads into the various methods that may be used to collect the data, and finishes with a final report and a summary of the findings.

 

1. Clarifying the objectives. The first step is to clarify the objectives of the survey research. For example, let’s say that a researcher is asked by a small school system to study attitudes toward the use of punishment in public schools. As part of the research plan, the researcher needs to consider the nature of the question being asked. Is the concern over the effectiveness of punishment? The way punishment is administered? The type of punishment (physical or other)?

 

Defining the nature of the objectives may require some preliminary interviewing of respondents who might be interviewed in depth later in the project. One of the primary goals in this step of the project is to define the variables, such as punishment and attitudes, which are to be studied. Both of these terms, which are fairly vague by themselves, need further clarification and definition if the questions that are eventually asked by the researcher are to yield information of any importance.

 

2. Identifying a sample. After the objectives have been specified, the next step is to define a sampling plan and obtain a sample of individuals who will participate in the study. Will all teachers and parents be included? Probably not, because they would be too large a sample, and it would be inefficient to survey such a large group. But how can one fairly represent the community?

 

how about taking a stratified random sample of three parents from each grade from four schools in the district, and a random sample of administrators from each of two administrative levels, building and central administration? If children are involved, the researcher may want to devise a plan that takes into account how frequently these children have been punished themselves and for what reason. Including only children who are rarely punished or only children who are always punished would skew the characteristics of the sample and, thus, the results.

 

3. Defining a method. Now that the objectives and the sampling plan are clear, exactly what will happen during the interview or panel study? Here are some of the questions about which a researcher may be concerned:

 

 

These questions will be answered, in part, by the types of information the researcher needs to meet the objectives that were defined early in the project.

 

4. Coding and scoring. Survey research can result in anything from lengthy responses that have to be analyzed to a simple yes–no response, depending on the format and the content of the question. After the data have been collected, the researcher needs to code them (e.g., 1 for male and 2 for female) and then score the responses in an organized fashion that lends itself to easy tabulation.

 

Some type of analysis of the frequencies of these responses can be performed to answer the question about parents’ attitudes toward punishment.

 

THE VALIDITY OF SURVEY DATA

SURVEY DATA

Collecting survey data is hard work. It means constantly seeking subjects and dealing with lots of extraneous sources of variance that are difficult to control. It is somewhat of a surprise, however, how relatively easy it is to establish the validity of such data. For example, one way to establish the validity of the data gained from an interview is to seek an alternative source for confirmation. Public records are easy to check to confirm such facts as age and party affiliation.

 

Respondents can even be interviewed again to confirm the veracity of what they said the first time. There is no reason why people could not lie twice, but a good researcher is aware of that possibility and tries to confirm factual information that might be important to the study’s purpose.

 

Evaluating SURVEY RESEARCH Like all other research methods, survey research has its ups and downs. Here are some ups. First, survey research allows the researcher to get a very broad picture of whatever is being studied. If sampling is done properly, it is not hard to generalize to millions of people, as is done on a regular basis with campaign polling and such. Along with such powers to generalize comes a big saving in money and time.

 

Second, survey research is efficient in that the data collection part of the study is finished after one contact is made with respondents and the information is collected. Also, minimal facilities are required. In some cases, just a clipboard and a questionnaire is enough to collect data.

 

Third, if done properly and with minimal sampling error, surveys can yield remarkably accurate results.

 

The downs can be serious. Most important are sources of bias that can arise during interviews and questionnaires. Interviewer bias occurs when the interviewer subtly biases the respondent to respond in one way or another. This bias might take place, for example, if the interviewer encourages (even in the most inadvertent fashion) approval or disapproval of a response by a smile, a frown, looking away, or some other action.

 

On the other hand, the interviewee might respond with a bias because he or she may not want to give anything other than socially acceptable responses. After all, how many people would respond with a definite “yes!” to the question, “Do you beat your spouse?”

 

These threats of bias must be guarded against by carefully training interviewers to be objective and by ensuring that the questions neither lead nor put respondents in a position where few alternatives are open.

 

Another problem with survey research is that people may not respond, as in the case of a mail survey. Is this a big deal? It sure can be. Nonresponders might constitute a qualitatively distinct group from responders. Therefore, findings based on nonresponders will be different than if the entire group had been considered. The rule? Go back and try to get those who didn’t respond the first time.

 

Correlational Research

Correlational Research

Correlational research describes the linear relationship between two or more variables without any hint of attributing the effect of one variable on another. As a descriptive technique, it is very powerful because this method indicates whether variables (such as number of hours of studying and test score) share something in common with each other. If they do, the two are correlated (or co-related) with one another. the correlation coefficient was used to estimate the reliability of a test. The same statistic is used here, again in a descriptive role.

 

Correlations can be direct or positive, meaning that as one variable changes in value, the other changes in the same direction, such as the relationship between the number of hours you study and your grade on an exam. Generally, the more you study, the better your grade will be. Likewise, the less you study, the worse your grade will be.

 

Notice that the word positive is sometimes interpreted as being synonymous with good. Not so here. For example, there is a negative correlation between the number of time parents spend with their children and the child’s level of involvement with juvenile authorities. Bad? Not at all.

 

Qualitative Methods

Although quantitative research is an integral part of doing research in the social and behavioral sciences, there is another set of methods that may, at times, be a more appropriate tool for conducting research. Qualitative research, in the simplest terms, is social or behavioral science research that explores the processes that underlie human behavior using Qualitative research is not just an alternative to quantitative research; it is a different approach that allows you to ask and answer different types of questions.

 

Qualitative Methods are interviews, surveys, case studies, and other relatively personal techniques.

In fact, many students choose to perform qualitative research because they believe it will be easier to perform because there is usually little statistical analysis involved. In many ways, however, the opposite is the case, in terms of complexity, level of effort required, and the increasingly sophisticated analytic methods that are becoming available (e.g., computer programs).

 

Conducting Qualitative Research

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research methods have been around for thousands of years, as long as people have shared ideas and traditions orally, interviewed others, and so on. Only in the past 25 or so years have these methods received any attention as a legitimate tool for understanding behavior and answering important social and behavioral science research questions.

 

Much of what you read about in this chapter may have been mentioned elsewhere in this volume; however, these methods and techniques are particular to the qualitative method. For example, case studies are descriptive in nature, but they are also used as a qualitative tool.

 

As it turns out, much of the process of qualitative research can be very demanding because all the discipline forced upon you by the use of statistics transfers itself to the researcher. You must describe your every move in great detail in a manner different from the more traditional approach. However, relatively few scholars are adequately trained in its use.

 

There are ways to establish the legitimacy of qualitative research, as we will discuss later in this chapter, but for now, let’s start with the distinction between the types of sources that are regularly used in qualitative research.

 

How Qualitative Research Differs from quantitative research. But as you will learn in this chapter, qualitative research is becoming an increasingly attractive tool to answer questions that arise in the behavior and social sciences. But how does it differ from quantitative research? These differences should provide a good foundation for the discussion that is about to follow.

 

Research Sources

As you learned earlier in this volume, both primary and secondary resources are valuable assets. In this first section, different sources of information for qualitative research are discussed: documentation, archival records, physical artifacts, direct observation, participant observation, and focus groups.

 

Documentation

Documentation

Documentation that is composed and released either internally or for public consumption can provide a wealth of information. For example, a new policy on requirements for child-care workers, meant for either internal use or a press release, provides a context to the official goals and policies of an organization. Documents also serve to confirm or contradict information gathered through other means.

 

An interesting bit of detective work that is sometimes done is comparing the official distribution list (who is supposed to get what) with any information you can gather as to who else was provided with informal copies of the document (who really got what). This can be important from the viewpoint of a person who, one would think, would be privy to certain issues but was not, as well as those who were included without having a readily apparent need to be included in the direct distribution.

 

Archival Records

Archival records, when available, give the researcher descriptive data about the composition of an organization. Often of particular interest are such records as organizational charts and budgets, which help track the change in the organization being studied.

 

For example, knowledge that two people who are now in more senior positions previously worked together could imply either a close relationship or one in which “familiarity bred contempt.” Archival records can also show the researcher which employees have not been promoted in recent years, whether from refusing an offeror from a lack of confidence on the part of higher management.

 

Archives are fascinating, not only for what they contain but also for the amount of material stored, and yet to be accessed.

 

Former employees of a hospital could hint about the current and future direction of the healthcare facility. For example, has the hospital or the former employee prospered more since they parted ways? Did the separation come about because of a change of direction by the hospital’s executive committee or because the person was offered a promotion at a different hospital?

 

If the employee left on friendly terms, there could be a potential for strategic collaborations in the future. If the parting was unfriendly, there could be the possibility of two hospitals competing for the same market or same intellectual space.

 

Physical Artifacts

Physical artifacts are physical objects or elements that are open to your interpretation. For example, what would a dark, somber physical space convey about organization morale or the individual’s role in that organization?

 

Or, for example, let’s say you are conducting a study on the use of information technology policy in a school system company, but when you walk into the superintendent’s office you notice that there is no computer in the office and the superintendent admits that he is computer illiterate and “does not know the first thing” about computers. One can reach the conclusion that the superintendent may be a good administrator, but what about his aspect of the organization’s success?

 

Direct Observation

Direct observation occurs when the researcher is actually in or directly adjacent to the environment being studied but is not actually a participant in the environment itself. For this method, the surroundings, as well as the interactions of people, are viewed in order to confirm or disconfirm stated hypotheses or, alternatively, as a way to gain an understanding of the study setting and to help form hypotheses.

 

Direct observation is unobtrusive, meaning that the researcher allows the normal activity of the environment to proceed without interruption. Questions, if asked at all, are reserved for times when the normal flow of events will not be interrupted. This method of research is also used to study nonhuman subjects, such as animals in the wild. When used to observe humans, this method can be very helpful in sensing formal and informal relationships and networks of the research subjects.

 

Participant Observation

Participant observation is a difficult method of conducting research because it requires the researcher to be an active participant in the social network being studied while maintaining sufficient objectivity and detachment to be able to evaluate accurately the material being gathered. However, it can yield some terrific and very useful information.

 

For example, being a gang member or a member of the Peace Corps and writing about those activities provides a personal perspective that would probably be impossible to derive through traditional quantitative methods.

 

One aspect of participant observation, which might make it undesirable to the casual researcher (if there is such a thing), is the time-consuming nature of the method. In order to be sufficiently accepted in a community to see its true character, the researcher must be there long enough for people to act naturally in his or her presence. If they don’t, the information is useless, unless the research question being studied is how the community will react to an outsider.

 

Focus Groups

Focus Groups

A focus group is a gathering of people who are being moderated by a member of a research team and perhaps observed, either openly or secretly, by other members of the research team. For example, parents could be called together to find out about their feelings and perceptions regarding the implementation of a new school day schedule or the elimination of busing for all students who live close to school.

 

The setting in which the focus group occurs should provide an encouraging environment for frank, open Focus groups have four main functions, which are summarized as:

 

First, they are a great way to gather a lot of information from relatively large numbers of people in a relatively short period of time. For example, if one were studying the perceptions that people have of professional wrestling, one could interview preteens, adolescents, young adults, and parents to learn their thoughts about various social aspects of watching professional wrestling on television.

 

It is critical to keep distinct groups separated, however. A 10-year- old is much less likely to speak freely with a parent present in the room than in a roomful of peers.

 

Second, focus groups can help generate insight into topics that previously were not understood. Speaking of professional wrestling, some people cannot understand how more than 10 viewers a week watch it, when, in fact, it is a multibillion-dollar industry. Indeed, it has a significant following of educated, professional men and women.

 

An interesting focus group, some would conclude, would be to find educated, white-collar men who regularly watch wrestling and ask them to discuss why they find it so appealing. Sure, many would say, such a discussion has no meaning, but it could speak to something not obvious, which is perhaps the whole point of conducting qualitative research.

 

Third, focus groups help the researcher understand how members of the group arrive at their conclusions. Having participants “talk out” their thought processes can help the researcher dissect each individual’s motivations and determine critical steps along the way toward deciding what is truly important to the members of the group.

 

Finally, focus groups encourage group interaction, which helps to bring various viewpoints together in a way that individual interviews do not. Sometimes a question requires more than one person’s input to answer it. Other times there is a task involved that forces a team to work together to complete it in an allotted amount of time.

 

Focus groups can be a very productive way to research a question, but their success depends on the ability of the facilitator to keep the group on task.

 

Case Studies

Case Studies

Case studies are highly detailed, often personal descriptions. Case studies take a long time to complete but can yield a great deal of detail and insight.

 

Case studies are not limited to people. The Harvard Business School makes a regular practice of including case studies of businesses that fail, as well as those that succeed, as a staple of its graduate students’ diet of materials to study. Investigating one case, under the microscope so to speak, allows students to review the steps that were taken and better understand the mechanics of how a business might be affected by a variety of factors. Similarly, families, schools, gangs, and social organizations have all been the focus of the case study approach.

 

Some Advantages of the Case Study Method

Case studies are a unique way of capturing information about human behavior for a variety of reasons. First, case studies focus on only one individual or one thing (e.g., a person or a school district), which enables a very close examination and scrutiny and the collection of a great deal of detailed data. It is for these reasons that case studies have always been a popular method in clinical settings.

 

Second, case studies encourage the use of several different techniques to get the necessary information ranging from personal observations to interviews of others who might know the focus of the case study, to schools’ or doctors’ records regarding health and other matters.

 

Third, there is simply no way to get a richer account of what is occurring than through a case study. This was exactly what Freud did in his early work. He certainly could not have used a questionnaire to inquire about his patients’ dreams, nor could he think to reach his level of analysis through the use of anything other than intensive scrutiny of the most seemingly minor details concerning the way the mind functions.

 

These data helped contribute to his extraordinary insight into the functioning of the human mind and the first accepted stage theory of human development. Fourth, while case studies do not necessarily result in hypotheses being tested, they suggest directions for further study.

 

Some Disadvantages of the Case Study Method

The case study method has provided some very important information (which probably could not have been revealed any other way), but it does have its shortcomings.

 

Case studies are limited in their generalizability.

First, as with everything else, what you see is not always what you get. The case study might appear to be easy to do (you need to find only one subject, one school, one classroom, one office, and one family), but it is actually one of the most time-consuming research methods imaginable. You need to collect data in a wide variety of settings and sources, under a wide variety of conditions, and you rarely have the choice about these settings and conditions. If the child you are observing stays in the room and does

 

Second, the notes you record in your log or journal may accurately reflect “reality” (or what you observe), but it is only one reality. Everyone comes to a given situation with a bias, and researchers must try not to let that bias interfere with the data collection and interpretation processes. A step in the right direction here is recognizing that you are biased (as am I or as is your best friend), so you can be sure that the conclusions you draw are based on a biased view of what’s happening.

 

Third, what case studies provide in depth, they lose in breadth. Although they are extremely focused, they are not nearly as comprehensive as other research methods. As a result, case studies are appropriate only if you want to complete an in-depth study of one type of phenomenon. Fourth, do not even think about trying to establish any cause-and-effect links between what you see and what you think might be responsible for the outcomes.

 

Although you might want to speculate, there is nothing in the case study approach that allows you to reach such conclusions. Not only are there insufficient data (an n of 1) to conclude that a cause-effect relationship exists but, most important, studying causal relationships is not the purpose of the method. If you want to study causal relationships, you will need to use tools that are popularly accepted to do so.

 

Finally, by their very nature, the generalizability of the findings from case studies is limited. Although you might be able to learn about another child or another institution like the one your case study is based on, it is not wise to conclude that because the focus of the study is similar, the findings might be as well.

 

Some scientists believe that case studies will never result in groundbreaking basic research (which is not their purpose anyway). Case studies do, however, reveal a diversity and richness of human behavior that is simply not accessible through any other method.

 

Ethnographies

An ethnography, as the root word ethnic suggests, is geared toward exploring a culture. Good ethnographies are as rich as the phenomenon they are studying.

 

Ethnographies have many methods in common with case studies, including the use of interviews and documents where available, but these methods differ in several key characteristics.

 

First, there is the holistic perspective, wherein ethnographers view the group or phenomenon being studied in its entirety. It is considered a strength of ethnography that a researcher will take the less-structured route of looking at the system as a whole, rather than as the sum of its component parts.

 

Second, ethnographers take advantage of naturalistic orientation in that they actually take up residence in the culture being studied and become a participant-observer. Successful acceptance into the culture ensures the least disturbed view of it for the researcher.

 

Ethnographies are also characterized by prolonged field activity which generally requires the researcher to spend years within a culture, probably for a long time period just to gain the level of acceptance necessary for an activity to return to normal.

 

Finally, ethnographers may incorporate into their research design preconceived ideas as to how the research will come out. In fact, ethnographers should use any information on the culture only to give themselves enough familiarity to be able to function. There should be no design of research questions, formulation of hypotheses, or identification of constructs until actual observation provides sufficient knowledge to be able to do so after being in place.

 

In many ways, more discipline is required of an ethnographer than of a researcher performing a case study; for example, the ethnographer must be able to formulate research questions and hypotheses “on the fly” instead of having them already prepared before entering the research environment.

 

Conducting Historical Research

 Historical Research

Historical research (or historiography) in the social and behavioral sciences is sometimes unfairly given second-class status. People often cannot decide whether such research should be placed in the social sciences or in the humanities, and it often ends up within each domain (history of education, history of physics, etc.), without a home of its own.

 

It certainly is a social science because historians collect and analyze data as do social scientists. On the other hand, it is a human as well, because historians (or anyone doing historical research) also examine the roles played by individuals in social institutions such as the school and the family.

 

Further, because few behavioral and social scientists are ever taught about historical research and its associated methodology, few actually do research in that area or are even familiar with the appropriate techniques. For the most part, “historians” who are interested in such topics as the history of childcare or educational reform or the origins of psychoanalysis or one of the hundreds of other interesting topics make the important contributions.

 

Historiography is another term for historical research.

 

Understanding the historical nature of a phenomenon often is as important as understanding the phenomenon itself. Why? Because you cannot fully evaluate or appreciate the advances that are made in science (be it developmental psychology or particle physics) without some understanding of the context within which these developments occurred.

 

The Steps in Historical Research

Although you may have never thought it to be the case, conducting historical research is, in many ways, very similar to conducting any of the other types of research already mentioned in this volume.

 

Although the data or the basic information may differ markedly from that of other research, the historical researcher proceeds with many of the same steps as a researcher using any other method. Let’s take a look at each of these six different steps.

 

First, historical researchers define a topic or a problem that they wish to investigate. Historical research is unlimited in scope because it consists of a constant interchange between current events and events of the past. All of the past is the historian’s database, a vast collection of documents and ideas, many of which can be difficult to find and more difficult to verify their authenticity.

 

Like detectives, historical researchers search through everything from ships’ logs to church birth registers to find who is related to whom and what role this or that person might have played in the community. It is an inspection (which might be just simple reading or a discussion with a colleague) of this legacy of information that prompts ideas for further explorations.

 

This step is much like any other researcher’s mental effort, which usually results from a personal interest in a particular area. For example, one might be interested in the history of educational reform and specifically in the notion of the origin of laws requiring children to go to school.

 

Second, to whatever extent possible, the researcher formulates a hypothesis, which often is expressed as a question. For example, the question might be, “When, how, and why did school become mandatory for children under the age of 16?”

 

Third, as with any other research endeavor, one has to utilize a variety of sources to gather data. As you will shortly see, these sources differ quite markedly from those with which you are acquainted. Interviewing can be a source of data in almost any type of research, but the analysis of written documents and the culling of records and such are usually the province of the historical researcher.

 

Fourth, evidence needs to be evaluated for its authenticity as well as for its accuracy.

 

Fifth, data need to be synthesized or integrated to provide a coherent body of information. This is similar to the steps you may have taken when you reviewed the literature in the preparation of a proposal, but here you are integrating outcomes and looking for trends and patterns that eventually might suggest further questions that would be worth asking.

 

Finally, as with any other research project, you will need to interpret the results in light of the argument you originally made about why this topic is worth pursuing and in light of the question that you asked when the research began.

 

Your skill as an interpreter will have a great deal to do with how well prepared you are for understanding the results of your data collection. For example, the more you know about the economic, political, and social climate of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the more comprehensively you will be able to understand how, why, and when mandatory school attendance became the rule rather than the exception.

 

Sources of Historical Data

Historians usually rely on two different sources of data: primary and secondary. Each plays a particular role in conducting historical research and each is equally valuable. Although the data for historical research may look different, many steps in the process are similar to those used in traditional research models.

 

Primary sources can yield otherwise unobtainable information Sources of Historical Data are original artifacts, documents, interviews and records of eyewitnesses, oral histories, diaries, and school records. Primary sources are firsthand accounts of events, secondary sources of historical data are secondhand or at least once removed from the original event, such as a summary of important statistics, a list of important primary sources, and a newspaper column based on an eyewitness account (the account itself would be a primary source).

 

Secondary sources are often more readily available than primary sources, but they are not as rich in detail and possibly not as accurate. The most important consideration when using secondary sources is the degree to which can you trust the original source of the data.

 

Primary or Secondary Sources: Which Are Best?

primary sources

It would be an ideal world for the historian if primary sources were always available, but that is often not the case. As with so many other situations in the research world, the ideal (such as the perfect sample) is simply unattainable. Instead, one must settle for the next best thing, which may be a secondary source.

 

Given that both types of sources may be equally useful (and trustworthy), researchers should not place any implicit value on one over the other, since they both provide important information.

 

Here is another example. For those of you interested in child development, there is an incredible repository of manuscripts and visual materials at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where both types of sources can be found. There, the Society for Research in Child Development has stored (and continues to solicit) thousands of primary and secondary sources relating to children and their families, often contributed by the scientists who originally conducted the work. Some of the materials they have available include:

 

 

The final, ultimate rule for the historian? Nobody should throw anything away! Archivists, the keepers of the past, encourage those who are participating in an activity to save everything and send it to them. They can then decide, based on their training, what’s important to keep and what’s disposable.

 

Authenticity and Accuracy

Nonetheless, just as researchers who use achievement tests as a source of data must ensure that the test is reliable and valid, so historians need to establish the value of the data from the primary and secondary sources that underlie their arguments. As do others, historiographers need to adopt a critical and evaluative attitude toward the information they collect; otherwise, the inaccurate primary document of today (perhaps a forgery) becomes another historian’s source of misinformation tomorrow.

 

The cycle repeats itself, with one’s primary source becoming another’s secondary source, and the whole database becomes increasingly contaminated with inauthentic information.

 

 

The evaluation of primary and secondary data is accomplished through the application of two separate criteria: authenticity (also known as external criticism) and accuracy (also known as internal criticism).

 

The Limitations of Historical Research

There is no question that historical research comes with some significant shortcomings compared with other methods of doing research in the social and behavioral sciences. Limitation in generalizability is one of the main drawbacks to the results gleaned from historical research.

 

First, because the availability of data is always limited by factors that are not under the control of the researcher, results will likely be limited in their generalizability. If all you have to go on is correspondence, with nothing to verify whether events really occurred, then you cannot take much from such findings and apply them to another time or setting. In fact, historians often have to settle for what they can get to study a particular topic, rather than the ideal.

 

Second, historical research data are often questioned because they are primarily derived from the observations of others, such as letters, books, or works of art. Those schooled in the belief that firsthand observation (e.g., tests, tasks) yields information that has the most potential for understanding behavior may be correct in part, but that is no reason to ignore other types of data presented by history.

 

Third, historical research is often a long and arduous task that can require hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of poring over documents (if you can locate them) as you look for clues and hints to support your hypotheses. For the historian, this is more of a fact of life than a limitation, but it certainly discourages some people from entering into this type of activity.

 

Fourth, because some of the criteria that would normally be applied to empirical research include such things as the reliability and validity of the instruments used, in historical research other less rigorous (but more comprehensive) criteria are used to evaluate measurement tools.

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