Chapter Two: Identifying a Problem / Evaluating Relevance and Purpose / Considering Audience

Evaluating Relevance & Purpose

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On this page, we explore the following themes and concepts:

Establishing Relevance

We enter the scholarly conversation by establishing relevance; we ask, “how is this work of literature, or my research about it, relevant and significant to my audience?” For example, Jada might ask why James Baldwin and “Sonny’s Blues” are still relevant to audiences today. What lessons can contemporary audiences learn from a story written in 1957? Conversely, how can new perspectives that we bring to old stories keep them relevant? Relevance is established by explaining why something matters. And things matter to us now because we have problems today that we want to solve (or address). Such problems may have broader implications for society, or for a specific group of readers such as scholars of African-American literature.

We don’t want to propose overly simplistic answers to the question of relevance. For example, it is not enough to say that racism was a problem in 1957 and that it is still a problem today. The issue demands specificity. How is the past relevant to understanding the present? For example, do we see information or perspectives in “Sonny’s Blues” that could help us address racial profiling and police brutality today? Conversely, does knowing about the current movement against systemic racism help us better understand what Baldwin was writing in 1957? Can we read the story as a message to future generations? Is there a problem related to scholarship about “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin, African- American literature, or literature of the 1950s that your work can help us better understand? Becoming familiar with the conversations among scholars and the general public can help you assess whether and how much your claims are relevant.

Identifying Criteria

Relevance and significance in literary studies are measured against established criteria. Every field of knowledge establishes criteria. For instance, medicine establishes criteria to determine what counts as health. Political science establishes criteria for what constitutes a democracy. Mathematics establishes criteria for what counts as a formal proof. We advance in our fields by learning these criteria and making use of them in strategic ways. People who are very advanced in their fields may introduce changes to these criteria or introduce new ones.


In scholar Ann Dobie’s chapter “More Cultural Studies: Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism,”[1] she discusses the Black Aesthetic, a concept that artists involved in the Black Arts Movement[2] established in the 1960s when James Baldwin was in his prime as a prominent author and activist. The Black Aesthetic established criteria for determining what counts as “good” literature (at least among literary works that addressed black experience) and what doesn’t. In her text, Dobie discusses three key criteria for the Black Aesthetic: the materials its artists work with, the purpose of their work, and how they go about it.

  • Materials: Black history is the source material, which Dobie says is unique because it creates a dual identity, “one that both partakes of America and doesn’t, one that shares the American experience but is denied it.”
  • Purpose: Dobie says, “African American artists have a strong imperative to reclaim their culture by defining what is of value to them. Such a reclamation takes place by remembering history, defining identity, gaining recognition, and celebrating blackness.”
  • Method: Dobie notes that while African American artists may not go about their work differently from others, they are unique in that they draw from “folk traditions that express their beliefs, values, and social mores.” She also cites Ron Karenga who states that the purpose of African-American art is “to make revolution. Its collective nature is evident in its presentation of real life and real people, and it is committed to permanent revolution.”

Dobie adds, “To approach a text from a multicultural perspective, a reader must look for more than material, purpose, and method.” Readers must also “anticipate specific characteristics that distinguish their work.” These characteristics could include issues such as voice and narration.

Thus, when reading “Sonny’s Blues,” we can read it with these specific criteria in mind and assess the story according to the criteria. Doing so is not the end of the research process for a critical paper, but is a crucial part. Keep in mind that the Black Aesthetic is one set of criteria but is far from the only one you could apply to “Sonny’s Blues.”

We assess things, like literary works, against a set of standards. Many literary theories establish criteria for evaluating literary works. Another set of criteria we could apply to Baldwin’s work comes from Cleanth Brooks and the formalist critics.

  • Organic unity – all the parts of the literary work are interrelated and support its central idea.
  • Tensions – paradoxes, ironies, and ambiguities that the literary work resolves into a thematic unity. In “Sonny’s Blues,” we might say that Sonny was seeking to destroy himself through drugs yet he was also seeking to express himself through music. The tension between self-destruction and self-expression is thematically unified in the blues.

You can create your own criteria. Before doing so, find out what criteria for assessing literary works are already out there and whether they will work for your purposes. When creating your own criteria, you need to justify it; explain why it’s needed and how it differs from existing criteria.

In literary theories, which we discuss in another chapter, we find many sets of criteria we can use in our literary criticism (notice the shared root of the word “criteria” and “criticism”). Your paper should explain and justify why you chose a set of criteria and excluded others.

Considering the Stakes

Another way to establish relevance is by considering the stakes of an argument. The “stakes” means the consequences of an argument being accepted or rejected. What could be won or lost if the argument is accepted? For instance, could an argument about a particular literary work (or works) change the paradigm of how we study literature? If so, these are enormous stakes because it means established perspectives and methods might be abandoned and new perspectives and methods adopted.

Examples of high-stakes literary research:
  1. Henry Louis Gates’ Study of “signifyin‘” black tradition in literary works such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.
  2. Edward Said’s study of “Orientalism” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  3. Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of “dialogism” in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels.
  4. Viktor Shklovsky’s reading of “defamiliarization” in Leo Tolstoy’s novels.
  5. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s identification of a “minor literature” in the works of Franz Kafka.
  6. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s study of the “Madwoman in the Attic” in Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
  7. Marjorie Garber’s study of “transvestite logic” in the works of William Shakespeare.

These works are now anthologized in collections of literary theory and criticism but were once seen as radical shifts or groundbreaking new directions in literary studies research. They achieved their high position because they were recognized as extremely relevant to the problems of their day. These literary researchers played for high stakes and won. But because the stakes of their work are high, it is not uncommon for other critics to challenge their work. For example, Gilbert and Gubar’s work has been challenged by Judith Butler, Mary Daly, and Tori Moi, among others.

“Low stakes” problems are still important to address. The size of the stakes are determined by the possible outcome. Generally, we ask “if X is true, what are the consequences”? So, for instance, if we produce a new interpretation of a Shakespeare sonnet, is it the kind of interpretation that changes our mind about one poem, about Shakespeare’s poetry in general, about poetry in general, about literature in general, or about life in general? A small stake would be an answer that changes our mind about one poem but not so much beyond that.

Thomas Kuhn wrote a widely cited book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he argued that most scientific research is “normal science,” meaning it doesn’t change our fundamental understanding of the world but just elaborates on it or solves smaller problems. “Revolutionary science,” by contrast, changes the way we see the world in fundamental ways. So Darwin’s theory of evolution is revolutionary, whereas a particular study within that paradigm – such as about the evolution of a fruit fly population – would be normal science. Normal science is still extremely important. Maybe it matters a great deal that we know how fruit flies evolve, but the answer probably does not involve a paradigm shift. Basically, the higher the stakes, the greater the relevance. Darwin’s theory of evolution was extremely high stakes and extremely relevant to all of science, particularly biology, as well as to almost all human thought. The “problem” Darwin was addressing initially seemed to be fairly low stakes; why do finches on one island have short beaks while finches on another island have longer beaks? Yet the answer – that species changed through natural selection – was enormously relevant to many other problems. Low stakes means the research has narrow implications and high stakes means the research has broad implications. Your assignment may not require you to aim for low or high stakes, but it is good for you to know where you are aiming.

We will discuss the importance of establishing relevance more in-depth once we get into the “refining Your Research Question” portion, but it is important to keep the issue in mind early in the research process as well.

Key Takeaways

Establishing relevance:



Make a case for why the research matters to audiences today Assume your audience will see the relevance without your help
Be specific about how it matters Leave things vague as in “racism still exists.”
Recognize the “stakes” of your argument

Establish relevance in terms of recognized criteria such as the Black Aesthetic

Ignore the stakes of your argument

Argue relevance without referring to recognized criteria

  1. How does the issue of relevance change your understanding of the research process?
  2. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

Write your answers in a webcourse discussion page.

Go to the Discussion are and find the Evaluating Relevance/Purpose Discussion. Participate in the discussion.

  1. Dobie, Ann. "More Cultural Studies: Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism," Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Third Edition. Boston, MA. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. 216-226.
  2. Note: This course uses Wikipedia (and other open sources) to provide background information on a variety of topics. Wikipedia, like any source, does have deficiencies, some of which are discussed on their own site. Wikipedia articles also include links to other sources, which makes them good places to start the research process.


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