Chapter Four: Theory, Methodologies, Methods, and Evidence

Research Methods

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Research Methods

Before discussing research methods, we need to distinguish them from methodologies and research skills. Methodologies, linked to literary theories, are tools and lines of investigation: sets of practices and propositions about texts and the world. Researchers using Marxist literary criticism will adopt methodologies that look to material forces like labor, ownership, and technology to understand literature and its relationship to the world. They will also seek to understand authors not as inspired geniuses but as people whose lives and work are shaped by social forces.

Example: Critical Race Theory Methodologies

Critical Race Theory may use a variety of methodologies, including

  • Interest convergence: investigating whether marginalized groups only achieve progress when dominant groups benefit as well
  • Intersectional theory: investigating how multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage around race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. operate together in complex ways
  • Radical critique of the law: investigating how the law has historically been used to marginalize particular groups, such as black people, while recognizing that legal efforts are important to achieve emancipation and civil rights
  • Social constructivism: investigating how race is socially constructed (rather than biologically grounded)
  • Standpoint epistemology: investigating how knowledge relates to social position
  • Structural determinism: investigating how structures of thought and of organizations determine social outcomes

To identify appropriate methodologies, you will need to research your chosen theory and gather what methodologies are associated with it. For the most part, we can’t assume that there are “one size fits all” methodologies.

Research skills are about how you handle materials such as library search engines, citation management programs, special collections materials, and so on.

Research methods are about where and how you get answers to your research questions. Are you conducting interviews? Visiting archives? Doing close readings? Reviewing scholarship? You will need to choose which methods are most appropriate to use in your research and you need to gain some knowledge about how to use these methods. In other words, you need to do some research into research methods!

Your choice of research method depends on the kind of questions you are asking. For example, if you want to understand how an author progressed through several drafts to arrive at a final manuscript, you may need to do archival research. If you want to understand why a particular literary work became a bestseller, you may need to do audience research. If you want to know why a contemporary author wrote a particular work, you may need to do interviews. Usually literary research involves a combination of methods such as archival researchdiscourse analysis, and qualitative research methods.

Literary research methods tend to differ from research methods in the hard sciences (such as physics and chemistry). Science research must present results that are reproducible, while literary research rarely does (though it must still present evidence for its claims). Literary research often deals with questions of meaning, social conventions, representations of lived experience, and aesthetic effects; these are questions that reward dialogue and different perspectives rather than one great experiment that settles the issue. In literary research, we might get many valuable answers even though they are quite different from one another. Also in literary research, we usually have some room to speculate about answers, but our claims have to be plausible (believable) and our argument comprehensive (meaning we don’t overlook evidence that would alter our argument significantly if it were known).

A literary researcher might select the following:

Theory: Critical Race Theory

Methodology: Social Constructivism

Method: Scholarly

Skills: Search engines, citation management

Research Goals

Wendy Belcher, in Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, identifies two main approaches to understanding literary works: looking at a text by itself (associated with New Criticism) and looking at texts as they connect to society (associated with Cultural Studies). The goal of New Criticism is to bring the reader further into the text. The goal of Cultural Studies is to bring the reader into the network of discourses that surround and pass through the text. Other approaches, such as Ecocriticism, relate literary texts to the Sciences (as well as to the Humanities).

The New Critics, starting in the 1940s, focused on meaning within the text itself, using a method they called “close reading.” The text itself becomes evidence for a particular reading. Using this approach, you should summarize the literary work briefly and quote particularly meaningful passages, being sure to introduce quotes and then interpret them (never let them stand alone). Make connections within the work; ask “why” and “how” the various parts of the text relate to each other.

Cultural Studies critics see all texts as connected to society; the critic therefore has to connect a text to at least one political or social issue. How and why does the text reproduce particular knowledge systems (known as discourses) and how do these knowledge systems relate to issues of power within the society? Who speaks and when? Answering these questions helps your reader understand the text in context. Cultural contexts can include the treatment of gender (Feminist, Queer), class (Marxist), nationality, race, religion, or any other area of human society.

Other approaches, such as psychoanalytic literary criticism, look at literary texts to better understand human psychology. A psychoanalytic reading can focus on a character, the author, the reader, or on society in general. Ecocriticism look at human understandings of nature in literary texts.

Research Method Types

We select our research methods based on the kinds of things we want to know. For example, we may be studying the relationship between literature and society, between author and text, or the status of a work in the literary canon. We may want to know about a work’s form, genre, or thematics. We may want to know about the audience’s reading and reception, or about methods for teaching literature in schools.

Below are a few research methods and their descriptions. You may need to consult with your instructor about which ones are most appropriate for your project. The first list covers methods most students use in their work. The second list covers methods more commonly used by advanced researchers. Even if you will not be using methods from this second list in your research project, you may read about these research methods in the scholarship you find.

Most commonly used undergraduate research methods:

  1. Scholarship Methods: Studies the body of scholarship written about a particular author, literary work, historical period, literary movement, genre, theme, theory, or method.
  2. Textual Analysis Methods: Used for close readings of literary texts, these methods also rely on literary theory and background information to support the reading.
  3. Biographical Methods: Used to study the life of the author to better understand their work and times, these methods involve reading biographies and autobiographies about the author, and may also include research into private papers, correspondence, and interviews.
  4. Discourse Analysis Methods: Studies language patterns to reveal ideology and social relations of power. This research involves the study of institutions, social groups, and social movements to understand how people in various settings use language to represent the world to themselves and others. Literary works may present complex mixtures of discourses which the characters (and readers) have to navigate.
  5. Creative Writing Methods: A literary re-working of another literary text, creative writing research is used to better understand a literary work by investigating its language, formal structures, composition methods, themes, and so on. For instance, a creative research project may retell a story from a minor character’s perspective to reveal an alternative reading of events. To qualify as research, a creative research project is usually combined with a piece of theoretical writing that explains and justifies the work.

Methods used more often by advanced researchers:

  1. Archival Methods: Usually involves trips to special collections where original papers are kept. In these archives are many unpublished materials such as diaries, letters, photographs, ledgers, and so on. These materials can offer us invaluable insight into the life of an author, the development of a literary work, or the society in which the author lived. There are at least three major archives of James Baldwin’s papers: The Smithsonian, Yale, and The New York Public Library. Descriptions of such materials are often available online, but the materials themselves are typically stored in boxes at the archive.
  2. Computational Methods: Used for statistical analysis of texts such as studies of the popularity and meaning of particular words in literature over time.
  3. Ethnographic Methods: Studies groups of people and their interactions with literary works, for instance in educational institutions, in reading groups (such as book clubs), and in fan networks. This approach may involve interviews and visits to places (including online communities) where people interact with literary works. Note: before you begin such work, you must have Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval “to protect the rights and welfare of human participants involved in research.”
  4. Visual Methods: Studies the visual qualities of literary works. Some literary works, such as illuminated manuscripts, children’s literature, and graphic novels, present a complex interplay of text and image. Even works without illustrations can be studied for their use of typography, layout, and other visual features.

Regardless of the method(s) you choose, you will need to learn how to apply them to your work and how to carry them out successfully. For example, you should know that many archives do not allow you to bring pens (you can use pencils) and you may not be allowed to bring bags into the archives. You will need to keep a record of which documents you consult and their location (box number, etc.) in the archives. If you are unsure how to use a particular method, please consult a book about it.[1] Also, ask for the advice of trained researchers such as your instructor or a research librarian.

  1. What research method(s) will you be using for your paper? Why did you make this method selection over other methods? If you haven’t made a selection yet, which methods are you considering?
  2. What specific methodological approaches are you most interested in exploring in relation to the chosen literary work?
  3. What is your plan for researching your method(s) and its major approaches?
  4. 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 Discussions area and find the Research Methods Discussion. Participate in the discussion.

  1. A few sources on research methods:
    • Introduction to Research Methods: A Practical Guide for Anyone Undertaking a Research Project by Catherine, Dr. Dawson
    • Practical Research Methods: A User-Friendly Guide to Mastering Research Techniques and Projects by Catherine Dawson
    • Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches by John W. Creswell  Cheryl N. Poth
    • Qualitative Research Evaluation Methods: Integrating Theory and Practice by Michael Quinn Patton
    • Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches by John W. Creswell  J. David Creswell
    • Research Methodology: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners by Ranjit Kumar
    • Research Methodology: Methods and Techniques by C.R. Kothari


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