Research Methods

Barry Mauer and John Venecek


We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following activity:

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

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 use archival research methods. If you want to understand why a particular literary work became a bestseller, you may need to use audience studies research methods. If you want to know why a contemporary author wrote a particular work, you may need to interview the author. Usually literary research involves a combination of methods such as archival research and discourse analysis.

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 set of theories and tools:

  • Theory: Critical Race Theory (CRT)
  • Methodology: Social Constructivism
  • Method: Scholarly
  • Skills: Search engines, citation management

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 encounter these research methods in the scholarship you find.

Most commonly used undergraduate research methods:

  1. Scholarship Methods: Studies the body of published 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. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  5. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

  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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