How To Do Research For a Project

I largely teach Introduction to World History, which at my university, is a general education requirement and has no prerequisites. I teach based on skills, rather than content, and one of those skills is research and analysis. So I assign a semester-long research project, and I also assign a series of research process assignments, to give them checkpoints along the way. So many students get stuck not knowing how to do research or even what research really means. This process is designed to help them through the whole process.

I create assignments that first discover where students are – their own personal baseline – and then assess based on improvement from there. It’s open-ended, and helps me assess their progress by asking for more and more analysis and writing from them at each level, culminating in a final project. 

So, to those who would like to know, here’s how I (and you) “do research” and produce a final project.

First: The Topic

Select the topic YOU want to study. You’re doing the work, so you need to be interested in it. If you’re not interested, you won’t finish, or if you do, it will be painful. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small. As long as the story matters to someone, it matters. History is the story of human choice, and is marked by change over time. People make choices, other people react to those choices, and the world changes a little or a lot. That’s history – scale isn’t the important thing.

The idea that history is serious and must always tackle “serious” topics is classist, racist, and sexist – because those “serious topics” are political and intellectual histories of government and international politics. So many questions abound about everyday life and how people just like us, but because they’re the histories of marginalized groups like women, people of color, queer folks, and disabled folks, they’ve been minimized. And because several of these topics, like sports, makeup, and fashion, are considered “frivolous” in our society today, many students think these are inappropriate or unacceptable topics for their history projects. 

Ugh. No. Everything has a history. Small, huge, homely or the stories of kings – all of it has value and deserves study. And if that’s what you want to do, then do it.

Second: Find Collections

Once you define your topic, start looking for sources. And this is the HOW TO DO RESEARCH part. First thing: identify source collections. What kind of sources do you want to use? If you can’t answer that yet, think about where your topic lives. A study of a religion might live in their sacred texts, analysis of those text, or sermons or other talks given by religious leadership. A study of makeup history might include searching YouTube, Instagram or TikTok for relevant tutorials. A study of protests could involve looking up videos of protests, following hashtags on social media, searching for protest songs, and looking for collections of underground or subversive materials held by smaller libraries. An art history project would absolutely require the artworks – whether on an museum website, in a library database, or viewed in a physical space. 

Now that you’ve identified your collections, archives, databases, social media, or physical location, go there and start looking at sources. When you start research, you’re just looking for items that are related to your chosen topic. This is the moment where you will realize you need to narrow your focus. To do that, look at the sources and find one that you like. One that answers your questions about the topic. One that prompts new questions. One that makes you feel a strong emotion. One that you’ll remember after you’ve left the space. That is your Hero Source.

Third: Find Sources

When you have your Hero Source, look for others that speak to the same things that drew you to the Hero Source. If you’re using texts, that’s a bit easier. A newspaper article leads to other newspapers, to magazines, and sometimes to radio or television news. A memo leads to other memos, to reports between departments, to the organization’s decision about the topic. Non-text sources can be harder, so you need to be persistent. A protest song leads to the band and songwriter, which leads to concert dates and festivals, which leads to other bands and songwriters producing other protest songs. 

Sometimes the Hero Source will lead you places you don’t expect. A purple water fountain leads to histories of the building and explanations for why some of the water fountains are painted white and others are painted purple.

Depending on how big the final project is going to be, you’ll need to put in check-in points. My assignment only requires four primary sources, so that’s a pretty straightforward task. However, my dissertation required thousands of sources, both primary and secondary. I did not check in with my sources often enough in the early days of research, and having to go back to do that later caused confusion and delays. Be that as it may, keep digging until you can start processing the sources – don’t try to complete all your research in one go if you need more than 8-10 sources.

By the time you’re done looking for sources, you should have a decent idea of what happened. At this point you should have an idea of a question or problem you’re addressing. It can be simple: why are the water fountains purple? It can be complex: Why was there conflict between this department and the larger organization? It can seem obvious at first: Why are different news organizations addressing this set of issues differently? It can be something seemingly unrelated to your question: Protest songs represent a reaction from a specific set of the population. What makes this group of people want to protest and to protest in this way?

Fourth: Analyze Your Sources and Find Your Evidence

Now that you have some sources you want to work with, you need to analyze them. And that’s a word we use a lot, in a lot of contexts, and it can be scary. All you’re doing here is asking a few basic questions. 

Identify the source. A newspaper article? A song? A sculpture? A YouTube video? 

Summarize the source: Students should come into my class knowing how to do this, but a lot of them are actually just recapping the source. A summary states the main point or theme of the thing being summarized and then includes a few sentences explaining some of the more important details.

Explain why it’s important. Does it tell you something new? Does it explain something really well? Is it an anomaly? Should it be an anomaly but it’s not? Does it clarify something from another source? Why did you pick this one? 

Do this for every source you have – if it takes 15 pages, so be it. This is where you lay your foundation for your analysis. This is where you do the work. Once you’ve done that, explain how they fit together, or why you grouped them together. Explain why they work as a group. This? This is your evidence for your argument. Every source should give you something you can use as evidence to support your final conclusion.

Fifth: State Your Thesis

Finally, you will answer the big question: so what? Why do we care? What is significant about this topic? This argument. This, right here? This is your thesis. This is your main point. And yes, it will be one of the last things you do. This research process will give you a great deal of questions, several working hypotheses, but until you’ve done the grunt work of breaking each source down and comparing them all, you won’t actually know what you’re showing. 

And the thesis isn’t something simple. I can state that advertisements changed dramatically between 1940 and 1950. The simple answer is World War II happened and that changed things. This simple answer is the place you start, not where you end. 

A thesis statement addresses what specifically changed AND WHY. Advertisements changed between 1940 and 1950 because women needed to be recruited into the workforce and military, which challenged gender roles and expectations, so advertisers had to work within changing parameters for gendered labor, resulting in many more advertisements addressing women directly instead of within their gendered social contexts.

Sixth: Conclude With Some Context

The last thing, to write a conclusion, is to explain why we should care. Contextualize your research into a wider story and explain why it’s relevant today. This is where we go back to some advice from the beginning – as long as the story matters to someone, it matters. So don’t minimize your work on something “frivolous” as not important. Every historical work deepens our understanding of our society and culture, and helps us understand our collective past. That, overall, is the importance of historical research.

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