Research Strategies

How do you pursue research on an issue in social-cultural theory? This is a quickstart guide.

What is an authoritative source of information?

In academic research, the most authoritative sources are usually peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books. Generally you can only access these through your university library website. However, many events happen locally, in which case you will need to look at locally-specific sources: newspapers, weekly papers, and blogs. You may even want to cull unusual online sources, such as the comments on articles, video and audio recordings, and Twitter Feeds. Furthermore, you may find that there is no good published source; and you need to rely on first-person interviews. On the Referencing page I explain how to give credit to these sources.

How do you find Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles?

Your university library may have an excellent index of journal articles, both in hardcopy and electronic format. Get a good orientation from your university library first!

Second: check Google Scholar. This website has an excellent feature, unavailable to most researchers before 2005: the Cited by link enables you to search forward in time by listing peer-reviewed scholarship that cites any article you find. The article itself usually contains a commentary on past sources, and it is always worth combing through the bibliography of any article you fine truly worthy. The “Cited by…” link is generated automatically, so it lacks the vetted quality of bibliographies. It reminds me of the mythical Greek brothers, Epimetheus and Prometheus. Epimetheus’ gift was that he could see into the past with perfect clarity; think of him as the patron saint of bibliographies. Prometheus could see into the future, but only very imperfectly. He is the patron of the “Cited by” link.

Third (or maybe first): check Wikipedia. You cannot cite a Wikipedia page as a source in a college term paper, for the same reason that you cannot cite an encyclopedia entry: these were written as very generic summaries, based on secondary sources. However, Wikipedia is a great place to start with an overview of a topic, especially if you do not have prior familiarity with that topic. And well-written Wikipedia articles include peer-reviewed references. So you can use it as a place to start your own list of sources.

What about newspapers, radio broadcasts and podcasts?

For one thing, I do encourage you to frequently check in on news sources via the web or radio. I describe this on my tuning in page. Some events are so recent, or so local, that you should use local sources anyway. In the past, scholars also used to consider many daily newspapers as journals of record. However, since the rise of Craigslist and other means of local online advertising, the edited-newspaper business model has collapsed. With the sudden and tactless firing of Jill Abramson in April 2014, the New York Times has discredited itself as a “newspaper of record,” leaving no national newspaper as an ‘official’ source. You may cite it for things that occur in New York City, just as you should cite the San Francisco Chronicle or Bay Guardian for local news in San Francisco, or the Mercury for San Jose or the Bee for Sacramento and State-of-California news.

…which brings us to one of the basic strategies you should always try: use an internet search engine. Most would say “Google it,” but other search engines are also legitimate, and they all work in a similar way: using keyword-matching. That means you can type in a question, or you can type in a sequence of words like “human trafficking San Francisco.”

What about personal interviews?

Primary-source research may be the most authoritative, and the most difficult to do well. If you happen to have access to key persons who can inform you about a specific topic, I highly encourage it. But you also need to be extremely careful about protecting their privacy and safety–and your own safety while interviewing them. Many of my students are interested in the problem of human trafficking, and might consider interviewing trafficked persons in San Francisco. But if their identity is revealed, they could be deported, beaten, even killed. Likewise you, as interviewer, DO NOT want to encounter an angry pimp or ‘coyote’. Today, all universities govern primary research through the Office for the Protection of Human Subjects. Not only do they set the rules governing official scholarly research, but they also provide excellent guidance for various situations.

Conclusion: You become the critical editor

Since the vast expansion of the internet after 1999-2000, the fundamental role of a college educated person has shifted. Increasingly we must become our own editors. On the one had, an unprecedented spectrum of media-streams means we have several orders of magnitude more access to news and data than we did in 1994. On the other hand, this low-cost “raw feed” has completely disrupted the 20th-century business model of edited journalism. Today, fewer and fewer publications can afford to pay editors to filter out unreliable information and misinformed opinion from solid info and analysis. Do you know the linkages between Boko Haram, the Chadian civil war, the ongoing Darfur crisis, and the Arab Spring of 2011? It still might take a specialist in West African affairs to sort this out, as it would have 30 years ago. But now news services cannot afford to keep such a specialist on salary. Meanwhile we may be able to find a blogger or twitterer in Kano, Nigeria, who can describe eyewitness accounts of a Boko Haram incident only moments after it has occurred.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, there was a lot of discussion about whether the United States has the ability to “connect the dots” between disparate pieces of information that might point towards serious event. This is not just true of potential terrorist attacks; it is also a challenge for slower, policy-related issues like housing shortages, water shortages, the effort to sustain economic development and prevent environmental injustices. As scholars, we need to ‘connect the dots’ with increasing access to information, and decreasing access to editorial guidance to help us make sense of that information.

Triangulate by seeking out sources that disagree. Be skeptical. You don’t need to agree with any of your sources. In fact, if you have an important disagreement with them, that can serve as the core argument for an excellent paper.

Last updated 21 May 2014