According to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) Guidebook, research is defined as “A systematic investigation (i.e., the gathering and analysis of information) designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” This definition is drawn from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and thus focuses on research that involves testing on humans. Although this definition also applies to research in the humanities, humanities scholars often use completely different techniques and methods for doing research. In fact, since most humanities scholars do not test chemicals in science laboratories, many people wonder if humanities scholars actually do research.
One of my goals for this blog is to show you how I do my research. To do this, I highlight my techniques for doing research as well as my research methods and research methodologies. Distinguishing between these three concepts is somewhat arbitrary, since some sources lump them all under the category of “research,” but I divide them out in the following ways:
- Techniques: The ways you go about finding information that will help you answer research questions. Techniques are very individualized (versus methods, which are standardized) and vary based on the kinds of information you hope to find.
- Methods: The established mode that you use to find answers to research questions. In the natural and social sciences, these modes typically require the same specific procedures and must meet particular standards because they need to be replicable. For instance, biologists might cross the DNA of two plants to create a new breed of plant, whereas psychologists might survey research participants about their dinnertime eating habits. To perform each of these methods–and to have others in the field think that the execution of the method is valid–the investigators need to have a control group, test for one variable, keep documentation that outlines the research process, and more. In the humanities, there are similarly established modes for doing research, but they usually do not require a control group or double-blind testing and are often adjusted to fit a specific project.
- Methodologies: The orientation or theoretical perspective that you consider as you do your research and analysis. In the natural and social sciences, the main orientation at play is “objectivity,” though I would argue that objectivity is very difficult (and perhaps impossible) to achieve. In the humanities, scholars might take a feminist, Marxist, decolonial, etc. approach to their work.
Examples of Techniques for Doing Humanities Research:
- Looking up a book on Amazon.com and seeing which texts other customers bought with that book and/or the list of recommended texts that relate to the book
- Going to the library, locating one book that relates to your topic, and then searching the surrounding shelves for other relevant materials
- Using Google Scholar or Science Citation Index to arrange publications by date or relevance
- Searching Wikipedia articles to learn about the development of a now-defunct organization and finding the original sources in the works cited section
- Asking an expert for advice about where to find sources, the most important sources about your topic, what “counts” as a legitimate source for the kind of research you are doing, etc.
Examples of Humanities Research Methods:
- Accessing and reading digital or print archival (i.e. old but preserved) materials (archival)
- Observing a hospital chapel to learn about how different people use the space and for what reasons (ethnographic/in situ)
- Interviewing women about their experiences with working as nurses in New York City in the 1950s (interview)
- Reading transcripts of tutor-tutee interactions at the writing center and writing down what terms are used and how often, taking notes about how students framed their questions, etc. (coding/discourse analysis)
Examples of Humanities Research Methodologies:
- Feminist (paying particular attention to language, construction, and meaning as they relate to power, gendered practices, and women’s bodies)
- Marxist (paying particular attention to issues of class and hierarchical power)
- Decolonial (working to “denounce and transform colonial relations of power and colonial ways of relating that continue to persist in our present”from pg. 49 – http://sites.uci.edu/transscripts/files/2014/10/2015_5_mendez.pdf)
- Materialist (paying attention to tangible ephemera and artifacts)
Other organizations define and interpret research (particularly humanities research) in different ways. Here are a few additional resources for your reading pleasure: