Italian scholar Umberto Eco is not only an eminent semiologist and writer of best-selling novels, but also a rather dedicated teacher and supervisor. Unlike many of his colleagues having achieved similar star status he has remained in close touch with the daily problems facing students wishing to take the final hurdle on their way to academic laurels, the end-of-study dissertation. The problem may appear odd to those having benefited from tight supervision in Anglo-Saxon universities, but is rather acute in other, often over-crowded higher education establishments across the globe. The Italian system of education seems to be one of those with a deficit in this area. While students are expected to assimilate vast amounts of knowledge, they are virtually left in the desert when it comes to tackling the secrets of research methodology. Eco has provided an excellent antidote to such problems in Coma si fare une tesa di laurea (How to write a master’s thesis) which I found in a recent German translation at the German Studies Centre of the EHU in Minsk. Having digested a fair share of ‘How-to-do-it’ manuals during my undergraduate and graduate years – generally a rather uninspiring genre, if I may say so - its uniqueness and utter usefulness is instantly recognizable. In parts of the book Eco even achieves to introduce suspense into an otherwise dry subject matter, presenting final paper research as an exciting intellectual endeavor rather than yet another obstacle that has to be tackled before the graduation party can start. I drew considerable knowledge and inspiration from this book for a workshop organized at the EHU in January 2001, supplementing it, here and there, with figments of my own experience and imagination. As an English translation is still not available, it makes perfect sense to share the paper I gave on this occasion.
The focus of this short article is academic papers of thesis length or articles in which research is most frequently presented. Furthermore it covers strategies of knowledge acquisition, general treatment of academic subject matters, the area of application being Human and Social Sciences. My comments are by no means exhaustive and those eager to learn more are willingly referred to Eco’s book.
What qualifies as research in Human and Social Sciences?
First of all we shall be concerned with what I would like to define
as ‘scientificity’. What is scientific and what is not? For many only research
on a quantitative basis can compete for the denomination ‘scientific’.
Thus derives a certain unpleasant attitude towards Social and Human sciences,
most commonly expressed in the question: So what good can you do with History,
Literature Studies, Anthropology? Or better: What do you sell? From this
attitude stems the certainty that a scientific examination requires tables,
diagrams and lots of figures.
Eco revises this common attitude and defines the requirements for ‘scientificity’ in social and human sciences as follows:
- The examination must deal with a well-defined subject in a manner making it identifiable by any third person.
- The examination needs to say things that have not been said up to then, or to show things that have already been said in a new light. Thus even compilatory pieces of work can qualify as innovation, providing the writer has collected the outputs and opinions of different authors on one topic and created a connection that did not exist before. In this sense the conclusion may very well present something totally new.
- The examination must contain all the necessary references that will allow others to control whether the author’s theses are correct or incorrect. The appropriate motto would be: put your cards on the table.
A matter of choice.
The first problem budding academics face is the question: compilation or research work? Compilation means assembly of material that has already been published on a given topic; research means making a new original contribution to a field - usually by drawing on unpublished sources - which, if it is good research, cannot be neglected by anyone engaged in this area. Quite obviously, research demands more effort and bears higher risks.
Some students may ask themselves questions about the utility of writing
theses, beyond their studies. If no positive answers are found this may
sap energy and motivation. To this one can respond that these efforts can
serve as the basis for much wider research after the completion of studies,
be it as a university researcher or as a private researcher. For a second
group, those who will be engaged in a wholly different professional area
as opposed to their subject at university, writing a final paper demonstrates
the following abilities:
1. Defining and outlining a clearly identified topic
2. Collecting relevant material for this topic
3. Systematizing this material
4. To probe into the topic through the use of this material
5. To create connections between research ideas
6. To communicate complex ideas to any reader; and to give him the opportunity to examine the material used by citing it according to the commonly accepted standards of the international academic community.
Most will agree that all of these will prove useful in a professional career, no matter what this may turn out to be. The all-imposing lesson that can be learnt is that research helps to create order in one’s one thoughts and to arrange or systematize them in a way that they may exploited in a methodical fashion. A fight against the forces of chaos.
The topic of the work is often less important than the experience that
it brings. A student who has proved capable of compiling and exploiting
material for literary criticism should also be capable to conduct business
operations in a methodical manner. This is the reason why English students
having studied the Classics or History can end up running operations for
airlines, work as consultants or corporate financiers.
There is no such thing as a bad topic, if one has grasped the elementary rules. Great benefit can also derive from topics that are historically or geographically removed. Karl Marx schooled his thought not on contemporary political economy, but by writing a thesis on two pre-Socratic Greek philosophers.
Eco cites four basic requirements that determine success or failure
on the way to the final thesis:
- Personal interest, for otherwise the research impetus is not sustainable. Interest determines motivation, which is crucial in building up resistance capacities in the form of resilience and patience. Some potentially gifted researchers fail because they lack these qualities. Sometimes the problem lies in their choice of topic.
- Sources should be accessible to the candidate
- The candidate should have the intellectual ‘baggage’ to handle these sources
- The methodological demands of the subject should reflect the candidate’s experience
Let us now come to the choice of subject: monography or overview? Marx’s thesis is a monography. Had he chosen instead to write on Greek philosophy, then he would have opted for an overview subject.
The first temptation of all students and researchers is to choose a subject that goes too far in scope and which is impossible to manage in the available time. This is a very common problem. Many prove incapable of choosing a particular aspect. Besides lack of experience, this can also betray lack of preparation and superficial knowledge of a subject area. Choosing the right topic and defining the limits of the research is an important step in any kind of research. Within the defined borders of your choice ALL aspects must be covered. Otherwise the study will be disregarded as incomplete. So it is good to think small to begin with.
Eco gives the following example to illustrate the point: a work on ‘Geology’ would be an absolute non-starter, as it is too far-reaching. ‘Volcanology’, a branch of geology, is still too wide. ‘The Volcanoes of Mexico’ could be a first reasonable, but still rather superficial piece of work. Better is a further restriction: ‘The History of Popocatepetl’ (one volcano). Still better: ‘The Eruption and the Extinction of Paricutin (1943-1952)’. In this case one would have to say everything that can possibly be said about this volcano within the studied period of nine years.
The next question is: historical or theoretical work? Some disciplines
(history, psychology) are straightforward, others leave more space. In
sociology or philosophy a combination of the two approaches often makes
sense. Dealing with abstract problems, such as liberty, the existence of
God or human will is too large for a student. Again it is better to limit:
Kant’s concept of liberty, for example. It is no shame to depart from the
work of others, from a certain pre-established set of ideas and to develop
one’s own thought from this point.
In the experimental sciences the procedure is different: one has to develop a method of examination. This method is best developed by gaining an overview and first referring to similar studies that have already been conducted and then to develop one’s own method. Again it is important to limit the scope of the study; e.g. by examining a certain group of people only.
Historical themes or contemporary themes?
As a rule contemporary themes are always more difficult to deal with than historical themes. Any historian will give a simple and straightforward explanation for this: lack of perspective.
Knowledge of foreign languages.
This is indispensable in many areas. The cases are rather frequent where theses have to be abandoned or where the thesis topic has to be switched in mid-way because the student’s or researcher’s progress in learning a particular language is slower than initially expected.
As a rule when writing about a foreign author, it is indispensable to be able to read his works in the original. This is self-explanatory in the case of literature, but also applies to philosophers, psychologists or political theoreticians. The reason for this is that usually not all works of an author exist in translations. Then most of the important secondary literature is usually in the language of the author. Plus, translations always bear an interpretation risk.
The second point merits particular attention: It is impossible to write on a topic where the most important contributions have been made in a language which is unknown to the student. Who wants to work today on Nietzsche must not only master German, but also French. And the current Freud discussion becomes incomprehensible without a knowledge of the American revisionists or the French structuralists.
We may conclude that the number of foreign languages one needs to know depends on the subject and on the limitation of one’s research.
Setting the stage.
It is essential to clearly define the most important terms and concepts you will be using in your study. In theorization there is usually more than one approach, one school of interpretation, and definitions of any phenomenon can vary. It can not be taken for granted that the reader has a clear grasp of what you mean by for example Corruption or Women’s Liberation. Therefore you must define your terms. These definitions will prevent misunderstandings and they will accompany you and the reader all through the study.
I will cite some more examples to make this point even clearer; if you are writing about Vikings, you must specify which branch of the Vikings: Swedish, Norwegian or Danish and so on. There is also more than one Renaissance. In scholarly discourse this type of precision is vital in order to be taken seriously and to make an effective contribution. Research is a complex process and seemingly simple topics soon reveal a multitude of different implications. I confronted this problem in my PhD research on illegal markets in war-time occupied France (1940-44), where the question of definition was not as easy as it may seem. Illegal markets are phenomena in constant mutation and they vary greatly from one context to another. I soon came across gray markets, barter, industrial black markets and agricultural black markets. Most of the work in theoretical economics I drew on came from Hungary and India, and I soon found that it was not always directly relevant to the situation I was studying. Later on it became necessary to acquire a knowledge of political economy and the main features of shortage economies (price and wage control, rationing, resource allocation).
In parallel with Eco’s recommendations on Italy (and because it is plain common sense) researchers in Eastern Europe and the CIS are well advised to stick to local material and topics. The topics may be a little less en vogue and your thesis will therefore have more trouble making it into the review columns of the Times Literary Supplement, but on the other hand you will save a lot on money and hassle by not having to acquire expensive books unavailable in your country. Neither will you need to make research trips to Washington DC or Paris only because you realized that that one essential copy of a work you needed is there and nowhere else. Instead you will swap such exotic locations for more affordable trips to Kyiv, Moscow or Saint-Petersburg, keeping Paris well on your list for a scientific conference, après-doctorat, of course. As long as the resource crisis in regional universities continues, it would be irresponsible to demand research students to work on foreign themes. They should focus on the materials that are readily accessible to them. That way ‘source problems’ will never occur.
When writing a master or doctoral thesis it is also a good idea to consult two or three other experts apart from your supervisor. Many will be happy to advise you on the latest publications, steer your research interests and up-date you on the most important issues and features of the research discussion.
Where do you start?
Of course by reading books. But how does one identify the books that are most relevant to a research topic?
There are several feasible choices for a bibliographical research of relevant secondary sources: You will start with the thematic or subject catalogue of a good library. Do not limit your research to one or two subject titles, and then abandon the search. Sometimes you will find relevant literature under a different heading than what you expected. If there is no literature under ‘Great Patriotic War’, then search for ‘Second World War’, or ‘Hitler‘ or ‘Stalin’. Attention also with libraries that have two catalogues: an older one completed years ago and a more recent one which is constantly up-dated. Other variations exist and it is indispensable to study how the holdings of each library, documentation center or archive are organized.
Some books will fit your research orientation squarely (i.e. the authors are interested in the same sort of research questions as you) while others are less theoretical and can be exploited like mines for the wealth of facts they contain. Others again will be of marginal use to you, but still need to be considered. It is therefore useful to supplement your first bibliography with books and articles not contained in your university or city library. For this encyclopedias are a good place to start with. Almost all have bibliographical reference sections at the end of each article. The French Encyclopedia Universalis is particularly exemplary in this respect. The disadvantage of this approach, however, is that the very latest research will not be included as encyclopedias are only reedited every one or two decades. And you might just be working on such a novel topic! In this case the best bet may very well be the internet, as some web-sites feature some of the latest publications. Another option is to log onto the electronic catalogues of a major library: British Library in London, Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, Cambridge UL or Oxford Bodleian are accessible from your terminal. The most recent publications in any area will also contain rather comprehensive bibliographies. The next step would be to consult specialized bibliographies and academic journals for further references. This should be done at an advanced stage of the bibliographic search, as it will eat up quite some time.
Next comes the determination of a research problematique and the limitation of your research angle. This is the point where it is necessary to elaborate some working hypotheses which should respond to the following questions: What is the study trying to say and prove? What are the main elements? What does it not want to show? Do I know all the relevant literature? What is new? What are my methods? What material will I be using?
Then it is time to establish a first preliminary title (and a subtitle) and a table of contents. French methodology, in particular, attributes great importance to this step, the plan. You have several options in structuring and devising your table of contents: thematic, chronological, cause-effect, spatial or geographical, comparative. Again experimental sciences and mathematics proceed differently: by induction (proofs lead to a theory) or deduction (a theory is tested for its areas of application).
Checking table of matters and index is also a useful and quick method in the exploitation of books. A glance can already give you a good idea on the usefulness of the book for your purposes. But as in the case of your library catalogue search, keep a broad mind and think of possible connections should your first search be unsuccessful.
Next it is necessary to identify all primary source material. In the case of studies on philosophers, writers or political theorists their main works would be considered ‘primary’. As a rule primary sources have to be consulted in the original language. Source material for historical research is comparatively limited: archives, private or public; newspapers, journals, library holdings, interviews (if it is an oral history subject). Historical work also requires a trip to one or several archives. Architecture, paintings, landscapes or ancient inscriptions qualify equally as sources. Still the material is somewhat limited as compared to contemporary topics. In this respect they allow more (but this potential can also be a mine-field). Other disciplines obtain original material through interviews, field research, study trips and surveys. Unsuprisingly, each discipline has its own distinct rules. A group of researchers working for example on radio stations in their city (and their political orientation) would possibly listen in to the radio(s) they are studying on a continual basis, let’s say for one week, in order to establish listening protocols. There are models for such protocols. If they have devised a sound theoretical concept they could compare the data they have gathered. There are many options: Which prevails? Music or Speech? Who participates in the discussions? What are the topics? Maybe there are no discussions at all? Formats of the program? How much advertisement is there? Who advertises on which channels? How does each station treat particular events?
After the sifting of the secondary literature it will already prove useful to write an introduction. Naturally, this will be added to later on. Writing the introduction at this stage helps to get one‘s main ideas and aims straight before setting out on the bulk of the work. The introduction is the exposition of your work and, according to Eco, a commentated version of the table of matters. It must contain what one is hoping to demonstrate, how one proposes to go about this, how the study fits into the broader discourse (for example what is my study of one aspect of Aristotelian philosophy contributing to the general contemporary discussion). The introduction is also the right place to present your general knowledge and discuss relevant literature and research projects. It also shows the theoretical basis on which the study is founded. All these things combined help in the development of hypotheses.
Once the phase of identifying research material is completed you need
to give some thought to your system of collection. Your material has to
be brought into a form that will make it more easily exploitable at the
writing stage. This process of systematizing and cataloguing material is
extremely important. The best solution to opt for is a card filing or catalogue
system, in particular as concerns your secondary literature. Individual
needs will vary and you may keep even more than one such filing system.
Depending on the form of your work filing systems can be organized according
to the following principles:
- Author-book title or bibliographical catalogue
-‘Reading-in-process’ catalogue (Lektuerekartei) with a word on the author, a synopsis, a conclusion, citations or annotations taken from the literature you are sifting
-Catalogue of central themes that will appear and reappear throughout the corpus of the work
-Catalogue of biographical data
-Catalogue of citations
-Work-in-process catalogue (Arbeitskartei) documenting theoretical and procedural questions, comments, ideas, reflections, thoughts and methods
This is only a selection of possibilities and there are obviously no limits to the cataloguing of your material.
When you have finished your reading, research and cataloguing you will have to cross-reference your catalogue. By now your work will already have a logic, a red line which is set out in your head. Like a composer you will now have to put down your work on paper and the more methodically you proceed in this the easier it will be. Your work plan should be reflected in the title, and the structure and points of your table of matters which corresponds to the chapters and subchapters of the final work. The trick is to cross-reference book pages, computer files or filing cards against the different points of your table of matters. As regards your material in paper form you can use text-markers in different colors (if you are extremely disciplined in your approach you can even use different color cards right from the start of your research). All you are actually doing is to create a sequence in your material: Where does this information go? Where that? Once this is done the writing becomes simpler and less confusing as you are proceeding point for point and systematically. Of course the structure of the study will have to undergo some alteration in the process of writing, but this is nothing to be afraid of.
As concerns the actual stage of writing one should ideally proceed one chapter after another, but personally I have come to favor starting with those that appear easiest. After all, why make life more difficult than it already is?
One last word to make sure that the gospel is spread evenly: all your material has to be cited in footnotes (or endnotes) and there are rules. However, I will expend on this, as the article does not deal with the formalisms of academic research.
For the rest, keep in mind that research is 90% perseverance and 10% coincidence. Some things simply cannot be planned.
Eventually, everything will fall into place.
Eco, Umberto, Wie man eine wissenschaftliche Abschlussarbeit schreibt, Huethig, C. F. Mueller, 1998.
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