Article links:

“Reviewing and Analyzing Your Sources” provided by Lumen Learning

“Thinking Critically About Research” by Steven D. Krause

“Survey Academic Research Communities” by Joe Moxley

“Demystify Research Methods” by Joe Moxley

“Understand Opposing Research Ideologies” by Joe Moxley

“Textual Research” by Joe Moxley

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  • Discuss the elements of a well-constructed argument.
  • Recognize the thinkers of the Classical age and their contributions.
  • Explain the beliefs of postpositivists.
  • List the misconceptions about where research is done and what it entails.

Reviewing and Analyzing Your Sources

provided by Lumen Learning

Introduction to Reviewing and Analyzing Your Sources

A successful research paper is more than a well-constructed argument supplemented by facts, figures, and quotations. Like the good writing that it supports, successful research involves planning, careful analysis, and reflection. Before you can incorporate an outside source into your work, you must take some time to think about more than just the facts and ideas that you have uncovered. Is the source authoritative? Is the information substantiated fact, or is it primarily opinion? Is it up-to-date? Is it accurate and complete? These are just some of the essential questions you must ask about each piece of source information that you discover.

In this section, you will take an in-depth look at some techniques for analyzing and evaluating the information that you locate. As you review critical reading as a research strategy, you will look very closely at techniques for evaluating and comparing information that you find on the Internet and in print. You will learn some well-established techniques for determining whether a source is reputable and authoritative, and you will acquire some tools for discerning fact and opinion.

By the time you have completed this section, you should be more confident about how and when to use the sources you have identified, and you should have a basic understanding of how to use your research to effectively and clearly support a well-developed academic paper. You will also be ready to complete your research.

Research and Critical Reading


Good researchers and writers examine their sources critically and actively. They do not just compile and summarize these research sources in their writing, but use them to create their own ideas, theories, and, ultimately, their own, new understanding of the topic they are researching. Such an approach means not taking the information and opinions that the sources contain at face value and for granted, but to investigate, test, and even doubt every claim, every example, every story, and every conclusion. It means not to sit back and let your sources control you, but to engage in active conversation with them and their authors. In order to be a good researcher and writer, one needs to be a critical and active reader.

This chapter is about the importance of critical and active reading. It is also about the connection between critical reading and active, strong writing. Much of the discussion you will find in this chapter in fundamental to research and writing, no matter what writing genre, medium, or academic discipline you read and write in. Every other approach to research writing, every other research method and assignment offered elsewhere in this book is, in some way, based upon the principles discussed in this chapter.

Reading is at the heart of the research process. No matter what kinds of research sources and, methods you use, you are always reading and interpreting text. Most of us are used to hearing the word “reading” in relation to secondary sources, such as books, journals, magazines, websites, and so on. But even if you are using other research methods and sources, such as interviewing someone or surveying a group of people, you are reading. You are reading their subjects‟ ideas and views on the topic you are investigating. Even if you are studying photographs, cultural artifacts, and other non-verbal research sources, you are reading them, too by trying to connect them to their cultural and social contexts and to understand their meaning. Principles of critical reading which we are about to discuss in this chapter apply to those research situations as well.

I like to think about reading and writing as not two separate activities but as two tightly connected parts of the same whole. That whole is the process of learning and making of new meaning. It may seem that reading and writing are complete opposite of one another. According to the popular view, when we read, we “consume” texts, and when we write, we “produce” texts. But this view of reading and writing is true only if you see reading as a passive process of taking in information from the text and not as an active and energetic process of making new meaning and new knowledge. Similarly, good writing does not come from nowhere but is usually based upon, or at least influenced by ideas, theories, and stories that come from reading. So, if, as a college student, you have ever wondered why your writing teachers have asked you to read books and articles and write responses to them, it is because writers who do not read and do not actively engage with their reading, have little to say to others.

We will begin this chapter with the definition of the term “critical reading.” We will consider its main characteristics and briefly touch upon ways to become an active and critical reader. Next, we will discuss the importance of critical reading for research and how reading critically can help you become a better researcher and make the research process more enjoyable. Also in this chapter, a student-writer offers us an insight into his critical reading and writing processes. This chapter also shows how critical reading can and should be used for critical and strong writing. And, as all other chapters, this one offers you activities and projects designed to help you implement the advice presented here into practice.

What Kind of Reader Are You?

You read a lot, probably more that you think. You read school textbooks, lecture notes, your classmates‟ papers, and class websites.When school ends, you probably read some fiction, magazines. Butyoualsoreadothertexts.These may include CD liner notes, product reviews, grocery lists, maps, driving directions, road signs, and the list can go on and on. And you don‟t read all these texts in the same way. You read them with different purposes and using different reading strategies and techniques. The first step toward becoming a critical and active reader is examining your reading process and your reading preferences.

Having answered the questions above, you have probably noticed that your reading strategies differed depending on the reading task you were facing and on what you planned to do with the results of the reading. If, for example, you read lecture notes in order to pass a test, chances are you “read for information,” or “for the main” point, trying to remember as much material as possible and anticipating possible test questions. If, on the other hand, you read a good novel, you probably just focused on following the story. Finally, if you were reading something that you hoped would help you answer some personal question or solve some personal problem, it is likely that you kept comparing and contrasting the information that you read your own life and your own experiences.

You may have spent more time on some reading tasks than others. For example, when we are interested in one particular piece of information or fact from a text, we usually put that text aside once we have located the information we were looking for. In other cases, you may have been reading for hours on end taking careful notes and asking questions.

If you share the results of your investigation into your reading habits with your classmates, you may also notice that some of their reading habits and strategies were different from yours. Like writing strategies, approaches to reading may vary from person to person depending on our previous experiences with different topics and types of reading materials, expectations we have of different texts, and, of course, the purpose with which we are reading.

Life presents us with a variety of reading situations which demand different reading strategies and techniques. Sometimes, it is important to be as efficient as possible and read purely for information or “the main point.” At other times, it is important to just “let go” and turn the pages following a good story, although this means not thinking about the story you are reading. At the heart of writing and research, however, lies the kind of reading known as critical reading. Critical examination of sources is what makes their use in research possible and what allows writers to create rhetorically effective and engaging texts.

Key Features of Critical Reading

Critical readers are able to interact with the texts they read through carefully listening, writing, conversation, and questioning. They do not sit back and wait for the meaning of a text to come to them, but work hard in order to create such meaning. Critical readers are not made overnight. Becoming a critical reader will take a lot of practice and patience. Depending on your current reading philosophy and experiences with reading, becoming a critical reader may require a significant change in your whole understanding of the reading process. The trade-off is worth it, however. By becoming a more critical and active reader, you will also become a better researcher and a better writer. Last but not least, you will enjoy reading and writing a whole lot more because you will become actively engaged in both.

One of my favorite passages describing the substance of critical and active reading comes from the introduction to their book Ways of Reading whose authors David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky write:

“Reading involves a fair measure of push and shove. You make your mark on the book and it makes its mark on you. Reading is not simply a matter of hanging back and waiting for a piece, or its author, to tell you what the writing has to say. In fact, one of the difficult things about reading is that the pages before you will begin to speak only when the authors are silent and you begin to speak in their place, sometimes for them—doing their work, continuing their projects—and sometimes for yourself, following your own agenda” (1).

Notice that Bartholomae and Petrosky describe reading process in pro-active terms. Meaning of every text is “made,” not received. Readers need to “push and shove” in order to create their own, unique content of every text they read. It is up the you as a reader to make the pages in front of you “speak” by talking with and against the text, by questioning and expanding it.

Critical reading, then, is a two-way process. As reader, you are not a consumer of words, waiting patiently for ideas from the printed page or a web-site to fill your head and make you smarter. Instead, as a critical reader, you need to interact with what you read, asking questions of the author, testing every assertion, fact, or idea, and extending the text by adding your own understanding of the subject and your own personal experiences to your reading.

The following are key features of the critical approach to reading:

  • No text, however well written and authoritative, contains its own, pre-determined meaning.
  • Readers must work hard to create meaning from every text.
  • Critical readers interact with the texts they read by questioning them, responding to them, and expanding them, usually in writing.
  • To create meaning, critical readers use a variety of approaches, strategies, and techniques which include applying their personal experiences and existing knowledge to the reading process.
  • Critical readers seek actively out other texts, related to the topic of their investigation.

The following section is an examination of these claims about critical reading in more detail.

Texts Present Ideas, Not Absolute Truths

In order to understand the mechanisms and intellectual challenges of critical reading, we need to examine some of our deepest and long-lasting assumptions about reading. Perhaps the two most significant challenges facing anyone who wants to become a more active and analytical reader is understanding that printed texts doe not contain inarguable truths and learning to questions and talk back to those texts. Students in my writing classes often tell me that the biggest challenge they face in trying to become critical readers is getting away from the idea that they have to believe everything they read on a printed page. Years of schooling have taught many of us to believe that published texts present inarguable, almost absolute truths. The printed page has authority because, before publishing his or her work, every writer goes through a lengthy process of approval, review, revision, fact-checking, and so on. Consequently, this theory goes, what gets published must be true. And if it is true, it must be taken at face value, not questioned, challenged, or extended in any way.

Perhaps, the ultimate authority among the readings materials encountered by college belongs to the textbook. As students, we all have had to read and almost memorize textbook chapters in order to pass an exam. We read textbooks “for information,” summarizing their chapters, trying to find “the main points” and then reproducing these main points during exams. I have nothing against textbook as such, in fact, I am writing one right now. And it is certainly possible to read textbooks critically and actively. But, as I think about the challenges which many college students face trying to become active and critical readers, I come to the conclusion that the habit to read every text as if they were preparing for an exam on it, as if it was a source of unquestionable truth and knowledge prevents many from becoming active readers.

Treating texts as if they were sources of ultimate and unquestionable knowledge and truth represents the view of reading as consumption. According to this view, writers produce ideas and knowledge, and we, readers, consume them. Of course, sometimes we have to assume this stance and read for information or the “main point” of a text. But it is critical reading that allows us to create new ideas from what we read and to become independent and creative learners.

Critical reading is a collaboration between the reader and the writer. It offers readers the ability to be active participants in the construction of meaning of every text they read and to use that meaning for their own learning and self-fulfillment. Not even the best researched and written text is absolutely complete and finished. Granted, most fields of knowledge have texts which are called “definitive.” Such texts usually represent our best current knowledge on their subjects. However, even the definitive works get revised over time and they are always open to questioning and different interpretations.

Reading is a Rhetorical Tool

To understand how the claim that every reader makes his or her meaning from texts works, it is necessary to examine what is know as the rhetorical theory of reading. The work that best describes and justifies the rhetorical reading theory is Douglas Brent‟s 1992 book Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge, Persuasion, and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing. I like to apply Brent‟s ideas to my discussions of critical reading because I think that they do a good job demystifying critical reading‟s main claims. Brent‟s theory of reading is a rhetorical device puts significant substance behind the somewhat abstract ideas of active and critical reading, explaining how the mechanisms of active interaction between readers and texts actually work.

Briefly explained, Brent treats reading not only as a vehicle for transmitting information and knowledge, but also as a means of persuasion. In fact, according to Brent, knowledge equals persuasion because, in his words, “Knowledge is not simply what one has been told. Knowledge is what one believes, what one accepts as being at least provisionally true.” (xi). This short passage contains two assertions which are key to the understanding of mechanisms of critical reading. Firstly, notice that simply reading “for the main point” will not necessarily make you “believe” what you read. Surely, such reading can fill our heads with information, but will that information become our knowledge in a true sense, will we be persuaded by it, or will we simply memorize it to pass the test and forget it as soon as we pass it? Of course not! All of us can probably recall many instances in which we read a lot to pass a test only to forget, with relief, what we read as soon as we left the classroom where that test was held. The purpose of reading and research, then, is not to get as much as information out of a text as possible but to change and update one‟s system of beliefs on a given subject (Brent 55-57).

Brent further states:

“The way we believe or disbelieve certain texts clearly varies from one individual to the next. If you present a text that is remotely controversial to a group of people, some will be convinced by it and some not, and those who are convinced will be convinced in different degrees. The task of a rhetoric of reading is to explain systematically how these differences arise— how people are persuaded differently by texts” (18).

Critical and active readers not only accept the possibility that the same texts will have different meanings for different people, but welcome this possibility as an inherent and indispensable feature of strong, engaged, and enjoyable reading process. To answer his own questions about what factors contribute to different readers‟ different interpretations of the same texts, Brent offers us the following principles that I have summarized from his book:

  • Readers are guided by personal beliefs, assumptions, and pre-existing knowledge when interpreting texts. You can read more on the role of the reader‟s pre-existing knowledge in the construction of meaning later on in this chapter.
  • Readers react differently to the logical proofs presented by the writers of texts.
  • Readers react differently to emotional and ethical proofs presented by writers. For example, an emotional story told by a writer may resonate with one person more than with another because the first person lived through a similar experience and the second one did not, and so on.

The idea behind the rhetorical theory of reading is that when we read, we not only take in ideas, information, and facts, but instead we “update our view of the world.” You cannot force someone to update their worldview, and therefore, the purpose of writing is persuasion and the purpose of reading is being persuaded. Persuasion is possible only when the reader is actively engaged with the text and understands that much more than simple retrieval of information is at stake when reading.

One of the primary factors that influence our decision to accept or not to accept an argument is what Douglas Brent calls our “repertoire of experience, much of [which] is gained through prior interaction with texts” (56). What this means is that when we read a new text, we do not begin with a clean slate, an empty mind. However unfamiliar the topic of this new reading may seem to us, we approach it with a large baggage of previous knowledge, experiences, points of view, and so on. When an argument “comes in” into our minds from a text, this text, by itself, cannot change our view on the subject. Our prior opinions and knowledge about the topic of the text we are reading will necessarily “filter out” what is incompatible with those views (Brent 56-57). This, of course, does not mean that, as readers, we should persist in keeping our old ideas about everything and actively resist learning new things. Rather, it suggests that the reading process is an interaction between the ideas in the text in front of us and our own ideas and preconceptions about the subject of our reading. We do not always consciously measure what we read according to our existing systems of knowledge and beliefs, but we measure it nevertheless. Reading, according to Brent, is judgment, and, like in life where we do not always consciously examine and analyze the reasons for which we make various decisions, evaluating a text often happens automatically or subconsciously (59).

Applied to research writing, Brent‟s theory or reading means the following:

  • The purpose of research is not simply to retrieve data, but to participate in a conversation about it. Simple summaries of sources is not research, and writers should be aiming for active interpretation of sources instead
  • There is no such thing as an unbiased source. Writers make claims for personal reasons that critical readers need to learn to understand and evaluate.
  • Feelings can be a source of shareable good reason for belief. Readers and writers need to use, judiciously, ethical and pathetic proofs in interpreting texts and in creating their own.
  • Research is recursive. Critical readers and researchers never stop asking questions about their topic and never consider their research finished.

Active Readers Look for Connections Between Texts

Earlier on, I mentioned that one of the traits of active readers is their willingness to seek out other texts and people who may be able to help them in their research and learning. I find that for many beginning researchers and writers, the inability to seek out such connections often turns into a roadblock on their research route. Here is what I am talking about.

Recently, I asked my writing students to investigate some problem on campus and to propose a solution to it. I asked them to use both primary (interviews, surveys, etc.) and secondary (library, Internet, etc.) research. Conducting secondary research allows a writer to connect a local problem he or she is investigating and a local solution he or she is proposing with a national and even global context, and to see whether the local situation is typical or atypical.

One group of students decided to investigate the issue of racial and ethnic diversity on our campus. The lack of diversity is a “hot” issue on our campus, and recently an institutional task force was created to investigate possible ways of making our university more diverse.

The students had no trouble designing research questions and finding people to interview and survey. Their subjects included students and faculty as well as the university vice-president who was charged with overseeing the work of the diversity task force. Overall, these authors have little trouble conducting and interpreting primary research that led them to conclude that, indeed, our campus is not diverse enough and that most students would like to see the situation change.

The next step these writers took was to look at the websites of some other schools similar in size and nature to ours, to see how our university compared on the issue of campus diversity with others. They were able to find some statistics on the numbers of minorities at other colleges and universities that allowed them to create a certain backdrop for their primary research that they had conducted earlier.

But good writing goes beyond the local situation. Good writing tries to connect the local and the national and the global. It tries to look beyond the surface of the problem, beyond simply comparing numbers and other statistics. It seeks to understand the roots of a problem and propose a solution based on a local and well as a global situation and research. The primary and secondary research conducted by these students was not allowing them to make that step from analyzing local data to understanding their problem in context. They needed some other type of research sources.

At that point, however, those writers hit an obstacle. How and where, they reasoned, would we find other secondary sources, such as books, journals, and websites, about the lack of diversity on our campus? The answer to that question was that, at this stage in their research and writing, they did not need to look for more sources about our local problem with the lack of diversity. They needed to look at diversity and ways to increase it as a national and global issue. They needed to generalize the problem and, instead of looking at a local example, to consider its implications for the issue they were studying overall. Such research would not only have allowed these writers to examine the problem as a whole but also to see how it was being solved in other places. This, in turn, might have helped them to propose a local solution.

Critical readers and researchers understand that it is not enough to look at the research question locally or narrowly. After conducting research and understanding their problem locally, or as it applies specifically to them, active researchers contextualize their investigation by seeking out texts and other sources which would allow them to see the big picture.

Sometimes, it is hard to understand how external texts which do not seem to talk directly about you can help you research and write about questions, problems, and issues in your own life. In her 2004 essay, “Developing „Interesting Thoughts‟: Reading for Research,” writing teacher my former colleague Janette Martin tells a story of a student who was writing a paper about what it is like to be a collegiate athlete. The emerging theme in that paper was that of discipline and sacrifice required of student athletes. Simultaneously, that student was reading a chapter from the book by the French philosopher Michel Foucault called Discipline and Punish. Foucault‟s work is a study of the western penitentiary system, which, of course, cannot be directly compared to experiences of a student athlete. At the same time, one of the leading themes in Foucault‟s work is discipline. Martin states that the student was able to see some connection between Foucault and her own life and use the reading for her research and writing (6). In addition to showing how related texts can be used to explore various aspects of the writer‟s own life, this example highlights the need to read texts critically and interpret them creatively. Such reading and research goes beyond simply comparing of facts and numbers and towards relating ideas and concepts with one another.

From Reading to Writing

Reading and writing are the two essential tools of learning. Critical reading is not a process of passive consumption, but one of interaction and engagement between the reader and the text. Therefore, when reading critically and actively, it is important not only to take in the words on the page, but also to interpret and to reflect upon what you read through writing and discussing it with others.

Critical Readers Understand the Difference Between Reacting and Responding to A Text

As stated earlier in this chapter, actively responding to difficult texts, posing questions, and analyzing ideas presented in them is the key to successful reading. The goal of an active reader is to engage in a conversation with the text he or she is reading. In order to fulfill this goal, it is important to understand the difference between reacting to the text and responding to it.

Reacting to a text is often done on an emotional, rather than on an intellectual level. It is quick and shallow. For example, if we encounter a text that advances arguments with which we strongly disagree, it is natural to dismiss those ideas out of hand as not wrong and not worthy of our attention. Doing so would be reacting to the text-based only on emotions and on our pre-set opinions about its arguments. It is easy to see that reacting in this way does not take the reader any closer to understanding the text. A wall of disagreement that existed between the reader and the text before the reading continues to exist after the reading.

Responding to a text, on the other hand, requires a careful study of the ideas presented and arguments advanced in it. Critical readers who possess this skill are not willing to simply reject or accept the arguments presented in the text after the first reading right away. To continue with our example from the preceding paragraph, a reader who responds to a controversial text rather than reacting to it might apply several of the following strategies before forming and expressing an opinion about that text.

  • Read the text several times, taking notes, asking questions, and underlining key places.
  • Study why the author of the text advances ideas, arguments, and convictions, so different from the reader‟s own. For example, is the text‟s author advancing an agenda of some social, political, religious, or economic group of which he or she is a member?
  • Study the purpose and the intended audience of the text.
  • Study the history of the argument presented in the text as much as possible. For example, modern texts on highly controversial issues such as the death penalty, abortion, or euthanasia often use past events, court cases, and other evidence to advance their claims. Knowing the history of the problem will help you to construct meaning of a difficult text.
  • Study the social, political, and intellectual context in which the text was written. Good writers use social conditions to advance controversial ideas. Compare the context in which the text was written to the one in which it is read. For example, have social conditions changed, thus invalidating the argument or making it stronger?
  • Consider the author‟s (and your own) previous knowledge of the issue at the center of the text and your experiences with it. How might such knowledge or experience have influenced your reception of the argument?

Taking all these steps will help you to move away from simply reacting to a text and towards constructing informed and critical response to it.

Critical Readers Resist Oversimplified Binary Responses

Critical readers learn to avoid simple “agree-disagree” responses to complex texts. Such way of thinking and arguing is often called “binary” because is allows only two answers to every statement and every questions. But the world of ideas is complex and, a much more nuanced approach is needed when dealing with complex arguments.

When you are asked to “critique” a text, which readers are often asked to do, it does not mean that you have to “criticize” it and reject its argument out of hand. What you are being asked to do instead is to carefully evaluate and analyze the text‟s ideas, to understand how and why they are constructed and presented, and only then develop a response to that text. Not every text asks for an outright agreement or disagreement. Sometimes, we as readers are not in a position to either simply support an argument or reject it. What we can do in such cases, though, is to learn more about the text‟s arguments by carefully considering all of their aspects and to construct a nuanced, sophisticated response to them. After you have done all that, it will still be possible to disagree with the arguments presented in the reading, but your opinion about the text will be much more informed and nuanced than if you have taken the binary approach from the start.

Two Sample Student Responses

To illustrate the principles laid out in this section, consider the following two reading responses. Both texts respond to a very well known piece, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King, Jr. In the letter, King responds to criticism from other clergymen who had called his methods of civil rights struggle “unwise and untimely.” Both student writers were given the same response prompt:

“After reading King‟s piece several times and with a pen or pencil in hand, consider what shapes King‟s letter. Specifically, what rhetorical strategies is he using to achieve a persuasive effect on his readers? In making your decisions, consider such factors as background information that he gives, ways in which he addresses his immediate audience, and others. Remember that your goal is to explore King‟s text, thus enabling you to understand his rhetorical strategies better.”

Student “A”

Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a very powerful text. At the time when minorities in America were silenced and persecuted, King had the courage to lead his people in the struggle for equality. After being jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote a letter to his “fellow clergymen” describing his struggle for civil rights. In the letter, King recounts a brief history of that struggle and rejects the accusation that it is “unwise and untimely.” Overall, I think that King’s letter is a very rhetorically effective text, one that greatly helped Americans to understand the civil rights movement.

Student “B”

King begins his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by addressing it to his “fellow clergymen.” Thus, he immediately sets the tone of inclusion rather than exclusion. By using the word “fellow” in the address, I think he is trying to do two things. First of all, he presents himself as a colleague and a spiritual brother of his audience. That, in effect, says “you can trust me,” “I am one of your kind.” Secondly, by addressing his readers in that way, King suggests that everyone, even those Americans who are not directly involved in the struggle for civil rights, should be concerned with it. Hence the word “fellow.” King’s opening almost invokes the phrase “My fellow Americans” or “My fellow citizens” used so often by American Presidents when they address the nation.

King then proceeds to give a brief background of his actions as a civil rights leader. As I read this part of the letter, I was wondering whether his readers would really have not known what he had accomplished as a civil rights leader. Then I realized that perhaps he gives all that background information as a rhetorical move. His immediate goal is to keep reminding his readers about his activities. His ultimate goal is to show to his audience that his actions were non-violent but peaceful. In reading this passage by King, I remembered once again that it is important not to assume that your audience knows anything about the subject of the writing. I will try to use this strategy more in my own papers.

In the middle of the letter, King states: “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” This sentence looks like a thesis statement and I wonder why he did not place it towards the beginning of the text, to get his point across right away. After thinking about this for a few minutes and re-reading several pages from our class textbook, I think he leaves his “thesis” till later in his piece because he is facing a not-so-friendly (if not hostile) audience. Delaying the thesis and laying out some background information and evidence first helps a writer to prepare his or her audience for the coming argument. That is another strategy I should probably use more often in my own writing, depending on the audience I am facing.

Reflecting on the Responses

To be sure, much more can be said about King‟s letter than either of these writers have said. However, these two responses allow us to see two dramatically different approaches to reading. After studying both responses, consider the questions below.

  • Which response fulfills the goals set in the prompt better and why?
  • Which responses shows a deeper understanding of the texts by the reader and why?
  • Which writer does a better job at avoiding binary thinking and creating a sophisticated reading of King‟s text and why?
  • Which writer is more likely to use the results of the reading in his or her own writing in the future and why?
  • Which writer leaves room for response to his text by others and why?

Critical Readers Do not Read Alone and in Silence

One of the key principles of critical reading is that active readers do not read silently and by themselves. By this I mean that they take notes and write about what they read. They also discuss the texts they are working with, with others and compare their own interpretations of those texts with the interpretations constructed by their colleagues.

As a college student, you are probably used to taking notes of what you read. When I was in college, my favorite way of preparing for a test was reading a chapter or two from my textbook, then closing the book, then trying to summarize what I have read on a piece of paper. I tried to get the main points of the chapters down and the explanations and proofs that the textbooks‟ authors used. Sometimes, I wrote a summary of every chapter in the textbook and then studied for the test from those summaries rather than from the textbook itself. I am sure you have favorite methods of note taking and studying from your notes, too.

But now it strikes me that what I did with those notes was not critical reading. I simply summarized my textbooks in a more concise, manageable form and then tried to memorize those summaries before the test. I did not take my reading of the textbooks any further than what was already on their pages. Reading for information and trying to extract the main points, I did not talk back to the texts, did not question them, and did not try to extend the knowledge which they offered in any way. I also did not try to connect my reading with my personal experiences or pre-existing knowledge in any way. I also read in silence, without exchanging ideas with other readers of the same texts. Of course, my reading strategies and techniques were dictated by my goal, which was to pass the test.

Critical reading has other goals, one of which is entering an on-going intellectual exchange. Therefore it demands different reading strategies, approaches, and techniques. One of these new approaches is not reading in silence and alone. Instead, critical readers read with a pen or pencil in hand. They also discuss what they read with others.

Strategies for Connecting Reading and Writing

If you want to become a critical reader, you need to get into a habit of writing as you read. You also need to understand that complex texts cannot be read just once. Instead, they require multiple readings, the first of which may be a more general one during which you get acquainted with the ideas presented in the text, its structure and style. During the second and any subsequent readings, however, you will need to write, and write a lot. The following are some critical reading and writing techniques which active readers employ as they work to create meanings from texts they read.

Underline Interesting and Important Places in the Text

Underline words, sentences, and passages that stand out, for whatever reason. Underline the key arguments that you believe the author of the text is making as well as any evidence, examples, and stories that seem interesting or important. Don‟t be afraid to “get it wrong.” There is no right or wrong here. The places in the text that you underline may be the same or different from those noticed by your classmates, and this difference of interpretation is the essence of critical reading.

Take Notes

Take notes on the margins. If you do not want to write on your book or journal, attach post-it notes with your comments to the text. Do not be afraid to write too much. This is the stage of the reading process during which you are actively making meaning. Writing about what you read is the best way to make sense of it, especially, if the text is difficult.

Do not be afraid to write too much. This is the stage of the reading process during which you are actively making meaning. Writing about what you read will help you not only to remember the argument which the author of the text is trying to advance (less important for critical reading), but to create your own interpretations of the text you are reading (more important).

Here are some things you can do in your comments

  • Ask questions.
  • Agree or disagree with the author.
  • Question the evidence presented in the text
  • Offer counter-evidence
  • Offer additional evidence, examples, stories, and so on that support the author‟s argument
  • Mention other texts which advance the same or similar arguments
  • Mention personal experiences that enhance your reading of the text

Write Exploratory Responses

Write extended responses to readings. Writing students are often asked to write one or two page exploratory responses to readings, but they are not always clear on the purpose of these responses and on how to approach writing them. By writing reading responses, you are continuing the important work of critical reading which you began when you underlined interesting passages and took notes on the margins. You are extending the meaning of the text by creating your own commentary to it and perhaps even branching off into creating your own argument inspired by your reading. Your teacher may give you a writing prompt, or ask you to come up with your own topic for a response. In either case, realize that reading responses are supposed to be exploratory, designed to help you delve deeper into the text you are reading than note-taking or underlining will allow.

When writing extended responses to the readings, it is important to keep one thing in mind, and that is their purpose. The purpose of these exploratory responses, which are often rather informal, is not to produce a complete argument, with an introduction, thesis, body, and conclusion. It is not to impress your classmates and your teacher with “big” words and complex sentences. On the contrary, it is to help you understand the text you are working with at a deeper level. The verb “explore” means to investigate something by looking at it more closely. Investigators get leads, some of which are fruitful and useful and some of which are dead-ends. As you investigate and create the meaning of the text you are working with, do not be afraid to take different directions with your reading response. In fact, it is important resist the urge to make conclusions or think that you have found out everything about your reading. When it comes to exploratory reading responses, lack of closure and presence of more leads at the end of the piece is usually a good thing. Of course, you should always check with your teacher for standards and format of reading responses.

Try the following guidelines to write a successful response to a reading:

Remember your goal—exploration. The purpose of writing a response is to construct the meaning of a difficult text. It is not to get the job done as quickly as possible and in as few words as possible.

As you write, “talk back to the text.” Make comments, ask questions, and elaborate on complex thoughts. This part of the writing becomes much easier if, prior to writing your response, you had read the assignment with a pen in hand and marked important places in the reading.

If your teacher provides a response prompt, make sure you understand it. Then try to answer the questions in the prompt to the best of your ability. While you are doing that, do not be afraid of bringing in related texts, examples, or experiences. Active reading is about making connections, and your readers will appreciate your work because it will help them understand the text better.

While your primary goal is exploration and questioning, make sure that others can understand your response. While it is OK to be informal in your response, make every effort to write in a clear, error-free language.

Involve your audience in the discussion of the reading by asking questions, expressing opinions, and connecting to responses made by others.

Use Reading for Invention

Use reading and your responses to start your own formal writing projects. Reading is a powerful invention tool. While preparing to start a new writing project, go back to the readings you have completed and your responses to those readings in search for possible topics and ideas. Also look through responses your classmates gave to your ideas about the text. Another excellent way to start your own writing projects and to begin research for them is to look through the list of references and sources at the end of the reading that you are working with. They can provide excellent topic-generating and research leads.

Keep a Double-Entry Journal

Many writers like double-entry journals because they allow us to make that leap from summary of a source to interpretation and persuasion. To start a double-entry journal, divide a page into two columns. As you read, in the left column write down interesting and important words, sentences, quotations, and passages from the text. In the right column, right your reaction and responses to them. Be as formal or informal as you want. Record words, passages, and ideas from the text that you find useful for your paper, interesting, or, in any, way striking or unusual. Quote or summarize in full, accurately, and fairly. In the right-hand side column, ask the kinds of questions and provide the kinds of responses that will later enable you to create an original reading of the text you are working with and use that reading to create your own paper.

Don’t Give Up

If the text you are reading seems too complicated or “boring,” that might mean that you have not attacked it aggressively and critically enough. Complex texts are the ones worth pursuing and investigating because they present the most interesting ideas. Critical reading is a liberating practice because you do not have to worry about “getting it right.” As long as you make an effort to engage with the text and as long as you are willing to work hard on creating a meaning out of what you read, the interpretation of the text you are working with will be valid.

IMPORTANT: So far, we have established that no pre-existing meaning is possible in written texts and that critical and active readers work hard to create such meaning. We have also established that interpretations differ from reader to reader and that there is no “right” or “wrong” during the critical reading process. So, you may ask, does this mean that any reading of a text that I create will be a valid and persuasive one? With the exception of the most outlandish and purposely-irrelevant readings that have nothing to do with the sources text, the answer is “yes.” However, remember that reading and interpreting texts, as well as sharing your interpretations with others are rhetorical acts. First of all, in order to learn something from your critical reading experience, you, the reader, need to be persuaded by your own reading of the text. Secondly, for your reading to be accepted by others, they need to be persuaded by it, too. It does not mean, however, that in order to make your reading of a text persuasive, you simply have to find “proof” in the text for your point of view. Doing that would mean reverting to reading “for the main point,” reading as consumption. Critical reading, on the other hand, requires a different approach. One of the components of this approach is the use of personal experiences, examples, stories, and knowledge for interpretive and persuasive purposes. This is the subject of the next section of this chapter.

One Critical Reader‟s Path to Creating a Meaning: A Case Study

Earlier on in this chapter, we discussed the importance of using your existing knowledge and prior experience to create new meaning out of unfamiliar and difficult texts. In this section, I‟d like to offer you one student writer‟s account of his meaning-making process. Before I do that, however, it is important for me to tell you a little about the class and the kinds of reading and writing assignments that its members worked on.

All the writing projects offered to the members of the class were promoted by readings, and students were expected to actively develop their own ideas and provide their own readings of assigned texts in their essays. The main text for the class was the anthology Ways of Reading edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky that contains challenging and complex texts. Like for most of his classmates, this approach to reading and writing was new to Alex who had told me earlier that he was used to reading “for information” or “for the main point”.

In preparation for the first writing project, the class read Adrienne Rich‟s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision.” In her essay, Rich offers a moving account of her journey to becoming a writer. She makes the case for constantly “revising” one‟s life in the light of all new events and experiences. Rich blends voices and genres throughout the essay, using personal narrative, academic argument, and even poetry. As a result, Rich creates the kind of personal-public argument which, on the one hand, highlights her own life, and on the other, illustrates that her Rich‟s life is typical for her time and her environment and that her readers can also learn from her experiences.

To many beginning readers and writers, who are used to a neat separation of “personal” and “academic” argument, such a blend of genres and styles may seem odd. In fact, on of the challenges that many of the students in the class faced was understanding why Rich chooses to blend personal writing with academic and what rhetorical effects she achieves by doing so. To After writing informal responses to the essay and discussing it in class, the students were offered the following writing assignment:

Although Rich tells a story of her own, she does so to provide an illustration of an even larger story—one about what it means to be a woman and a writer. Tell a story of your own about the ways you might be said to have been named or shaped or positioned by an established or powerful culture. Like Rich (and perhaps with similar hesitation), use your own experience as an illustration of both your own situation and the situation of people like you. You should imagine that the assignment is a way for you to use (and put to the test) some of Rich‟s terms, words like “re-vision,” “renaming,” and “structure.” (Bartholomae and Petrosky 648).

Notice that this assignment does not ask students to simply analyze Rich‟s essay, to dissect its argument or “main points.” Instead, writers are asked to work with their own experiences and events of their own lives in order to provide a reading of Rich which is affected and informed by the writers‟ own lives and own knowledge of life. This is critical reading in action when a reader creates his or her one‟s own meaning of a complex text by reflecting on the relationship between the content of that text and one‟s own life.

In response to the assignment, one of the class members, Alex Cimino-Hurt, wrote a paper that re-examined and re- evaluated his upbringing and how those factors have influenced his political and social views. In particular, Alex was trying to reconcile his own and his parents‟ anti-war views with the fact than a close relative of his was fighting in the war in Iraq as he worked on the paper. Alex used such terms as “revision” and “hesitation” to develop his piece.

Like most other writers in the class, initially Alex seemed a little puzzled, even confused by the requirement to read someone else‟s text through the prism of his own life and his own experiences. However, as he drafted, revised, and discussed his writing with his classmates and his instructor, the new approach to reading and writing became clearer to him. After finishing the paper, Alex commented on his reading strategies and techniques and on what he learned about critical reading during the project:

On Previous Reading Habits and Techniques

Previously when working on any project whether it be for a History, English, or any other class that involved reading and research, there was a certain amount of minimalism. As a student I tried to balance the least amount of effort with the best grade. I distinctly remember that before, being taught to skim over writing and reading so that I found “main” points and highlighted them. The value of thoroughly reading a piece was not taught because all that was needed was a shallow interpretation of whatever information that was provided followed by a regurgitation. [Critical reading] provided a dramatic difference in perspective and helped me learn to not only dissect the meaning of a piece, but also to see why the writer is using certain techniques or how the reading applies to my life.

On Developing Critical Reading Strategies

When reading critically I found that the most important thing for me was to set aside a block of time in which I wouldn‟t have to hurry my reading or skip parts to “Get the gist of it”. Developing an eye for…detail came in two ways. The first method is to read the text several times, and the second is to discuss it with my classmates and my teacher. It quickly became clear to me that the more I read a certain piece, the more I got from it as I became more comfortable with the prose and writing style. With respect to the second way, there is always something that you can miss and there is always a different perspective that can be brought to the table by either the teacher or a classmate.

On Reading Rich’s Essay

In reading Adrienne Rich‟s essay, the problem for me wasn‟t necessarily relating to her work but instead just finding the right perspective from which to read it. I was raised in a very open family so being able to relate to others was learned early in my life. Once I was able to parallel my perspective to hers, it was just a matter of composing my own story. Mine was my liberalism in conservative environments—the fact that frustrates me sometimes. I felt that her struggle frustrated her, too. By using quotations from her work, I was able to show my own situation to my readers.

On Writing the Paper

The process that I went through to write an essay consisted of three stages. During the first stage, I wrote down every coherent idea I had for the essay as well as a few incoherent ones. This helped me create a lot of material to work with. While this initial material doesn’t‟t always have direction it provides a foundation for writing. The second stage involved rereading Rich‟s essay and deciding which parts of it might be relevant to my own story. Looking at my own life and at Rich‟s work together helped me consolidate my paper. The third and final stage involved taking what is left and refining the style of the paper and taking care of the mechanics.

Advice for Critical Readers

The first key to being a critical and active reader is to find something in the piece that interests, bothers, encourages, or just confuses you. Use this to drive your analysis. Remember there is no such thing as a boring essay, only a boring reader.

  • Reading something once is never enough so reading it quickly before class just won‟t cut it. Read it once to get yourbraincomfortablewiththework,thenreaditagainandactuallytrytounderstandwhat‟sgoingoninit. You can‟t read it too many times.
  • Ask questions. It seems like a simple suggestion but if you never ask questions you‟ll never get any answers. So, while you‟re reading, think of questions and just write them down on a piece of paper lest you forget them after about a line and a half of reading.


Reading and writing are rhetorical processes, and one does not exist without the other. The goal of a good writer is to engage his or her readers into a dialog presented in the piece of writing. Similarly, the goal of a critical and active reader is to participate in that dialog and to have something to say back to the writer and to others. Writing leads to reading and reading leads to writing. We write because we have something to say and we read because we are interested in ideas of others.

Reading what others have to say and responding to them help us make that all-important transition from simply having opinions about something to having ideas. Opinions are often over-simplified and fixed. They are not very useful because, if different people have different opinions that they are not willing to change or adjust, such people cannot work or think together. Ideas, on the other hand, are ever evolving, fluid, and flexible. Our ideas are informed and shaped by our interactions with others, both in person and through written texts. In a world where thought and action count, it is not enough to simply “agree to disagree.” Reading and writing, used together, allow us to discuss complex and difficult issues with others, to persuade and be persuaded, and, most importantly, to act.

Reading and writing are inextricably connected, and I hope that this chapter has shown you ways to use reading to inform and enrich you writing and your learning in general. The key to becoming an active, critical, and interested reader is the development of varied and effective reading techniques and strategies. I‟d like to close this chapter with the words from the writer Alex Cimino-Hurt: “Being able to read critically is important no matter what you plan on doing with your career or life because it allows you to understand the world around you.”

Critical Thinking and Research Applications

At this point in your project, you are preparing to move from the research phase to the writing phase. You have gathered much of the information you will use, and soon you will be ready to begin writing your draft. This section helps you transition smoothly from one phase to the next.

Beginning writers sometimes attempt to transform a pile of note cards into a formal research paper without any intermediary step. This approach presents problems. The writer’s original question and thesis may be buried in a flood of disconnected details taken from research sources. The first draft may present redundant or contradictory information. Worst of all, the writer’s ideas and voice may be lost.

An effective research paper focuses on the writer’s ideas—from the question that sparked the research process to how the writer answers that question based on the research findings. Before beginning a draft, or even an outline, good writers pause and reflect. They ask themselves questions such as the following:

  • How has my thinking changed based on my research? What have I learned?
  • Was my working thesis on target? Do I need to rework my thesis based on what I have learned?
  • How does the information in my sources mesh with my research questions and help me answer those questions? Have any additional important questions or subtopics come up that I will need to address in my paper?
  • How do my sources complement each other? What ideas or facts recur in multiple sources?
  • Where do my sources disagree with each other, and why?

In this section, you will reflect on your research and review the information you have gathered. You will determine what you now think about your topic. You will synthesize, or put together, different pieces of information that help you answer your research questions. Finally, you will determine the organizational structure that works best for your paper and begin planning your outline.

Selecting Useful Information

At this point in the research process, you have gathered information from a wide variety of sources. Now it is time to think about how you will use this information as a writer.

When you conduct research, you keep an open mind and seek out many promising sources. You take notes on any information that looks like it might help you answer your research questions. Often, new ideas and terms come up in your reading, and these, too, find their way into your notes. You may record facts or quotations that catch your attention even if they did not seem immediately relevant to your research question. By now, you have probably amassed an impressively detailed collection of notes.

You will not use all of your notes in your paper.

Good researchers are thorough. They look at multiple perspectives, facts, and ideas related to their topic, and they gather a great deal of information. Effective writers, however, are selective. They determine which information is most relevant and appropriate for their purpose. They include details that develop or explain their ideas—and they leave out details that do not. The writer, not the pile of notes, is the controlling force. The writer shapes the content of the research paper.

While working through Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?”, Section 11.4 “Strategies for Gathering Reliable Information”, you used strategies to filter out unreliable or irrelevant sources and details. Now you will apply your critical-thinking skills to the information you recorded—analyzing how it is relevant, determining how it meshes with your ideas, and finding how it forms connections and patterns.

Writing at Work

When you create workplace documents based on research, selectivity remains important. A project team may spend months conducting market surveys to prepare for rolling out a new product, but few managers have time to read the research in its entirety. Most employees want the research distilled into a few well-supported points. Focused, concise writing is highly valued in the workplace.

Identify Information That Supports Your Thesis

The process of writing informally helped you see how you might begin to pull together what you have learned from your research. Do not feel anxious, however, if you still have trouble seeing the big picture. Systematically looking through your notes will help you.

Begin by identifying the notes that clearly support your thesis. Mark or group these, either physically or using the cut-and-paste function in your word-processing program. As you identify the crucial details that support your thesis, make sure you analyze them critically. Ask the following questions to focus your thinking:

  • Is this detail from a reliable, high-quality source? Is it appropriate for me to cite this source in an academic paper? The bulk of the support for your thesis should come from reliable, reputable sources. If most of the details that support your thesis are from less-reliable sources, you may need to do additional research or modify your thesis.
  • Is the link between this information and my thesis obvious—or will I need to explain it to my readers? Remember, you have spent more time thinking and reading about this topic than your audience. Some connections might be obvious to both you and your readers. More often, however, you will need to provide the analysis or explanation that shows how the information supports your thesis. As you read through your notes, jot down ideas you have for making those connections clear.
  • What personal biases or experiences might affect the way I interpret this information? No researcher is 100 percent objective. We all have personal opinions and experiences that influence our reactions to what we read and learn. Good researchers are aware of this human tendency. They keep an open mind when they read opinions or facts that contradict their beliefs.


It can be tempting to ignore information that does not support your thesis or that contradicts it outright. However, such information is important. At the very least, it gives you a sense of what has been written about the issue. More importantly, it can help you question and refine your own thinking so that writing your research paper is a true learning process.

Find Connections between Your Sources

As you find connections between your ideas and information in your sources, also look for information that connects your sources. Do most sources seem to agree on a particular idea? Are some facts mentioned repeatedly in many different sources? What key terms or major concepts come up in most of your sources regardless of whether the sources agree on the finer points? Identifying these connections will help you identify important ideas to discuss in your paper.

Look for subtler ways your sources complement one another, too. Does one author refer to another’s book or article? How do sources that are more recent build upon the ideas developed in earlier sources?

Be aware of any redundancies in your sources. If you have amassed solid support from a reputable source, such as a scholarly journal, there is no need to cite the same facts from an online encyclopedia article that is many steps removed from any primary research. If a given source adds nothing new to your discussion and you can cite a stronger source for the same information, use the stronger source.

Determine how you will address any contradictions found among different sources. For instance, if one source cites a startling fact that you cannot confirm anywhere else, it is safe to dismiss the information as unreliable. However, if you find significant disagreements among reliable sources, you will need to review them and evaluate each source. Which source presents a sounder argument or more solid evidence? It is up to you to determine which source is the most credible and why.

Finally, do not ignore any information simply because it does not support your thesis. Carefully consider how that information fits into the big picture of your research. You may decide that the source is unreliable or the information is not relevant, or you may decide that it is an important point you need to bring up. What matters is that you give it careful consideration.

As Jorge reviewed his research, he realized that some of the information was not especially useful for his purpose. His notes included several statements about the relationship between soft drinks that are high in sugar and childhood obesity—a subtopic that was too far outside of the main focus of the paper. Jorge decided to cut this material.

Reevaluate Your Working Thesis

A careful analysis of your notes will help you reevaluate your working thesis and determine whether you need to revise it. Remember that your working thesis was the starting point—not necessarily the end point—of your research. You should revise your working thesis if your ideas changed based on what you read. Even if your sources generally confirmed your preliminary thinking on the topic, it is still a good idea to tweak the wording of your thesis to incorporate the specific details you learned from research.

Jorge realized that his working thesis oversimplified the issues. He still believed that the media was exaggerating the benefits of low-carb diets. However, his research led him to conclude that these diets did have some advantages. Read Jorge’s revised thesis.


Synthesizing and Organizing Information

By now your thinking on your topic is taking shape. You have a sense of what major ideas to address in your paper, what points you can easily support, and what questions or subtopics might need a little more thought. In short, you have begun the process of synthesizing information—that is, of putting the pieces together into a coherent whole.

It is normal to find this part of the process a little difficult. Some questions or concepts may still be unclear to you. You may not yet know how you will tie all of your research together. Synthesizing information is a complex, demanding mental task, and even experienced researchers struggle with it at times. A little uncertainty is often a good sign! It means you are challenging yourself to work thoughtfully with your topic instead of simply restating the same information.

Use Your Research Questions to Synthesize Information

You have already considered how your notes fit with your working thesis. Now, take your synthesis a step further. Analyze how your notes relate to your major research question and the subquestions you identified in Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?”, Section 11.2 “Steps in Developing a Research Proposal”. Organize your notes with headings that correspond to those questions. As you proceed, you might identify some important subtopics that were not part of your original plan, or you might decide that some questions are not relevant to your paper.

Categorize information carefully and continue to think critically about the material. Ask yourself whether the sources are reliable and whether the connections between ideas are clear.

Remember, your ideas and conclusions will shape the paper. They are the glue that holds the rest of the content together. As you work, begin jotting down the big ideas you will use to connect the dots for your reader. (If you are not sure where to begin, try answering your major research question and subquestions. Add and answer new questions as appropriate.) You might record these big ideas on sticky notes or type and highlight them within an electronic document.

Jorge looked back on the list of research questions that he had written down earlier. He changed a few to match his new thesis, and he began a rough outline for his paper.


You may be wondering how your ideas are supposed to shape the paper, especially since you are writing a research paper based on your research. Integrating your ideas and your information from research is a complex process, and sometimes it can be difficult to separate the two.

Some paragraphs in your paper will consist mostly of details from your research. That is fine, as long as you explain what those details mean or how they are linked. You should also include sentences and transitions that show the relationship between different facts from your research by grouping related ideas or pointing out connections or contrasts. The result is that you are not simply presenting information; you are synthesizing, analyzing, and interpreting it.

Plan How to Organize Your Paper

The final step to complete before beginning your draft is to choose an organizational structure. For some assignments, this may be determined by the instructor’s requirements. For instance, if you are asked to explore the impact of a new communications device, a cause-and-effect structure is obviously appropriate. In other cases, you will need to determine the structure based on what suits your topic and purpose. For more information about the structures used in writing, see Chapter 10 “Rhetorical Modes”.

The purpose of Jorge’s paper was primarily to persuade. With that in mind, he planned the following outline.


Writing at Work

The structures described in this section can help you organize information in different types of workplace documents. For instance, medical incident reports and police reports follow a chronological structure. If the company must choose between two vendors to provide a service, you might write an e-mail to your supervisor comparing and contrasting the choices. Understanding when and how to use each organizational structure can help you write workplace documents efficiently and effectively.

Thinking Critically About Research

by Steven D. Krause

What is “Research” and Why Should I Use It?

Research always begins with the goal of answering a question. In your quest to answer basic research questions, you turn to a variety of different sources for evidence: reference resources, people, evaluative and opinionated articles, and other sources. All along the way, you continually evaluate and re-evaluate the credibility of your sources.

For example, if you wanted to find out where you could buy the best computer within your budget, your question might be “what kind of computer should I buy and where should I buy it?” To answer your questions about computers, the first research tool you might use is the phone book, where you would look up “Computer retailers” in the yellow pages. You might also ask friends where they got their computers and what they thought were the best (and worst) stores to go to. You would probably also talk to your friends about the kind of computer they bought: a Windows-based PC versus a Macintosh computer, or a desktop versus a laptop computer, for example. You could go to a computer store and ask the salespeople for their advice, though you would perhaps be more critical of what they tell you since they are biased. After all, salespeople are trying to sell you a computer that they sell in their stores, not necessarily the “best” computer for the amount of money you want to spend. To get the opinions of computer experts, you might do research in computer magazines or web sites, looking for reviews and ratings of different models of computers in your price range.

Of course, you could skip this research process entirely. You could simply go to a store and buy the first computer in your budget based on nothing more than a “gut feeling” or based on some criteria that has little to do with the quality of the computer—the color, for example.

Who knows? By just guessing like this, you might actually end up with a computer as good as you would have ended up with after your research. After all, researchers can never be certain that the evidence they find to answer their research questions is entirely correct, and the fact that there are different kinds of computers available suggests it is possible for people to look at the research and reach different conclusions about what is the “best computer.” Talk to loyal Macintosh computer owners and you will get a very different answer about “the best” kind of computer than you will from loyal Windows PC owners!

Nonetheless, the likelihood is quite high that the computer you bought after careful research is a better choice than the computer you would have bought after conducting no research at all. Most of us would agree that you have a better chance of being “right” about your choice of computer (and just about anything else) if that choice is informed by research.

What’s Different about Academic Research?

The reasons academics and scholars conduct research are essentially the same as the reasons someone does research on the right computer to buy: to find information and answers to questions with a method that has a greater chance of being accurate than a guess or a “gut feeling.” College professors in a history department, physicians at a medical school, graduate students studying physics, college juniors in a literature class, students in an introductory research writing class—all of these people are members of the academic community, and they all use research to find answers to their questions that have a greater chance of being “right” than making guesses or betting on feelings.

Students in an introductory research writing course are “academics,” the same as college professors? Generally speaking, yes. You might not think of yourself as being a part of the same group as college professors or graduate students, but when you enter a college classroom, you are joining the academic community in the sense that you are expected to use your research to support your ideas and you are agreeing to the conventions of research within your discipline. Another way of looking at it: first-year college students and college professors more or less follow the same “rules” when it comes to making points supported by research and evidence.

Primary Research Versus Secondary Research

Before you begin to answer your questions, you’ll need to know about two types of research: primary research and secondary research.  And, you’ll need to learn about the differences between them.

Primary research is usually the “raw stuff” of research—the materials that researchers gather on their own and then analyze in their writing.  For example, primary research would include the following:

  • The experiments done by chemists, physicists, biologists, and other scientists.
  • Researcher-conducted interviews, surveys, polls, or observations.
  • The particular documents or texts (novels, speeches, government documents, and so forth) studied by scholars in fields like English, history, or political science.

Secondary research is usually considered research from texts where one researcher is quoting someone else to make a point.  For example, secondary research would include the following:

  • An article in a scientific journal that reported on the results of someone else’s experiment.
  • A magazine or newspaper account of an interview, survey, or poll done by another researcher.
  • An article in a scholarly journal or a book about a particular novel or speech.

When you quote from another article in your research project, your writing becomes an example of secondary research. When other researchers quote information from your research project in their research project, your research project is considered a secondary source for them.  And if a researcher decides to write about you (a biography, for example) and if that researcher examines and quotes from some of the writings you did in college– like the research project you are working on right now– then your project would probably be considered a primary source.

Obviously, the divisions between primary and secondary research are not crystal-clear. But even though these differences between primary and secondary research are somewhat abstract, the differences are good ones to keep in mind as you consider what to research and as you conduct your research.  For example, if you were writing a research project on the connection between pharmaceutical advertising and the high cost of prescription drugs, it would be useful and informative to consider the differences between primary research on the subject (an article where the researcher documents statistical connections) and the secondary research (an essay where another researcher summarizes a variety of studies done by others).

Of course, the term “secondary” research has nothing to do with the quality or value of the research; it just means that to answer the questions of your research project and to support your point, you are relying in great part on the observations and opinions of others.

Most research projects completed by students in writing classes are based almost exclusively in secondary research because most students in introductory writing classes don’t have the time, resources, or expertise to conduct credible primary research.  However, sometimes some modest primary research is a realistic option.  For example, if you were writing about the dangers of Internet-based computer crime and someone on your campus was an expert in the subject and was available for an interview, your interview of her would be primary research.  If you were writing about the problems of parking on your campus, you might conduct some primary research in the form of observations, surveys of the students that drive and try to park on campus, interviews of the campus officials in charge of parking, and so forth.

Survey Academic Research Communities

Analyze research practices from a community perspective, and learn about the methodological assumptions of scholars, surveyors, scientists, formalists, clinicians, and ethnographers.

Researchers in workplace and academic settings have diverse and sometimes opposing ways of researching and making knowledge claims. In general, researchers in the natural sciences tend to prefer positivistic methodologies and researchers in social and behavioral sciences have increasingly used postpositivistic methods. Knowledge-makers in the humanities—history, philosophy, religious studies, English, and modern languages—prefer to articulate their research as “scholarship.”

overfiew of figure 2

What are the Most Common Methodologies?

Figure Two provides a graphical representation of the methodologies that inform positivistic, postpositivistic, and scholarly knowledge.

The Scholars

Scholars trace their methodological roots back to the origins of Western civilization. Like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and other thinkers of the Classical age, modern scholars engage in the intellectual process of speculation and reflection to generate knowledge. While researchers (both positivists and postpositivists) look outward for evidence from which to make knowledge, scholars look inward to the power of logic and rational thinking. They depend upon dialectic—the process of reasoning correctly—to generate, test, and defend the knowledge they generate.

Since the dialectic process—the process of reasoning correctly— derives its authority from the deliberate confrontation of opposing views, scholars are engaged in an endless, on-going “great debate,” a cycle of interpretation, critique, and reinterpretation. In this dialectic system, no idea is unassailable and nothing is ever settled once and for all. Since scholars must defend the sufficiency, accuracy, and credibility of their knowledge claims and challenge the claims of others, publication assumes methodological importance.

In practice, scholars do not create knowledge from intellectual thin air. Rather, scholarly inquiry is essentially text-based. That is, scholars are engaged in establishing the authenticity or significance of a set of texts and in devising theories of interpretation that can be applied to those texts. But while most scholars make knowledge by critiquing texts, scholars can also make meaning by applying critical, political, or social theories—such as Feminism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism—to interpret events or ideas.

The Surveyors

Surveys are used in many forms of research, including clinical, scientific, formalist, and ethnographic research. Because surveys are so often combined with other methods, it is difficult to define them as a distinctive methodology. In general terms, though, surveyors are positivists who rely on the power of probability statistics to generalize the data they collect from a small sample of subjects to a larger population.

In order to produce convincing results, surveyors must follow rigorous procedures for selecting their sample, gathering their data, and calculating the reliability and validity of their results. These operations require more specialized knowledge and statistical sophistication than most non-technically trained researchers possess. On the other hand, a carefully designed and constructed survey can produce convincing and useful information about a wide variety of practical issues.

The Scientists

Scientists are puzzle builders who seek the broad, general patterns that explain human behavior and other features of the natural world. In this regard, scientists ascribe to the tenets of positivism. Scientists employ “the Scientific Method” to put the puzzle together. Simply put, the scientific method involves making observations, identifying patterns, developing hypotheses (i.e., making guesses about how something works), and then conducting experiments to test these predictions. The scientific method proceeds inductively, moving from one discrete experiment to the next with each scientist contributing a piece to the gigantic puzzle—the explanation of how the universe works.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

When they design their experiments, scientists formulate their hypotheses as questions that require a “yes” or “no” response. But even when an hypothesis is affirmed, this does not mean that an absolute truth has been discovered. Instead, before the scientific community is prepared to believe that a part of the paradigmatic structure of the universe has been discovered, other scientists must replicate (and re-replicate) the study to verify its results.

Even after countless replications, scientists can still not claim that they have uncovered an absolute truth. While each hypothesis-affirming replication increases the probability that the hypothesis is true, that prediction can never be proved absolutely. For example, while Isaac Newton’s general laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation have been verified by millions of experiments, scientists must still assume that “every law of nature is subject to change, based on new observations.”

To bolster the strength of their investigative powers, scientists have harnessed the power of probability statistics. Statistical measures give scientists greater control over variables and allow them to say that an hypothesis can be rejected or affirmed with a certain degree of certainty. Ultimately, though, knowledge produced by this method, no matter how carefully tested, can only be expressed in terms of probability, never affirmed as discoveries of absolute truths.

The Formalists

Formalists are model-builders. Working by analogy, they construct models that correspond to some phenomenon in the real world. Instead of proceeding inductively—that is, moving from one experiment to another in hopes of solving the master puzzle—formalists begin with the big picture. This big picture, represented as a model, is based on their best guess, which they make after a long thoughtful analysis of the phenomenon being studied.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

After constructing a model, formalists test it to establish its correspondence with the empirical phenomenon it purports to represent. Using pre-established rules of interrelation, they evaluate how closely their model accounts for the phenomenon under investigation. Then, working in the opposite direction of their cousins, the scientists, formalists re-imagine the model, correcting and improving it (ideally) with each subsequent experiment.

According to North and Diesing, the advantage of formalist models is that they provide a powerful metaphor for what we do and do not understand. The limitation of this methodology is that, while each model may appear to be completely logical—a complete tautological whole—the model may distort or falsely represent the empirical phenomenon it is trying to depict.

The Clinicians

Clinicians conduct case studies—that is, in-depth studies of a single individual or of a small set of individuals (such as superb teachers, happily married couples, unusually successful people). Unlike the surveyors, scientists, and formalists, who seek to identify the broad, general patterns in human behavior, clinicians are primarily interested in specific cases or examples. That is, clinicians value their results for what they tell us about the individual cases studied, not for what they may predict about the general population.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

Although clinical studies focus on particular cases rather than general patterns, most clinicians are positivists. They tend to see the results of their narrow, in-depth observations as “the manifestation of general laws in particular instances” (North 200). In other words, while clinical results may be too specific to be generalized to larger populations, clinical results still reflect general laws of behavior.

Unlike other positivist researchers, instead of using statistics to generalize the results of their studies to larger populations, clinicians build knowledge about individual cases into a coherent account of the whole by accretion. Clinicians study phenomena over and over again, each time from a slightly different angle or perspective, accumulating results into a canon of clinical studies that, taken together, produce a picture of the behavior being studied.

The Ethnographers

Like scientists, surveyors, and clinicians, ethnographers observe behavior, but their assumptions about what their observations mean distinguish them from the other researchers. In simple terms, ethnographers are story tellers. They enter a community, observe the activities of the community, and “inscribe” or write down their observations. But rather than claiming to literally “transcribe” everything the community says and does, ethnographers seek to capture the meaning of what has been said and done. Because no two observers will ascribe exactly the same meaning to their observations, ethnographers’ accounts are much closer to stories than observations.

Writing Commons Survey Academic Research Communities

Ethnographers are usually postpositivist researchers. They assume that their results—the accounts they produce—are constructed not discovered. Ethnographic accounts are unique and specific to their context, and they cannot be replicated or generalized to any other population. Thus, ethnographic knowledge cannot accumulate in the same way as positivist research. The value of ethnographic knowledge is not to confirm our notions about a universal pattern but to offer alternative versions of reality. Ethnographies expand our experience, disrupt and enlarge our previous understandings, and suggest new and fresh meanings for experience. To achieve these results, ethnographers have developed methods that allow them to participate in the community as insiders rather than outside observers.

Understand Opposing Research Ideologies

Learn about three opposing assumptions about knowledge that underlie contemporary methodologies: Positivism, Postpositivism, and Scholarship.

Different ideologies underlie research methodologies. In other words, different research communities have opposing ideas about what knowledge is and how it is produced. Scholars produce scholarly knowledge by participating in the never-ending debate. Surveyors, scientists, formalists and most clinicians hope to produce positivistic knowledge. Ethnographers and some clinicians focus on producing postpositivistic knowledge.

Understand the different languages of explorers

You will get the most out of your research journey if you learn the languages and customs of native speakers. Before embarking on your research journey, you are wise to pick up a phrase book. Before interviewing authorities or seeking information via the Internet, media, or Library, you can enrich your journey by familiarizing yourself with key research terms and concepts.

Researchers are curious about the world, and they undertake research projects in order to generate new knowledge about the world they are investigating. Their results—what they can claim to know as a result of their research—are important. But, how they can claim to know what they know—their research methodology—is equally important. Whether your research results are understood and appreciated will depend to a great extent on whether you have selected an appropriate methodology for your subject and your audience.

The importance of methodology is not all that surprising or difficult to understand. You consider methodology when you make judgments about knowledge claims every day. You would, for example, probably take your doctor’s diagnosis of a life-threatening disease more seriously than a fortune teller’s prediction of an early death. What distinguishes a physician’s prognosis from a fortune teller’s prophesy is their methodology. How you choose to respond to each of these claims will be determined by your evaluation of the methodologies on which they are based.

Since different methodologies produce different kinds of knowledge and appeal to different audiences, you will need to consider what methodology is appropriate for your rhetorical situation. Obviously, your choice of methodology will be influenced by what kind of knowledge you want to produce and by your readers’ preferences. But your selection will also be determined by your beliefs about what is important, about what can be known, and about what you can do best. These choices will become much easier to make when you understand more about how methodologies operate.

What are the Three Most Widely-Accepted Ideologies that Inform Contemporary Research Practices?

The task of selecting an appropriate methodology would be impossible if every reader’s preferences were different. Fortunately, although we each develop our own individual ideologies, we also tend to share important fundamental beliefs about knowledge and knowledge-making. These shared beliefs define ideological communities. That is, just as people with similar religious beliefs, political loyalties, or cultural practices can be said to make up a community—even though they have never met—those with shared ideologies can constitute an ideological community.

What is Positivism?

Comte De Saint-Simon introduced the term “positivism” in the 19th century to describe the set of beliefs that underlies modern scientific inquiry. Early positivists rejected inquiry based on subjective experience or intellectual speculation. Instead, they argued that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis for knowledge. That is, positivists argue that knowledge developed by carefully controlled observation is more valuable than knowledge that is derived from intuition or logic.

In The Making of Knowledge in Composition, Stephen North identifies three assumptions that support positivists’ reliance on sensory perception as the best means to knowledge:

  • A nonrandom order of causes and effects exists.
  • This nonrandom order exists independent of our experience of it.
  • Researchers can use objective methods to discover the nonrandom order.

Since they are interested in discovering the laws and general principles that regulate the universe, positivists use the data they collect, not to explain any particular individual or event, but as evidence concerning the universe at large. Ultimately, positivists hope to construct a paradigm—a consistent, general concept or framework—that explains the phenomena they study. Positivists, then, work like puzzle-solvers, solving the puzzle of the universe one piece at a time.

A nonrandom order of the universe exists. Positivists assume that the universe is an orderly place. That is, they believe that events have causes and occur in regular patterns that can be determined through observation. Positivists conduct observational studies to uncover these regular, nonrandom patterns and the relationships among the patterns. Working collaboratively and inductively, positivists sort through a multitude of relationships, seeking to discover the rules or principles that govern the way things work in the natural universe.

This nonrandom order of the universe exists independently of our experience of it. Positivists assume that, not only is the universe an orderly place governed by laws and principles, but that this order exists whether or not we are aware of it. That is, positivists have faith in the “objective” nature of knowledge. They view knowledge as “external” to human experience and proceed as though knowledge is somewhere “out there” waiting to be discovered.

The natural sciences provide the best examples of the kinds of knowledge generated by positivistic methods. From a positivist’s perspective, the rules of gravity operated efficiently long before we understood them. Likewise, the principles that govern the reproduction of genetic traits in fruit flies or hundreds of other natural phenomena are unaffected by our understanding of them. In positivistic research, the observer’s role is passive, and the researcher discovers rather than creates knowledge about the phenomena under study.

Positivists assume that researchers can employ objective methods to discover the nonrandom order. This third assumption follows logically from the first two. That is, positivists reason that if the universe is governed by nonrandom laws and principles that exist independently of human experience, then these patterns must be accessible to the right kinds of investigation. Exactly what method provides the best access depends upon the specific phenomenon being studied and the circumstances under which it is studied. But while positivists differ in how they seek access to these universal patterns, they share the conviction that the patterns are discoverable and describable.

Positivists have developed a variety of methods for conducting objective observations, for verifying their findings, and for generalizing their observations to the universe at large. Often positivistic research is conducted in laboratory settings where variables can be carefully controlled, but it may also be carried out in more natural settings. But because positivists rely on sensory perception rather than intuition or speculation, careful, objective observation is essential to their methodology regardless of the setting.

What is Postpositivism?

While positivism dominated research in the 19th century, by the early 20th century knowledge-makers in several academic fields were becoming disillusioned with this approach. The positivistic methods that had been so successful in advancing knowledge in the natural sciences— physics, chemistry, biology—were proving to be much less successful in social science research. Particularly in the fields of anthropology and psychology, researchers were frustrated in their attempts to identify universal patterns and construct paradigms that could adequately account for the complexities of human behavior. In the first half of the 20th century, two intellectual movements swept across Europe and eventually made their way to America, changing the way knowledge is defined and produced.

In the early decades of this century, structuralism—the notion that culture and other subjects could be studied as a system of signs—offered knowledge-makers an attractive alternative to the methods of science. Influenced by the work of French semiotician Ferdinand Saussure, French linguist Claude Lévi-Strauss began applying structural theory to the study of kinship patterns, myths, magic, and culture in general. Soon French structuralists were using structural theory to study cultural anthropology, psychology, mathematics, and biology.

Initially, structuralism was enthusiastically accepted as a “scientific” method that avoided the limitations of positivism. About the time of the 1968 student protests in Paris, however, structuralism’s influence began to wane. During this period of turmoil, French intellectuals recognized the inherent limitations in structural theories and began the shift away from structuralism to poststructuralism. This shift in thought was part of the global movement called postmodernism. In the arena of research methods, this change in thinking provided the theoretical basis for new, postpositivistic methods.

The intellectual movement that resulted from the shift away from positivism and structuralism is difficult to define, partly because postpositivism sought to avoid the kind of rational, orderly, patterned thought that makes tidy conceptual boundaries possible. In general, though, postpositivism represents a reaction against the “certainty” that forms the foundation for positivism. While it is difficult to pin postpositivism to a set of specific assumptions, postpositivists tend to share the following beliefs:

  • Difference should be celebrated not suppressed.
  • Knowledge is subjective and negotiated by people within discourse communities.
  • Making knowledge is an interpretive act

Their focus on difference leads postpositivists into areas unexplored by positivists. Instead of searching for broad patterns and general principles, postpositivistic researchers seek out what is unique. By specifying what is different and individual, they expand our understanding of ourselves as well as the subjects of their studies. They do not try to account for the behavior they observe or to generalize their data to the universe at large, but rather seek to enlarge our experience by exposing us to diversity and complexity.

Difference should be celebrated not suppressed. Postpositivists reject positivism’s preoccupation with general principles and paradigm building. Instead, postpositivists argue that patterns suppress the differences that characterize the human condition and define our existence. In fact, postpositivists see difference as key to all meaning. That is, we can make meaning only by distinguishing one thing from another in an endless cycle of comparisons and contrasts. These distinctions provide the stuff from which we define our selves and our world.

Knowledge is subjective. Postpositivism assumes that any attempt to ground knowledge outside human consciousness is futile. While postpositivists do not, of course, deny the existence of a physical world, they argue that all knowledge about that world is constructed by human consciousness through language. Because we make meaning by naming things, postpositivists understand the power of language to shape and control our understanding of the world. They tend to view knowledge-making as a rhetorical activity and are interested in the social and cultural forces that cause knowledge to be accepted or rejected.

If knowledge is subjectively experienced and socially constructed, then considerations of history and context are essential to knowledge-making activities. Postpositivists recognize that prior experience and current social contexts influence our perceptions and shape our consciousness. They point out, for example, that two witnesses to an event rarely see it in precisely the same way and that what is true in one situation may not be true in another. Postpositivists believe that other researchers are foolhardy when they attempt to “strip meaning from a context”—that is, take results from one community or case study and assume that these results can predict behavior in other communities and case studies.

Making knowledge is an interpretive act. If knowledge is constructed out of individual experience and consciousness, then knowledge-making is an act of interpretation rather than an act of discovery. Postpositivistic research, then, is not a search for some objective knowledge waiting “out there” to be discovered. For the postpositivist, research is a quest for new understandings, and the results of this quest are tentative, provisional, and contingent upon the experience and language of the researcher.

By casting knowledge-making as an interpretive act, postpositivism acknowledges the researcher’s proactive role in the research project. Decisions about what they will study, how they will study it, what constitutes evidence, and what data mean are all filtered through the researchers’ consciousness. Rather than claiming emotional objectivity, postpositivist researchers are likely to be self-conscious about their role in the research process. Postpositivists consider what effects the researcher’s presence may have on the subjects being studied and how research subjects are changed by the research project. Postpositivistic methods reject statistical measures of validity and reliability and rely instead on rich, detailed descriptions and strongly-voiced writing to persuade readers of the authenticity of their observations.

What is Scholarship?

Unlike positivists, scholars are not concerned with identifying a nonrandom order of causal relationships. They do not got out into the field or even into the laboratory to conduct objective observations. And, unlike the postpositivists, scholars are not concerned with observing behavior or with celebrating differences. Instead, scholars are concerned with texts and with dialectic—the process of reasoning correctly—to generate, test, and defend the knowledge they generate. Rather than looking outward for evidence from which to make knowledge, scholars look inward to the power of logic and rational thinking.

Demystify Research Methods

Critique research myths that may be impairing your ability to locate, evaluate, and use information.

If you are like most people, you have some definite ideas about what research is. You may envision a pale figure in a white lab coat bent over a microscope or a beaker of bubbling liquid. Perhaps you imagine this isolated and humorless figure engaged in tedious procedures, carefully recorded on graph paper or reduced to inscrutable formulas scrawled in notebooks. Given a few moments, you might expand this vision of research to include a khaki-clad archaeologist digging for relics in the desert or a tweed-jacketed professor studying musty manuscripts in a dusty corner of the library.

These visions of imaginary researchers probably seem disconnected from your personal experience with research. Your first encounter with the term “research” may have been in the form of an English class assignment that required you to write a paper of a specified number of words in which you referenced a minimum number of sources using correct bibliographic citations. You may have spent a few uncomfortable hours in the library searching for material that had some bearing on the topic of your paper, then tried to collect bits and pieces from these sources into a more-or-less coherent whole without committing an obvious act of plagiarism. As you struggled with the apparently contradictory requirements to base your paper on the work of others but say something new, you probably wondered what this assignment had to do with “research.”

Five Misconceptions About Research

None of these visions accurately represent the research process. Most people have a distorted picture of what researchers do. They tend to view research as tedious, repetitious, dull, and irrelevant to most of our immediate practical concerns. In fact, research should be the opposite. In order to envision research as interesting, exciting, and fun, you may need to dispel some common misconceptions about where research is done, who does it, and what it entails.

  • Misconception #1: Research is conducted in a laboratory.
  • Misconception #2: Research is for eggheads.
  • Misconception #3: Research has little to do with everyday life.
  • Misconception #4: Researchers across disciplines agree about what constitutes effective research.
  • Misconception #5: Researchers think, research, and then write.

Misconception #1: Research Is Conducted In A Laboratory

Whether we realize it or not, most of us have acquired our understanding of research from the images presented by popular culture. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, has provided one of the most dramatic and enduring representations of laboratory research. Contemporary films like Outbreak suggest an updated version of the researcher, still white-coated but now isolated from normal social contact by the need for extraordinary anticontamination precautions. Perhaps because it is unfamiliar and, therefore, potentially dangerous, the laboratory offers a more dramatic setting for fictional accounts than other, more accessible research environments.

Of course, some kinds of research require the controlled environments that laboratories provide. The medical research that developed the antibiotics and pain relievers your doctor prescribed that last time you had the flu was conducted in a laboratory. And most of the commercially produced consumer products you use every day–from paint to cereal to hand lotion–undergo testing and refining in some sort of laboratory. But laboratory research is only one particular kind of research.

In reality, research is conducted everywhere. You may have noticed an amiable young person with a clipboard stopping shoppers in the local mall to ask questions about their buying preferences. That person was conducting research. The best-selling account of Lewis and Clark’s explorations is the result of research, as is the Thursday night lineup of your favorite TV shows, the design of your computer desk, the pattern of the traffic flow through your neighborhood, and the location of the nearest restaurant. None of the research that produced these results was conducted in a laboratory.

If, for example, you are interested in investigating how people behave in natural situations and under normal conditions, you cannot expect to gather information in a laboratory. In other words, the questions researchers are trying to answer and the methods they select for answering these questions will determine where the research is conducted. Research is carried out wherever researchers must go to collect the information they need.

Misconception #2: Research Is for Eggheads

Just as images from popular culture have influenced our ideas about where research is conducted, pop culture has also created some persistent stereotypes of researchers. In addition to the rather demonic Dr. Frankenstein, you may also think of friendlier, if slightly addled eggheads like the professor on Gilligan’s Island, the Jerry Lewis or Eddie Murphy version of The Nutty Professor, or the laughable Disney character, Professor Ludwig von Drake. These images all reinforce the notion of researchers as absentminded eccentrics, engrossed in highly technical, specialized projects that most of us cannot understand.

However, just as research can be carried out almost anywhere, anyone can be a researcher. Asking questions about your friend’s new romance, gathering evidence of who she was seen with, making deductions based on her new style of dress, and spreading the word about your conclusions is a form of research. These activities don’t sound like research to most people because they have not been expressed in academic language. But what if the activities were organized into a research project titled “The Psychosocial Determinants of Gender Relations in Postmodern Dating Culture: A Psychoanalytic Approach”? The point, of course, is not to suggest that gossip qualifies as legitimate research but rather that everyone employs the investigative and exploitative elements of research to make sense of their lives. Research is not just for “eggheads.”

Misconception #3: Research Has Little to Do with Everyday Life

While the first two misconceptions concern where research is done and who does it, the third misconception misrepresents the subject matter of research. Because some research focuses on very narrow questions and relies on highly technical knowledge, people often assume that all research must be hard to understand and unrelated to everyday concerns.

However, research need not be difficult to understand, and research is an activity that is defined by its method, not by its subject. In other words, it is true that some significant research is difficult for nonspecialists to understand. Yet all research is valuable to the extent that it affects everyday life.

Research takes many forms, but it always entails a search, conducted carefully and diligently, aimed at the discovery and interpretation of new knowledge. Thus, how you go about gathering information, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and sharing results determines whether your activities qualify as research. Sometimes these activities will be informal, spontaneous, and intuitive, as when you infer that your friend has a new romance or when you read reviews in a computer magazine before purchasing new software. In school and in the workplace, where results are disseminated and evaluated by others, research is likely to be more formal. Regardless of its final form, however, whenever you systematically gather information for the purpose of generating new knowledge, you are conducting research.

Misconception #4: Researchers Across Disciplines Agree About What Constitutes Effective Research

Academic disciplines—for example, mathematics, psychology, physics, engineering, or business—have different ways of conducting and evaluating research. An anthropologist’s account of kinship patterns in a tribe of Native Americans bears almost no resemblance to a cognitive psychologist’s investigation of sensory responses to light stimuli. Even within a particular academic discipline, researchers may disagree over what makes good research.

Not only do people disagree about appropriate methods of research, but their ideas may change over time. Conceptions about knowledge, available technologies, and research practices influence each other and change constantly. For example, capturing gorillas and studying them in cages might have been considered good research in the 1920s. The work of later researchers like Dian Fossey, however, demonstrated how animals might be better understood in their natural environment. Today, research based on observations of wild animals in captivity would gain little support or interest.

Because no one way of doing research is equally acceptable to all researchers in all academic disciplines, researchers must select the methodology that will be most persuasive to their readers.

Misconception #5: Researchers Think, Research, and Then Write

When you first begin a research project, you are wise to integrate writing activities with research activities. Unfortunately, many people wrongly separate the research process from the writing process. They naively assume they should first think about a topic, identify a research question, research it, and then—after all of the excitement is drained from the project—write it up. Rather than using the generative power of writing (that is, our ability to generate new ideas by writing) to help define and energize a research project, some people delay writing until after they have completed the research. Waiting to write about a research project until you’re done researching may waste your time and can result in dull, listless prose.

You can save time and ensure that your research is focused by writing summaries of others’ research, by writing drafts of your research goals, and by writing about the results you hope to find before you find them. In the process, you will eliminate vague or contradictory ideas you may have about your project.

Incorporating writing into your research activities helps you identify your rhetorical situation and define your readers’ priorities. Writing about your project in its early stages gives you time to develop ways of describing your research that are comprehensible and interesting to your audience. As you redraft and revise, your writing—and your thinking—will become clearer, more precise, and thus more credible.

We can all take a lesson in the importance of making your research your own from Gary Starkweather, who built a laser printer that made billions of dollars for Xerox and helped change the way business is done all over the world. The experience taught him several things:

It’s better to try and fail than to decide something can’t be done and not try at all. Research is a place where failure should be, if not encouraged, at least viewed as a sign that something’s happening. Uncertainty is bad for manufacturing, but essential for research.

Believe in your own ideas and don’t trim your sails just to be popular with your colleagues. Howard Aiken, inventor of the first digital computer, said: “If it’s truly a good idea, you’ll have to jam it down their throats.”

Be open to suggestion. Often someone who hasn’t stared at a problem until they went cross-eyed has the fresh view that can solve it. The best way to a breakthrough is constant small improvement — those waiting for the big break are just lazy; they’re waiting to be teleported to the top of the hill instead of walking.

Source: Gary Starkweather Profile

You might want to try some of the following:

In a couple of paragraphs describe a research project or a paper you have written in the past that you felt was interesting, fun, or successful. Try to identify what made the project appealing. Why did it spark your interest? Did you develop the idea yourself, did someone help you, or was it assigned? How did your readers respond to your work? Why do you think they acted that way? Do you feel it might be worthwhile to build on the work you completed earlier by digging deeper into the subject? In what ways did your attitude influence the way you conducted and wrote your research? How can you take advantage of your experience in order to enjoy future projects? What additional misconceptions about research can you identify?

To develop a better understanding of the research process, maintain a journal of your activities and thoughts while you conduct a research project.

Textual Research

by Joe Moxley

Research is defined by many academic disciplines, such as English or History, as primarily a textual process.  In other words, some researchers (commonly called “scholars”) focus on texts—that is, on responding to them, critiquing them, or in rereading them with a particular theory in mind, such as Capitalism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, Deconstruction, Modernism, Postmodernism. Additionally, scholars can develop their work in response to everyday experiences, issues in the popular culture, the media, and the Internet. Beyond debate and logic, scholars lack a way to prove one idea or approach is superior to any other.

Trained in the traditions and methods of Western humanism, scholars rely on dialectic, seeking knowledge via the deliberate confrontation of opposing viewpoints. This emphasis on dialectic is sometimes referred to as the ceaseless debate, a cycle of interpretation and reinterpretation. The knowledge scholars generate is often about the meaning of texts, derived from the act of reading, articulated as critical analysis, and refined by dialectic. For example, historians argue about the best ways to interpret a body of texts. Critics argue about which theory provides the most worthwhile reading of the canon—that is, a privileged set of texts. Philosophers argue about a philosopher’s ideas or about a body of texts that advocate a particular philosophical position.

In addition to focusing on texts—what they mean, how they should be read—scholars develop ideas by responding to, and drawing on, their personal experiences as well as ideas found in the media. In other words, scholars can address topics that emerge from their everyday experiences as a member of a culture. Rather than relying on observations of the empirical world and developing or testing hypotheses, scholars are engaged in the great debate—a never-ending dialectic about ideas. Unlike the methodologies informed by Positivism, scholars lack a way to prove or disprove their positions. Ultimately, scholars are more concerned with participating in the great debate, the scholarly exchange of ideas, as opposed to presuming that truth will one day be found so the debate will need to come to an end. Scholars make meaning by discussing texts and by applying theories to create new readings of texts.

At modern research universities, scholars tend to reside in departments in such departments as English, American Studies, Philosophy, and History. However, all disciplines rely on a scholarly methodology when they conduct debates about ideas, texts, and events. Additionally, some of the activities of scholars appear within the methodologies of other research communities that appear within — especially the ability to summarize and paraphrase the work of others and the ability to dissect and critique the reasoning of other writers.

Across academic disciplines, scholars have developed unique ways to contribute knowledge. Historians, for example, practice a different version of scholarship than philosophers or critics. Historians tend to use a narrative structure, while philosophers and critics prefer an argumentative structure. In contrast to historians and philosophers, critics are concerned with establishing a body of texts (i.e. a canon) for interpretation, interpreting those texts, and generating theories about both of these activities.

Important Concepts

well-constructed argument

research always begins with the goal of answering a question

primary research

secondary research

most research projects completed by students in writing classes

positivistic methodologies


Plato, Aristotle, Socrates


dialectic process

scholarly inquiry







ethnographic knowledge


natural sciences

postpositivists tend to share the following beliefs:

making knowledge

misconceptions about where research is done, who does it, and what it entails

academic disciplines


scholars rely on

Reviewing and Analyzing Your Sources provided by Lumen Learning Located at  Original webtexts published by Writing Commons are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
The Process of Research Writing | Steven D. Krause | Spring 2007 | Located Home     image

Survey Academic Research Communities, Demystify Research Methods, Understand Opposing Research Ideologies, Textual Research Authored by Joe Moxley Located Original webtexts published by Writing Commons are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License



Works Cited

Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky, Eds. Introduction. Ways of Reading. 8th Ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.

Brent, Douglas. 1992. Reading as Rhetorical Invention. NCTE, Urbana, Illinois. Cimino-Hurt, Alex. Personal Interview. 2003.

Martin, Janette. 2004. “Developing „Interesting Thoughts:‟ Reading for Research.” In Research Writing Revisited: A Sourcebook for Teachers, eds. Pavel Zemliansky and Wendy Bishop, Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. (3-13).

Rich, Adrienne. 2002. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” In Ways of Reading, 6th ed. Eds. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Bedford/St. Martin‟s Boston, (627-645).





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