Monday, September 5, 2011

Conducting Multifaceted Research

As writers, one of our primary tasks is to bring together disparate types of information, analyze them, and then present them to our readers as a coherent (and complete) narrative.  To do this, we first need research our subjects from several different angles.

Multifaceted Research - Sharing Information Online

The Genres of Research: Reliability in the Information Age
As should be expected for a genre studies course, we'll be considering many "genres" of research.  Some of these genres will involve the source of your information, whether it comes from online sources or hard-copy library materials, or whether it was produced by an impartial observer or rather someone with a vested interest your opinion.  Others will involve the type of information shared, whether you're looking at first-hand personal accounts, second-hand news articles, or perhaps government statistics.  Finally, you'll need to consider the genre of the document itself (e.g. police reports, wedding announcements, college admission essays).

Each of these considerations should be part of determining the reliability of your sources.  Generally, published hard-copy materials such as books, newspapers, and magazines are considered reliable because they are edited and peer-reviewed, but you should still consider who is publishing them and why.  Online sources show extremes of reliability, ranging from the intense peer-editing of Wikipedia to the unsolicited opinions offered by many blogs and Facebook posts - you'll need to judge how each source may fit within your research and whether you can include it without a disclaimer.

The Focus of Research: Capturing Every Angle
A journalist tries to present all sides of a story in order to present an "unbiased" view of the story.  Unfortunately, no one is completely without bias - in our research, the goal is not to minimize bias, but rather to discover where the biases lie and to see how they affect our perceptions of a story.  In order to do this, we need to find research materials which provide overlapping information of differing scope and perspective.
Zooming-Out: Statistics
Number-crunching is a popular pasttime in the modern age. Good statistics can help you see the "big picture" for a phenomenon. But be careful not to depend too much on statistics for understanding personal experience - as a rule, you should avoid generalizations. Each case is different. And although statistics are usually reliable as numbers, note that a correlation between two effects doesn't necessarily imply causality.

The Mid-Range: Cultural Analysis
Commonplace events - even statistically rare events, assuming they happen often enough to be reported - affect our culture. Reports of shark attacks will affect the number of tourists visiting a beach, and a case of food poisoning may lead to a restaurant shutting down. Good cultural analysis provides a mix of personal perspectives and generalizations. However, some organizations will skew their cultural analysis in order to persuade people to adopt a particular point of view.

Close-Up: Personal Perspectives
Riveting stories of personal encounters with the "dangerous unknown" are often the most interesting forms of information. We want to know not only what's happening in the world, but how it might change our own lives. Just watch out for exaggerations, embellishment, and "missing" data (e.g. the person missed certain details or omitted information in order to hide personal shortcomings.)

Scientific Close-Up: Biology, Psychology, and the Chemistry of Your Gut
Want to get inside your subject's brain? Well, now you can. With the wonders of the scalpel, fMRI, and the prevalence of antidepressants, we now know more about the inner workings of the human body than ever before. The downside, though, is that we don't always know how exactly to apply this knowledge or what it might mean for our conclusions.

Organizing Your Research: Crafting a Coherent Narrative
As intelligent beings, we crave order. We are always looking to better understand how one event affects another. In telling a story - whether fiction, nonfiction, or something in-between - you want your reader to come away with a feeling of having learned something new. You want your reader to follow your line of reasoning from the beginning to the end.

In order to accomplish this, you'll want to first organize your information based on causality. Here are three major categories of how events lead to other events - I recommend selecting the one of these and then arranging your data points based on where the information would be most relevant.
Linear
Sometimes causality is linear - a man is struck by lightening, he then starts having seizures, and then he leaves school. (Note that other factors are almost always at work, too, but events happen in chronological order.)

Cultural
Other times, causality is more cultural - a girl is surrounded by images of anorexic super-models, one of her friends has given up eating, and now she is living with the dilemma of how to continue the friendship.

"The Perfect Storm"
Often, we're most fascinated when multiple events come together all at once to create "the perfect storm." We've seen this phenomenon recently in the economy: many people took out loans they couldn't afford, insurance companies created policies to cover housing market defaults, and then the economy tanked as thousands of homeowners defaulted on their debts.
Sharing Your Research
Organization is a critical component for making sense of your research - it's even more important when you reach the step of sharing that research with others.  Once you've found a logical way to arrange and share your research, go ahead and Share It On Your Project Blog.


Multifaceted Research - Sharing Information Online
 

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