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A Guide to Law: Research As Conversation

Research as Conversation

Research isn’t about finding X# of sources for a paper.  Research is really a conversation.  People (students / professors / citizens / activists / interested parties / corporations /governments / nonprofits, etc.) are having conversations about your topic.  Your job is to access, explore and evaluate the conversation as it happens between all of these sources.  Then you’ll be able to contribute your own thoughts and voice.

 

1. Enter the Conversation:  Ask yourself these questions:  What interests me about my topic?  What do I already know about it?  Can I identify key aspects of the topic, like important places, dates, events, philosophies?

  • Browse class readings, Wikipedia, reference books for more background information
  • Consult the Research Guides (find the one for your department and/or class) to start some inital searches of the literature
  • Talk with your professor about ways you can develop the topic & sources you should consider
  • Talk with a librarian at the Reference Desk about useful reference books, books & articles
  • Brainstorm with your classmates to get their take on how you might explore your topic further
  • Continue to ask yourself what interests you about the topic. What do you want to pursue? 

CHECK IN:   Sketch out the overall scope of your topic:  do you understand the broad topic enough so you develop a focused research question?  Discover who’s having conversations about your topic:  who are the major scholars or experts in the field?  Identify terms and jargons those experts use: what keywords can you use to search for more information?    

 

2. Explore the Conversation:  By now you’ve taken your topic and are starting to turn it into a research question or hypothesis. At the very least, you have an idea of what you want to explore further & what questions you want to ask related to the topic. (And don't worry about having the question set in stone before you start doing research. Research is also a conversation between you and your sources & your topic/question.

  • Start tracking down sources by searching the library catalog and library databases. Refer to the Research Guides you used in step 1 (above) to identify recommended places to search 
    • Use the Tracking Down Materials tab above to navigate the complex world of locating hard copies of sources in an electronic world
  • Skim/browse the sources you find. Look at how the researchers define the topic. Are they using specialized terms to describe the topic? Use those terms in databases & catalogs to find more relevant materials
  • Look at how the sources define the scope of the topic. This might help you determine if your research question is too broad or too narrow for your topic. We all tend to start our research questions too broad. It's fine to edit and refine.
  • Talk with a librarian and your professor during this stage as well for pointers on where and how to search. Your professor might have specific scholars to recommend
  • Once you have a few solid sources that speak to you and your topic, use them to find other related sources. This way of searching is known as a Bibliographic Trace or a Cited References Search. It is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to search. Use the Bibliographic Trace tab (above) for instructions and tips

CHECK IN:  Can you answer these questions:  How are experts discussing your topic?  What themes do they consider?  What common questions do people debate?  What is the scope of the topic? (Are scholars discussing your entire topic or pieces of it?)  Who is having the conversation – are you seeing the same names mentioned in the citations again and again?

 

 

3. Next Steps:  Once you can articulate the major aspects of the research conversation surrounding your topic, you’re ready to add your voice to the topic and contribute meaningfully to the conversation.  Pay attention to the assignment prompt, talk with your professor and visit the Writing Center for help integrating sources.  Brainstorm ideas with a librarian. Use the Cite Your Sources link on the library’s homepages for information about formatting citations.

 

Librarian

Julie Gilbert's picture
Julie Gilbert
Contact:
I love meeting with students and faculty to talk about your research, including any issues you have - or even if you just want to brainstorm. There are lots of ways to reach me. Email me with questions or use the old fashioned phone number below to contact me. Or stop by during my reference/office hours: Wednesdays from 2:30 - 4:30 and Thursdays from 1:00 - 2:30. I'll either be in my office (Library 108B on the lower level) or the reference desk on the main floor.
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