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POL 399: Frontiers of Federalism: Research As Conversation

Research as Conversation

Research is a conversation. People (scholars / citizens / activists / interested parties / students / corporations / governments / nonprofits, etc.) are having conversations about your topic. These conversations can be found in the scholarly literature, as well as other formats like conferences, white papers, blogs, etc. As a researcher, your job is to access, explore and evaluate the conversation as it occurs in these sources. Once you understand the shape of the conversation, you can contribute your own thoughts and voice.

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 appropriate Research Guides to start some initial searches of the literature
  • Talk with your professor about ways you can develop the topic & sources you should consider
  • Consult with a librarian via Reference Services 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?    


Explore the Conversation

Explore the Conversation - Once you've started to turn your topic into a research question or hypothesis, you'll have a clearer sense of the conversation. You'll have an idea of what you want to explore further & what questions you want to ask related to the topic. 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 appropriate Research Guides to identify additional places to search
  • Tracking Down Materials will help you find hard copies of sources 
  • Skim/browse the sources you find. What specialized terms appear? Search for sources using those terms.  
  • Look at how the sources define the scope of the topic to 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.
  • Talk with a librarian and your professor for pointers on where and how to search. Your professor might have specific scholars to recommend.
  • Do a bibliographic trace to find more sources. This is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to search.

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?

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.

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