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A Guide to Political Science: Research As Conversation

Explore the Conversation

Above all, research is a conversation. People are having conversations about your topic. These conversations can be found in the scholarly literature, as well as other formats. 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 ideas. 

As you 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. As you read more sources, you'll further refine and develop your questions. Remember that research is also a conversation between you and your sources & your topic/question.

To start exploring the research conversation:

  • 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.
  • Talk with a librarian and your professor for pointers on where and how to search. Your professor might have specific scholars to recommend. A librarian can recommend ways and places to search.

CHECK IN:  Are you able to 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?

Conducting a Bibliographic Trace

After you've explored the conversation and identified some relevant works and authors, you're ready to do a bibliographic trace. Within your sources, pay attention to what the author of a useful source says about other scholars in the field. Most scholarly articles and books have a section where they discuss the scholars that impacted their own present work. Look for phrases like "So and so is a key leader in the field" or "So and so's methodology impact our work in significant ways" or "We disagree with so and so in these ways." You will also want to browse the works cited to see if any titles jump out at you.

Once you've mined your source for additional sources, track them down. This is how you trace the conversation happening around your topic. By tracing cited works, you will find connections that you might otherwise miss. You will discover the patterns of the conversation around your topic. This is the way most scholars search for sources, so if you also search this way, you'll be searching in a very sophisticated and informed manner.

How to do a bibliographic trace: Search for cited books by title or author in library catalogs; for journal articles, check the Do We Have This Journal by journal name to see if we have the full text of an article. Some databases also include features telling you how often a work has been cited. Use Tracking Down Materials for more pointers on how to find hard copies. Please also contact any librarian if you need help at any point of this process.

You can (and should) also go forward in time to see who has cited your original source.

  • To see who has cited a work since it was published - enter your original source in Google Scholar and look for the Cited By link underneath the information about the source.
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