Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

8.2 Formulating a question

When you make your own enquiries you draw on your existing knowledge of a discipline or subject area and decide on a specific question to explore; a question that is relevant to some aspect of the subject and which interests you. That means you must have some understanding of what the important questions and issues are in your subject area, and why they are important. In other words, you must have acquired appropriate ‘frameworks for thinking’ within it. That background ensures that your topic is a significant one, from the outset. And, later on, it enables you to show why your investigation matters and just what it contributes to an understanding of the wider subject.

It is very important to be clear about what you are setting out to do, and not to be too ambitious. If you start from an interest in a broad issue in, say, social history – such as ‘how independent broadcasting has developed’ – you need to narrow this down to a more precise enquiry that is manageable within the time and word limits set for the project. One way of doing that is to take a case-study approach: to focus your enquiry mainly on a particular independent broadcasting company – let's say London Weekend Television (LWT). So your topic then is ‘The development of London Weekend Television company’.

But it is most helpful if you actually put the enquiry to yourself as a question rather than a ‘topic heading’: for example, ‘What factors influenced the development of LWT?’, rather than ‘The development of LWT’. The question focuses and channels your enquiries by forcing you to seek out some ‘answers’ to it. You must analyse the factors involved and explain and justify your conclusions. Working from the topic heading, it is all too easy to meander around the issues in a rather aimless way and, ultimately, find yourself on the receiving end of the project marker's most common complaints: ‘Failed to relate project work to the wider context. Didn't use the information: too descriptive, not enough analysis and explanation.’

Focusing your research

Whatever subject you are interested in – music, art, literature, a particular period/place (such as Classical Rome) – you must try to define a ‘do-able’ project for yourself. If you are comparing the work of two composers or novelists, for instance, you cannot hope to look at all their work. And you cannot explore every aspect of an historical period, or of its art or literature. You have to be selective. But how do you know what to select, what to focus on?

This is where your knowledge of the broad subject-area comes in. When you are fairly familiar with a subject you know what the important questions and debates are within it. These are what your enquiry should contribute to in some way.

You don't do research just for the sake of it, or to find out everything it is possible to know about D.H. Lawrence or Buddy Holly. You enquire into something because your particular and detailed work will shed light on some issue of more general importance within the subject.

While you are reading around the subject, and the question you will explore is taking shape, you need to make preliminary enquiries into what resources are available to you. If you cannot easily get hold of the main primary sources you need then you will have to re-define the enquiry and make changes to your research question. In the case of LWT, it might be difficult to get hold of the kinds of internal reports, papers and memos that document the company's development and may be held in a private archive. You will certainly need permission to use the archive and you need to seek it as soon as possible. You will also need access to the government reports and back numbers of newspapers that provide information about the context of public policy and opinion within which the company's decisions were made. If you ask, you may find you can use the reference section of any university library (though not borrow its books). And a library may be able to get books for you through interlibrary loan schemes. But if this primary source material turns out to be too difficult or impossible to access then you will have to alter your plans. Making these kinds of enquiries early on enables you to change the direction of your work before you have invested too much time in the project.

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