The Research Process
The process of developing a research project is rarely linear and can have a number of different starting points.
That said, it is often the case that things get going with the experience of being captivated by some element of a primary text. You come across a passage or even a sentence, encounter a bit of dialogue or exposition, and realize that it has some special resonance. It raises questions, clarifies or upends your prior understanding of the text, giving you the sense that it is worth further thought and exploration. There seems to be meaning there that relates to broader themes and questions that motivate the text.
The next step, then, is to determine the kind of topics that are relevant to your investigation. You may start from a large topic such as “Religion” but as you consult sources and think through your ideas further you will want to make your focus more particular. So, to use the example of “Religion,” you may deepen your engagement with this topic by honing in on a more specific topic such as “sacred rituals.”
Developing a research project is a matter of connecting your ideas about a primary text with an existing scholarly conversation. It is an iterative process that involves moving back and forth between the text and the scholarship with the aim of producing rigorous and original work.
As you go through this process, here are some questions you should keep in mind:
- Scope — can the argument(s) you seek to make be adequately unfolded in the space allotted for the essay?
- Originality — does your research offer new insights on your topic? This doesn't mean that your idea must be disconnected from everything that's been written on your topic before—in fact, it should be connected—but you also don't want to tread the exact same ground that's covered by the published literature. Think about how your idea can extend, contradict, or amplify existing research.
- Relevance — does the question or problem that you seek to address relate to something of concern to scholars in the field?