Research and Respect: 3 Things to Remember as You Study
The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams (University of Chicago Press, 2008) contains a wealth of information for scholars seeking to do their research with excellence. The writers offer practical suggestions on how to find a topic, start a draft, support one’s claims, and maintain the interest of the reader.
Due to its informative scope and instructional nature, this book is difficult to summarize succinctly, much less interact with at a personal level. But most of the authors’ advice can be summed up in three simple principles that guide the researcher’s task. Though research is often done in solitude, the process itself inevitably involves a three-way conversation between the researcher, the researcher’s colleagues, and the researcher’s readers.
In reviewing The Craft of Research, I will highlight a few suggestions under the general principles of respecting your readers, respecting your fellow researchers, and respecting your own role and purpose during the process.
1. Respect Your Readers
A good researcher always keeps the reader in mind. Research papers are more than just requirements for a degree; we write them as a service to our readers.
To respect your readers, you must first know who they are. As a researcher, you need a general idea of who will pick up your paper and consider its claims.
“Just as we judge a writer as we read, so a writer must judge his readers, but before he writes,” the authors say (17).
It is important to not presume that your reader will care about your research, even if the readers you envision would be naturally interested in the subject. Instead, good researchers make plain the reasons why a reader ought to care. We go about the task with the question of “So what?” always in the back of our mind (47). Therefore:
“The first question an experienced researcher should ask about a problem is not Can I solve it? but Will readers think it should be?” (64).
As important as the “So What?” question is, we must go beyond providing for our readers an answer without regard to form. Respecting the reader means we will make the delivery of the answer as interesting as possible.
The introduction of the paper should seize the attention of the reader by promising an answer to a pressing problem. The body of the paper should be written with the reader’s interest in view. Better for our readers to come to the end of our work and disagree with our conclusions than to never reach the end due to loss of interest (232).
It is true that the crafting of research can be tedious at times, but our writing need not be. “Our dense writing indicates not the irreducible difficulty of a work of genius,” write Booth, Colomb, and Williams, “but the sloppy thinking of a writer indifferent to his readers” (250).
Though keeping the reader in mind may seem like an undue burden for researchers, this practice actually helps us accomplish our work more effectively. Envisioning our reader reminds us that the goal of our work is to serve others.
Furthermore, the discipline of considering our readers helps us become more skilled at the art of conversation. “When you write for others, you demand more of yourself than when you write for yourself alone,” the authors say (13). By keeping others in mind, our task is given proper shape. In every report, we seek to “make a claim, back it with reasons, support them with evidence, acknowledge and respond to other views, and sometimes explain your principles of reasoning” (108).
Showing deference to our readers will lead us to make concessions at times and thereby legitimize others’ views (145). Too often, we put forth a claim with “arrogant certainty” and unwittingly undercut our own argument (127). Instead, we should recognize that our relationship with the reader provides a challenge to reader and researcher alike. We are involved in a give-and-take relationship, an interaction that strengthens our argumentation.
To challenge the reader, we must explain the significance of the proposal and consider how many beliefs the reader will need to change, should our proposal be convincing (124). In being challenged by our readers, we must put ourselves in their shoes and put our argument through their wringer, fully anticipating and answering the major objections they might raise (142).
2. Respect Your Fellow Researchers
A second principle that guides the craft of research is respect for one’s fellow researchers, the scholars who have laid a foundation for our research as well as contemporary scholars who are interested in similar subjects. Research is a community project.
“The knowledge we all rely on depends on the quality of research that supports it and the accuracy of its reporting” (4).
Erecting a shoddy frame upon a solid foundation is disrespectful to the builders who have gone before us. For this reason, we should pay careful attention to the facts employed to back up our claims. Never should we shape the facts or manipulate their presentation in a way that tilts the force of an argument in our favor (135).
A good way to respect fellow researchers is to “read your argument as someone who has a stake in a different outcome – who wants you to be wrong” (140). In interacting with scholars who disagree, it is important to read charitably and not “against the grain.” Some researchers latch on to certain qualifications or concessions that are admittedly not central to an author’s argument in order to claim the author’s work as additional support (98). This kind of research disrespects the reader and fellow researcher alike.
One of the primary ways we can respect fellow researchers is through the careful quotation of sources. As a rule of thumb, we should summarize when all we need is the point of the passage, paraphrase when we can be clearer than the original, and record exact quotations when they come from an authority that adds weight to our claim (97). Likewise, we should cite sources as a way of honoring fellow scholars “by acknowledging your intellectual debts” (196).
3. Respect Yourself and Your Purpose.
The Craft of Research is aptly titled. This kind of work is indeed a craft, which means that as researchers, we can and should seek to improve our skills. It is important to respect our own abilities and keep the purpose of research at the forefront of our minds.
Booth, Colomb, and Williams advise the researcher to write a little bit every day and do what is necessary to improve one’s critical thinking skills (33). As we go about our work, we must respect the purpose of research enough to submit to evidence even when it contradicts our intended and anticipated answer. Though it may be easy to only read sources in a way that affirms our point of view, we must remain open to research that challenges our weak points (84). This is, after all, the point of our work: to “gather information to answer a question that solves a problem” (10).
As we begin the research process, we should consider whether the problem under consideration is practical or conceptual. A practical problem will be resolved by recommending a course of action. A conceptual problem will be resolved by adding to our present understanding. For this reason, the answer to a practical problem is called “applied research” while the answer to a conceptual problem is called “pure research” (53).
In respecting the purpose for our work, we must prioritize primary sources, the “raw data” most relevant to the topic at hand. Secondary sources utilize primary data, while tertiary sources summarize the results of secondary sources for general readers. All three kinds of sources can be helpful, but the bulk of our time should be spent with primary sources. The Internet can be a terrific place to discover primary source materials, but ought to be regarded with suspicion when it comes to secondary and tertiary sources (77-80).
One of the most important ways to respect yourself during the research process is to remember that your views on the subject are important. Some researchers will throw together a number of scholarly opinions on a given subject without ever making their own views known.
Booth, Colomb, and Williams issue a good reminder, that “readers want your analysis, not a summary of your sources” (178). The purpose for your research is to put forth your own point of view. After all, what is the point of writing unless you believe your claims to be true and your argument to be sound enough to change others’ opinions on the matter (106)? Whenever we forget the purpose of our writing, our proposal loses relevance and becomes less convincing.
The Craft of Research is full of practical advice for those who want to engage in the research process carefully, effectively, and persuasively. Following the instructions in this book will enable researchers to avoid common pitfalls while doing research. Our work ought to be characterized by respect and consideration: for our readers, for our fellow researchers, and for ourselves.