Last week I posted the first in a series of posts contributed by Master’s students in a research methodology module I taught this past semester. Their final assignment was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of the learning or engagement in the course that represented a kind of ‘aha’ moment or challenge they are working on. This second post is from Jodie Bougaard, who is researching Russia’s cyber-meddling in the 2016 US elections.
As a master’s student in the process of designing my study, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time engaging with literature related to my area of interest. Throughout the preliminary stages of thinking about my study, I’ve encountered challenges in this regard. I wondered if I was doing a sufficient amount of reading; identifying key themes in the material I engaged with and if it was relevant to my proposed research. Conventional wisdom suggests that conducting a sound literature review at the outset of the research design is essential not only to formulate a hypothesis and research questions but also to broaden your knowledge base as a researcher and identify gaps in the existing discourse.
With this in mind, I proceeded to read and scrutinise any material I could find, waiting to have a grand epiphany about what the original ‘angle’ on my research would be or what I could add to the academic conversation. I had already identified an area of interest and developed key research questions. My chosen topic relates to electoral interference in the U.S. election in 2016. I knew that I needed to identify the key themes throughout my literature, organise concepts in accordance with the key themes, and create a general structure for my inquiry. In practice, I was still spending an inordinate amount of time reading, searching for the grand knowledge gap, which continually eluded me. I began feeling that I was using my time unproductively, and this realisation induced anxiety. If you are an inexperienced researcher like me, it is not always easy to see what’s missing and it can be discouraging to read large volumes of material and not have any ‘a-ha’ moments along the way.
As a remedy to this angst, I have realigned how I approached literature by developing insight into what kind of reading I was doing. I started by going back to the beginning, reading as an objective viewer or a passive receiver of information. Instead of frantically trying to identify gaps in existing knowledge from the outset (which puts a considerable amount of pressure on you as a researcher) I found that reading to familiarise myself with material related to my study was a far more effective use of my time in working on my proposal. I didn’t force myself to evaluate the author’s arguments or the underlying assumptions of their propositions straight away. I know that critical engagement occurs further along the process, and through critical engagement knowledge gaps would emerge. In some cases, such as mine, knowledge-gaps may not be quite so apparent. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I understand the aim of pursuing a master’s degree not to necessarily to produce the most original and exciting or innovative study, but rather to demonstrate competency as a researcher. Through proper research of any subject you can build upon existing knowledge, which is still a valid contribution to your chosen discipline.
So, I collected literature, categorised it using a reading journal and qualified it in the context of my study. This process made reading in the preliminary stages far more pleasurable experience. I stopped stock-piling papers to read in future as doing so only fuelled my core belief that I was not reading enough. Instead, I skimmed abstracts and introductions, bookmarking papers I wanted like to read when I had sufficient time. I found that doing this daily over a three-month period provided an extensive reading catalogue, where I was building my own library or repository.
I have learned to distinguish between the types of reading I am doing. I am growing to understand that there is room for focused, critical and intentional reading; however, there is also a time for general and unconstrained reading. Much like writing, there are variations, each with their own merits. Writing should reflect academic rigour and express critical insights; however, it’s also useful to do freewriting exercises throughout the research design process. Similarly, reading can also be approached in this manner. Designing a study isn’t a linear process. Making notes or distilling themes and concepts in the literature becomes less arduous when you allow room for exploration through reading. Understanding which kind of reading you’re doing helps lift the fog of confusion and resultant panic that emerges when you read without thinking. Reading comprehensively means casting a wide net and then making conscious choices to either consume or discard what has been collected. Reading thoroughly means engaging with material within a narrow and deep construct, and through this finite scope, expertise is developed. The latter cannot occur without the former. Thus, I am not suggesting that anyone should read indiscriminately. I am, however, stating that building a knowledge base necessitates reading extensively to develop a sound background understanding of any topic.
By the time I completed my literature review, my research had become a case study situated within a larger conversation about meddling as a foreign policy strategy. I certainly did not anticipate structuring my study in this way. Prior to engaging properly with literature, I had entirely different working questions, none of which considered meddling as a foreign policy strategy. My point is that reading is not merely a means to an end. What I included in my literature review didn’t represent the extent of the material I had spent previous weeks reviewing. Adopting a mindset which prioritises reading as a fundamental part of your responsibility as a researcher, with no apparent start and end point, alleviates some of the stress associated with what to read and how to engage with literature. And adapting your reading journal to enable different kinds of reading, note-taking and organisation can help you in this process.