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Stefan's Florilegium


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Crit-Research-art - 9/5/97

"Getting the Most Out of Your Research" by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.

NOTE: See also the files: teaching-msg, local-hist-msg.


This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanıs Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous

Getting the Most Out of Your Research
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

It's easy to do research for the first time. Just go down to the library,
check out a few books, make some notes and some pertinent xeroxes, and youıre
done, right? But it's taking that next step which proves difficult for many
people and which ends up turning some people off of advanced research forever.
This is the point at which the researcher stops simply copying down all that he
or she sees in books as being absolutely true and starts being critical.

Developing a critical eye is a declaration of independence. You are
saying, in essence, that it is no longer good enough for you to trust absolutely
what the author of a book says. The critical reader begins to appreciate the
value of a good argument backed up by evidence, and thus becomes intimately
involved in the research process, rather than acting as a passive recipient of
knowledge. Once one develops the skills of critical thinking, they can be
applied, with a little work, to any discipline.

At the introductory level, critical thinking involves a lot of common
sense. For instance, if someone hands you a glass of what they say is water and
what your nose tells you is concentrated sulfuric acid, you're not going to
drink it, are you? If you can pass that test, you can start learning to think
critically. For SCA research, a second component must be added: reading
everything in your subject area you can get your hands on. I still remember
about a year ago a friend of mine passing around a newsletter done by a non-SCA
special interest group devoted to the Middle Ages. In it was an article on
medieval food which asserted that all medieval food was ground to a pulp and was
all either terribly bland or overspiced to cover up the fact that the meat was
invariably rotten. (The cooks who are reading this, and probably most of you,
are at this point stifling a giggle). The problem? The author of the article had
gotten all of his information out of one coffee-table book, which he took as an
authority because the writer of the book sounded like he knew what he was
talking about. A little more research and a bit of common sense could have
helped immensely.

I mentioned a moment ago that thinking critically involves what I call
"active research". In other words, you do not just read the words and look at
the pictures; but rather look at the whole picture. First, you check the
authorıs background. What kind of training does he or she have? How long ago
was the book written? And for SCA purposes, if a practical skill is under
discussion, you might also want to ask whether the author has tried the skill in
question. ( I think a good many of the errors made by authors of books on
costume over the years are due in part to the fact that some of them hadn't a
clue as to the way fabric actually works).

The next step is to examine the evidence the author uses. It isnıt enough
that the author sounds like an authority, or even that he or she has the
credentials to prove it. Are there footnotes or an index in the book, or does
the author simply state things without providing proof? Is the author relying
on the works of others (not necessarily a bad thing, just an indication that
there might be more books you should have a look at)? For pictorial evidence,
is the original source cited? If line drawings are used, are you told what
original they are drawn from (once again, line drawings are not necessarily bad,
but ARE heavily dependent on the skill of the artist in rendering what he or she
sees accurately)? Ask questions. Make the author prove his or her point, and
if he or she cannot do so, do not blindly accept his or her word as truth.
Continue your own research, and see if the evidence YOU find supports or rejects
the author's hypothesis.

The third step is the process of comparison. This is the most time-
consuming step, and is why I recommend that you read every book you can find
on your subject, even the ones which everyone else says are "bad". It is very
difficult to develop an eye for good evidence and a good argument unless you
know what skimpy evidence or a badly-constructed argument looks like. Few books
are completely error free, and by the same token, few books are completely
without value. Sometimes authors get in over their heads for a chapter or two
in an otherwise brilliant work; the process of comparison will help you learn
to recognize this when it happens.

When you exhaust the books available on your subject, broaden your search.
For costume, for instance, after youıve looked at the available histories of
costume, you could start looking at facsimile manuscripts and books on art and
sculpture. You could start reading books on the textile industry so as to begin
to appreciate the way fabric was made. You could look at period literature for
references to what people wore. You could even start looking into household
accounts to get an idea of how much fabric cost and what kinds of items were
purchased each year. You could also start looking into related fields--for
clothing, you might look at accessories, such as shoes and jewelry. Once you
become fairly learned in your subject area, youıll even start to notice non-
traditional sources--such as works of fiction and childrenıs books--which are
solidly researched and therefore quite useful.

One tip I might suggest is to keep a loose-leaf binder of useful material.
If you can't afford to buy, say, that wonderful book on jewellery youıve got out
from the library, xerox the parts most pertinent to you, note the source on the
first page, and put them in the binder. This will help you to build a pictoral
library and will allow you to make critical comparisons simply by flipping
through the binder. This works for non-pictoral sources as well; I made such a
binder once when I was preparing to write a paper on medieval English widows.
Such a binder will also come in VERY handy if you ever want to enter an Arts and
Sciences competition that requires documentation--so much easier than having to
retrace your steps and find all of those books a second time!
Comparison also means talking with your fellow researchers, be they
beginners or seasoned explorers. This is the perfect time to float theories
you're developing, to share the results of practical experience, and to trade
information. Every researcher is different. Some are better at the "bookish"
end of the research equation, while others excel in the "doing" end. Others
still will have seen books you haven't , or will bring a different perspective
into the picture. Take, for instance, the study of medieval coins. The economic
historian will discuss them in the context of the exchange of goods and price
theory. The gold or silversmith will be interested in the way they were minted.
The art historian will be interested in whatıs pictured on them. The
metallurgist will be interested in their metal content. All different
approaches, and all with equal validity; they simply contribute a chunk of
understanding to the "big picture".

People who do research in the SCA do it to gain a better understanding of
medieval life. Since the people who actually experienced what weıre trying to
recreate lived, at the very least, 500 years ago, all of us are bound to make
mistakes from time to time. If someone criticizes your research, donıt take it
personally; ask the person where he or she got his or her information. You
might find a new source or new perspective you hadnıt considered before. The
secret to success in research is to be open to ideas and to never let yourself
be convinced that you know all there is to know on your topic.

Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.

<the end>

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Comments to author: stefan@florilegium.org
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