Exploring Topics and Beginning Research

So where do you start? How do you identify your interests? Or, if you're not the naturally inquisitive type, how do you get interested enough in something to want to research it?


One prime source of inspiration is our personal experience. Lindlof and Taylor say that "we problematize experience by noticing gaps and dislocations in our own explanations" of particular things or happenings (p. 74). "We might sense an incongruity, an irony, a contradiction, an ambiguity, or a mystery in a situation." Why is the Big City Times inconsistent in its coverage of foreign policy? Or, why is this huge media conglomerate releasing so many films espousing radical left-wing politics? "Or we find ourselves in a new situation, one that defies our ability to explain it. Or we imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others who are confused or mystified." How might my grandparents -- or any older people -- feel about learning how to use a computer? How might my straight-laced friend feel at a punk show? "Or we experience moments that prick at our moral conscience." Some of these "prickly" moments might be illustrative of larger public problems -- on policy, law, human rights, social movements, politics, crises, etc. -- that elicit our sympathy and deserve investigation.

We might also derive our inspiration from research -- of either scholarly texts or popular media. A problem presented in a secondary source could inspire you to consult additional secondary sources on the same topic, or follow the research trail the author presents in his or her footnotes or bibliography. Or it could be that the source material inspires the research: you might have access to a set of a famous filmmaker's personal papers, a collection of video art, or some other archive that you want to investigate.

Although some critics regard the popular press as inappropriate sources for scholarly work -- and out of place in any scholarly literature review -- I disagree. Yes, it is important to know how to distinguish between scholarly and popular resources -- if only to make distinctions of credibility -- but there is no reason that a Vogue article or an episode of The View could not suggest a possible case study for your research. Furthermore, if you're researching on the bleeding edge -- on a topic on which no scholarly literature is yet available -- there is no reason why an New York Times or an Esopus article shouldn't be included in your resource list -- as long as you've got plenty of scholarly sources (on methodology or theoretical framework, for example) to fill out the balance of your list.

When asked how he developed ideas for his art and software projects, Alex Galloway, author of Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (MIT Press 2004) and winner of several Ars Electronica prizes, says:

oh yes that's an easy one. i just read hacker magazines like 2600 and steal ideas from them! =) (email, May 25, 2005).

Okay, I'm quite sure Alex isn't officially endorsing theft -- but he does show us that great new research or creative ideas can emerge from borrowed old ones.

In reviewing existing research, you might be excited about a theory, a subject, or a methodology you discover, and determine to study it further. Or, you might be motivated to fill a particular gap in the literature: why hasn't anyone written about the effect of Supersize Me on people's eating habits?

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Copyrights and Copywrongs (NYU Press 2001) and The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books 2004) and a Professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at NYU, found his research topic at the place where his personal interests, his research interest, a social concern, and a perceived hole in the literature converged. He writes:

I found my research topic by listening to hip-hop in the early 1990s. I noticed the music changed. The musical bed shifted from what was a polyphonic melange of found sounds and musical samples -- a language in itself -- into a steady heavy bass line and simple, obvious samples. It was becoming less interesting, less thick and complicated, less funny and caustic.

I wondered if copyright conflicts had changed how artists make their choices. That was my hypothesis. Turns out, I was right. But I also discovered the interesting relationship between the law and creativity that runs through literature, film, television, and software as well.

Mostly, I yearned to read a cultural history of American copyright written by and for non-lawyers. I could not find one. So I decided to write one (email, May 19, 2005).

Perceived "holes in the literature" (or mediagraphy) have inspired many a dissertation. But, as Lindlof and Taylor advise us, we need to wonder why there hasn't been any work done in this area or on this topic. In the case of the Supersize Me example, such research would be fraught with methodological challenges: how could you prove a causal relationship between the documentary and people's behavior? Or maybe nobody's pursued a particular research topic because it's not fundable. Lindlof and Taylor discuss how funding priorities shape research agendas (pp. 75-6). We'll discuss funding in an upcoming lesson.

We might uncover some "research needs" in big, overarching "review essays" -- like those in Communication Yearbook -- that summarize the work in a field. Edited books bring together diverse views on a subject, and scholarly conferences -- both those that are organized by discipline (e.g., The National Communication Association, The American Studies Association, others listed at the bottom of the page), or interdisciplinary conferences that are organized around a theme (you should find several examples here, on H-Net) -- highlight new, potentially inspiring work both within and outside the field. Finally, professors, colleagues at work, other artists, journalists, librarians -- the myriad human resources at your disposal -- shouldn't be overlooked as sources of potential research topics.

Robson provides some useful caveats: Unsuccessful research, he says, begins with the following:

  1. Expedience: research undertaken because it is easy, cheap, quick or convenient;
  2. Method or technique: using research as a vehicle to carry out a specific method of investigation or statistical technique;
  3. Motivation by publication, money or funding: research done primarily for publication purposes rather than interest in the issue;
  4. Lack of theory: without theory the research may be easier and quicker, but the outcome will often be of little value (Robson 56)

Still, a few doozies slip through -- and, unless they go undetected (as much bad reseach does), these studies make their way into the Annals of Improbable Research. Somebody actually studied "The Effects of Pre-existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension." And then there's the one about feline reactions to bearded men. Yes, somebody actually researched that. But Alan Sokal of NYU takes the cake. What? You haven't heard of the Sokal Hoax?! Well, then, you must! Here are a variety of resources on the whole "Social Text Affair."


Once we have a general idea of what interests us, we need to start thinking about how to examine those ideas -- through a research project or a media production. What are the concepts that lie at the heart of your project?

Sociologist Earl Babbie, author of Observing Ourselves: Essays in Social Research (Wadsworth 1986), suggests that before we think about things at the conceptual level, we should step back, or outside ourselves, and ask what assumptions we're making, or what "colored lenses" we might be wearing -- whether we realize it or not -- that influence the way we approach these concepts. He explains how our paradigms can influence the way we look at the media-world, what questions we ask about it, and what we regard as worthy subjects of study. He describes three paradigmatically-defined sociologists -- the interactionist, the functionalist, or the conflict theorist -- each of whom could be investigating the same phenomenon, but, because of their different paradigmatic "lenses," pose very different questions to study it. These ways of reviewing the world, or thinking about how things work, might remind us of the differences between positivism and constructionism, which we read about in Murdock's chapter (in Jensen) for our last lesson.

The Theoretical Framework

Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln, editors of The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed. (Sage 2005), break the research process up into five stages -- each of which is influenced by our adoption of particular paradigms or alignment with particular theoretical traditions:

Phase 1: The Researcher as a Multicultural Subject

  • History and research traditions
  • Conceptions of self and other
  • The ethics and politics of research

Phase 2: Theoretical Paradigms and Perspectives

  • Positivism, postpositivism
  • Interpretivism, constructivism, hermeneutics (interpretation)
  • Feminism(s)
  • Racializied discourses
  • Critical theory and Marxist models
  • Cultural studies models
  • Queer theory

Phase 3: Research Strategies

  • Design
  • Case study
  • Ethnography, participant observation, performance ethnography
  • Phenomenology, ethnomethodology
  • Grounded theory
  • Life history, testimonio
  • Historical method
  • Action and applied research
  • Clinical research

Phase 4: Methods of Collection and Analysis

  • Interviewing
  • Observing
  • Artifacts, documents, and records
  • Visual methods
  • Autoethnography
  • Data management methods
  • Computer-assisted analysis
  • Textual analysis
  • Focus groups
  • Applied ethnography

Phase 5: The Art, Practices, and Politics of Interpretation and Evaluation

  • Criteria for judging adequacy
  • Practices and politics of interpretation
  • Writing as interpretation
  • Policy analysis
  • Evaluation traditions
  • Applied research

(Denzin & Lincoln, p. 23)

Research is grounded in theory. Theory organizes the way we look at the world, and influences how we see ourselves as researchers or media documentors, our choice of research subjects, our choice of research methods, our choice of methods of analysis, and the way we interpret our data and evaluate our work. As McBeath, Lincoln and Sullivan explain in their course on "Approaches to Media Analysis," methods are the link between theory and "facts," as a positivist might say -- or, as a constructivist or critical theorist might say, methods are the link between theory and "understanding" or "meaning" or..... McBeath et al. put it another way: "a method gives us a way of ‘interpreting’ a theory for the purpose of using that theory to analyse the real world." See their syllabus (scroll down to "the idea of research methods") for an excellent discussion of the centrality of the theoretical framework in all research.

Denzin & Lincoln present a chart that draws connections between "interpretive" paradigms, their assumptions and criteria for evaluating research, forms of theory, and the typical form that an interpretive or theoretical statement assumes in each paradigm (p. 24).

Paradigm/Theory Criteria Form of Theory Type of Narration
Positivist/ Postpositivist Internal, external validity Logical-deductive, grounded Scientific report
Constructivist Trustworthiness, credibility, transferability, confirmability Substantive-formal Interpretive case studies, ethnographic fiction
Feminist Afrocentric, lived experience, dialogue, caring, accountability, race, class, gender, reflexivity, praxis, emotion, concrete grounding Critical, standpoint Essays, stories, experimental writing
Ethnic Afrocentric, lived experience, dialogue, caring, accountability, race, class, gender Standpoint, critical, historical Essays, fables, dramas
Marxist Emancipatory theory, falsifiability, dialogical, race, class, gender Critical, historical, economic Historical, economic, sociocultural analyses
Cultural studies Cultural practices, praxis, social texts, subjectivities Social criticism Cultural theory-as criticism
Queer theory Reflexivity, deconstruction Social criticism historical analysis Theory as criticism, autobiography

John Creswell, author of Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Method Approaches (Sage, 2003), addresses the "knowledge claims" -- paradigms, philosophical assumptions, epistemologies, ontologies, or methodologies -- of each of four chief design frameworks.

1) Postpositivist Knowledge Claims -- that is, thinking after "positivism," which posited the existence of an absolute, or "positive," truth of knowledge -- is derived from such 19th-century thinkers as Comte, Mill, Durkheim, Newton, and Locke. It's typically what we regard as "scientific" research -- that which employs the scientific method. And its primary assumption, according to Creswell, who quotes Phillips and Burbules (2000), are as follows:

  • "That knowledge is conjectural (and anti-foundational) -- absolute truth can never be found. Thus, evidence established in research is always imperfect and fallible. It is for this reason that researchers do not prove hypotheses and instead indicate a failure to reject (the null hypothesis).
  • Research is the process of making claims and then refining or abandoning some of them for other claims more strongly warranted. Most quantitative research, for example, starts with the test of a theory.
  • Data, evidence, and rational considerations shape knowledge. In practice, the researcher collects information on instruments based on measures completed by the participants or by observations recorded by the researcher.
  • Research seeks to develop relevant true statements, ones that can serve to explain the situation that is of concern or that describes the causal relationships of interest. In quantitative studies, researchers advance the relationship among variables and pose this in terms of questions or hypotheses.
  • Being objective is an essential aspect of competent inquiry, and for this reason researchers must examine methods and conclusions for bias. For example, standards of validity and reliability are important in quantitative research." (Creswell 8-9)

2) Socially Constructed Knowledge Claims: Social constructivism is based on the work of Mannheim, Berger & Luckmann, Licoln & Guba, etc. and is based on the belief that individuals "develop subjective meanings of their experiences -- meanings directed toward certain objects or things" (Creswell 8). These meanings are negotiated "socially and historically"; they are formed through interactions with others. This framework's basic assumptions are as follows:

  • "Meanings are constructed by human beings as they engage with the world they are interpreting. Qualitative researchers tend to use open-ended questions so that participants can express their views.
  • Humans engage with their social world and make sense of it based on their historical and social perspective -- we are all born into a world of meaning bestowed upon us by our culture. Thus, qualitative researchers seek to understand the context or setting of the participants through visiting this context and gathering information personally. They also make an interpretation of what they find, an interpretation shaped by the researchers' own experiences and backgrounds.
  • The basic generation of meaning is always social, asiring in and out of interaction with a human community. The process of qualitative research is largely inductive, with the inquirer generating meaning from the data collected in the field." (Creswell 8-9)

3) Advocacy/Participatory Knowledge Claims: This framework arose out of some researchers' frustration that constructivism didn't go "far enough in advocating for an action agenda to help marginalized peoples" (Creswell 9). These researchers combine inquiry with a political agenda, and are often inspired by any of the following theoretical perspectives: feminist perspectives, racialized discourses, critical theory, queer theory, disbility inquiry. Its basic assumptions are as follows:

  • "Participatory action is recursive or dialectical and is focused on bringing about change in practices. Thus, at the end of advocacy/participatory studies, researchers advance an action agenda for change.
  • It is focused on helping individuals free themselves from constraints found in the media, in language, in work procedures, and in the relationships of power in educational settings. Advocacy/participatory studies often begin with an important issue or stance about the problems in society, such as the need for empowerment.
  • It is emancipatory in that it helps unshackle people from the constraints of irrational and unjust structures that limit self-development and self-determination. The aim of advocacy/participatory studies is to create a political debate and discussion so that change will occur.
  • It is practical and collaborative because it is inquiry completed "with" others rather than "on" or "to" others. In this spirit, advocacy/participatory authors engage the participants as active collaborators in their inquiries" (Creswell 11).

4) Pragmatic Knowledge Claims -- derived from the world of Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey -- are based on the assumption that knowledge claims arise from action, situations, and consequences; "there is a concern with applications -- "what works" -- and solutions to problems" (Creswell 11). These researchers typically use a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. What follows are pragmatism's primary assumptions:

  • "Pragmatism is not committed to any one system of philosophy and reality. This applies to mixed methods research in that inquirers draw liberally from both quantitative and qualitative assumptions when they engage in their research.
  • Individual researchers have a freedom of choice. They are "free" to choose the methods, techniques, and procedures of research that best meet their needs and purposes....
  • Truth is what works at the time; it is not based in a strict dualism between the mind and a reality completely independent of the mind....
  • Pragmatist researchers look to the "what" and the "how" to research based on its intended consequences -- where they want to go with it. Mixed methods researchers need to establish a pupose for their "mixing," a rationale for the reasons why quantitative and qualitative data need to be mixed in the first place.
  • Pragmatists agree that research always occurs in social, historical, political, and other contexts" (Creswell 12)

Students often wonder if it is essential to align oneself with a single school of thought. And if these various schools have such disparate, and seemingly contradictory, definitions of and approaches to "research," isn't each school of thought just an insular community that produces research only to legitimate its own existence? Sure, a positivist might discredit a constructivist's research results, and an action researcher might be quick to dismiss the results of an experiment. But with increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative research, the boundaries between these approaches don't seem nearly so ridgid. Sandra Bicknell, a researcher in museum studies, espouses methodological "pluralism":

There is a superbly non-conformist view of method and approach in Mary Daly’s Webster’s First Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language:

Methodolatry (n): common form of academic idolatry; glorification of the god Method; boxing knowledge into prefabricated fields, thereby hiding threads of connectedness, hindering New Discoveries, preventing the raising of New Questions, erasing ideas that do not fit into Respectable Categories of Questions and Answers (Daly 1987).

I have a feeling that there is a lot of this about. There have been a number of attempts to categorize...methodology. This ‘boxing’ of methods is, in my view, isolationist. It suggests either/or scenarios. One is either a supporter of the naturalist approach, or one is a supporter of the scientific approach; the study is either goal-oriented or goal-free; I am labeled a behaviorist if I watch what [people] are doing, or a follower of the school of cognitive psychology if I try to find out what visitors have learnt…; I use the tools of either the anthropologist, or the ethnographer, or the sociologist, or the psychologist, or the media critic; you either do quantitative work, or you do qualitative work; you do it either before the event or after; you either observe or you ask.

I, however, do not make sure ‘either/or’ choices. I am an unashamed pluralist who uses multiple methodologies as part of an evaluation scenario which has the clear intention of providing answers to the questions my colleagues want answers. I use multiple methods to give greater rigor, reliability and depth to the work I do. Each element is designed both to test and to complement the findings of other elements. The different methods add layers of information but also provide a means of identifying inconsistencies and weaknesses. (Sarah Bicknell, “Here to Help: Evaluation and Effectiveness” In Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Ed., Museum, Media, Message (Museum Meanings) (Routledge, 1999) 283-4).

So, in short: you needn't be a methodological purist. The challenge is to find a complementary combination of methods -- all appropriate for your research problem or project -- that, together, provide for greater "rigor, reliability, and depth."

Furthermore, the lenses or frameworks through which we look at the social world, the media, humankind -- or whatever our research "universe" might be -- also influence the scale at which we conceptualize things, and how we break the world up into pieces, or concepts. If we were standing together on a street corner near The New School in New York, and you pointed across the street and said, "Hey, look at that!" I might ask, "What, that group of Parsons students?" Or, "What, that building?" Or, "What, the city?" The scale at which I'm looking and thinking -- and the things my eyes and brain are attuned to -- both influence and are influenced by the way I break up my world into concepts. Babbie tells us that concepts are merely figments of our imagination; they're merely labels we apply to an assortment of observable or measurable indicators.

There are basically two kinds of definitions of concepts. The first, a constitutive definition, defines a word by substituting other words or concepts for it. A constitutive definition for "intelligence" might be "the ability to think abstractly." The second, an operational definition, specifies procedures that enable one to observe or measure a concept (Wimmer & Dominick, Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 7th ed. Thompson, 2003). We can "operationalize" intelligence by defining it as, say, the score on an IQ test. It should be obvious that having an operational definition is essential for researching any concept.

RP: You might be interested in "concentration of media ownership" -- but how will you measure that concept in a research project? How could you operationalize that variable? Or, you might be interested in "representations of gays and lesbians on prime-time television." How can we operationalize something as amorphous and slippery as "representation"?

Any operationalization is bound to have limitations -- which is why we often identify multiple indicators of a concept, and measure each of them, thus representing the concept as the composite of these measured indicators, or variables.

Some researchers have realized that various graphic representation techniques, like "concept mapping," can prove useful in identifying research topics; identifying the component parts, or indicators, of concepts and the relationships between them; and suggesting search topics and subject areas for library research. Cynthia Tysick, an Arts & Sciences Librarian at the University of Buffalo, uses concept mapping to help graduate students organize concepts and develop search strategies.

Here are a few additional concept maps constructed as part of a Penn State "Research in Art Education" graduate course. You can either go "old school" -- with paper and pencil (or, for some added flavor, colored markers!) -- or "new school," with one of the variety of mapping programs available online, either for free or through a free 30-day trial.

B.J. Fogg (in Laurel) presents another method for graphically representing research or design ideas. Her "conceptual designs" model -- with its overview, user description, storyboard/user experience, prototype, features/functionality, justifications for design (theoretical and practical), results of user testing, shortcomings of design, expansion (what else is possible?), next steps in design process, summary -- is essentially a research proposal adapted for design.

RP: How might the conceptual design components map onto the components of a research proposal? And what questions might Fogg's model lead us to ask ourselves that a typical research proposal might not? How might it be helpful to think about these things at the very beginning of the research process -- even if, at this stage, we can't answer all the questions Fogg proposes, and we couldn't provide a fraction of the information required for a complete proposal?


If we identify something we're interested in, we have to ask ourselves some questions to decide whether or not the topic is worth pursuing. "Is this idea congruent with my personal and researcher identities? Can I sustain my interest in this project over the long haul?" (Lindlof & Taylor, p. 77). Do I want to frame myself as an expert on this subject? Do I really want to make myself known as "that woman who made a documentary on mud wrestling?"

We also need to find out why we want to ask, and how we want to ask it. What are our purposes as researchers: are we explorers, describers, explainers, or emancipators? Of course, you might think of some additional roles that you wish to play, but Robson's description of these four research "purposes" might help you to start thinking about research as active -- about what you do as a researcher -- and how your research "purpose" calls for particular research methods (pp. 59-60):


  • To find out what is happening, particularly in little-understood situations
  • To seek new insights
  • To ask questions
  • To assess phenomena in a new light
  • To generate ideas and hypotheses for future research
  • Almost exclusively of flexible design


  • To portray an accurate profile of persons, events or situations
  • Request extensive previous knowledge of the situation etc. to be researched or described, so that you know appropriate aspects on which to gather information
  • May be of flexible and/or fixed design


  • Seeks an explanation of a situation or problem, traditionally but not necessarily in the form of causal relationships
  • To explain patterns relating to the phenomenon being researched
  • To identify relationships between aspects of the phenomenon
  • May be of flexible and/or fixed design


  • To create opportunities and the will to engage in social action
  • Almost exclusively of flexible design

We also have to ask questions about "the scene," which is not the same kind of "scene" we're referring to when we talk about the "fashion scene" or the "indie rock scene." Lindlof and Taylor define the scene as "actors' self-defined scope of social action" (p. 79). It is a "context in which a particular, recurring episode of social action takes place" (p. 79). The scene is a construct -- just as a "concept" is constructed. Your scene might be the context in which family television viewing takes place, or the context in which newspaper editors establish the top stories for the day. We need to ask ourselves several questions of this scene: Is it researchable? Is it suitable for me to answer the research questions I want to answer? Is it feasible for me to work within this scene? Do I have the time and resources? Can I absorb and adapt to its cultural codes? (look through the emic and etic lenses) Is working within this scene safe and ethical? If, for example, I want to study the way imprisoned serial killers respond to movies about serial killers, will I get killed while conducting my research?

Daniel Chandler, the wizard behind the Media & Communication Studies site, a wonderful resource, advises us to consider the following before setting on a research topic:

  • relevance: its perceived relevance to the academic department(s) in which you are studying;
  • supervision: the availability of tutors/supervisors within the department(s) who are interested in the topic and their willingness to supervise such a [research project];
  • interest: your existing knowledge of that topic and the strength of your desire to learn more about it;
  • competence: your likely ability to employ the proposed methods of data gathering and data analysis;
  • scale: the feasibility of completing the study within the time and resources available.

Barzun and Graff, in The Modern Researcher (2004), tell us that we can appropriately "scale" our projects by appropriately framing our research topics: “…your subject is defined by that group of associated facts and ideas which, when clearly presented in a prescribed amount of space, leave no questions unanswered within the presentation, even though many questions could be asked outside it.” (p. 17). In other words, you can't address everything -- so you need to sufficiently delimit your topic, and justify those limitations, to ensure that you're setting up a solid, feasible project.

Wimmer & Dominick (2003) add a few other criteria for assessing the feasibility and appropriateness of a research topic (pp. 20-3):

  • Is the topic too broad? Can you really thoroughly investigate "the educational potential of children's television" in a semester-long research project?
  • Can the problem really be investigated? If you want to examine how people with no access to mass media receive their news, how likely are you to find people for your sample?
  • Can the results of the study be generalized? Can you extrapolate your findings from a small sample to a larger population, or to different situations?
  • Is there any potential harm to the subjects?

Robson discusses the ethical considerations of research. You should keep in mind some of the concerns he identifies -- risk of discomfort or trauma, challenges of maintaining confidentiality, etc. -- both when you're selecting a research topic (Do you need to submit an application to the Human Subjects Review Committee? If so, is it worth the hassle? See below for a critique of biometical models of researcher ethics.) and when you're reporting your findings (How do you deal with anonymous sources? What responsibility do you have to report any troubling information you uncover in your research? Can you publish the photographs you took during your fieldwork?).

RP: How are the "questionable practices" Robson presents in Box 3.8, on page 69, applicable to media production -- particularly in photography, videography, and audio projects?

Research Ethics In the Positivist Tradition: Why Biomedical Models Are Inappropriate for Establishing Qualitative Research Ethics

In most institutions, an Institutional Review Board must approve all research that involves human subjects (thing about how this word -- "subjects" -- characterizes the human beings our research focuses on; this is a commonly used term in research methodology) to ensure that the researcher adheres to particular ethical codes, including informed consent, noncedeption, privacy and confidentiality, etc. However, Denzin and Lincoln, in The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, cite recent American Association of University Professors' reservations with the IRB model, which is based on a positivist or "biomedical" model of research. What follows are the AAUP's critiques:

Research and Human Subjects:

  • A failure by IRBs to be aware of new interpretive and qualitative developments in the social sciences, including participant observation, ethnography, autoethnography, and oral history research;
  • The application of a concept of research and science that privileges the biometical model of science and not the model of trust, negotiation, and respect that must be established in ethnographic or historical inquiry, where research is not on, but is rather with, other human beings;
  • An event-based and not a process-based conception of research and the consent process


  • A failure to see human beings as social creatures located in complex historical, political, and cultural spaces;
  • Infringements on academic freedom resulting from failure to allow certain types of inquiry to go forward;
  • Inappropriate applications of the "Common Rule" (respect, derived from Kant; beneficence, derived from Mill; and justice, derived from Aristotle) in assessing potential harm;
  • Overly restrictive applications of the informed consent rule

Academic Freedom:

  • First Amendment and academic freedom infringements;
  • Policing of inquiry in the humanities, including oral history research;
  • Policing and obstruction of research seminars and dissertation projects;
  • Constraints on critical inquiry, including historical or journalistic work that contributes to the public knowledge of the past, while incriminating, or passing negative judgment on, persons and institutions;
  • A failure to consider or incorporate existing forms of regulation into the Common Rule, including laws and rules regarding libel, copyright, and intellectual property rights;
  • The general extension of IRB powers across disciplines, creating a negative effect on what will, or will not, be studied;
  • Vastly different applications of the Common Rule across campus communities

Important Topics Not Regulated:

  • The conduct of research with indigenous peoples;
  • The regulation of unorthodox or problematic conduct in the field (e.g., sexual relations);
  • Relations between IRBs and ethical codes involving universal human rights;
  • Disciplinary codes of ethics and IRBs, and new codes of ethics and moral perspectives coming form the standpoints of feminist, queer, and racialized epistemologies;
  • Appeal mechanisms for any human subject who needs to grieve and who seeks some form of restorative justice as a result of harm experienced as a research subject;
  • Indigenous discourses and alternative views of research, science, and human beings

(Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, pp. 38-9)


Pardon the pedanticism, but we're going to start out with a little review. Furthermore, we'll begin at a place that should look familiar to you: the New School Library's website. The New School is part of a consortium of schools -- including NYU, the New York School of Interior Design, Cooper Union -- that share access to the BobCat catalog and to one another's libraries. Start here in your search for books (remember them?) and multimedia materials.

NYU has a fantastic audio-visual library, the Avery Fisher Center for Music and Media. If you can't find what you're looking for on Bobcat, try one of the other libraries in New York -- including the New York, Brooklyn, and Queens Public Libraries and the METRO-participating libraries. You can link to all of these libraries' catalogs through the "Library Catalogs and Directories" pull-down menu at the bottom of the Electronic Resources page. If you're not in New York -- and I'm aware that many of you are not -- try your local public and university library catalogs. And if you *still* can't find it, try RLG or WorldCat and place a request through Interlibrary Loan. Materials loaned by another institution may take weeks to arrive -- so it's always best to start your resource search as early as possible so that you can build in time for material delivery.

If you're not already familiar with RLG, you'll be amazed by what a wonderful resource it is:

"The RLG Union Catalog is a comprehensive database that serves as a major union catalog of records describing books, serials, archival collections, manuscripts, maps, musical scores, sound recordings, films, photographs, posters, computer files, electronic resources and more. The RLG Union Catalog reflects the collections of major research libraries; academic, public, corporate and national libraries; archives and museums; historical societies and international book vendors."

In order to make sure I'm conducting an exhaustive search for book resources relevant to a particular research project, I often visit Amazon and try every keyword combination I can think of. If, for instance, I'm looking for books on music and architecture, I search for "music" + "architecture," "music" + "space," "sound" + "architecture," "sound" + "space".... You get the picture. Once I've collected a list of titles, I try to locate each of those titles in the catalogs listed above.

I also scan the bibliographies of books and articles that have proven useful, or that I've particularly enjoyed. Often, this is a great way to gather leads to hard-to-find primary sources and archival collections (we'll talk about these in our lesson historical research). In addition, if I'm reading a text and I'm particularly taken by a quotation or idea that the author attributes to someone else, I'm sure to locate the foot- or endnote or bibliographic citation for the referenced work.

And for further vetting, before I decide that it's worth my money and time to purchase and read a particular book, I look for book reviews in academic journals, in one of the highly regarded book review journals -- or even on Amazon. These reviews are often comparative -- the reviewer compares and contrasts two or more books on a particular topic -- so I'm able to determine which books have the "cast" I'm looking for. In order to locate these book reviews, you can either search the online periodicals databases -- searching for the book's title + "book review" -- or you can Google the book title + "review" + "c.v." (or "curriculum vita"), which should bring you to the c.v.'s of academics who have reviewed the texts you're considering. Their vitae should identify the periodicals in which the reviews appear, and you can then track down the appropriate issues.

When I'm approaching a body of literature or a field of study that's relatively new to me, and I don't quite know where to begin, I search syllabi posted online to see what texts faculty commonly assign for courses in those fields. For instance, if I wanted to find our more about contemporary feminist theory, about which I know very little, I'd try a few Google searches to locate syllabi that might offer some valuable leads. So, I'd search for "contemporary femin*" + "syllabus," then maybe broaden out to "feminist theory" + "syllabus" to compile a list of books, articles, chapters, and web resources that faculty commonly assign in courses on contemporary feminism. I've found this technique particularly helpful because I can rely on my academic colleagues to have already screened these resources for me. In most cases.

Colleagues, by the way, are excellent resources. Professors, librarians, co-workers, and fellow students are invariably chock-full of great reading recommendations, research leads, etc. This is why an "academic community" exists -- so that we can share our knowledge and experience and, in the process, make a greater collective contribution to the field, and the world, than we could individually.

Now, let's switch gears from the organic to the digital -- from human resources to online resources. Let's take a look at the myriad electronic resources available through the Library's website. Under the section labeled "Electronic Resources by Subject," pull down the menu and choose "Communication and Media Studies." Be aware, though, that you're likely to find media- and communication-related sources in nearly all of these subject categories -- from "Anthropology" to "Gender and Sexuality Studies" to "Sociology." Scroll down through the list of communication-related resources and read the "blurb" for each listing. Note the kinds of resources cataloged in each, the dates available -- and which services offer full-text.

Here are a few resources of note: Communication Abstracts provides abstracts to an impressive list of journals relevant to our field. JStor offers access to full-text humanities and social science articles, and is particularly strong in its cultural studies offerings. ProQuest offers several services, including a database of dissertations and theses -- two resources that should not be overlooked.

One great challenge is knowing what keywords to search for. It's always best to try various keyword combinations to ensure that you're being as inclusive as possible in your search. Work that's relevant to your project won't necessarily be framed the same way you intend to frame yours, and researchers may very well use terminology quite different than that which you're using. See this article from the 2/5/06 New York Times about the challenges -- here, within the hard sciences, but equally applicable to other fields -- of knowing what to search for, and the mistakes some have made in "rediscovering the already discovered."

Note the offerings in the "Research Tools" area: the Periodicals Searcher and the Refworks Citation Manager.

Check out the "Reference and General Information Databases" within the "Electronic Resources by Subject" pull-down menu, and note the availability of resources ranging from the Oxford English Dictionary to image libraries to census data to statistical abstracts. Quite astounding, eh?

But of course, not all knowledge is to be had through the New School Library's website. The web's full of excellent faculty and research institute websites, and a growing body of peer-reviewed online journals. These are just a few of the innumerable resources available on the Web:

It's important to remember, though, that not all that has been digitized is worth knowing! It's important to be able to assess the credibility of online sources so that you're not caught basing your research hypothesis on something you read in some high school student's blog. Johns Hopkins University identifies several criteria for evaluating web resources: authorship, publishing body, point of view or bias, referral to other sources, verifiability, and currency.

RP: How might you assess the "cast" or "slant" of a media research website if you didn't know of the hosting organization's political or religious affiliation? The Media Research Center makes it easy for you, since right at the top of their webpage they state their mission: "neutralizing liberal media bias." But what about The Weekly Standard, or The Wall Street Journal? Imagine you're a foreign student, and you're not aware of these publications' reputations. Or, imagine yourself accessing online archives of foreign publications: how might you assess their objectivity?

Furthermore, not all that is worth knowing has been digitized! There is much to be said for the value of accessing -- and handling -- original materials. There are archival collections worth exploring and human resources worth tapping. The Library of Congress and Yale are two among many institutions that have comic book archives. Northwestern University maintains a collection of letters, concert programs, instruments, and recorded interviews and lectures by John Cage. The Whitney has its Andy Warhol Film Project and impressive research library; MoMA, its Celeste Bartos Film Study Center and Circulating Film and Video Library; and Electronic Arts Intermix, its collection of video art. And there are thousands more exciting, eclectic, but underused, collections out there. It takes a creative and resourceful researcher to seek out these sources -- but such effort is invariably repaid many times over. We'll look some more at archival research in our lesson historical research.

But I will say a few words about researching with footage -- or, more generally, researching with media content. What if you want to track down cable tv shows or talk radio content that's relevant to your proposed project. Where do you start? Well, the network's or channel's or station's website is a good place to begin. Some offer extensive programming archives online. In other cases, you may have to contact the network's librarian or archivist for help, and he or she may send you to the production company that made the content. You could also do a web search to determine the production company, and contact them directly. Check old tv listings or programming schedules to determine when things aired, so that you can use this information to help others help you to track down the material you're looking for.

As much as I wish there were, there's no easy, fullproof way to go about this kind of "content hunt." It's a matter of following leads, and diligently following up. The contact people will vary between organizations, as will access policies.

HBO Sports, oddly enough, offers some tips on locating footage for your research project. Some commercial media companies will gladly offer footage. But, content is a commodity, which, unfortunately, means that you often have to pay (dearly!) for it. See, Stock Footage Online, ITN Archive, Getty Images and Getty's Archive Films (see also Getty's Rights & Clearances page). You might also refer to The Researcher's Guide: Film, Television, Radio, and Related Documentation Collections in the UK, which, as far as I know, there isn't a US counterpart. Correct me if I'm wrong.


Once you've accessed the materials you need, the next step is reviewing those materials and taking notes. This can be done the old-fashioned way -- with pen and paper (or index cards) -- or the high-tech way: with a laptop, and maybe even a notetaking software program. The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has developed Scribe and made it available for download on its website. ndxCards is another program available for sale. Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You and Interface Culture, describes how he uses DevonThink (see also the NYT article), available for Mac OSX, to organize his research notes.

But all the technology in the world can't make a great note-taker. In fact, with the increased ease of notetaking, it's much easier for a researcher to simply record everything he or she reads, often copying directly from source text to computer file. Barzun and Graff offer some helpful advice: when taking notes, “…use your own words, not the author’s." This practice will help you to avoid accidental plagiarism later on, when you write up your report. What's more, paraphrased rather than quoted notes (although it is of course appropriate to quote if an author presents something particularly well, and you intend to quote him or her in your report or production) get you into the practice of reformulating your research material, making it your own, and priming your brain to organize that material into an original format or argument.

The literature review is not simply a laundry list of research projects: Dr. X said this, then Dr. Y said this, then Dr. Z said this.... It is not an opportunity for you to show your reader just how much research you've done by including everything you've learned. Barzun and Graff acknowledge that "it is not possible to write a report direct from the sum total of the gathered materials. You can compose only from what you deliberately select from your notes, which bulk much larger than your report will when done. It is obvious that this collection of notes can very soon become unmanageable. You must therefore adopt some system for creating order as you go, so that you may select intelligently lager on” (Barzun & Graff, 23). The literature review is therefore not simply a review -- a rehashing -- as its name might imply; it has a logical organization and effectively presents an argument. In the literature review, you identify patterns in existing research and draw conclusions -- all for the sake of identifying the "holes," the omissions in the literature or mediagraphy or shortcomings in previous research or production, that your work promises to fill.

According to Creswell, the literature review does several things: (1) "It shares with the reader the results of other studies that are closely related to the study being reported"; (2) "It relates a study to the larger onging dialogue in the literature about a topic, filling in gaps and extending prior studies"; and (3) "It provides a framework for establishing the importance of the study as well as a benchmark for comparing the results of a study with other findings" (Creswell 29-30).

RP: Can you think of any other functions this "survey of the field" might serve -- particularly for a non-scholarly project?

The following sites provide advice:


    Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
    Eastern Communication Association
    International Communication Association
    National Communication Association
    Other associations listed on the Media & Communication Studies Site

    Image Credits: Buzan, “How to Mind Map”:; Robert Mankoff, Ed., The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004).