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HIS 401: Historical Research and Writing: Research Process

This guide was created for HIS 401: Historical Research and Writing.

The Research Process

There is no single approach that is used in conducting historical research although there is a general set of steps that are typically followed. These include the following steps although there is some overlap and movement back and forth between the steps.

Step 1: Identify an idea, topic or research question

This is the first step in any type of academic research. 

Ideas for historical research topics can come from many different sources, such as the accomplishments of an individual, a political policy, or the relationship between events. 

Step 2: Conduct a background literature review

This step involves identifying, locating, and collecting information pertaining to the research topic. 

The goal of this step is to compile background and starting information so you can evaluate the validity and strength of your topic. When conducting background information, you are looking to broaden the breadth of knowledge pertaining to your topic. You will dig deeper for more in-depth information and research later in process. 

Step 3: Refine the research idea and questions

Here is where you identify what works and what doesn't with your original topic and idea.

The first attempt at creating your final topic should not be your last. Once your preliminary research is completed, you will begin to see the areas where your topic will not cover and where you expand your topic out further. Refine the scope of your topic to create the strongest topic possible for your research needs. 

Step 4: Identify and locate primary and secondary data sources

In step two, you conducted background research. Now, it is time to dig deeper into your topic, locating sources to use in your historical writing. 

Information sources are often contained in documents such as diaries or newspapers, records, photographs, and interviews with individuals who have had experience with or knowledge of the research topic. These sources are broken into two types: Primary and Secondary sources.

Primary Sources: a source that has a direct involvement with the event. Examples include diaries, original maps, news coverage, etc. 

Secondary Sources: a source that was created from a primary source. Examples include a book written about the event or a review after the fact. 

Step 5: Evaluate the authenticity and accuracy of source materials

Not all sources and information are created equal. When compiling and conducting your research, you will need to evaluate all materials. There are two types of evaluations that all sources must pass. 

External Criticism: the process of determining the validity, trustworthiness, and authenticity of the source. Here you will look at the author and where the information came from. 

Internal Criticism: the process of determining the reliability and accuracy of the information contained in the source. Here you are looking at the information itself.
Ask: Are the statements made easily understood? Is there a vagueness or uncertainty in the meaning of the words used within the source? Are there assumptions tied to the world today that are made (placing current ideas and concepts into past events in a way that is not correct)? Is the person giving the primary information reliable or do they have a bias and agenda? 

Step 6: Analyze the data and develop a narrative exposition of the findings.

This step refers to synthesizing, or putting the material collected into a narrative account of the topic selected.

Synthesis refers to selecting, organizing, and analyzing the materials collected into topical themes and central ideas or concepts. These themes are then pulled together to form a contiguous and meaningful whole. 

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