While research can take many forms, my focus and interest is scholarly research; research that involves an in-depth exploration of a topic utilizing academic, peer-reviewed articles and books. Depending on the field you’re working in, you will probably draw on other, non-academic sources of information. In literature you’d use poems, stories, and novels. One of the great things about historical research is the wide variety of sources you can draw from to research a topic—from songs to personal letters, to films and paintings, you can use almost anything to study your subject. Research items are divided into two categories: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are materials created by people or groups who were participants or witnesses to a particular event, movement, or time period. Secondary sources are created using primary sources, they are typically books and articles written by individuals who are not witnesses/participants to the time period in question. A primary source could be a letter written by an activist during the Civil Rights Movement, a secondary source would be the book written 50 years later using the information learned from that letter.
Scholarly research gets tricky when you want to do an academic study of a topic related to modern popular culture or popular media. Finding an academic article on something like….Pokémon Go for example, isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t know where to look. If you researched something like superheroes there would be a wealth of scholarly, peer-reviewed books and articles on the subject—historians, social scientists, anthropologists, even literary scholars have delved into this topic (can’t imagine why, I guess people like it). Something more obscure, or very new, such as the popular game that debuted last year, Pokémon Go, might be harder to find academic works written on the topic. This is where primary sources become especially important.
Now wait, you might say, I thought primary sources were created by people from the particular time period that’s being studied. How can I use primary sources to study something from modern popular culture? It’s not history yet!
That’s true, but the same principle still applies. Going back to the Pokémon Go example, I could use YouTube videos made by a Pokémon Go player as a primary source to analyze it. Newspaper articles, personal blogs, the game’s website, reviews of the game, or a Tumblr or Facebook page dedicated to Pokémon Go could work as a primary source. I could even play the game myself and use my experience as a source of information. Physical objects can serve as a source, the options are endless.
But now what? What do I do with all these primary sources?
Well, if you’ve been lucky you might have found a scholarly work dissecting your popular culture/media topic, in which case, you have something to guide you and spark ideas for your own analysis of the primary sources. A few years ago for example I wrote a research paper comparing the film Defiance with the book it was based on, a sociological study by Nechama Tec also called Defiance. I had no academic articles on the film, only scholarly sources on the Holocaust and general information on analyzing film. My primary sources were the film and the book I was comparing it to—I didn’t have any scholarly articles to guide my analysis of the primary sources.
In the event that you don’t have any secondary sources to help your research, you have lean more heavily on your own analysis of the primary sources, which is sometimes scary, not knowing if you’re “reading” the sources in the right way. But if you’re a historian, or working in any humanities field for that matter, you’ll have to rely on your own analytical skills to draw conclusions using primary sources.
And if you’re still struggling on how to read your primary source for information, here are few questions to start you out:
- Who made it?
- Why did this person or group make it?
- What is it? (poem, novel, song, poster, magazine, website, video, art, etc.)
- What is it made of and how was it made? How do the materials and the format of this source impact its purpose?
- Was this source aimed at a particular audience? Who is that audience?
- When was it made? How does the date/time period shed light on its purpose and how it was created?
The Library of Congress is a great source to find primary sources: Library of Congress Home Page. I always use this site to locate primary sources and guide my research. You can also get more guidance on using primary sources here: Questions for Primary Sources.
And if you’re really curious to know a little more about Pokémon Go: Gotta Catch Em’ All!
So get out there (or go online) and search for some primary sources to analyze. There’s so much to find, gotta catch them all!