Teaching research methods and the dilemmas of structuring student research papers

By Tullio Viola

When I started my supervision activity at FASoS a couple of years ago, I noticed something I wasn’t anticipating. In comparison to other institutions where I had previously worked, students were paying much more attention to making sure their paper followed a specific structure. Ironically, however, this commendable attention to structure sometimes conflicted with their ability to think about the subject matter of their research, thereby fueling some degree of confusion. Why was it so?

Over time, I came to believe that a substantial part of the problem has to do with what we may call a tension between two typical models of structuring a research paper in the field of arts and culture. To be sure, these two models are not perfectly distinguished from one another. Still, it makes sense to treat them as two alternative options, for this will allow us to see that students may be confused by the attempt to “squeeze” their research topic into a model that is not optimal.

So, what are these two models?

The first model is that which we always teach, and is quite widespread in psychology, quantitative social sciences, as well as those qualitative approaches that use elicited data like interviews or polling. It requires you to stick to the following structure:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Theoretical Framework / Method
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion

There are many advantages to this model. it’s clear and straightforward and it helps students identify key aspects of their research.

The problem, however, is that many research questions in the humanities (and, I believe, some qualitative social sciences) resist this approach.

This should not surprise: The model I just described is oriented toward a deductive rather than an inductive way of organising your research. Moreover, it is arguably better suited to research that works with elicited data (like experimental settings and interviews) rather than archival research, literary analysis, or philosophical interpretation. Finally, it is particularly useful when you’re dealing with predominantly empirical rather than interpretive research questions. Now, as it happens, a lot of scholarship in arts and culture is heavily interpretive, based on found data, and inductive. So it should not come as a surprise that this first way of structuring a paper sits unwell with some of the students’ research questions.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that this first model of structuring a research paper is incompatible with arts and culture scholarship. I am a strong advocate of research pluralism, and I believe that the categories I just mentioned (empirical/interpretive, elicited/found data, deductive/inductive) can always be creatively recombined. I do  think, however, that students would profit from being more clearly told that this model of structuring a paper is not the only one they could follow.

What’s the alternative, then? I am going to call it the second model of writing a research paper, even though this model is, by definition, less structured than the first. Indeed, that is precisely its main feature. According to this second model, the results of your analysis don’t necessarily follow a fully-fledged “theoretical framework” or “method” section. In fact, you often begin your paper with your case study right after your introduction: you give an interpretation or description of the subject matter of your research, which may bring you to formulate some generalisations toward the end of the paper; or to advance a comparison with something else; or to articulate your agreement/disagreement with somebody; etc. etc.

Following the advice in Booth et al.’s The Craft of Research – one of the research handbooks we most often use at FASoS – we might say that this second model of writing a research paper boils down to organising your writing according to the structure of your argument rather than according to the fixed structure I discussed above. Whether that amounts to following a chronological structure, a parts-to-whole structure, a comparative approach, or still something else, depends on the inner logic of what you’re trying to say.

Although this may complicate our job in some respects (for instance with regard to assessment grids), I do think that more explicitly incorporating this alternative model in our teaching and supervision would help. My experience has taught me so far that being presented with a “less structured structure” may have a liberating effect on the students’ intellectual creativity.

Students often struggle with picking an appropriate “theoretical framework” and an appropriate “method” for their paper. They look to the range of skills they’ve learned throughout their curriculum and try to “apply” one of them to their subject matter. Sometimes this works. But sometimes it doesn’t, because what they actually want to do is not captured in any of the methods we teach them. What they actually want to do is one of the many things humanities and social sciences scholars have always been doing. They want to articulate the meaning of a text or artwork, investigate the historical roots of a phenomenon, trace the implications of using concept x in context y… and no one among the skills or methods that we teach them seems the right one. (A very visible tendency to inflate the category of “discourse analysis” to incorporate any activity of textual interpretation is a consequence of this problem.) I believe that a freer structure of the paper would allow students to appreciate that the skills we teach them should not be applied one-to-one to their subject matter but, rather, be creatively combined.

About the author

Tullio Viola is an assistant professor in Philosophy of Arts and Culture. He focuses on the historical exchanges between philosophy and social sciences, and explores debates about the role of cultural transmission in shaping individual agency. At FASoS, he teaches mostly in the Arts and Culture curricula. He’s interested in incorporating the unique epistemic features of the humanities and the social sciences into his teaching strategies.