limitless reading lists
A friend emailed me and asked, “when doing research, I feel as if the reading could be limitless. Do you have a heuristic you use to set a limit on the number of sources you pursue?”
I always feel like my reading lists are limitless, so I didn’t really think I would have much of an answer for him. However, I thought about it for a minute and realized that I actually do have a strategy for avoiding that overwhelmed feeling. Here’s my reply:
I have such difficulties knowing when to stop! Usually, I have a writing deadline which helps. At some point I just have to stop and start writing. However, given the right boundaries on your topic, it is possible to feel that you have a manageable amount to read. You can set these boundaries in a few ways but here’s how I think about it in an eight step process. (Argh, more reading.)
Narrow down your topic. No, that’s still too broad. No seriously, narrow it down. Got it? Okay.
- Research paradigms
You’re researching topic X. First you decide, “am I interested in research that takes a normative, analytical, interpretive or critical approach?” That narrows your reading list significantly. Base your choice on your goal for reading about topic X (what discipline/community of practice you are in or, if writing something, what your audience is familiar with, combo of the two, etc.)
I should point out that there are other research paradigms than the four I mention. Some disciplines have a few others and some don’t consider a few I listed, or call it something else …no one’s in charge of the overarching taxonomy. To make things more difficult, researchers don’t often explicitly state their research paradigm(s) so you only come to recognize them by doing a lot of broad reading. (If “research paradigm” sounds unfamiliar to you, just read the dialogs under “Appendix E” and you’ll get the gist.)
If you are writing something, and you choose a different research paradigm from those your audience is accustomed to when they consider topic X, then you will have to be familiar with what your audience is accustomed to as well so you can explain the difference in your approach and why it’s of interest. Your reading list has now almost doubled but that’s what you get for being interdisciplinary. Serves ya right, troublemaker.
- Foundational works
Find out which books/articles everyone cites about Topic X within a particular research paradigm and read them. Don’t rely on just reading what others say about them. There won’t be that many — seriously, these are only the ones that everyone cites.
- Recent authors
Determine the major living (or recently deceased) authors/researchers of Topic X who work within your research paradigms of interest. Read their most highly cited work on Topic X. You might also glance at their most recent works (particularly the bibliographies) but they will most likely be building on their most cited works and they will assume you are familiar with them.
- Talk about it
Talk about it with people. They’ll say “have you read […]?” If they seem to understand your goal for reading about topic X, then go read […].
- Topic (again)
At this point, you realize that your original topic was way too broad and it was really based on a lot of assumptions that should be questioned. You shake your head at how young and naive you were back then. Narrow your topic. Your topic is now Topic x (lowercase x).
At some point in your reading, you will have a cluster of authors, writing within a particular research paradigm who basically say the same thing or describe the same idea. When this keeps happening, you can probably stop reading now — at least about that particular idea. Sort them into a category (authors within research paradigm Y who write about Topic x and idea Z). If you are writing something, in your article/paper/book/whatever, summarize their idea, cite all of the authors, and then say why you do or don’t agree with them. Or, if idea Z is a bit more mixed or nuanced, mention the questions idea Z raises.
Rake in the dough this work will bring you (not).