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Old January 9th, 2016, 09:00 AM   #1

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Research Question


When writing a thesis, dissertation or even a book and your researching a topic do you read whole books or do you just go to the index. In my case I want to write a history of individuals who were leaders of an organization and rented about 20 books for research but have only been searching the index and taking notes of where that individual's name appears in the book. Am I doing it wrong?
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Old January 9th, 2016, 09:20 AM   #2
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When writing a thesis, dissertation or even a book and your researching a topic do you read whole books or do you just go to the index. In my case I want to write a history of individuals who were leaders of an organization and rented about 20 books for research but have only been searching the index and taking notes of where that individual's name appears in the book. Am I doing it wrong?
I don't think there's a generic wrong or right. Personally, I feel extremely unsatisfied not reading at least 90% of a book because often authors make broad arguments that unfold over many pages, and just reading the introduction and the conclusion plus a few important parts does not actually provide you with enough information to recognize the full argument. However, it is obvious that reading full books takes a lot of time and one cannot read everything in full. So, I try to read books more important for my question, especially when it comes to the current stage of research, in full, while only reading small parts or chapters of other books. From my perspective, I'd advise you to read around and then decide which books might be more relevant and read them in full, and read less of the other books.
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Old January 9th, 2016, 10:36 AM   #3

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Thank you Entreri and Ill go more specific. I'm researching leaders of an organization so ive taken about 20 books out and im browsing each index where their names appear, going to that page and taking note of the sentence where their name appears. My goal is to write a mini bio of the leaders of the institution. So am I correct in my method of only browsing non biographies to build a biography of an organization's leadership?

Edit: I'll make sure to atleast read the paragraph in which their name appears for some context. Also Im not asking a question as I would in a thesis or dissertation but providing a history of individuals if that helps in your help to me. Thanks again.

Last edited by antiquarian; January 9th, 2016 at 10:40 AM.
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Old January 9th, 2016, 11:42 AM   #4

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It really depends on the topic and the book you are reading. If your topic is more specific and you are reading a broader history, then using the index might be sufficient. In most cases, I prefer to read the entire book and make notes as I go.
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Old January 9th, 2016, 11:57 AM   #5
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Thank you Entreri and Ill go more specific. I'm researching leaders of an organization so ive taken about 20 books out and im browsing each index where their names appear, going to that page and taking note of the sentence where their name appears. My goal is to write a mini bio of the leaders of the institution. So am I correct in my method of only browsing non biographies to build a biography of an organization's leadership?

Edit: I'll make sure to atleast read the paragraph in which their name appears for some context. Also Im not asking a question as I would in a thesis or dissertation but providing a history of individuals if that helps in your help to me. Thanks again.
If your aim is to provide a short summary of facts about the leaders' lives, I'd say there's no problem with your approach, but I don't see a reason to exclude biographies, either. I'd even say a biography may help you to organize the facts you find about individual leaders and judge them based on their overall life.
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Old January 9th, 2016, 12:16 PM   #6

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I think it would be very difficult to write credible biographies for (N?) leaders to almost any organization based on a few sentences found in secondary sources. If your topic organization is large, well-funded, and associated with important issues, the leaders are likely to be prominent men and women. For such people determining how accurate their reputations reflect their personal thought and character can be tricky. In modern times, savvy PR staffs can make the common stink-rose look like a gilded lily. Personal motivations, quirks, and character are all concealed beneath the surface required to reach high leadership positions. The Best conceal their feet of clay, and the worst have heavenly choirs to sing their praises. Very few are not for sale at some sort of price, but the leader's character will determine the price and the limits of what is sold. One might overlook the failings of an associate, a reputation for philandering perhaps ... for the greater good, but be unwilling to compromise a minor point. People are complex, and trying to sum them up and make any sort of judgments rests on thin ice.

What is it about your subject leaders is that is important to your thesis? Many leaders are little more than figureheads, lending credibility to the work performed by armies of faceless "bureaucrats. It is the second tier of leadership where achieving tactical objectives, can be quite different from the stated strategic goals. Even when the leadership is small in number and very, very hands-on, things don't get much easier. The inter-relationships of the leadership cadre are the very stuff of politics. There is constant competition, and one's political standing can wax or wane on almost anything. An essential thing to remember when analyzing politics and politicians is that to be loved is everything. The politician must be elected as evidence of their worth, value and love object of the electorate. It is often a dirty game, and it is very rare for the best of human kind to wade hip deep into the mire for purely unselfish reasons.

That may sound cynical, and I suppose that it is. However, most of the pigs at the trough believe themselves the best chance for progress to admirable goals. Many have long histories of effective efforts on behalf of their partisans. Often political leaders can be fascinating to observe, and are worthy of public support ... regardless of the truth of their fundamental nature. In the end, poltiians are human belings with all the faults of humans, and most humans are, at some level, politicians. Leaders are no better or worse than the rest of us, it just seems that way.

Then there is the question of whether you are writting this as a part of your on-going education as a historian(?), or as a writer hoping to find a large market of readers? The more serious your goal, the more rigorous your research and analysis must be. What is your primary focus for this effort, the organization, or the leaders?

Bottom Line: More data from the widest range of sources, generally provides the best basis for analysis. Primary sources almost always trump secondary sources, especially secondary sources that are written to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A man's personal journal may be self-serving, but it's better than what might be written a hundred years later by a Post-Grad. Yellow Journalism doesn't signify, except as a data point in how the public interests lie.

Last edited by Asherman; January 9th, 2016 at 12:25 PM.
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Old January 9th, 2016, 12:35 PM   #7

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Thanks for all of your help, I've rented a few biographies as well and with a few, majority are just citations of other's works. So some biographers just cite whole passages and rarely state anything original? Im new to biographical research, I much prefer reading general world histories. Any specific principles on biographical writing? Please and thank you.
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Old January 9th, 2016, 01:29 PM   #8
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Thanks for all of your help, I've rented a few biographies as well and with a few, majority are just citations of other's works. So some biographers just cite whole passages and rarely state anything original? Im new to biographical research, I much prefer reading general world histories. Any specific principles on biographical writing? Please and thank you.
If we are talking about historical biography as a method of scientific history, biographers do base their works on original material. Historical biography is generally considered one of the most difficult genres. It's usually a lot easier to interpret and evaluate an event than a person's life, for the sheer breadth of it. You want to give a glimpse of what the person as a whole characterized, what and who she or he influenced and how and from whom she or he was influenced, how they viewed their world, how they thought and how their lives can be evaluated, again, on the whole. Often, the historical biographer concentrates on one or two of these points, to delve into greater detail, but ultimately they are interconnected and one has to know a bit about all of them. But, depending on what you concentrate, their are several approaches:

1) Psychological. You are trying to get into their mind; sometimes you use concepts from anthropology, psychology or the history of mentality to describe and explain.

2) Structural. You are trying to describe and explain by recourse to the structures within they lived: society, economics, politics, thought.

3) Networks. You are trying to describe and explain by analyzing the various relations a person had with others and how they unfolded, with them at the center.

4) Groups. Approaches gaining currency are familial and generational ones. These are rather collective biographies, but you take one specimen as a representative sample, whose life is described and explained by the features of the generation or family they belong to. The former is rather more static, while the latter often spans larger time periods, going into the details of two or more "generations" of family members before the person in question. Of course, a group could be an organisation, or a social class, or any other, too.

Here, too, you will mix elements from several of the approaches, but it is useful to choose one or two. This will help you when reading your primary and secondary sources since, deciding what's important and what not and how to interpret it. But, if you, say, want to concentrate on influences, a network approach seems useful, if you want to concentrate on moral evaluation, a combination of 1) and 2) might prove fruitful, and so on.

In your case, I'd look whether the leaders belong to a certain generation or class, and if this is the case, I'd start by reading a more general book which gives some information about the group, to get a feeling for their circumstances of living before and during their work at the organization. From there, you can try and look whether the individuals you are studying conform or deviate from a general pattern.
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Old January 9th, 2016, 02:11 PM   #9

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Thanks again and I've got another question. In citing a passage from a biography that is itself a citation, who do I give credit to? The biographer, their source, both?
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Old January 9th, 2016, 11:27 PM   #10
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Thanks again and I've got another question. In citing a passage from a biography that is itself a citation, who do I give credit to? The biographer, their source, both?
Ideally, you will look up the original document and cite it directly, but if you don't, then you use "cited in" and cite both the reference to the original document as well as giving a reference to the book you have found the quotation in.
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