Finding Information in Texts

  1. Finding References
  2. Obtaining the Texts
  3. Assessing the Information
EnEspañol  In Finnish   Contents

When you have a practical problem on which you want information, it is not always necessary to do it the hard way, that is, to gather data empirically. It may well be that someone has already encountered a similar problem and perhaps has found an effective solution to it. If it has been documented in a book or in an article, you may find the document by means of a reference search.

Even when you cannot find the complete solution to your problem in earlier documents, these often contain useful data related to your problem, like the following:

By studying literature you can get a general picture of the areas where interesting problems and useful solutions exist. Thanks to it, you will get a clearer picture of the problem; you will be able to demarcate the problem or the group of objects to be studied better; and it helps selecting the method for the empirical study.
It is also inspiring: it is educational to read texts which demonstrate (at least the best ones do) profound experience in research, intelligence and precision.

Normally literature study is done quite early in the research project, immediately after defining the problem to be studied. If you, however, are searching for a completely novel idea and you feel that perusing conventional treatises would restrain more than advance your innovative imagination, you may perhaps choose to postpone reading pertinent literature first after you have completed the empirical interviews and observations.

Textual sources that are often studied with bibliographical methods include:

Finding References

When an investigation is started, the researcher is seldom so lucky that the texts to be studied are identified and at hand. Instead, the normal situation is that the researcher knows just the problem, and hopes that its solution could be facilitated with earlier documents; but the titles and locations of those texts are unknown. In that case, the first task is to identify the relevant texts, that is to find references to them.

Where to search references?

Besides, you have the option of searching books directly from the shelves, but usually it is rewarding only in the case that your problem relates to no other fields of knowledge than the shelf contains, which often is a class in the "Universal Decimal Classification" (UDC) for libraries.

Databases which contain the catalogues of one or more university libraries are today the most effective and most often used literature search method. Depending on the type of the database you can use either one of two methods of search:

When searching a data-base that contains millions of references, it often happens that you get too many references. In such a case you have to limit the search, e.g., by giving two or more search words which must simultaneously appear in the reference. It is also possible to give a range of years of publication, or to define the languages that you will accept.

Finally, it is possible to save the results on paper or on a USB stick, in order to later examine them in detail.

It would often be interesting to know if there happens to be a research project going on somewhere which are investigating a particular question now but which has not published anything yet. Such projects in progress are sometimes mentioned in conference reports; you could ask the librarian for the latest ones. Some research institutes publish lists of current projects, too, perhaps in the WWW.

Another method is to canvass the researchers that you happen to know, or to place a note in a suitable news group in the WWW, asking for contact to other researchers sharing the same interests.

Statistical Sources

Public statistics are annual or monthly reports from public or commercial organizations. They contain mainly figures on production, expenditure, staff etc. When printed as books, they may be found in libraries. Otherwise, the researcher has to ask for them directly in the respective institutions, which method has also the advantage of producing the most up-to-date figures.

International statistics are published by e.g. World Factbook, published by the CIA in the United States.

The principal source of Finnish statistics is the governmental office Statistics Finland.

Private businesses also often produce statistics on management issues as e.g. the amounts of production and expenses in the various departments; these statistics are normally kept highly confidential, as the rival companies could benefit too much from the productivity reports. However, if you are making an internal study for the company, you will perhaps be allowed to read these reports.

One-off Documents

In the libraries you can find many books on history, but if you are studying specific topics not covered in books, you will have to search your main documentary source material in the archives, either private, business or governmental. "Historical" does not mean studying antiquity; even things that happened an hour ago are history. For the study of such recent events, you have also other methods at your disposal, like e.g. interviewing the eye witnesses, but documents have the advantage that they do not change with the times. Similarly, the researcher's interventions will not change the documents unlike what may happen to personal reminiscences during the process of interview.

Documents are especially fruitful source material in case you are studying the operations of an organization that has regular archives. Similarly, when you are interested in the life of an artist or other singular person you can sometimes find bundles of letters, diaries, receipts, invoices etc. which have at least some relevance to the person you are studying (though not necessarily to the question you would wish to study). The private papers of famous artists and other distinguished persons are often posthumously salvaged to public archives, e.g. in Finland to the Finnish National Archives, where researchers can study them.

Finding the interesting documents can become problematic if there is no single person or organization where you could focus your search. General penmanship sometimes workable as source material include newspapers and periodicals. Especially their art critiques, editorials, and letters to the editor are often used as source material, or as the object of study. Other possible sources could be advertisements and exhibition catalogues. When Barthes studied semiotics of clothing in The Fashion System, (1983) his only source material were two fashions periodicals during two years. Earlier printing houses often saved specimens of their production, but today these archives always run the risk of being destroyed. However, a growing number of museums are today specializing in various branches of industrial production and have been able to rescue many archives of discontinued business enterprises.

Obtaining the Texts

Depending on the amount of available publications and documents you have to choose between two quite different approaches in extricating the information that you are seeking:

Amount of material: Recommended approach:
You have found many possible sources: The Normal Bibliographical Process where the target is to condense the sought-after material by eliminating superfluous content.
Available material is scanty: Methods for Reconstructing Missing Information, such as textual criticism, hermeneutic study or ex post facto research.

The Normal Bibliographical Process

In the case that there is literature about the question that interests you, the next step in the bibliographical study is selecting and tagging the promising-looking references in the data-base search list, and then finding the marked books and articles.

The report that you have received from the bibliographical search indicates at least one library where each publication can be found. If the library happens to be foreign, no problem -- for a small fee, most libraries will dispatch the book by mail, or send scanned or paper copies of those pages you need. This will be unnecessary, if a copy of the book exists in a local library, so a new bibliographical search in the local library may be expedient. In some countries, all the scientific and university libraries have a common catalogue. Before you order books from abroad, you should examine this catalogue. The search is simple when you now know the names of the author and the book. The English texts of many often cited books exist today in the WWW, as well. A list of them can be found at the On-line Books Page.

Once in the library, the researcher will know where the desired book is placed by looking at its signum. The signum indicates the shelf on which the works can be found. On the shelves, the books are in an alphabetical order according to the main word. The main word is the last name of the author or the first word (not a definite or indefinite article, though) of a periodical. If the publication has no author or if it has more than three, the main word is usually the title of the publication. In the computerized file or cards of the library, the main word has been singled out, underlined or written in block letters.

One should take down the signum of the book and the main word as soon as they appear on the screen. They will always be needed, whether the researcher goes to find the book on the shelf himself or asks the librarian to get it for him (in case the book is in closed storage).

When transferring information from printed publications into the researcher's computer usual methods are to take a laptop computer to the library or to copy first the interesting pages on paper with the library's copying machine, or simply duplicate a short text by hand. Direct scanning with text recognition is often regarded as not enough reliable. In any case, do not forget to tag at once each item of your copies with a code that allows you to identify them later. A suitable code could, for example, consist of the name of the author, the year of printing and the original page number.

Besides, you should copy these markings and other bibliographical details into a special text file which then gradually becomes the list of literature of your finished report.

If the documents include old hand-written texts, there is the problem of archaic letter styles. In libraries, you will find guide-books with samples of text from various countries and epochs. An example is in the illustration below showing German hand-written letters from 19 C (from Vanhat käsialat, a guide published by the Finnish National Archives). Often the best method is to consult an expert in historical studies.

German alphabet

The analysis phase of a normal bibliographical study consists mainly of eliminating everything that is either irrelevant, unreliable or useless for your purposes in the original sources. Those passages that remain after this elimination are often still too lengthy for appearing in your report and you will perhaps want to condense them by removing portions of paragraphs and sentences, or by paraphrasing the text in your own words. All this means that the amount of text in your draft report continually shrinks down.

The report of your study does not shrink interminably, however, because your understanding on the subject matter simultaneously gets deeper and makes you capable to add your own comments about the value of each source. This phase of the analysis will be discussed later, under the title Assessing the Information.

Methods for Reconstructing Missing Information

Sometimes it happens that a search of literature finds nothing. Perhaps the topic that you want to investigate has never been documented, or the text has once existed but later disappeared. A search of literature will prove unfruitful in such a situation. Instead, you might try those alternative sources of information that were enumerated in Finding References.

If you have found some relevant material, but not enough of it, there are a few special analysis methods that can be used to extract information from scanty surviving material. Some of them are listed in the table below.

Target: Method:
Combining fragmented manuscripts Textual criticism
Deciphering the writer's intentions Hermeneutic Study
Detecting causalities behind existing data Ex post facto

These methods are, however, not very reliable and should be used in moderation.

Textual criticism

Textual criticism is relevant when the material only consists of several partly different, partly similar texts on the same topic, and there is little or no background information as to the origins of the text. This is often the case when we study folklore or texts dating back to antiquity. The goal is to find the earliest among them, or if it does not exist any more, to reconstruct it on the basis of the existing copies.
For example, Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruve have survived the Middle Ages as just seventeen copies, all of them different, and each containing many obvious grammatical errors. Now we would like to know what Vitruve, who lived in 1C, actually wrote, keeping in mind the possibility that he already made some of the grammatical mistakes.

Error analysis can be used in textual criticism. It deals with spelling mistakes, additions, abbreviations or other details that recur in some of the texts but not in all of them. Some of these differences appear to be sheer mistakes made by the copier. Some have perhaps been caused by negligence, inadequate light, poor vision or the copier not mastering Latin or Greek. Some parts have been deliberately omitted as "useless" by somebody whereas another erudite copier has added something "missing" in the text or even changed the text to make it more appropriate or up-to- date. (Possible motives for changes were discussed above, under the heading Source criticism.)

If two texts contain the same peculiarity which is missing in the other texts, that reveals that one of the texts has served as a source for the other; if the timing of the texts can be ascertained elsewhere, it can be assumed that the text which contains fewer grammatical mistakes or which retains words omitted in the other one is the earlier text. (Of course, you should always consider also the possibility that the copier of the later text mastered the grammar better than his predecessor, and corrected the mistakes of the earlier text.)

Textual criticismThe first purpose of textual criticism is to compose a so-called stem of the manuscripts, see figure on the right. The letters A to H refer to the existing manuscripts.

  1. The starting stage of error analysis can already reveal that some texts are mere copies of other, still existing ones because they only contain the same text as the preceding ones with some characteristic omissions and errors. These "secondary sources" are represented by manuscripts B, E and F in the picture. These later copies can now be discarded.
  2. In the next stage, the relations between the remaining "primary sources" (A, C, D, G and H) are looked at. Here, all the possible information on the dating, physical peculiarities, location and preservation of the texts must be taken into account. If there is no additional information, the manuscripts can be grouped into categories as descendants of hypothetical, earlier manuscripts (Y and Z in the picture) merely on the basis of the errors recurring in them.
  3. The last phase is to reconstruct the earlier texts which have served as a basis for the remaining ones and have now disappeared (Y and Z) and finally reconstruct the common root (X) of all of them. This must be done with careful consideration by choosing and combining the remaining texts, perhaps in some exceptional cases also by correcting the remaining texts. The deductions and solutions the researcher resorted to must be accounted for in the report.
A good general knowledge and understanding of the culture of the era when the texts were written and were copied is naturally a big help in the reconstruction (although such knowledge must be applied carefully in order not to write some sort of historical novel instead of a study.)

Hermeneutic Study

Your problems are not over when you have found and received those books and documents you want to examine. A new problem quite often emerges when you find that the text leaves you in doubt about what the writer exactly wanted to say. If the author is no longer among us and thus cannot explain the obscure places, you can try to gather the missing pieces from several sources.

You might, for example, try employing the following points of view, once you have first defined what information it is that you are searching, and when you are sure that you cannot find it directly in the text:

  1. Make a summary of earlier interpretations of the text, if there are any.
  2. Study the context from where the text originates, if it is known. This context can incorporate several distinct spheres of activity.
  3. Study other comparable texts, for example other works of the same author or the same group of artists.
  4. Once the above studies have produced a number of fragmentary explanations or interpretations of the text, you have to estimate if they together give a picture complete enough. If some of the tentative interpretations seem not credible enough or insignificant, you should consider omitting them.

However, sometimes you have to study a text that you know almost nothing about, nor do you know the context from where it originates. The hermeneutic method has been created for these situations.

In the 17C the word "hermeneutics" was applied to interpreting the Bible. The word refers to Hermes, who according to ancient myth had the task of conveying messages from the other gods to people. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 - 1911) and others extended the use of the hermeneutic technique to all kinds of texts, and today it is also used to analyse non textual products of human culture. The paradigm of modern hermeneutics is thoroughly explained in Wahrheit und Methode (1960) by Hans-Georg Gadamer.

First researchers tried to play the part of the original author and simulate his context, history and manner of thinking. The researcher's own values and experiences were to be eliminated, "wiped out". Today we feel instead that such targets are impossible to reach; on the contrary it is better that the researcher consciously recognizes his preferences and also the tradition of earlier research and those interpretations that have been made from the same text. The task of research is thus to translate the text into the language of our contemporary culture.

The goal in hermeneutics is the same as in any humanistic study: to get deeper understanding of the object. The principal method is to inspect the object from alternating perspectives. It can be done even when the origin and context of the text is not known.

At the beginning of your study, you already have some preliminary ideas about your object. These notions have perhaps earlier been gathered in studies made by you or by others, or at least they are conjectures or guesses made by you. Whatever they are, this "first grasp" becomes the starting point in your inspection.
During the process, you then alternate the perspective, or examine the object from various angles. Each new examination improves your understanding of the object. Likewise, when you return to an angle that you have already used, you will often be able to find new insights, because in the meantime, the other views have improved your sensitivity in finding new aspects to the already previously well known facts and interpretations.

Alternation of the viewing points is called the hermeneutic circle (or the hermeneutic spiral, if you wish to imply that you are not repeating your footsteps but getting somewhere, i.e. deeper, with the method). You continue with it until shifting to a new angle no longer produces any interesting findings.

Hermeneutic spiralIf no other viewpoints of inspection are available (because of lack of information) it is always possible to alternate two views: a global view of the object, and a detailed view into the components of the object. These two views are both possible and fruitful in almost any research project. The idea is presented in the diagram on the right.

An often cited example of alternating global and detailed views is reading a poem. During the first reading, some words in the poem seem odd or enigmatic; but once you have read the poem entirely, you will probably be able to discover the special meanings that the words have in this context. And in the next phase, these meanings may inspire you to peruse the complete poem once more, which again may give additional novel insights to you.

Juha Varto (1992, 58) gives the following instructions for hermeneutic interpretation:

Hermeneutics is often used when studying the messages given by poems and novels, but it can also be used to study the themes of paintings and other depictive works of art. With this method, it is easy to proceed from the trivial level of what the work "portrays" to the deeper levels of what the artist perhaps "wants to say". For example, the question of what a certain painting represents can be answered at least on three levels of depth:

  1. what physical object the painting represents (e.g. a dove in a minaret)
  2. what it symbolizes (e.g. the war in Yugoslavia)
  3. what kind of vision of the world, or conviction, it is based on (e.g. peace or unification of Europe)

A famous example of interpreting a naturalistic picture are the many meanings that Martin Heidegger was able to squeeze out from a painting of van Gogh, depicting a pair of worn-out shoes.

The hermeneutic method is today one of the favorites of academic researchers. However, when using it you should always remember that you are dealing with your own interpretations, and that other people may quite possibly, from the same starting point, end up with very different interpretations. It remains thus unclear how valid the results are in the outside world.
You should not use hermeneutics if there are other ways of extracting the meaning of the original author like perusing his remaining papers if an interview is not possible. If these methods are not feasible, you should consider improving the plausibility of your hermeneutic findings by discussing and evaluating them in cooperation with other people. These could be your research colleagues, or better still those people that you suppose will utilize your findings.

Likewise, in the case that you have made a series of interviews and from them you have a bunch of obscure and ambiguous narratives, the right method for resolving the ambivalence is not to study the interview notes or tapes with hermeneutic methods. It is better to make renewed interviews and to ask the original informants for clarifications.

If your target is to discover which messages a text, or a work of art, gives into the minds of people generally, the hermeneutic method is not the best one. Instead, you should consider empirical methods like the interview, or perhaps experimentation.

Ex Post Facto Research

Archival study of documents is one of the few methods suitable for investigating events that fulfil either one of the following conditions: Typical topics for archival study include the vital decisions in human life: selecting a school, a spouse, occupation and habitation; later events in the personal circumstances and careers of these people; and which of all these could be regarded as causes and which as effects.
In the operation of business organizations, similar vital decisions are taken: fusions, investments, new buildings, new products; and what have then been the consequences in terms of markets, profits etc. Experimentation on such acute topics is impossible; observation might be feasible but at such critical moments, there is seldom any researcher present; consequently, the main method will be the study of documents. It could be complemented with interviews, if the studied events are recent.
Other usual topics for archival research include destructive events such as natural catastrophes, accidents, crimes; diseases and their causes; the national health status and threats to it.

In the study of archives like in other research, you have the choice of extracting either qualitative or quantitative information, or a combination of both. The qualitative methods in the analysis of documents were discussed above, under the titles of source criticism and hermeneutic analysis. The quantitative style, which is often called ex post facto research, will be discussed below.

A quantitative study of causal relations of actions which occurred a long time ago will be possible, if you have suitable quantitative records of the events. You will need an exact hypothesis on the causality, and records of the assumed independent and dependent variables, which were gathered both before and after the assumed causal influence. You then arrange the data so that you can calculate the correlation or other statistical association between the variables. For example, you may have the following (fictitious) data on a company's sales of cars during 1905 and 1906:
. 1905 1906
Colour of cars Only black Black, blue and red
Cars sold 8,000 23,000

The hypothesis could be that the rise in sales from 1905 to 1906 was caused by the enlarged choice of colours. Such a hypothesis is, indeed, corroborated by the evidence. However, there may also have been other, perhaps stronger, reasons that were never documented; so more research would be needed in this case.

You cannot always be sure of the direction of causality: which is the cause and which is the effect? For example, you may have found statistics which indicate correlation between the time spent watching violent TV programs and the aggressive behaviour of the viewers. However, on the basis of these data only, you cannot know which the right explanation is:

The examples above show some of the weaknesses of the ex post facto method: the insecurity of the results and the difficulty to verify or falsify the hypotheses. Consequently, the results of ex post facto research should always be confirmed with other methods if possible. This disadvantage is common to all archival research, of course.

Assessing the Information

The logic and method in a study of literature (or of other textual material) is usually simple: you find those passages of text which relate to your problem, and then you assess how exploitable they are, as seen from your point of view. The criteria in selecting and assessing literary material depend on your own interest in the study: why do you want to have this information? What will be its use?

Two usual goals in the study of literature are similar to two alternative goals of empirical study: either your approach is descriptive and you aim at gathering knowledge about the object of study without any intention of modifying it, or you normatively want to find out how the object could be improved. These two interests of study call for slightly different approaches and methods, as follows.

1. Descriptive approach. When your goal is to find out how things are (or how they have been), you will above all want to ascertain that this information is true. The normal method for this is Source Criticism.

Those sources that pass the test of source criticism speak mostly about things that existed or happened some time ago and often in another context than yours. Now it is important to determine what exactly is your interest in this information - do you indeed want to know what existed or happened in the original context, or is your final interest in your own context and time, and is it here that you intend to apply the information? After all, many empirical phenomena are so similar everywhere in the world that it would be a waste of time to study them all over again. The question now is, how generally valid is the information given by the sources that you have got hold of? Is this information valid in your environment, so that you can manage without doing an own empirical study on the topic? An approach that you can use in considering this question is presented in Validity Assessment.

2. Normative approach tries to define how things should be. The point of departure is perhaps an existing inconvenience that should be corrected, or a need of making improvements to the object of study or to later similar objects. The research project includes specifying or planning these improvements, and it sometimes continues as a development project where the plans will be carried out in practice.

A normative study seeks from literature not only facts about how things are, but above all models and exemplars for future work. This information can contain reports about what has been done in similar earlier operations or which improvements are in preparation. Other material of interest are general design theories for the pertinent type of development, such as standards, official regulations and designers' handbooks. Valuable could also be ideas about what could or should be done, even deliberately fictitious material: utopias have been used as a basis for social reforms. Works of art and idealized concept models at exhibitions of architecture or of cars have served other designers as starting points for their new productions. The crucial question when selecting material from literature is: Can we use and apply the ideas and models found in literature? Methods for this evaluation are discussed below in the paragraph Utility Assessment.

The above mentioned approaches and methods in the study of literature can be condensed into a table:

Approach: Key question: Method:
Descriptive: Is the information true? Source criticism
Can the information be applied to your context? Validity Assessment
Normative: Can we use the information for development purposes? Utility Assessment

Source Criticism

Written sources are usually solicited for two different types of information:

Of these, opinions and evaluations are normally accepted at face value by the researcher -- everyone must have the right to present an opinion, and the researcher's role is to collect, not censure them. How opinions are collected and analysed, is explained under the title Interrogating Methods.

Factual assertions are another thing. They can be either true or untrue or anything between. The researcher can now use only true information, and to eliminate untrue assertions which the original author has tried to present as true, the researcher can use the methods of source criticism.

In principle, the researcher should accept no written assertions unconditionally and without criticism. However, it would usually take too much time to check all the information in every source that the researcher is using, so the usual practice is to accept without new validation all that has been published in a scientific publication series. The same applies to texts in encyclopaedias and handbooks written by generally respected authors.

However, the researcher will probably want to use printed texts from many sources, with various degrees of credibility. These may, for example, include news in ordinary newspapers. Most of them are probably true, but certainly not all; so they evidently need verification.
Those texts that the researcher usually scrutinizes with greatest suspicion are private documents, especially autobiographies and other narratives that the individual has constructed after the event that they describe. Among documents, printed or hand-written, there is quite a continuum in credibility; and the researcher needs a selection of tools to check and criticize these documents.

The most efficient method of removing false information is cross-checking, obtaining information from parallel sources. In some cases, the sources will all be documentary. In others, you may try to find eye witnesses and interview these, or perhaps you may visit the site of the original object or action and record whatever can be found there.

Source criticism becomes difficult if there is no parallel information available and your only source is a single document. If that is the case, you should try to find answers to such questions as are presented by Chapin (1920) p. 37:

You can also consider the historical context of the writer and ask yourself:

Assessing Validity of Information in Your Context

Every fact that you can find in a report of empirical study actually concerns only the population of cases which have been observed. These observations perhaps have been made in another country and often several years ago. This is all right if you indeed want to know what existed or happened in that environment and time.

The situation is quite different in the case that you are not really interested in these distant observations as such, but instead you are concerned with similar objects or phenomena that exist in your own context. You then have the alternatives of either making a normal empirical study of these objects or phenomena, or finding a report of an earlier similar study and assuming that your own study would give similar results. This latter alternative does not give as reliable results, but it is quick and cheap and therefore widely used in practice. Indeed, many empirical phenomena are so similar everywhere in the world that it would be a waste of time to study them all over again.

Besides, many scientific studies have on purpose been focusing on invariances in empirical observations, i.e. on those characteristics that are common to all or most observations and which therefore can be expected to be true elsewhere, too, though this latter will always be a conjecture only.

If you decide that you can manage without doing a new empirical study on the topic and instead will use information from literature, the question arises, how generally valid is this information? Specifically, is it valid in your environment today?

There is no general method for answering this question, and in fact it is never possible to give an absolutely trustworthy answer to it, other than with an own empirical study. Nevertheless, some research findings seem to have a wider validity than others, and these research reports often share a few characteristics, such as the following which you can consider when evaluating the extent of validity of published information:

The nature of the phenomenon. Physical processes usually vary less than human behavior or social processes (or they seem to vary less, because we seldom study them on the level of individual molecules as we study people). Thus, if you want to study clothing, you will perhaps find a report on the strength of textiles quite valid in your context, too, while another report which concerns the social meaning of clothing might be inapplicable in your environment.

Extent of the earlier study. How large a population has been defined as the object of study, and how large a sample of it has been measured or registered? The larger, the better are your prospects when using the information given by a source.

Consistency of data. How large is the dispersion of measurements, qualitative observations, survey answers etc.? The smaller, the better. The questions about sample size and of dispersion are often combined into one statistic: statistical significance.

Beside the cases that have been studied, you may know about anomalies, cases that do not obey the invariance found in the reported project. Their existence weakens the credibility of the reported invariance, of course.

Date of the source. Though the facts given in a source have perhaps been true in their time, they need not be so today, not in their original context nor in yours. Physical invariances are not very inclined to change with time, and can often be taken as constant laws of nature, as contrast to many social processes which can change rapidly. There are also phenomena where the change is slow, such as pollution and the global climate change. If you can in advance estimate the rate of change of the phenomenon, you will be able to restrict the search of literature to a suitable span of years (i.e. when you study fluctuating phenomena you will accept only recent reports).

Definitions of key concepts, how similar they are to your own definitions? In research reports you can often find the definitions of pivotal concepts in an appendix. Some concepts are used quite uniformly all over the world, for example many physical processes and the methods and units of measurement (they are, in fact, standardized in all countries). Other words, such as 'service', 'accessory' or 'appliance' are used in many meanings. Studying a source where important concepts deviate from your own definitions will be arduous, and it can be quite erratic in the case that no definitions are given and essential words remain ambiguous.

Even when the definitions seem to be identical, there are many words that mean different things in various human societies. For example, a 'house' is everywhere defined very similarly, something like 'an individual building for a family to live in' but this definition would mean very different buildings in an arctic climate than in tropics, and therefore research findings about houses would often have no interest in other climates. 'Average car' means different things in various parts of the world, and the same is true for many other products in daily use by people. You thus have to consider the context from which the information comes. Is the foreign context so much like your own context that the information has for you the same meaning as in the country of origin?

Social groups can be compared by looking at their demographical data: averages and ranges of age, education, income, etc., which can be found in public statistics. If they deviate much from the numbers in your own country, you have to judge how pertinent is the literature that comes from a society so different from yours.

Utility Assessment

A normative project aims at improving the object of its study, perhaps removing an annoying setback or creating a better new product. It will be easier to plan improvements when you have information about similar operations which have been made or at least planned earlier. These can then serve as models and exemplars for your own work.

Information on earlier planned improvements can be found in literature, and it can exist in various forms. It can contain facts about what has been done, but it can also be ideas about what could or should be done. Even deliberately fictitious material can be found constructive: utopias have been used as a basis for social reforms, and works of art and bizarre concept models at exhibitions of architecture or of cars have served other designers as starting points for their new productions. Correspondence with facts and source criticism are therefore not as important in normative than in descriptive studies. Instead, the crucial question is: Can we today use and apply the ideas and models found in literature?

For answering the above question you need to know what kind of improvement you are searching, or at least you have to know exactly the existing problems and starting points for the future improvement. What is 'problem' and what is 'improvement' - their definitions and the criteria that shall be used in evaluating alternative proposals must come not from literature but from the present, from the needs of those people who shall use the intended improvements, i.e. what the project intends to attain.

The target for the normative study of literature - be it assisting to create a new product or a better state of things - and the criteria for assessing its fulfilment must imperatively exist on paper already at the outset of a normative study of literature, because they will give the basis for searching and selecting sources. The researcher must thus take care that the target of the normative project will be specified as soon as possible. This specification is often easily achieved because normally the need for improvement is being felt in practice already before a researcher is appointed for the study, and the researcher then only need find the people who know the problem and gather their opinions about the target.

There is a separate page that discusses the methods for defining the point of view of a normative research project and the methods for settling possible disagreements between interest groups.

Presenting the Results

Study of literature can be seen as kind of a dialogue between various texts (or their authors) and the researcher. Its report will consist of quite different types of information - unquestionable facts, doubtful and even erroneous assertions, personal opinions and evaluations - some of them written by the various authors of cited documents and some by yourself as comments or evaluations. You should write the report so that it becomes easy for a reader to distinguish between these types of knowledge and between the writers. This can be done by using different fonts, italics or other techniques that modern printing offers, not to speak of the options of HTML and other computer languages. For example, citations are often printed in italics.

Text from other writers. When you borrow either a fact or an opinion from another author, you have two optional styles: either paraphrasing it in your own words, or quoting it in citation marks, word by word. The rule of thumb is that quotations should not be very long, from five to ten lines at the most. You should also translate the quotations into the language of your report. You may add the ambiguous words in parentheses in the original language.

If you wish to condense a verbose original text, paraphrasing is the obvious choice, but it is also possible to omit unnecessary words in a quotation provided that you clearly indicate the omissions. Standard markings are three dots, or three dots in square brackets [...]. Clarifying words added by you are also to be enclosed in square brackets [ ].

Each quotation or paraphrase must be accompanied by a reference to the source, including the names of the author, and the book. The publication series often has rules on how these are to be presented.

In the references, Latin abbreviations are sometimes used, e.g.:

cf. = cfr. = compare (Lat. confer)
ib. = ibid. = same book or place (ibidem)
passim = in several places
op.cit. = the book mentioned above (opero citato)
s.a. = with no indicated printing year (sine anno)
(sic) = thus. You insert this word immediately after the quoted assertion which you think is false.

Your own text will be mainly comments to the sources and their evaluation from the point of view selected for the study. You should write it so that it clearly differs from citations.

Many of the normal general principles of research reports can be used when writing an account of a study of literature. They are discussed on the page Reporting.

En Español  In Finnish   Contents

August 3, 2007.
Comments to the author:

Original location: