- Scholarly method
Scholarly method — or as it is more commonly called, scholarship — is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public. In its broadest sense, scholarship can be taken to include the
scientific method, which is the body of scholarly practice that governs the sciences.
This article focuses on scholarship in the narrower sense, covering rational inquiry in areas that are mostly too complex to yet be treated by science. These include
historyas well as the creations of the human mind in the form of art, music, literature, religion, philosophy, and cultural beliefs.
At present, scholarship is largely the domain of professional specialists, most of whom work as academics in universities, research institutes, and
museums; see Academia. However, there are also scholars who support themselves by writing nonfiction books or other publishable material; for example, the historianBarbara Tuchman was such a scholar, as is Dava Sobel. The military historian John Keeganworked for many years as an academic but is now an independent scholar.
Lastly, there are scholars who work at the highest level but are amateurs, supporting themselves with an independent fortune, with day jobs, or by the generosity of others. Such scholars played a far more important role prior to the twentieth century; examples are
Charles Darwin, Heinrich Schliemann, and Karl Marx. For more on amateur scholarship, see independent scholar.
Scholarship often attracts special personalities, particularly in those societies where it is not highly valued by the vernacular culture. Often, scholars are thought of as being cut off from their colloquial culture and intensely absorbed by their topic of study. Nevertheless, the impulse to become a scholar seems to be widespread. Those who teach in universities find that some of their students get "bitten by the bug" of scholarship and feel impelled to pursue the scholarly impulse despite the dubious prospects for job security that a scholarly career affords.
Scholars value data that is directly connected to
observation, for example, data taken from examining a composer's or author's manuscript, the proceedings of parliamentary debates, or diary entries. Such data are called " primary sources". Sources that synthesize and interpret information from primary sources are " secondary sources", and works that depend on secondary sources are called "tertiary sources". Tertiary sources are not without value--sometimes a work of tertiary scholarship is acclaimed for its insight--but scholars trust facts better when they come from lower-level sources.
One "source" of data that scholars generally consider unreliable is a scholar's own memory. This form of data storage often transforms facts into pseudo-facts, which are perhaps more vivid and entertaining, or which fit better with the scholar's own world view; see
Urban legend. The process of gradual transformation that occurs when material is stored in human memory, particularly when it is also transmitted by word of mouth, has been documented by scholars in folkloreand cultural anthropology.
To be sure, a scholar who can keep many facts in his or her head at once has a better chance of seizing upon an important new generalization, or of having a useful new idea. But a finished scholarly product is expected to be rechecked against primary and secondary sources.
Techniques in data gathering
Many scholars make use of technology to obtain data. For instance, special forms of lighting often serve to reveal otherwise-indecipherable writing on old manuscripts, particularly
palimpsests. X-rays and other scanning techniques can reveal paintings that were covered up by later work, or the stages by which a particular painting was created.
Text corpora also involve special methods. In the pre-
computerera, many scholars created concordances to important texts, such as the works of Shakespeare. In a concordance, one may look up a particular word and find all the locations where it occurs in the corpus. Concordances are now rendered largely obsolete by computers, which permit a large corpus of text to be searched very rapidly, and also allow for much more flexible searching methods than a concordance would. A number of important on-line text corpora currently exist and are still being expanded, such as the Gutenberg Projectand the Perseus Project.
Interpreting primary data
Often, obtaining data from primary sources involves the scholar in issues of interpretation. For example, older English literature dates from a time when spelling was not yet standardized, and sometimes it is not easy to determine what an author meant. The pronunciation of words long ago was often different, making it hard to infer the correct scansion of lines of poetry. In such cases, careful study of parallel material from the same historical period can often shed light on the question. For older pronunciations, consultation of the oldest dictionaries and use of the
comparative methodcan help.
Many older texts, such as the
Bibleor classical literature, were originally transmitted only in hand-copied form. Special methods have been developed for systematic comparison of the oldest copies, which can help in determining which sources are earliest and in locating interpolations and scribal error; see philology; textual criticism.
Scholarly communities use a number of methods to promulgate scholarship and to verify and improve its quality. For more on this topic, see
Works of scholarship are often published in scholarly journals. Like
magazines, journals are periodical publications, but they differ in important ways. First, they are typically open to submissions from any person (though submissions from individuals plainly lacking knowledge of the field are usually promptly rejected). Second, the mission of the journal is taken to be the dissemination of scholarly findings, rather than the entertainment or personal edification of its readers. (It is not unknown, of course, for one scholar to find another's work to be enjoyable, but this is not the main purpose of publication.) Third, all quality journals carry out "peer review", in which a submitted article is sent for examination by (what the editor hopes will be) competent and impartial referees. Ideally, articles that lack scholarly quality will receive negative evaluations from the referees, and the editor of the journal will reject the submission or ask for changes before it is resubmitted (possibly with another round of review). For a detailed account of this process, see Peer review.
The procedures of peer review are also followed, at least to some extent, when a scholar seeks to publish his or her findings in the form of a
book, as a chapter in a jointly-authored book, or in a Web-based electronic journal.
Contributions to scholarly venues are expected to provide bibliographic
citations to earlier work in the same area. This permits readers to put the claims to a better test by consulting the earlier work. Authors often engage earlier work directly, explaining why they agree or differ from earlier views. Ideally, sources are primary (firsthand), recent, with good ethos, credentials, and citations.
In principle, citation implies that there is a community of scholars, working together to expand and improve the scholarly edifice. To be sure, academia contains a number of scholars who pursue their own line, citing others little or not at all. Such scholars work at their own risk: they are often (though not always) considered to be cranks or to have lost the skill or knowledge needed to participate in scholarly debate.
Some have questioned the authority assumed or conferred by citation, considering it endlessly recursive, the authority of a work resting on its citations, the authority of which in turn rely on their citations.
Agencies that employ scholars (most notably universities) often attempt to replicate the scholarly process in their personnel evaluations. Thus, in promotion or
tenurecases, the scholarly work of the candidate is sent out for additional peer review from other scholars, often anonymous to the candidate. The goal of such procedures is to retain only scholars of proven ability and accomplishment in professional positions, and to reward the better scholars through promotion. See professor.
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