How to do research – special free sample

Soon I will be teaching my department’s ‘professionalization seminar’ — a course for grad students about the ‘secular’ aspects of being an academic and getting a job both within academia and without. This has meant a lot of stepping back and trying to formulate what it is that I do when I do professor stuff, as well as trying to explain to myself and others that while of course we have specialized skills, much of what we do is also valuable to people who don’t go on to purely academic professions.

This morning I was checking my email like usual, writing a blog entry and so forth, when I suddenly stopped and realized ‘hey, I should lecture on what just happened.’ So here is a rough draft of what I’ll do in class for people who aren’t at UH, a sort of free sample for everyone out — hopefully it will be worth more than you paid for it!

So here is the final result of the process I am about to describe today: a brief blog entry about Jack Barbalet, a scholar of Weber. Below I am going to describe how and why I wrote it. The goal is to describe one method of doing research on the Internet.

This morning I got up, made a cup of coffee, put on talk radio, and checked my email. I got one from telling me it thought I would like to read Weber, Passion, and Profits: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in Context by Jack Barbalet. At this point I had just ‘discovered’ it or ‘registered’ the fact that it existed, and I did so by having a ‘discovery network’ in place — a series of email lists, rss feeds, and recommendation engines that push new work to my attention. In exchange for giving too much of my money, I’ve trained it (or its trained me?) to tell me how to make it make me give it more money in exchange for books.

Key to doing research is having a discovery network in place to do the grunt work of navigating through the data smog for you. But even more importantly, constructing a discovery network is central to your professional formation, because it makes you ask yourself who you are and what sort of things you want to discover.

In many ways, your discovery network already discovers material out there and then evaluates it for you automatically, filtering through only the material you need. But the machine doesn’t know what you are working on at the moment, and of course is not as finally discriminating as your brain. So you need to filter the stuff your filters have been sending you. This is where the art comes in.

I got the email from Amazon and said, “who the hell is Barbalet? I’ve never heard of this guy before, and I’m not exactly a slouch in the scholarly literature on Weber.” So I scrolled down to read the review included in the email:

“Where secondary sources about Max Weber’s oeuvre often show too much deference to the old master, Jack Barbalet’s re-appraisal of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism refreshingly dissects and contests its core thesis. Not only does Barbalet provide a sophisticated historical contextualization of this highly influential book and trace its links to Weber’s other writings, he also deploys his expertise in the sociology of emotions to mount a serious challenge to Weber’s central arguments and to contrast them with those of Adam Smith and Thorstein Veblen. This makes Weber, Passion and Profits a real tour de force, and surely required reading for anyone interested in Max Weber’s ideas and in the history of social thought.” – Dr … Read more

Hmm.. sounds interesting. But the biggest problem with this blurb is that I can’t see who wrote it. Knowing who is recommending a book, frankly, more important than who is recommending it. So I click on the link and read more reviews, from authors whose work I know and respect. Having perused the virtual back cover, it is time to turn to the next way of evaluating the book — its virtual table of contents, available on Amazon’s “look inside” feature.

At this point I decided that I would like to take a look at the book, since I teach Weber in my theory seminar. So I go to the online catalog of my university library to see whether we have it. We don’t — which makes me curse inwardly even as I realize that I probably have other projects on my plate at the moment that are more important than reading about Weber. So what is the next step?

Find the person
We all learn that education is reading books, but as you move through your graduate career a key skill to develop is recognizing that what you are really reading are people, and people formed into communities of research and thought. (The final insight, that these people are themselves conglomerations of books, we can leave till another time). So when you find a book that looks interesting, what you have actually found is a colleague whose thought you would like to have an encounter with.

So evaluating Barbalet’s book was in some sense evaluating what he and I might have in common intellectually. Potentially a lot, I thought, so I googled his name. Luckily, he has a web presence which is designed to make it easy for me to get to know him professionally. This helps me connect with what he’s doing in several ways. For instance, his broader intellectual program, including work on the sociology of emotions, William James and pragmatism, and China and capitalism. Fascinating — what would the inside of someone’s brain look like if they began comparing James and the pragmatists with Weber? They’re very different flavors of repressed Victorians. And how would one build one’s project out to China — a very ‘value relevant’ topic in today’s world — from earlier writing about Weber and the Protestant ethic? Sounds interesting!

Now that I have some sense of the project, I can check the bibliography and decide how to get access to it. Immediately I see that chapters for his Weber book were published as journal articles, so even if my library doesn’t have the book I can probably cherry pick bits with the resources that I do have. In addition if I want to pursue the sociology of emotions or the William James angle I now have a wide variety of pieces that I can selectively target in order to get a taste and see if I want to have a deeper engagement with it. And finally, I now have a sense of his recent and forthcoming work — the next time an article by him, or blurbed by him, comes across the transom I’ll have it flagged.

Store in your outboard brain
Great. So eight months from now I might have a chance to look at one article from Barbalet — that sounds like pretty long odds. What are the chances I’ll even remember that I ever heard of this guy?

There are lots of ways to store your judgments and preferences about scholars, including numerous websites, social bookmarking services, etc. etc. etc. I have tried many of them and for one reason or another they don’t work. I need an outboard brain with ridiculously low barriers to entry and almost zero clicks to find what I want. So I’ve developed two methods for storing and remembering people and their works.

The first is my blog. I wrote my blog entry as a way of remembering that I found and was interested in Barbalet. I can search it easily via Google (golublog + any number of keywords like “that one guy… who studies weber… yeah…), and search it chronologically (“I found his web page right before the fall 2008 semester began). Even more importantly, taking the time to write a blog entry increases my chances of finding it because it increases my chances of remembering it. Just clicking a ‘tag this’ bookmarklet on my toolbar for Yet Another Bookmarking Service is too easy — I need to do a little bit of work to get this guy into my head and fingers.

The second is my office. Checking out a book by him and putting it on my bookshelf is a great way to keep his work in view. When people come into my unbelievably cluttered office, they see books everywhere, but I see reminders. I think that people, and especially grad students today, forget that paper is an affordance, not an inefficient form of PDF — you have to learn to use its physical qualities and play to its strengths. Surrounding yourself physically with objects is a good way to keep your mental topography alive and well.

There are other options as well — downloading PDFs on your computer, and so forth. But these are the two strategies that I use the most

Rinse and repeat
This was a shortened version of what I did this morning — I spared you all the details about how I mentally positioned this guy in WeberScholarSpace, for instance — but it is also a much longer version of what I did. It took me between seven and ten minutes to do all of these steps, and the vast majority of that was wrangling the URLs for the links into my blog entry. Depending on what is pushed to my attention, and how focused I am on any particular project I might do this five or six times a day. When I am beginning a new research project I might do it all day. Its fun to meet new people!

In fact I’m not really sure this counts as ‘research’ so much as it is ‘part of living the life of the mind’. Being able to do this sort of thing regularly, to quickly and easily learn important things you need to know, is a vital skill to have as an academic — and as just about anything else.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

9 thoughts on “How to do research – special free sample

  1. This is just wonderful – thank you! We’ve been doing research on exactly these sorts of processes in order to build a new kind of library “catalog” that supports the work practices of real live scholars. We’ve interviewed almost 100 people at four institutions amidst their books, papers, and computers and will be rolling our findings into design and development. (See for more information. btw, anyone who is willing is invited to comment their own work process there, too.)

  2. Quite effective. Almost an academic version of “Getting Things Done.”
    Also useful is the very thought process of going back through the steps which led you from the recommendation to the blogpost(s). This is probably something a lot of us have trained ourselves to do: tracing back streams of thought. Allows for a special kind of multi-tasking, well-suited for creative fields. It can possibly get you to experience what Csíkszentmihályi called “flow.”
    And, yes, this process is very literally “meta.”

  3. Thanks for an interesting read; one thing that this kind of creative process diagramming reminds me of (Getting Things Done cheerleader) Merlin Mann’s Mann is a techie guy, and I forget exactly what it was that led me to his site since it’s outside my techie ken a lot of the time, but he’s another guy who’s very interested in the mundane processes behind creativity. Generally it’s not from an academic perspective, but it overlaps with your post here, Rex, in that he talks about how automated tools (like Amazon reccomendations) interlock with the the exploring and reading that so often plugs into ideas for organized research and writing projects. Nancy, Rex, and Savage Minds people in general might find him an interesting read as a source for ideas relevant “research/organization/productivity tools for academics.”

  4. One of the lessons that has stuck with me from my Linguistic Fieldwork course (intentionally not listed as “Linguistic Field Methods,” but that’s another sidebar) is my instructor telling us that throughout his career he made a point never to hire a graduate assistant to turn his field notebooks into slip files (in the old days) or databases. He said that the process of organizing his data was really inseparable from analysis for him. What actually made the point stick with me was the rather elegant analogy of the lab scientists who had their best ideas when they were washing out beakers.

  5. Luke’s right to notice the resonances with GTD here — in fact I’ll be teaching some of that personal productivity literature in the professionalization class as well.

  6. Thanks for sharing your process. As an academic librarian, I’m always eager to learn how faculty members and students navigate the flow of online information in their everyday lives. Reading about how you move from discovery via Amazon and then to access by looking up the title in your library’s catalog made me wonder if you knew about a few useful shortcuts. Your library appears to have built a search plugin for the Firefox browser, which would allow you to copy and paste the book title into the Firefox search box and run the search in the library catalog. Another option, if you’re a Firefox user, is to install the Book Burro extension, which will automatically do a lookup in WorldCat (which should have UH holdings in it) whenever you are viewing a book description page in Amazon.

  7. I’ve seen Bookburro around before — its an interesting tool, but ultimately its about finding low prices on books, not discovering free content online. Now if they had a link to Google Books on there, the publisher’s website…. 🙂

    I won’t get started on tools for use in the UH library — as a geek I still want an interface that lets me tell the computer what I want rather than having it guess — “guide” — me to what it thinks I may want. Typing “Islands of History” or Sahlins, Marshall and not getting the records I needs is suboptimal — I yearn for the days of au:sahlins,marshall

    The other thing about living in Hawaii is that you install BookBurro, ask for books in nearby libraries, and are told all you have to do is fly 2400 miles to San Fracisco…!

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