One of the first steps in research is determining what you don’t know, so you can fill those holes with what you find. You start with an idea for a topic, pick your keywords and search strategy, and then begin searching in a database or library catalog.
But it isn’t always that smooth a process. Sometimes there’s almost nothing but holes in your understanding of a topic. This is especially true when you start researching in a field brand new to you.
That’s where background information becomes important. Before you can start researching anything, you need to have a basic context for the topic you are researching. This typically involves a basic understanding of dates, names, movements, jargon etc. All of this “sets the stage” for your research.
Most of us are familiar with the old standard of the background resources: the encyclopedia. There are many other sources of background information, depending on the nature of a topic: dictionaries, maps, textbooks, newspaper accounts, summary articles, etc. A relatively new background resource is Wikipedia, which is a variant of the encyclopedia.
There are many issues with using Wikipedia as a source for a paper, but fewer problems with using Wikipedia as a basic tool for starting to find background information.
For example, let’s say we’re interested in Mikhail Bakunin, but we don’t know anything about him (many thanks to LOST for picking character names that encourage viewer research).
If you know nothing, it may be hard to pick a library database or even a traditional reference book. Most are specialized – how do you pick the right one? Instead, we can start by looking at the Wikipedia entry. Here we can find helpful information that will lead us to create better searches:
Basic personal information:
With this information, we can now look for general books about Russian philosophers or Anarchist philosophy. We now know that he is contemporary with the 19th century rise of Marxism and Anarchism, and predates the Russian Revolution.
Influences and Detractors
Look to a encyclopedia of philosophy or academic textbook for more information on these philosophers. Now you have a framework for evaluating Bakunin; how is he different? What did he think of them? What do they think of him?
Writings & Associations
- God and the State
- The Patriotism
- Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism
- League of Peace and Freedom
- International Working Men’s Association
Look up his writings for primary source material and research the organizations he belonged to. How does Bakunin fit in with major movements of his day?
- The Bibliography, References and Further Reading sections give bibliographic information for more scholarly works on the topic. There are probably resources listed here that can be used in your paper.
By spending 5 minutes skimming Wikipedia, we now have several approaches we can take into the library to find more information. Instead of just doing a keyword search for Bakunin, we can now supplement with searches for marx and anarchism, russia and philosophy, or International Working Men’s Association and anarchism. With the names of his writings, we can quickly and specifically access primary source material either online or from another library.
There is certainly the possibility that Wikipedia will give you bad information, but you’ll quickly learn what is wrong as you try to include it in your library searches. As you read scholarly articles and books, you’ll also develop a deeper understanding than Wikipedia could ever provide.
Finally, remember that all background resources are tertiary resources. They are some of the least appropriate resources for citation in a upper-level research paper or dissertation (Okay, they’re still better than your buddy or some random thing you saw on the internet). You use them for background; the step before the real research starts. Remember that, and you’ll be able to place all of your resources in the proper perspective.