Literary research

Nathan Furr finds many reasons for doing literary research.  He summarizes these to be “Experiencing the Other, learning compassion and service, gaining insight into ourselves, finding new ways of thinking, understanding and writing more clearly, and uncovering the joy of discovery and creation” (Furr, 3).  To these he also adds essentially, the power of literary research to combat misinformation.  Generally, Furr’s reasons are similar to my own; however, I would make some changes to his conclusions.

Two of Furr’s claims with which I unequivocally agree are that literary research allows one the ability of “understanding and writing more clearly” as well as a major reason for literary research being “uncovering the joy of discovery and creation.”

These two reasons are of key importance because the detective aspect of literary research is a large part of what makes it so appealing to me.  By extension, a pile of research serves little value even if the research was conducted merely out of my own curiosity because the compiling, organizing, and writing are all essential components in answering the initial question.  Without the writing forcing me to synthesize the facts I have discovered and draw coherent conclusions, the research itself as well as whatever conclusions I drew are more easily forgotten.

The first reason Furr lists is “experiencing the Other.”  While this does seem like a valuable reason, I would more likely phrase it as “expanding one’s world view.”  At least for me, this broader category makes more sense.  In the example he gives about the man from Poland, I think not only do we get to see the world from his perspective, but through oral histories like this we gain a valuable insight into the time and place described.  Thinking of it as experiencing the Other feels uncomfortable to me in that it seems to separate the researcher from the research subject, and as I think Furr would agree, that distance is exactly what literary research often seeks to minimize.

While Furr’s claim that literary research can aid in “finding new ways of thinking,” I had difficulty with his example of research for buying a computer.  At the end of this paragraph, he summarizes the process of research saying, “We start with a problem or question, being researching, follow leads, assemble materials, and then create a product” (Furr, 2).  I agree that this is how research is conducted; however, is that really finding a new way of thinking?  It seems more like gathering information to form a conclusion and it should thus be labeled something more like “providing information.”

I think this is especially true because, aside from his example, literary research does not necessarily facilitate the discovery of new ways of thinking.  I think it is possible that one could research a topic and emerge with a legitimate conclusion or “product” but without any new way of thinking about the problem beyond having found a satisfactory conclusion.  Ideally, this would not be the case.  Anyone conducting literary research would discover a new way of seeing a problem, but I think it is too broad a generalization to assume that this is always true.  At any rate, I think if this is truly what Mr. Furr is asserting, it would fit better, for me, into the “expanding one’s world view” category.

Furr also sees “gaining insight into ourselves” as another reason for doing literary research.  In describing this reason, Furr states that through literary research many people seek to essentially “unlocking what we have always known and affirming it to ourselves. (Furr, 2).

This seems to be Furr’s most direct reference to researcher bias.  I found his lack of a full discussion of this topic to be a major shortcoming of his article.  True, research in it most basic form involves uncovering information, but the world—in literary and historical senses as well as many others—is a very complex web of thoughts, experiences, and interpretations.

I would argue that there is no one Truth, and the belief in such a thing is naïve.  The most obvious case would be the Bible.  Many different people seek to use the Bible to support very different claims.  Often passages sighted are contradictory and can easily support conflicting contentions.  The literary researcher does uncover information, but what is uncovered is only part of the story.  Which part is uncovered is largely reliant upon the sources one utilizes.

The selection of source is also a product of bias.  For example, I would not use a Hindi newspaper, nor would I look to an un-translated Mayan text.  These two can be seen as extremes because of linguistic inaccessibility, but in doing research we generally gravitate toward sources with which we are comfortable whether books, popular media, scholarly articles, newspapers, oral histories, or any number of available source material.

Beyond comfort with sources, I think Furr’s assertion falters in that it does not explicitly take into account that researchers find what they seek.  This affirming of one’s own beliefs is key to researcher bias because, for example, people who want to claim that the Holocaust never happened, will do so regardless of any information others try to point out to them.  Further, they will conduct their own research and doubtless find material that supports their conclusion, however false that conclusion may seem to be.

Furr discusses the power of misinformation, but fails to consider the fact that many people do research and come up with unpopular conclusions that fly in the face of nearly all other findings.  Simply because we know it happened, when looking at the issue of the Holocaust we can claim that people denying it existence are spreading misinformation, but with more complex issues, and issues for which there are not survivors, it becomes clear that one person’s misinformation can be another’s highly researched cutting-edge discovery.  It all depends on where you look and what you are hoping to find.

Another of Furr’s reasons for literary research—learning compassion and service—seems a bit optimistic to me.  Of course, we would like to believe that knowledge conquers darkness, but again compassion is a highly subjective issue.  Many people research literature, science, and history either explicitly in search of or resulting in reasons to assert their own superiority and use to oppress others.  One example would be people who researched, and still do research, on the biological inferiority of minorities to perpetuate and legitimize racist practices.  Finding compassion in such research is difficult if not impossible.

In terms of service though, I enjoyed Furr’s claim that research is an ethical action.  While again this statement seems a bit simplistic, I think the argument he quotes from Altick and Fenstermaker that literary research can serve to extend “the traditional boundaries of scholarly and critical interest” is a valid one (Furr, 2).  While I do find Furr’s claims to be optimistic, I agree that in the best-case scenarios they are both true and of extreme value, but it is important to highlight some possibilities for which his arguments do not seem to account.

I do agree that there are many important reasons both personal and social to undertake literary research.  Perhaps the strongest impetus for doing research is curiosity, “is that so?  I’ll look it up.”  On an individual level when someone makes a seemingly unrealistic claim, literary research is an important tool in satisfying curiosity and quelling argument.

Investigating misinformation is also very valuable on a larger social level.  This calls to mind the Program on International Policy Attitudes 2003 study that surveyed Americans to determine their rate of misperception about three issues surrounding the Gulf War and found that 80% Fox News viewers held at least one of the misperceptions (PIPA, 13).  To me, this illustrates the importance of literary research more than any other example.

If one accepts information from one source uncritically, then they are completely at the mercy of that source’s biases.  While I believe it is true that a researcher is limited by their own biases, at least those biases are their own.  Exposure to sources with different biases is important in opening up new avenues of inquiry, but undertaking literary research is vital to locating other biases and interpreting information provided by those sources.  Literary research then is the key to knowing not only one’s own mind, but understanding the minds of others, and thus one of the most valuable tools anyone can employ in developing intellectually, personally, and socially.

Works Cited

Furr, Nathan. Literary Research: The Importance of Process and Product.

Kull, Steven. “Misperceptions, the Media, and the War in Iraq.” 2 Oct. 2003. Program on International Policy Attitudes. 22 Dec. 2006 <>.