How to do research using primary source methods

by admin on September 25, 2011

A primary source is basically source material that is closest to the person, information, time period, or idea that is being studied, such as surveys, interviews, and observations.  It is contrary to secondary sources, which is information that has been passed through another person, medium, or agent.  A primary source typically includes any sort of data that you collect yourself.  Researchers often include both primary and secondary sources, weaving them in a coherent manner into their papers.

Learning how to conduct research using primary sources can be invaluable when it comes to writing a research paper.  Primary source material can be valuable contributions to your paper, complementing the secondary sources that you use, such as magazines, books, journals or newspapers.  Primary source material can also be used as the central focus of your research, and can be applied to a variety of situations, such as business, academic, and even personal.  Primary research is particularly useful for new, local issues that require research in order to clarify the situation.  It can also be used when writing on a specific person or group, in which case interviews with the subjects can prove to be an invaluable addition to your research.  Primary research can also be helpful if the subject that you are studying is relatively new, with little previous research and secondary sources that you can refer to; in this case, you must venture forth and create your own data.  Often times, primary research is also used to clarify and confirm previous results, assumptions, and hypotheses, such as through surveys and experimentation.

Ask yourself a few questions before you begin your research.  What is the purpose of my research?  How would it benefit from primary sources?  How would the primary sources be integrated with my secondary sources within my paper?  How central and necessary are primary sources to my research?  How will I gather the data?  Do I have any preconceptions that may influence my data collection?  If so, how can I limit these preconceptions in order to produce objective findings?  Evaluating these questions can help you to begin to use the primary source research method.

In addition to evaluating yourself and your research method with such questions, you should also evaluate the primary source material that you encounter.  When evaluating primary source material, you can ask yourself the following questions to assist in your evaluation:  When was the information gathered?  What assumptions and preconceptions could the author have had?  How could his or her biases possibly have limited the objectivity of the research and data collection?  What is the purpose of the author’s research?  How does this impact on your own research and findings?  These questions are often known as the Five W’s:  Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

When conducting your own primary research, there are several options that you may wish to consider, in determining the type of research that you wish to conduct.  For example, primary research typically takes the form of interviews, surveys, observations, or analyses.  Interviews are normally conducted with individuals and small groups, and are useful in collecting focused information.  Surveys are used when more data is needed, and are helpful when trying to determine patterns and trends from a large population.  Observations are typically employed when attempting to study a situation without the bias that would come from the personal opinions within interviews and surveys.  Finally, as the researcher, you could also conduct an analysis when attempting to determine trends and patterns, organizing data from various sources and drawing relevant conclusions.

All this could help you to conduct research based on the primary source method.  For more information on primary sources, consult the Purdue OWL website (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/2/8/) and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_source).

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