Updated: Sep 23
Many people dream of doing their own independent research, often for very personal reasons. Perhaps there is a book you want to write, or a research project you would like to do; something you feel that you can uniquely contribute to the world. Following on from her previous post about the value of independent researchers, Dr. Orton explains the first steps in starting an independent research project.
I’ve always wanted to do independent work of some sort. My dream was to be able to set off on intrepid, exciting adventures while at the same time pursuing projects that were really important to me. As a natural introvert, I feel most comfortable on my own, where I’m responsible for my own destiny.
Having said all this, one thing I’ve learned is that even the best independent work has an element of collaboration and community. I wrote in my last post about how important this is, and I encourage you to reach out to other researchers.
However, this can be intimidating and if you’re not ready to reach out just yet, there are some steps you can take to get started. I’m mainly using the example of conservation research projects here, but do read on for more information about how you can use the same approach for any subject in the humanities.
First of all, research into your own topic starts with you: think about why you want to do this and what you hope to achieve. It might be that you are researching something you think we need to talk about more, or perhaps you or your family have links with a historical event or under-researched topic. The first step is to get well-versed in the conversation so you can be a part of it!
Scholarly resources to get started include Google Scholar, a search engine that will allow you to find scholarly literature on your topic. Put in the key words related to your topic and browse the articles that come up. Reading the abstracts of these will give you an idea of how helpful they will be. The ‘related articles’ and ‘cited by’ functions will help you to build your list of resources and get a sense of the academic climate surrounding your topic.
Particularly look out for work that has undergone peer review (in which the author’s work is reviewed by experts in the same field before being accepted - often with revisions - or rejected for publication). That way, you know that what you are reading is of a high scholarly standard.
It might also be that there are well-respected resources of particular relevance to your area. For philosophy, for example, I and many others use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, whose entries are refereed by a qualified editorial board and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which provides peer-reviewed overviews of topics in philosophy. I’ve used these sources for theoretical background in other topics, too, such as political theory and anthropology, including my own work in conservation.
It’s also a good idea to identify canonical works and central ideas in your area. This will differ across subjects, so please do feel free to contact me for suggestions relevant to your own topic. Following on from my own work in community engagement in conservation, here are some academic readings I’d recommend to get started with building your own approach to ethical, people-centred fieldwork:
One of the most important things to me has always been to prioritise the voices of local people, acknowledging their expertise about their own communities. This is where the concept of vernacular theorising comes in: an idea that helps anthropologists, folklorists and human geographers to study people in a localised setting by treating these communities as partners in knowledge production. I explain a bit more about this concept in my blog post about interdisciplinary research.
In terms of canonical academic literature, Charles Briggs’ article on vernacular theorising is a good place to start. Leonard Norman Primiano also proposes the use of the concept of vernacular religion, which he defines as “religion as it is lived.”
It is also worth thinking about how you can integrate your fieldwork into your own life – and how your own unique background can be used as an asset. Tim Ingold has recommended that anthropologists should not be demarcating a clear boundary between fieldwork and non-fieldwork life. He explains more in an interview here on ‘ways of living.’
The great ethnographer E. E. Evans-Pritchard held that students of anthropology should study more than one society, on the grounds that they will gain different perspectives and fruitful lines of inquiry. Evans Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande is worth reading in its own right as an important anthropological ethnography. I would add to Evans-Pritchard’s remarks that the student of anthropology – or of folklore - should not discount his or her own culture as an object of study. As Renato Rosaldo points out, ‘corridor talk’ in academic anthropology unfortunately still sometimes implies greater and lesser degrees of culture among societies while at the same time, our own cultural selves become invisible.
Not only is it important to do this reading in order to be part of the conversation and be taken seriously yourself, you’ll find that this reading prompts ideas for developing your own work and improving your skills and experience as a researcher. For example, as a result of thinking about the issues raised by Evans-Pritchard and Rosaldo, I chose to study Berlin’s techno club culture among ex-pats and transient visitors to the city in order to challenge my own perspective (read my Berlin blog post to find out more about this).
Do remember that this is an organic process. You will find your own path, but these are good places to start your research if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Finally, even independent research can be collaborative. As I mentioned in my previous post, friendships with other independent researchers have been fundamental in holding myself to a high standard, and a means of bouncing ideas around and developing my own approach. I’d love to hear from you – contact me to discuss your ideas!
Of course, your project might not be in the area of conservation. I also have resources for people interested in other areas of the humanities and my research methods blog series provides general advice on independent research.
You can also read some of my other posts on Philosophy, Politics, Classics, Religious Studies, History, Art History and Anthropology. I’m also available for consultations and tutorials with independent researchers, interested learners and people writing a book. Learn about my approach and read testimonials from other researchers I’ve worked with and contact me to find out more!