Two Thesis-Generating Strategies for Complex, Difficult Sources

If the access to sources is your problem, that is, getting articles or books into your hands, remember that you can talk to the library’s Reference Desk staff and tell them what you need.  Interlibrary Loan now tends to be much faster for articles than it was in the past, because the library uses WorldCat to target neighboring libraries they know will have the source, and email is used to transmit scanned articles, often with a 48-hour turn-around time from your request.  If the publication charges for articles, do not despair.  In the worst case, I will make sure we can BUY articles you need if you can be very specific about a small number of articles and how you will use them.

If you are struggling to make unfamiliar and difficult articles reveal their pattern of evidence to generate your thesis, consider these two approaches to finding something to say. 

1)  Your Thesis Explains the Recent History of Expert Opinion About the Problem: Line the articles up chronologically and look in their references for who cites whom.  On a separate sheet of paper, sketch their relationship to each other in time by noting the kind of thing they are doing to your topic or how they are doing it.  Then, note how their publications reflect the flow of curiosity and conviction in the field, directing the research.  Where has the issue come from, from what original research, and where is it going, based on which kinds of essential findings that one or more scholars refer to?  If you can say that, you should be able to infer the next step, the one not taken yet, and that’s your thesis.

2)  Your Thesis Identifies the Most Controversial/Important/Effective/Dangerous/Recent/etc. Thinking About the Problem/Topic: Look at the articles for one that stimulates many later ones to attack and/or support it.  Look for a consistent pattern in articles’ estimate of the importance of a few aspects of a complex problem/topic.  Look for some agreement about the effectiveness or danger of a solution, or differing estimates of the danger of a problem/topic.  Or (worst case!) offer readers a survey of the most recent work in the study of the problem/topic.  Use the summary-overview evaluative strategy ("most scholars of X believe") with an endnote summary of citations to reduce the range of sources you have to discuss.  That sets up the field of information in which you are looking for a pattern of evidence upon which to found your own insight.  Then try to figure out why this aspect of the topic has become more controversial, important, effective, or dangerous, or what has made it surface in recent publications.