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May 16, 2005
Shepherds Purse: Methodology
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The first section of this article is concerned with how I came to research
the topic, and how I went about it. In addition to talking about this specific
project, I'm going to talk about some general approaches that can be taken when
researching medieval material culture in general, but will be especially applicable
to topics being researched primarily via artistic depictions. Of course, there
isn't a single correct method of doing this sort of research, and the best approach
will depend not only on the type of artifact, but on the researcher's background
knowledge and the available resources. Some of the approaches I took were strongly
shaped by two resources I had easily available: the University of California
library system, and the World Wide Web. At the time when this topic first impinged
on my interest (back in 1981), I had neither of these available, and if I had
attempted to pursue the topic at that time, I would have done it rather differently,
and probably not as well.
A General Methodology for Researching Medieval Artifacts in Art
Here is a general outline of how I approached this project (with some additions
that may apply better to other types of artifacts). In following pages, I'll discuss
in detail how this approach played out in the current case.
I. Initial Stimulus
- spot interesting observation
- compare with current knowledge
- decide to explore further
II. Expanding the Search
- browse through general survey works
- announce interest and ask for suggestions
- track down original stimulus and look for commentary and references
- start systematic record of data
- bibliographic citation
- page or figure no., any relevant text (always take more than you think
- catalog/manuscript numbers and location information (helps keep track
of same item in different sources)
- start analytic record of data
- try to identify useful distinguishing features
- minimal time/culture context
- record new instances
- start looking for repeats or patterns
III. Focusing the Search and Exploring the Limits
A. Identified patterns
- begin looking extensively or exhaustively at contexts with known pattern
- identify more general types of contexts and begin looking at them
- consider both physical/cultural contexts and thematic contexts
- begin noting examples where the context predicts examples but none
B. Extrapolated patterns
- vary a single factor in the established contexts and explore
- look for the "edges" of the phenomenon, both in space and
- look for "holes" in the phenomenon
IV. Questioning the Results
A. Direct reproduction
- do you have enough information to make exact replicas of your topic?
B. Indirect reproduction
- what influences might the likely precursors or materials have on the
- what materials and processes produce an effect that "looks like
- what materials and processes produce an effect that plausibly functions
like the expected goal?
- do any of your steps involve teleological thinking? (i.e., doing something
illogical in order to get the desired result)
- what other contemporary artifacts or practices might reasonably be
expected to parallel your topic?
C. Healthy skepticism
- what other reasonable explanations might there be for the various features
of your data?
- what ulterior motives might there have been in the representations
in your data?
- to what extent does your data reflect unprocessed raw "recording"
and to what extent does it reflect existing stylistic traditions?
- what modern beliefs, knowledge, or agendas have you brought to your
study that you may be projecting onto your data?
- given your data, but not your analysis, what ideas do other people
come up with?
- who is your target audience?
- what use will they make of your information?
- do you have multiple audiences for different aspects?
- what types of presentations or descriptions will work best for your audience
- what type of distribution system will work best?
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