The process of research is ever changing and ongoing. Research is a constantly moving target that never ends.
The changeable nature of research.
While we have often written about sources used in original research, it is important to look at some of the complexity of research, as well. Instead of focusing on the actual sources used in research, however, I want to address the changeable nature of research.
Research is at times a living, breathing entity. Whether a new resource or learning about a new aspect of a culture, what we learn can change how we look at it. Galen and I, for example, specialize in Heian Japanese research. We study it from many angles and are always learning more. I have encountered people who are surprised that we continue to research something after we have “figured out” a specific aspect of Heian culture. Not only that,, but they are confused by the fact that we are not threatened by finding out that an earlier interpretation [of ours] is wrong.
I often compare research, particularly historical research, as assembling a puzzle.
In the context of researching life and activities in the distant past, it more closely resembles putting together a puzzle. You often do not actually know the final picture before you start. Half of the puzzle pieces are missing, and the puzzle pieces you do have are usually damaged and incomplete.
Similar to assembling the puzzles, then, we begin piecing together history with the information that we have access to. By pulling on multiple types of primary research, we maximize the number of pieces available to us. Still, we extrapolate likely interpretations of that puzzle based on an incomplete picture.
The earlier the time period that you research, the less primary sources you have to work with.
This is particularly true for those of us who do early period [historical] research. Areas such as Heian Japan, the Norse (Vikings), ancient Rome, can be particularly difficult. Many artifacts, such as textiles, paintings, scrolls, and wooden items degrade and become lost over that much time. The preserved pieces are rare and incredibly fragile.
Other aspects of life like personal beliefs, music and dance, and family dynamics are lost entirely unless someone took the time to write them down. The few instances where people recorded life in writing and are well preserved are some of the greatest gifts of history. Even when we are lucky enough to have written accounts, we are limited to what people felt worth writing about. More often than not, particularly in early period, everyday things people took for granted are not written down.
Historical research is an ongoing process of searching out fragments to make useful clues that slowly form pictures.
Researchers gather clues from many different places. Slowly a researcher pieces that information into something resembling a cohesive whole. Even once you think you have found that cohesive whole, though, research keeps on going. Researchers fine new digs, new translations, and new publications. Even new pictures of artifacts you have already seen pictures of can give you new insights that can change that cohesive whole.
Scholars prefer to be able to exam the extant artifacts personally, but that is not always an option.
Archaeologists and Anthropologists rely extensively on photographs, as we discussed in our article Photographs in Archaeology as a Primary Source. Artifacts are so fragile, so simply moving them from where they were found can destroy them. This is particularly true with textiles and scrolls. The photographs are vital to the survival of the history of the the artifacts. Sometimes, due to the erosion of time, the photos are all we have left. And, because the artifacts of a culture could be spread across museums around the world, photographs really help. Researchers are not always able to travel to every site that has something relevant to their research.
Even if we could easily access the artifacts, they represent only a very small portion of that available in historical period.
Often, our understanding of how a style of clothing was made, for example, is based a single garment. That one extant [original] piece can certainly indicate that the people of that time and place made a garment (or a piece of pottery, or a bench, etc.) in a given way. It is dangerous, however, to assume that because one piece, a shirt for example, that survived was made a certain way that therefore all shirts were also made that way.
An archaeological dig can overturn previous assumptions. It changes, often, how we think how things were done. Archaeologists constantly re-evaluate what they thought they knew as new material comes to light.
When we have ready access to abundant historical artifacts, research is still a constantly moving target.
We read the existing research, review the known artifacts, form a hypothesis, and draw conclusions based on the available evidence. And yet, later on, new research turns up that causes us to re-evaluate what we thought was true.
I have read that science can never prove that something is true. It can only rule out possibilities that turn out false. The more possibilities we eliminate, the closer to the truth we get. This is particularly true of historical research, as each new source of information improves what we know. So, I encourage you, to keep an open mind and continue to learn and adapt to new information. Get excited when someone discovers something new to your area of research!