Friday, March 26, 2010

Research only begins with information: patience, insight, and imagination are the most important parts of it.

Suffering from one of my occasional bouts with insomnia the other night, I came upon a message on the legal writing professors’ listserv from a professor who was seeking advice from students who were wondering what tricks or tools they might use to find the analogies and legal arguments that they were finding so difficult to discover in the course of their legal research. No doubt the hour contributed to the poor quality of my response. In her poem “4 a.m.,”Wislawa Szymborska writes that “No one feels fine at four a.m.” But the passionate rage I felt at the belief that there are simple tips and tricks to effective research of any sort was not purely the product of what Szymborska describes as “Hollow. Vain./Rock bottom of all the other hours.”

We have a serious misunderstanding these days about what constitutes research.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, research is the
Systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject.
Let’s assume that the inquiry is into a legal topic. The first element of research is a “systematic investigation or inquiry.” I suppose location of a database or the use of a particular search algorithm could be considered one sort of a systematic investigation, but to suppose that the notion of systematic investigation is exhausted by the location of sources is nonsensical. I can point students to particular treatises I personally find of great value in certain subjects, and of course legal research is filled with secondary sources and finding tools that fill virtually any style one might find useful in such sources. And we live in the age of databases — there are databases for everything.

But systematic investigation is barely begun, if even begun at all, by merely finding a source or set of sources in which answers might lie. The real art of research lies in the second part of that definition of the term: “careful consideration, observation, or study.”

The answers to difficult legal questions don’t lie around waiting to be found as if they are treasure chests left lying on forest floors. They are constructed and created by elements buried within the our universe of databases. Thus, research that is genuine research not only requires Sisyphean patience in combing through the sources, it requires also consideration, observation, and study of what one finds within those sources so that one can, first, identify the elements that matter, and, second, put those important, buried, and isolated elements together in some useful and novel way.
Perhaps more importantly, the identification of the elements that matter cannot be done without simultaneously developing ways of putting those elements together in some useful and novel way. How can you know what matters without knowing what purpose you are putting it to? And how can you decide what purpose you are trying to accomplish if you don’t know what elements you’ll have to use?

In short, research, analysis, and theorizing are all a single activity — finding things, making sure they are the right things, and putting them together in the right ways.

To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that finding the historical sources concerning the U.S. Civil War that James McPherson used in writing his brilliant history of that conflict was virtually all the work that had to be done to produce the book. After all, once one has found the sources, the writing is just a matter of stringing the information in those sources together, right?

Of course not. One must find the sources, of course. But the research is inseparable from the perspicacious mind that finds within those sources the elements that the creative and original mind then can mold into a work that educates, entertains, moves, and even convinces.

There is no such thing as research apart from insight and imagination. And an enormous amount of work.
And so, in perhaps the most coherent part of my e-mail the other night, I wrote:
Research is about drawing connections between ideas and words from wildly disparate sources, connections that can only be found by means of painstakingly patient reading of one source after another, tracing connections between sources that might be as seemingly trivial as the bare citation in one case to a another case in connection with a discussion in the first case that strikes the attentive and imaginative reader as potentially relevant to the legal issue he or she is researching. Obviously, tracing such connections (and the myriad of similarly subtle connections effective researchers exploit) requires an enormous amount of concentration, and enormous amount of patience with the continual following up of leads that go nowhere, an enormous amount of imagination to spot connections that courts don’t make explicit (and often don’t even recognize the true significance of), and an abandonment of the idea that engaging in research in this manner is to neglect (in some Luddite fashion) “tools” that can do the job so much more quickly and effectively.
Research is painstaking work that requires enormous imagination and is inextricably intertwined with and develops simultaneously with the development of the legal analysis the research is intended to support. (Which is one reason I go ballistic anytime someone suggests librarians rather than legal writing professors should be teaching research to first year law students, as if legal research is simply a matter of knowing sources and databases and how to develop effective word searches rather than being part and parcel of the writing and analysis.)
I’ve always told my students that law is as requires as much creativity and originality as any human endeavor. I mean it.

One last point: I don’t think Google is making us stupid. Yes, there is more information available to us than ever before. But, again, we can’t confuse information with research. Research is inquiry that contributes to knowledge. Information may be a sine qua non of research, but without attention, insight, and imagination, it isn’t research at all.


  1. Anjela Freeman3/28/10, 4:43 PM

    If there's one thing I've learned in law school thus far, it's that I'm never really “done” with research and data analysis. I've decided I just need to accept that fact, or I'll go a little nutty. There will always be more to understand about a particular legal concept and new paths I can explore in every analysis. I will never know it all. I will never be done. Learning the law isn't like completing a math problem where one answer is the correct answer. It's more like learning a piece of music. With music, there is always room for improvement or an alternative interpretation. And just because you know what keys to press down on your instrument doesn't mean you have all the knowledge you need to make beautiful music. Same with the law. A librarian could teach me to find dozens of books containing relevant information to a particular legal issue, but unless I know what to do with information, it's simply useless.

  2. F. Joseph said:

    Well said Anjela. In addition to that, I have learned ways to research in law school that have helped me in various ways. I am wondering why we are not taught this type of research in undergrads? Finally, I have heard many people spit out information and when I ask where did you get that info from they simply say "online" or "google". Obviously, not everything we find online is true. After all, motly anyone can post information online. The real research lies in sifting through the information and filtering the jib-jab from the fact-based information. It's up to us to find the relevant information and do the filtering, not the search engine.