What is Literary Research? - Definition & Strategies

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  • 0:02 Defining Literary Research
  • 1:12 Developing a Thesis
  • 1:48 Literary Theory
  • 3:42 Finding Material
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

What is literary research, and how do you begin doing it? This lesson will help you understand the task and the process, and some of ways of understanding a literary text.

Defining Literary Research

When you think of research, do you picture scientists in lab coats with test tubes and experimental rats? That is a common. But, as a student, you may have been asked to do literary research, and are probably confused about what that means and how to get started. Well, here we go!

The first thing to think about is that 'literary' relates to literature. Research usually means finding something new: a substance, a formula, or an invention. So, literary research means finding something new within a literary work. It really is that simple. Just like a lab scientist, you are being asked to take what is already there and find a new way to interpret the information, and then discuss it.

The first thing to do is get familiar with what research articles and papers look like. You can find many articles online by simply searching for the title of a work and adding 'academic articles' to your search terms. The research librarian at your school or public library should also be an excellent source for help. This might seem time consuming, but you can't expect to write something if you have no idea what the finished product should look like.

Developing a Thesis

There are basically three ways that you can approach your own literary research paper. You can find an article about the work and disagree with it, you can find an article that you agree with and expand the author's opinion, or you can come up with a completely new idea. The important thing is to argue some point; say something specific about the literary work.

Your thesis, main idea, has to be an argument of sorts. This isn't a book report, in which you simply summarize the book. One way of looking at the task is that there must be two sides to an argument, so whatever you're saying about this narrative, there must be other people who would disagree with you.

Literary Theory

Here is the particularly difficult part for students unfamiliar with literary research. Theories are ways of looking at a work that guide the writer to make certain points or assumptions about the text. Here are just a few examples:

First, let's look at Marxist theory. Using the ideas of Karl Marx, you might look at a fictional text and what it says about power and wealth. Marx believed that every story, both real and fictional, concerned economics and power structures in society.

Another theory considers history. You're probably already familiar with the idea of looking at what was happening historically and culturally during the concept of a book. For example, if you studied Shakespeare in school, your teacher probably gave the class information about the theaters of the time and daily life in Early Modern Britain.

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