An incomplete textual tool box

Research Methods for English Studies

April 27, 2007

A book such as this is a sign of the times. This collection of specialist essays began as a response to reviews of postgraduate training by the English Subject Centre in 2001 and by the Arts and Humanities Research Board in 2002. Now all departments and institutions seeking funding for their students must show that they offer appropriate training.

The book is also a response to the fact that academics, too, have to be far more explicit nowadays about their research aims and methods when seeking funding or submitting publications to the research assessment exercise. In some respects all this is for the good.

But the book also signals ways in which English studies is being driven by research funding bodies in an atmosphere of accountability. This is a complex situation that makes for some contentious questions: about the distinction between strictly determinate, short-term one-off research projects (such as research degrees) and ongoing large-scale research processes that can take many lifetimes and are strictly unfinishable (that is, research as the continuous pursuit of knowledge, understanding and truth). The question is how immediately double outcomes relate to ultimately desirable values. Practically speaking, contributions to the book concern chiefly the former; but they are theoretically informed and engage with the latter, too. The overall result is a collection of "research methods with attitude".

Inevitably with a subject as capacious and flexible as English studies, the range of methods featured is very selective and deeply partial, too. Many of the contributions are from writers with a background in cultural history and the social sciences. For those who pursue research in "English studies in archival biography" and "life writing" (chapters two and three), "Oral history" (chapter four), "Visual culture" (chapter five) and "ethnographic writing" (chapter seven), this is good news. There is also plenty of guidance and support for those gathering material through "Interviews"  (chapter ten), applying "Quantitative methods" (chapter eight) and using "Information and communications technology", chiefly for text editing or analysis of corpora (chapter 12). Those approaching their topics with a gender emphasis, especially feminist, are also well served. The editor, Gabriele Griffin, who contributes the chapter on "Discourse analysis" (chapter five) as well as that on interviewing, is a professor of gender studies; and eight of the other ten contributors are women with a more or less overt commitment to sexual textual politics. This makes for a coherent and challenging research agenda. But it also means that matters of postcolonialism, class and ecology tend to come under "any other business".

I also wonder - and worry - about what has happened to other major dimensions of the subject and other equally rich lines of research inquiry. What about period and genre-based research? Where is the treatment of more formal and aesthetic matters - metrics or literature as singular art object, say? Indeed, where is everything from techniques of close reading and stylistic analysis on the one hand to the business of theoretical critique and the building of fresh theories on the other?

To be sure, there is a refreshing reappraisal of "technique as discovery" by Jon Cook in his overview of "Creative writing as research method" (chapter 11). And Catherine Belsey, provocatively if somewhat bizarrely here, offers an exemplary textual analysis of questions and suggestions that can be put to Titian's painting of Tarquin and Lucretia. But these account for less than a sixth of the book; and the latter is one of the very few forays before the 20th century.

This overwhelming emphasis on modern and contemporary texts is a disturbing limitation. It runs counter to the insistence in subject benchmarking statements that there be full acknowledgement of pre-19th-century literature. A forthcoming volume in the series on Textual Editing in English Studies is no excuse. For there is far more to research into earlier English language and literature - and indeed into other literatures in English and other Englishes (such as African and Asian) - than is treated in this book. It offers expert information and streetwise advice on certain research methods and areas of study, but it is far from the last word on the kinds of research that go on in and around English studies today.

Rob Pope is professor of English studies, Oxford Brookes University.

Research Methods for English Studies

Editor - Gabriele Griffin
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 248
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 978 07486 2154 5 and 2155 2

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