Search Terms for the Interdisciplinarian

Over the past few years, I have found that one of the hardest parts of research is devising a set of search terms.  I do not know if I am in the minority in this or not; I do tend to pick topics that flirt with the lines between different disciplines and my own, and on that line new ideas are often fleshed out and new words/phrases are invented or reinvigorated with a certain meaning in order to express those ideas. 

First, the obvious:  Why do you need a good set of search terms?  Perhaps the better way to phrase that question is “How do you take your research topic/question and decide what the key terms are?”  This is not always as straightforward as it might at first seem.  For instance, my topic is corruption, but more specifically it is a critique of the anticorruption agenda on the grounds that it ignores important sociohistorical and politicoeconomic intricacies in developing and third world nations.  At most out of that previous sentence, search terms could include:  corruption, critique, “anticorruption agenda”, development, and some play on the words sociohistoric/politicoeconomic/intricacy. 

The problem is that, in my humble opinion, such a critique is necessarily interdisciplinary.  This means that I am attempting to recognize and label ideas for which I have no specialized terminology or training.  I am, in effect, trying to reinvent the wheel.  If you place those words into a search database, you will get a long, very mixed set of search results, and going through them one by one to discover the key is a painstaking and inefficient process.  So you need a good set of search terms in order to acquire a strong, concise set of resources, which will define your starting point in your research. 

What, then, is a poor undergrad student to do in this situation?  Your partner the anthropology major is out of the country and your professors, as interested as they may be, are not in positions to help you redefine your set of search terms.  So you’re stuck staring at a Google Scholar page that has returned 1500 results on your search terms.  I think once you get to this point, you have to start improvising; find some roundabout way of getting at the sources you REALLY want.  Possible strategies:

1) Wikipedia:  Regardless of how you or your professor feels about the veracity of the entries in this online encyclopedia, it is often a good a first approximation of the issue at hand, and the fact that it is web-based means any theory worth its salt will probably end up on it.  Perhaps one of those theories comes close to describing your intended topic. 

2) Find an author:  This may seem a silly idea in light of the above discusssion; after all, how can you have a good author if you can’t run a good search?  Well the idea is that you don’t necessarily need THE seminal work on your topic.  What you need is someone who is making at least SOME of the claims that you would like to make/study.  You can get a source like this by going through articles/books you read for older classes or research projects ( NEVER DELETE/THROW AWAY OLD SOURCES FOR OLD PROJECTS).  Anyway, once you have that author that kinda sorta gets it, run her name through Google Scholar and see what comes out the other end.  She may have written something closer to what you want, or you might find someone who has cited her and who comes closer to what you’re trying to say.  Read that paper and if its close enough, devise some search terms based on that paper.  If it is closer but not yet perfect, then search the author again, or search using the new author that cited the original paper.  This is a process of elimination that can be very effective if you’ll take the time to read the articles/books you turn up.

3) One final possibility, probably often looked over by undergrads, is doctoral and masters theses.  Perhaps I’m just an optimist, but I tend to think doctoral/masters candidates are willing to be a little more daring than the establishment they are seeking to join.  Thus, a search on corruption (or some other topic) in dissertations may turn up a slightly more radical set of results than on an established academic search engine.  Also, because institutions are offering more and more specialized degrees, you may get lucky and find a department somewhere devoted entirely to the study of your topic.  Chances are that they have students who have written dissertations that are just what you are looking for, but not necessarily available on your local dissertation search engine. 

By the way, it turned out that the best search terms for me were:  networks, authority, legitimacy, corruption.

Who knew? 

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4 Responses to “Search Terms for the Interdisciplinarian”

  1. Charlotte Jones Says:

    Hear hear.

    You are not AT ALL alone in being daunted by the task of finding the right search terms and I am delighted to see from this post that your summer has been productive.

    You can take it from this teaching librarian who works with undergraduates that you are ahead of the curve in thinking with such insight about the fundamental importance of that task. Not that your colleagues are lazy, inept, or intellectually challenged. In fact, I’d suggest that most undergraduates are right where they are supposed to be–which is in the throes of being inculcated with the mores and jargon of their majors.

    That’s one of the goals of undergraduate, liberal arts education: to take a freshman and make her think, walk, and talk like a psychologist, or anthropologist, or economist by her senior year. Some professors may have forgotten what it was like to be uninitiated and to be bewildered by the lingo. That’s natural, I’m sure, but can be frustrating for the student.

    Your trouble is compounded, as you so clearly say, by the interdisciplinary nature of your topic . . . and by the iconoclastic nature of your critique. Gad. You’ve done a great job of using some rather unconventional, even edgy sources. Theses often are overlooked because they are not strictly peer-reviewed (and because they are not widely available), but what a great place to mine for terms and evolving concepts. And I like your take on Wikipedia. You’ve taken its weakness–the “everybody in the pool” inclusive nature of the content–and turned it into a strength.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and thoughtful post!

  2. Some humility is in order… « Philosonomics Says:

    […] a few minutes of toying with search terms (they’re not just for scholarship!), I found a rather curious website:  Semantic Reasoning.  It is a truly strange doppleganger of […]

  3. Bryane Michael Says:

    If you want a pretty good critique of the anti-corruption “industry”, try these slides:
    http://works.bepress.com/bryane_michael/44/

  4. Search terms: rearing their ugly heads again « Philosonomics Says:

    […] as the total time to run my experiment. This is a vexing problem. I commented a long time ago on the importance of finding appropriate search terms before you can get your project off the ground. Today I had a minor breakthrough after throwing up […]

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