We divide things into categories in order to make some sense of and interpret all sorts of different things. Stores are arranged according to categories that tend to make sense of what’s in them for shoppers—for example, department stores divide their merchandise up into categories like women’s clothing, hardware, sporting goods, housewares, and so forth.
We also expect things to be categorized in a descriptive and sensible way. Department stores tend to arrange things by what you might use them for and who might use them: kitchen things are in one part of the store, sheets in another, women’s clothing in one part, and men’s clothing in still another part. These categories aren’t the only way the department store owners could arrange things. They could arrange things by color—all of the blue things in one part of the store (blue cookware, blue sheets, blue shirts, etc.), all of the white things in another part of the store, and so forth. While that might make for a visually interesting store, it would be very difficult for customers to find anything in such an arrangement.
Categorizing your research will:
- Help you (and eventually your readers) make better sense of what sort of evidence you have.
- Enable you to compare and contrast different pieces of evidence and to evaluate your research, which is an essential step in the process of research writing.
- Give you get a clearer sense of the evidence that you have and the evidence you are lacking.
Dividing, Conquering, Categorizing: A Few Rules to Follow
While there are no formal rules for categorizing your research, there are a few guidelines that you need to consider as you begin to categorize your research for the purposes of writing about and evaluating it.
- You have to have a significant body of research to categorize in the first place. Hopefully, you have started compiling an annotated bibliography (see chapter six) and you have been working on adding to your annotated bibliography as you have progressed through the other exercises and projects in The Process of Research Writing by gathering materials from the library, the Internet, interviews, and so forth. If you haven’t done these things yet, you probably aren’t ready for the categorization and evaluation essay exercise.
- Each piece of research has to fit into a category. No matter how you decide to categorize your research, be sure that all of it can be put into at least one category.
As you try to meet this guideline, be careful to follow the next one as well:
- As much as possible, each category should have at least two pieces of research. Avoid having categories with just one item. One item categories don’t allow you to make comparisons or generalizations about how things might be similar; they only demonstrate how things are different, which is only one of the functions of categorizing your research. Also, if you allow yourself one item categories, it can often be a little too tempting to make too many one item categories.
If you get completely stuck with what categories to put some of your evidence in, you can create a “miscellaneous” category, though I would encourage you to avoid it if you can. Having categories that are more specific than “miscellaneous” will help you in writing about these categories and what they mean for your research.
- Categories should be as distinct and different from each other as possible. If there is no difference between the items that you put in the category “from newspapers” and those from the category “from nonacademic sources,” then put all of the sources from both categories into only one category.
- Last but not least, categories should make sense and tell you and potential readers about what your think of your evidence. It probably wouldn’t make much sense and wouldn’t be very meaningful to have a category consisting of articles that appeared on page four of newspapers, or a category consisting of articles that were published in journals with titles that begin with the letter “R.”
Sometimes, categories that might seem to be illogical actually make sense once they are explained. It might not seem to make much sense for a writer to categorize his evidence according to the gender of the authors. But if the writer is trying to make a point about how men and women hold different attitudes about the topic of the research, it might make quite a bit of sense to have at least one category that examines the gender of the source.
Some Sample Categories
Beyond the few general rules I just described, categorizing things can be a very idiosyncratic and specific activity. But to get you started in coming up with categories of your own, I’d like to suggest a few ways to categorize your research that should be applicable for most research projects:
Categories of the Author
- “Academic” or scholarly writer
- Non-expert writer (a magazine writer or writers with no stated credentials, for example)
- “Non-writers” (that is, pieces of evidence where no author is named)
Categories of Source
- Primary Sources
- Secondary Sources
(See the discussion in chapter one on the differences between primary and secondary sources)
- Academic journal or book
- Non-academic or popular press magazine or book
- Internet-based resources
- Interviews (or other primary research you may have conducted)
Other Potentially Useful Categories
- Date of publication—either a particular year, before or after a particular event, etc. For example, if your working thesis was about gun control and teen violence, it might be significant to compare the research you have that was published before the 1999 Columbine High School shootings to the research that was published after the shootings.
- Research that generally supports your working thesis
- Research that generally supports antithetical arguments to your working thesis (see chapter eight)
Of course, not all of these sample categories will work equally well for all research projects, and it is possible that the categories you will find most useful for this exercise are ones that are very specific to your own research project.
Which of the previous sample categories seem to be most potentially useful for your research project? What other ideas do you have for other categories on your research? Working alone or in small groups, consider as many categories for your evidence as possible.