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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Broad Question and the Narrow Question

I told my undergraduate students two days ago that to do research you need to have a research question you are trying to answer.

But aren't there really always two questions? One is a relatively narrow question, like how do translators approach the work of songs, when their aim is to produce a version that can be sung? To narrow it down more, you'd have to have a corpus of materials to work with. It can't just be songs and translators in general!

Then there are broader questions that you are trying to get at through the posing of a narrower question. Those are really what you are after, right? Because the answer to a narrow question could be trivial, and provoke a "so what?" response.

But just try investigating a broad question without narrowing down the specific ways in which you are approaching it. You won't really have a leg to stand on. It won't be delimited enough.

So what is really at stake is the ability to work on those two levels at once, drawing significant conclusions from the answers to more narrowly posed questions.

So the two questions really collapse back down into one. Take my very large question posed yesterday: how does the response to mass culture in the academic field cultural studies relate to the response to mass culture in postmodern writers and artists? It is too broad unless we specify how we are defining these two movements, but its implications and significance are clear in any case.

I should have cited my inspiration, which was a Facebook post by Robert Archambeau saying that he had a hard time teaching Bourdieu's Distinction anymore because students no longer had that hi / lo split as part of their experience. That made me think that both cultural studies and postmodernism (in the narrow sense of postmodernism as melange of pop and high culture) are responding to a paradigm that has ceased to be. I think that needs to be part of a chapter I am completing this month on the unsettling of cultural hierarchies.


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