How I Do Research: David Horrell (Gupta)

How I Do Research: David Horrell (Gupta) March 21, 2016

HorrellIt is my pleasure to offer this interview with Prof. David Horrell (Exeter), one of the leading NT scholars. Prof. Horrell has written numerous important works including Solidarity and Difference and the recent Becoming Christian. He is currently working on the ICC for 1 Peter – a massive undertaking! So, here is what he had to say about his research practices.

How do you approach research as a whole? Do you have a big-picture strategy? Do your research all at once, and then write? Do you do some sketching and reflecting on paper and then dig into research? Do you go back and forth?

There are two things I am conscious of doing, as part of a deliberate research strategy. One is that I aim to try out new ideas and fresh perspectives in paper presentations and shorter (article) publications in order to discern their significance and value, get feedback and reaction, before I shape a plan for a bigger study such as a monograph. The second is that when exploring a particular topic or writing a certain piece, I do a certain amount of reading and research, enough to ascertain the main contours of the evidence and scholarly discussion, then write an initial draft, which in turn helps me see where I need more detail, further research, etc. I can’t really imagine doing all my research in advance and then writing, partly because, as I discovered during my PhD, I don’t know exactly what I think – or quite where an argument will end up – until I have a go at formulating it in writing. That in turn shows me where I need to do more exploring in order to strengthen and develop the case. I always plan out an essay or paper, usually with a hand-scribbled outline, in order to work out how the various aspects might be arranged in a logical and sequential order and what the overall direction is.

What kind of notes do you take (ideas, quotes, etc.)? How do you organize them?

I take notes on secondary literature both to capture in summary form – and in my own words – what I’ve been reading and also to record specific quotations. I think it’s often important and valuable to summarise a piece in my own words when it’s fresh in my mind, partly because being able to do so is a good sign that I’ve understood and processed it (if I have to resort entirely to quotes, and can’t capture something in my own words, it’s a sign that I haven’t really understood it well.) I used to take more notes onto paper than I do now, when I’m more likely to record them straight into Endnote (see more under the next question!). I confess – slightly guiltily, since it’s not the most eco-friendly practice – that I don’t read well on screen, so I still tend to print out articles and read them on paper, when I scribble, underline, add comments, etc., to highlight what I find important, notable, disagree with etc. Both paper notes and photocopies are then filed away alphabetically under author’s name, in folders that are classified by broad category (NT, Judaism, Social Theory, etc. – and 1 Peter has its own set of folders!).

  1. What kind of tools do you use for researching and collecting information? (software? Do you store notes in Endnote? Dropbox? Evernote? Filing cabinet?)

For initial research I use databases like ATLA, and (less often now than I used to) New Testament Abstracts. Resources and gateways like TLG, lexicons, concordances, Biblia Patristica, etc. are of course fundamental for locating primary sources of relevance. Those are the more systematic ways of attempting to locate relevant information, but to be honest, and I suspect like many others, I also find myself chasing up links from others’ footnotes and references. (Sometimes, in doing so, I discover that the primary or secondary sources don’t actually say what the person citing them says they do, which is one reason why checking out sources and not relying on second-hand information is crucial!) I’ve used some kind of bibliographical database ever since my PhD, when the programme I used was a now forgotten antique called Locoscript PC – anyone remember the Amstrad computers?!… For some time now I’ve been using Endnote. I assign keywords to each item I record on Endnote, beginning with the broadest category (which also determines which physical folder any paper notes will go in – see above) but then specifying other keywords to help me recall items relevant to specific topics – ethnicity, Christology, or whatever.

  1. What have you learned about doing research, collecting notes, and the process of writing throughout your career – put another way, if you could get into a time machine and go back twenty years (or ten years), what advice would you want to give to your younger self about the process of research and how you take notes and read scholarship?

That’s a tricky question – partly because the landscape and resources have shifted so much in the 25 years or so since I began my PhD. I am something of a ‘laggard’ when it comes to new innovations and technologies, so I’m not always quick to get on board with new developments, but things like electronic access to journals, databases like TLG, collections of texts online, and so on, have revolutionised the ways in which research can be done. But I think I would advise my young and naïve former self to spend more time reading primary sources directly, to think about how a project can best be sharply and carefully defined to maximise its contribution to the scholarly discussion, and also to be aware of the extent to which one’s doctoral work establishes a kind of scholarly orientation in one’s work that influences (though does not determine) the direction and style of a person’s work throughout their career – so make decisions about research topics and methods as wisely as possible…! I’ve also come to place increasing value on older scholarship, which often displays an originality and familiarity with the primary sources that much of the glut of recent publication does not – Hort, for example, remains a great source of insight on 1 Peter, and it’s unfortunate he only reached 2.17 in his comments! (I await Lightfoot’s notes on 1 Peter with interest, but he too didn’t reach the end of the letter…)


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