List the Substantives
Make a list of all the relevant substantives (nouns) for your project. These include:
- Historical Periods/Eras/Epochs/Years/Events/Figures
Plot the Substantives
If you have ten substantives on your list, draw a 10×10 grid. An Excel spreadsheet is handy if you have many substantives. List all ten substantives on the X axis. List all ten substantives again on the Y axis. Cross out the boxes where the values of X and Y are the same.
Questions to ask:
For each box in your grid, ask questions about the X and Y that intersect in that box. Some of the questions will be nonsensical. Some will be dead ends. But a few questions might help you generate the research question(s) that will drive your arguments.
Use the list of critical verbs to help you refine the following questions.
- Does X impact/affect/change/cause/trigger/account for/facilitate/negate/repudiate/presuppose Y? If yes, how?
- What is the relationship of X to Y?
- If temporal, which comes first? Can you assume this temporal order (i.e., is it a “warrant” or a “given”) or do you have to make an argument about the temporal sequence?
- Causal? How does X cause Y? Can we assume that X causes Y (i.e., is it a “given” in your field) or do you have to make the case?
- Exemplary (in that X is an example of Y)? How typical is X as an example of Y? Do other scholars take it as given that X is an example of Y or do you have to make the case?
- Authorial? Did X write Y? Is authorship a given or do you have to make the case?
- What is the difference between X and Y?
- How does X represent/exemplify/reflect/invoke/articulate/interrogate/adapt/exemplify/incorporate/build on/obviate Y?
- What happens if we look at X through Y lens? (This question works well if Y is a methodology.)
Refining Your Grid
You may find in the course of asking and answering the questions that you need to subdivide a substantive into more granular categories. Conversely, you may find that you want to merge categories. For example, “medieval” and “book” might become a single substantive if you discover that you aren’t interested in anything other than the “medieval book.”