Guide to Graduate Theological Research and Writing - by Douglas E. Welch, Merle D. Strege, and John H. Aukerman

Guide to Graduate Theological Research and Writing - by Douglas E. Welch, Merle D. Strege, and John H. Aukerman
Guide to Graduate Theological Research and Writing

       by Douglas E. Welch, Merle D. Strege, and John H. Aukerman
Guide to Graduate Theological Research and Writing - by Douglas E. Welch, Merle D. Strege, and John H. Aukerman
Anderson University School of Theology

Guide to Graduate
Theological Research
and Writing
By Douglas E. Welch, Merle D. Strege, and John H. Aukerman

           Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Philosophy of Research

Chapter 2: Gathering the Data

Chapter 3: Interpreting the Data

Chapter 4: Writing the Results

Chapter 5: The Practice of Inclusive Language

Chapter 6: Form and Style

Chapter 7: Master’s Thesis

Appendix A: Theological Library Resources at Anderson University

Appendix B: Electronic Databases

Appendix C: The Case Study Approach

Appendix D: Historical Studies—A Valuable Tool of Enrichment


General Works for Further Study

Editors and Compilers, Douglas E. Welch and Merle D. Strege, 1991
Revised and Enlarged by Douglas E. Welch, 1993
Revised and Updated by John H. Aukerman, 2002, 2006
Revised and Updated by David Neidert, John H. Aukerman, and Janet Brewer, 2010

Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide

This Guide is intended to provide a how-to approach to graduate theological research and writing in gen-
eral. More particularly, however, it is concerned with research and writing in the context of Anderson Uni-
versity School of Theology.

The style of writing advocated in this Guide is, in our judgment, in keeping with that which is standard in
the field of "formal," technical writing at its best. That is, writing which passes the tests of simplicity, accu-
racy, economy, and clarity. We are fully aware that much formal writing, particularly in theological circles,
is overly-complicated, lacking in clarity, and full of jargon and gobbledygook. What may be good ideas get
lost in thickets of semantic fuzziness and hopelessly run-on sentences and paragraphs.

Good formal writing, in our view, need not be stiff, labored, or boring to read. It can be creative, direct,
and vigorous — even to the point of possessing some literary merit. Research scholars need not be
stuffy, unexciting writers whose only literary merit is to be found in the final period of their manuscripts.

We are concerned that graduate theological students develop skills in the use of language, both in spo-
ken and written form. It is often assumed in our educational theories that one may develop a high degree
of skill in verbal communication without developing any significant writing skills at all. Such a notion is not
substantiated either by accepted linguistic theory or critical observation.

Inasmuch as speaking and writing are closely related skills, it follows that those who write poorly speak
the same way, no matter how rhetorically impressive they may be. Eloquence alone is no guarantee of
accuracy and clarity. It may, in fact, be only "sound and fury" signifying nothing of any great importance.

We commend you, then, to the art of good writing. To develop good writing skills is, at the same time, to
develop a solid foundation for good public speaking skills. One does not say things well if they are not
clear and easily understandable to those who listen.

This Guide is concerned not just with writing, however. It is also concerned with research. In our ap-
proach, the primary stress is on the second syllable, rather than the first. Thus, re-SEARCH, not
RE-search. Our concern is not merely one of pronunciation, but of focus. In other words, research is con-
cerned more with searching than with covering the same ground endlessly covered by others or beating
the same bushes beaten to death by generations of re-searchers.

We recognize, of course, that a great deal of information has been inadequately or wrongly interpreted.
To look at the same information again from other theoretical perspectives is an important scholarly pur-
suit. Having confirmed the relative adequacy of the data themselves, the researcher then seeks to pro-
duce a better interpretation of them.

But the primary function of the research scholar is to dig out information that has not been gotten at be-
fore — at least, in any depth. Such information may fill in gaps in our knowledge — which are legion — or
demand that we rethink some of the things we are so confident we know. It is often that very confidence
that prevents us from entering more fully into the vast cosmos of knowledge which surrounds us and is
within us. The researcher of high moral character will thus struggle to push back the horizons of our col-
lective knowing.

Research, then, is not the process by which we seek to "prove" what we already believe on other grounds
to be true. Our concern, rather, is to find out what is going on and why and to come to a congruent under-
standing of it. And that is risky, for it may lead us in unanticipated directions and to uncomfortable conclu-

            “Data” is a plural noun.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
sions. But the honest researcher faces these squarely and reports them as fairly and accurately as possi-

Our position, then, is avowedly liberal, in the best sense of that word. Albert C. Outler refers to this as "the
refreshing liberal spirit," the temper and attitude of "openness, tolerance of critical, honest inquiry, a firm
insistence upon public evidence and rational argument, and . . . a sense of the immorality of uncritical

            Albert C. Outler, "Toward a Postliberal Hermeneutics," Theology Today 42 (October,
1985): 6.

Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Introduction: The Nature of Graduate Study

At several points, graduate study is different from the kind of education the student may have pursued as
an undergraduate. Moreover, graduate theological students must consider a particular list of virtues im-
portant to them as developing scholar-ministers. It will be well to review here these ideas as an introduc-
tion both to this manual and to expectations made of graduate theological students.

Virtues of a Graduate Student
In late 1984, the noted historian Jaroslav Pelikan gave an address to the Lutheran Church in America
Board of Publication. The title of the speech was "The Vocation of Scholarship in the Church." Theological
students may be well instructed by that title. Scholarship is a vocation, a calling to a certain kind of life.
This particular kind of life is one of which the church has great need. Therefore it is highly inappropriate to
suggest that theological students either leave or postpone ministry when they enroll in seminary. Their
theological studies are ministry in the full sense.

Since theological students are called to a particular ministerial lifestyle, the virtues of that character ought
to be known or, perhaps, reviewed. For these say something about the nature of the graduate student.
Pelikan listed these virtues as discipline, patience, curiosity, and imagination.

Discipline is the willingness to be introduced — more than casually — to the men and women of the
Christian tradition. Patience is the resistance to the easy and pat solution or means to the end, the will-
ingness to research and study to discover rather than merely to complete assignments. Curiosity is the
willingness to keep turning over new rocks, to resist the temptation to say, "I am finished." It is the proc-
ess of learning, never finalized, always provisional and at home in that temporality. Imagination is asking
new questions of old material, approaching it from a new angle of attack.

These are some of the virtues of graduate theological students called to serve the church through schol-
arship. Undoubtedly there are others, but these are offered as an introduction and challenge to those who
have come to study at Anderson University School of Theology.

                                                                                              — Merle D. Strege

Characteristics of Graduate Study

Graduate study is critical. It seeks to apply critical techniques and methodology to the subject under con-
sideration. Criticism in this sense is analytical and seeks answers to the question, "What is really going on
here?" This criticism is undertaken in the spirit of curiosity rather than reproof, for the real goal of criticism
is to further understanding and to open up completely new lines of inquiry.

Another dimension of criticism is a certain measure of objectivity on the part of the student. In realizing
this lies the importance of acquiring a method. Methodology assists the student in acquiring some objec-
tivity, to stand over against that which is being researched or otherwise studied. Of course, total objectiv-
ity is impossible; that is one of the commonplaces of modern epistemology. But to concede that point is
not to say that students have no responsibility to create a scholarly distance between themselves and the
material under consideration.

        Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Vocation of Scholarship in the Church," LCA Partners (February-
March 1984:12.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
A third dimension of criticism is that it represents the student's application of the findings of others, i.e.
scholarship, to his or her own subject of study. Critical study is informed study; it does not and cannot
occur in a vacuum. Students must apply the findings of others to their own knowledge and conduct, en-
gaging in discussion, as it were, with others through their recorded work about that which is of common

A final dimension of criticism is its basic attitude, one which requires reasons for accepting something as
true. Critical students always ask authors, professors, colleagues, and themselves, "Why should I believe
that? What convincing reasons are given for believing this rather than something else?" In short, critical
study supplies questions instead of credulity, tentativeness rather than dogmatism.


Graduate study takes place in the community of scholarship. But that does not mean it is not independ-
ent. Independent, not arbitrary. Immanuel Kant's great motto was "Dare to think for yourself." One may
not arbitrarily will to believe whatever one chooses or thinks must be believed. But graduate study does
value independent, i.e., creative, thought.

This means that graduate study and research must proceed beyond merely collecting that which already
has been considered. The graduate student must be prepared to state, with reasons, what he or she
thinks or has concluded about matters, however tentative those conclusions may be. It is to be expected
that among a student's reasons will be found some of the findings of other scholars. Of particular impor-
tance is the distinction between the work of others and that of the student. This distinction is the respon-
sibility of the student and the failure to make it is a most serious breach of academic ethics known as pla-

The work of other individuals, whether as words or ideas, which contributed to the student's presentation
must be acknowledged through quotation or citation. Quotations are those instances where the exact
words of another are used. Citations are acknowledgements that ideas or conclusions of others, while not
directly quoted, contribute to the student's research (just because the work of another is not quoted ver-
batim does not relieve the student of the responsibility to indicate by citation his or her indebtedness).


One of the differences between preaching and teaching is that sermons may conclude with a resounding
"Thus says the Lord!" while lectures never do. They are more likely to end in the question, "What do you
think?" Graduate study is in the spirit of the teacher more than that of the preacher. It is profoundly dia-
logical. One may conclude some things, and very firmly at that. But the conclusions are always open-
ended. Always there exists the possibility of new discovery of better argument that will bring us to deeper
insight or clearer awareness.

Thus, graduate students pursue study with a tentativeness akin to the virtue of humility. The business of
graduate study is not polemics or propaganda; it is to get at tentative answers to important questions.
Human knowledge has advanced greatly over the centuries and accelerated in more recent decades. But
it is far from perfect. Therefore, graduate students are advised to make their "sympathies . . . with those
who are not sure that they understand themselves and the universe rather than with those who make
hard things easy."

Critical Thinking

Students often have some initial problems with the idea that graduate study in a theological seminary is
"critical" in nature. Our ministerial "calling," they say, is to affirm and confess, not criticize. It is, however,
the very nature of graduate education that it demands of us that we think carefully and analytically about
what it is we are affirming and confessing. Often, in the critical light of day, the content of our affirmations

          Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: The Oxford University Press,
1976), xvii.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
demands rethinking. In addition, the whys of our affirmations and confessions often need careful scrutiny.
Those, for example, who proclaim their truth as absolute and universal, to the exclusion of all others, may
be engaging in an ideological game. Thus, the personal and collective psychologies of truth-making need
careful scrutiny. The purpose of such critical thinking is to enable us to make a necessary distinction be-
tween tradition and truth. Even Jesus, in his engagement with the Pharisees had to engage in this critical

Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Chapter 1. Philosophy of Research

This essay offers a definition of research, a brief description of the two major approaches to research
(quantitative and qualitative), some of the advantages of qualitative research, and argues for the appro-
priateness of qualitative research in most theological study.

In the 1989 Midwest Research to Practice Conference, meeting at the University of Missouri, James H.
McElhinny defined research as "a systematic way of asking intelligent questions about important topics
that yields dependable answers." The four key terms in his definition are: systematic; intelligent; impor-
tant; and dependable.

Systematic: Research is carefully planned and data are judiciously analyzed. Research activities are
guided by a theoretical rationale which provides unity and cohesion.

Intelligent: Researchers question and re-examine traditions, other related research, and their own con-
ceptual framework. They discriminate between what is relevant and what is irrelevant.

Important: Research contributes to what is already known about an area of inquiry, in a manner which
makes substantial differences in the lives of people. Research is worth the effort expended.

Dependable: Research yields answers which approximate truth. It also identifies areas for further inquiry.

There are two general categories of research methodologies: quantitative and qualitative. Each has a dis-
crete set of assumptions about reality, acceptable practices, rhetoric, and kinds of results.

Quantitative Research Methods

These methods are built on logical positivism, an epistemological stance that has been severely criticized
for more than 45 years. The positivist philosophy "assumes that there are social facts with an objective
reality apart from the beliefs of individuals." Therefore, quantitative methods attempt to explain social
changes through the use of objective measures and statistical analysis.

Quantitative researchers attempt to achieve objectivity by using experimental designs and correlational
studies, thinking that these techniques will reduce or eliminate error and bias. They therefore place heavy
emphasis on procedures, methodologies, and statistics.

Their reports rely heavily on the rhetoric of validity, reliability, generalizability, replicability, and predictabil-
ity. Validity means that an instrument actually measures what it claims to measure; reliability means that
an instrument consistently yields the same results, and is often tested by administering the instrument to
the same group of people on two separate occasions; the intent of generalizability is to estimate the ex-
tent to which data will be true for similar groups in similar situations (if something was true for this group
of people, it should likewise be true for another group); replicability means the extent to which research
can be repeated with similar results; and predictability is the estimated likelihood that research accurately
predicts the future.

          James H. McElhinny, "Research 101," Paper presented at the Midwest Research to
Practice Conference, Oct 12-13, 1989. St. Louis MO. (John H. Aukerman's possession,
Anderson IN.), 1989.
          Kenneth R. Howe, "Two Dogmas of Educational Research," Educational Researcher
(October 1985): 10.
          William A. Firestone, "Meaning in Method: The Rhetoric of Quantitative and Qualitative
Research," Educational Researcher (October 1978): 16.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Qualitative Research Methods

These methods are built on a post positivistic, phenomenological world view, which assumes "that reality
is socially constructed through individual or collective definitions of the situation." The purpose of qualita-
tive research is to understand the current social situation, from the point of view of the participants. There-
fore, the researcher becomes “‘immersed’ in the phenomenon of interest.”

In qualitative research, the emphasis is on collecting data that lead to dependable answers to important
questions, reported in sufficient detail that it has meaning to the reader. "The proto-typical qualitative
study is the ethnography which helps the reader understand the definitions of the situation of those stud-

Qualitative research reports include descriptions, judgments, and evaluations. Because of a qualitative
researcher's post-positivistic paradigm, there is little or no attention paid to statistics of validity, reliability,
generalizability, replicability, and predictability, as used by quantitative researchers. Emphasis is laid on
dependability, which is enhanced by the use of prolonged engagement in the field, triangulation, case
analyses, auditing, and/or checks by stakeholders.

One of the qualitative approaches is descriptive research. According to David R. Krathwohl, "Descriptive
research involves collecting data in order to answer questions . . . about the current status of the situation
under study." If statistics are used, they are descriptive, not inferential, merely providing a description of
the variables. No attempt is made to test hypotheses, control variables, measure the strength of relation-
ships, or establish statistical significance. The intention of descriptive research is to develop a purposeful,
systematic, intelligent, and accurate description of some particular situation. Questionnaires and surveys
of people’s judgments are examples of descriptive research methods.

Qualitative research has the following advantages:

    1. It allows the researcher to describe existing phenomena and current situations.
    2. It is useful in examining the totality of a unit.
    3. It yields results that can be helpful in pioneering new ground.

Qualitative methods are appropriate for theological study for the following reasons:

    1. The phenomenological, post-positivistic paradigm of qualitative research is more congruent with
       the realities most often of interest to theological study than the logical positivism of quantitative
       research. In ministry, absolute objectivity is not attainable; therefore, attempts to approach objec-
       tivity via quantitative procedures are illusory. The subjective beliefs, judgments, experiences, and
       values of individuals and groups, combined, are important and valuable; therefore, they ought to
       be collected, studied, and learned from.
    2. The research questions in much theological study do not lend themselves to experimental design
       or correlational study, quantitative methods. Qualitative methods are well suited for most research
       questions relevant to ministry.
    3. Replicability, a quantitative concept, is generally not an issue in theological study. Although inter-
       views and surveys can be repeated, the population supplying the data cannot be replicated. This
       is true, first, because the research questions are developed specifically with a particular popula-

          Firestone, 16.
          Ibid., 17.
           McElhinny, 4.
           David R. Krathwohl, Social and Behavioral Science Research: A New Framework for
Conceptualizing, Implementing, and Evaluating Research Studies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publish-
ers, 1985), 178.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
tion in mind, at a specific time and place in history, and second, because even if the same re-
       search questions were used with the same individuals at a later time, their experience would be
       different, which could change their answers to the questions.
    4. Predictability, a quantitative concept, is not usually an issue in theological study. Ministers do not
       generally attempt to control people's behavior, which is the major purpose of predictability (if one
       does "A," people will respond with "B").
    5. Qualitative research is useful in understanding a current social situation, an interest of much theo-
       logical study. Therefore, qualitative research methods are appropriate.
    6. Quite often, theological research intends to pioneer new ground, one of the strengths of qualita-
       tive methodologies. In such instances, a qualitative approach is appropriate.

Students planning to undertake research at Anderson University School of Theology are advised to give
careful consideration to their purpose and goal before selecting either a quantitative or qualitative design.
They are also advised to consult with faculty members before designing any research project.

                                                                                       — John H. Aukerman

Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Chapter 2. Gathering the Data

Research is an adventure. It continually draws us onward to new dimensions of discovery and analysis. It
leads us into exciting new fields of inquiry and learning, adding both breadth and depth to our understand-

But, on the other hand, research is also hard work. It is patient, persistent, painstaking "detective work,"
with numerous frustrations and false leads. Good research has more to do with the shine on the seat of
one's pants than the shine in one's eyes. The good researcher is the one who perseveres, who is distrust-
ful of easy answers and quick solutions, and who knows that things are not always what they seem — or
what they are popularly believed to be.

The good researcher is concerned to get at the pertinent data and let those data, insofar as that is possi-
ble, speak for themselves. Here is where the adventure really begins: one cannot know in advance where
the data will lead. They may or may not support the researcher's hypotheses or answer the researcher's
questions. They may, indeed, point to quite different and unexpected ones, ones with which the re-
searcher may be somewhat uncomfortable. But, as we have noted elsewhere, good researchers seek,
above all else, to be rigorously intellectually honest. They do not ignore or cover over unwanted data and
disturbing conclusions.

But neither do researchers delight in unearthing "skeletons" and publishing "facts," or interpretations of
data, that may needlessly damage the reputations of individuals and institutions. Research is never mor-
ally or ethically neutral. Intellectual honesty is morally necessary, but it is not the whole of morality.

And so the researcher works critically and honestly at finding the relevant data, recognizing that even raw
data do not exist independently of contexts. Therefore, one carefully notes the full context in which the
data occur. Data are not detached propositions, floating about in some universal ether, complete and final
in themselves.

All of this impinges upon the gathering of data, but is not, in itself, the substance of this chapter. Our con-
cern here is with research methodology. That is, how one goes about the gathering of data. In the fol-
lowing pages, we shall briefly discuss basic research techniques. This is not to suggest that good tech-
niques alone make one a good researcher. Research is more an art than a science, so intuition is also
important. But good techniques help. Poor techniques can certainly cancel out good intuitions.

Books and Articles
In an academic institution, the most obvious place to begin collecting data pertinent to one's field of in-
quiry is in books and articles. Even though we live in the computer age, print libraries are still the richest
source of information readily available to us. So, become familiar, even friendly, with the libraries avail-
able to you, browse along the periodicals shelves, in the stacks, and in the reference areas. Experiment
with online catalogs, microforms and microform readers, and other electronic aids. (Note Appendix A,
Theological Library Resources at Anderson University.)

But above all, become acquainted with the professional library staff. Not only are they paid to assist you
in your research, they are quite happy to do so. Their suggestions can frequently save you hours of work.
They are often our most under-utilized resource in the gathering of research data.

Professional journals are one of the richest sources of information for the researcher. Many can be
searched on Nicholson Library’s website: click “Find Articles” at Many times,
books and articles that look most promising are not to be found in Nicholson Library. However, most items
             Note: The correct spelling of “online” is without a hyphen, viz. “online.”
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
can usually be obtained through interlibrary loan (see Appendix A, Theological Library Resources at An-
derson University). See also

Archives and personal documents are of particular value to those engaged in certain kinds of historical
research. These are not always readily available to the researcher and often restrictions are placed on
their use, such as selected access only under supervision.


Unlike regular library materials, archival material does not circulate. And generally it must be used on site
under the supervision of an archivist or assistant. Further, some archival material is not available to the
ordinary researcher, primarily because it is "official and confidential." This can prove to be quite frustrating
to the researcher, who "knows" that to which he or she is being denied access is exactly what is needed
to further the research and cannot be obtained elsewhere. Little can be done about it, however.

But, occasionally, even when the archival material is legally public material, rather than private, the re-
searcher may still be denied ready access to it. In discussing this problem, David C. Pitt notes that the
researcher not infrequently has to deal with officials "who have a deep-seated suspicion that the aca-
demic is an iconoclast whose main function is to discredit the establishment."

Nicholson Library houses the official archives of the Church of God. These are public archives and gen-
erally available to those doing research. Access is not unlimited or unrestricted, however. Archives hours
are posted at the entrance to the Archives. These are limited to a few hours each day (Monday through
Friday) during academic sessions. Further, much of the material is available only on specific request, to
be used under archival staff supervision, and none of it can be removed from the premises. Photocopy
machines are available in the Archives.

Even with these restrictions, archives are the best sources — and often the only sources — of certain
kinds of historical data. Before undertaking a research project requiring this kind of historical data, stu-
dents should acquaint themselves with the archives and what is available there.

Personal Documents

It may be, however, that even when the archives does not have the primary documents needed for the
kind of data the researcher wishes to collect, they are available elsewhere. On occasion, the researcher
will be able to uncover primary sources of data quite unknown publicly up to that point. The most likely
sources of such "treasures" are individuals who have retained, or who have knowledge of, private letters,
journals, or diaries of family members or friends.

These are generally referred to as "personal documents." John Madge defines personal documents as
documents in which the authors "describe events in which they participated, or [which] indicate their per-
sonal beliefs and attitudes . . . In its narrow sense the personal document is a spontaneous first-person
description by an individual of his own actions, experiences, and beliefs."

Behaviorists formerly considered the use of such documents to be unacceptable, primarily because they
are not "objective." Their essential "subjectivity," so it was said, made them scientifically suspect. Social
scientists and historians, however, now generally accept personal documents as historically valid.

          David C. Pitt, Using Historical Sources in Anthropology and Sociology (New York: Holt,
Rinehart, and Winston, 1972), 36.
          John Madge, The Tools of Social Science (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and
Company, Anchor Books, 1965), 76f.
          Ibid., 78ff.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
This is not to say that such documents are to be taken at face value as literal descriptions of what hap-
pened. But they do indicate personal attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about what the writer believes to have
occurred. This is historically important information, and it may, indeed, lead the researcher to question
official or published versions of the same events. In such cases, however, the researcher is obligated to
seek independent verification of the writer's information. If this cannot be done, the researcher must be
very cautious about deciding which version is true.

Among the various materials known as personal documents, personal and family letters are generally the
most useful. They are usually without the high degree of personal image consciousness and pose which
tend to characterize public and official letters. Particularly are private letters helpful in determining the ac-
tions, attitudes, and opinions of their writers — which are not normally revealed in official or public letters.
Such "official" letters are often propagandistic, promotional, designed to "sell" an idea or a program. They
cannot, therefore, be implicitly trusted.

Journals and diaries are valuable sources of data, but must be used with some caution. They both select
events and interpret them — often on the basis of "memory," or after-the-fact — occasionally days or
even weeks after-the-fact. So the researcher must seek to determine how frequently journal or diary en-
tries were made. Daily? Twice-weekly? Weekly? Periodic? Under such circumstances, gaps are bound to
have occurred. Many of them may be quite critical.

Further, such material is often intended for "publication," if only within a family. Thus, the material is
scarcely free from pose. Particularly is this true of memoirs or other kinds of autobiographical writing.
Here, the memory factor plays a crucial role. But in spite of these limitations, such personal documents
can provide a great deal of useful data, some of which cannot be obtained elsewhere.

Public Documents

A third frequently used documentary source of data is public documents. These consist of official records,
minutes, reports, accounts, newspaper reports, copies of speeches, pamphlets, statistics, official histo-
ries, and case history records. It must be remembered, however, that these are secondary sources, not
primary sources as we have been discussing above.

Documents such as annual reports and official histories should be used with a great deal of caution. Writ-
ers of them are usually concerned to put the best official or institutional foot forward. A healthy dose of
skepticism — not to be confused with cynicism — is the researcher's safeguard against gullibility and, in
the end, embarrassment over having published "facts" that turn out to be misleading, if not untrue. In the
case of these public documents, a double dose of skepticism is wise.

We are not saying that such reports are deliberate concoctions of truths, half-truths, and outright lies. But
the pressures of public and institutional life seem to generate a greater degree of self-delusion than is
generally characteristic of the rest of us. Most of us want our work and our institution to appear in the best
light possible, particularly when funding may depend on it. This — often unwittingly — leads to omission
and over-statement.

In spite of all of these handicaps, however, public documents are still potentially good sources of research
data. The wary researcher will use these data with caution, however, unless they can be corroborated by
other, less self-interested sources. It is always wise when using such information not to take it too literally,
but to get "behind the scenes," as it were. In other words, check and double-check.

In the social sciences, one of the most frequently used methods for gathering data is the interview
method. Sociology and psychology in particular have used this method, structured in the form of case

Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
studies (see Appendix C, The Case Study Approach) or life histories. This approach, as with most others,
has its limitations — as Daniel Yankelovich, a noted user of the method, admits.

In many areas of research, however, the interview method is most useful, particularly when combined
with other methods. Frequently, when using questionnaires or other field research instruments, follow-
up interviews with selected respondents can be fruitful indeed. And often they are quite necessary in
clearing up ambiguous responses.

Good interviewing is, of course, dependant on good listening, something most of us do not do well. Good
listening is, in this case, intensive listening. Intensive listening is that in which we listen not only to words,
but at the same time observe carefully the emotional reactions of the informant to what she or he is say-
ing. What emotions and attitudes are in evidence? How does the speaker feel about what is being said?

Any intensifying of emotion, any negative body language, evidence of uneasiness, embarrassment, or
resistance is significant. Avoidance techniques, such as evasive or non-committal answers or changing
the subject, are important clues and should be noted carefully by the interviewer. These all form part of
the context within which the verbal data must be interpreted, if it is to be interpreted at all fairly.

Intensive listening, then, involves careful observation, a method of data gathering to be discussed later.
Such observation can indirectly provide the researcher with a great deal of information that perhaps could
not be gotten at any other way. It can suggest to the alert researcher other questions that need to be
asked, other avenues that ought to be explored.

Interviews should be planned well in advance and informants carefully selected. Not everyone is equally
well informed about the subject of your research. Objectives should be well-defined. Know exactly what it
is you want to find out and do not be sidetracked by issues not related to your research. And clearly dif-
ferentiate between questions which call for information and those which call for opinion. If this careful ad-
vance planning is not done, the interview is not likely to be as useful as it could have been.

It is wise to plan well in advance for yet another reason. In interviewing, the researcher is often dealing
with problems of doubt, suspicion, and defensiveness on the part of the prospective informant. If the in-
terviewer catches the informant at a bad time, or is late for the appointment, the interviewer may experi-
ence abruptness, impatience, or resentment. What is already a tricky situation is thus made worse. The
informant is then not likely to be as communicative or helpful as he or she normally would.

If the interview method is to be your primary method of data gathering, it would be wise to spend time
learning about it from those who specialize in its use. An excellent source is The Dynamics of Interview-
ing, by Robert L. Kahn and Charles F. Cannell. The authors provide a most useful discussion of, among
other things, motivational, psychological and linguistic barriers in interviewing. James Engel also provides
some useful "rules" for interviewing.

As we have noted, interviewing is a difficult, even "tricky," process. It is doubtful that one can ever know
too much about it or practice it perfectly. But good preparation well ahead of time can enable the re-
searcher to avoid serious problems. It is wiser to spend time in attempting to anticipate problems than in
having to remedy them later.

One of the most frequently used — and abused —methods of gathering primary data is the questionnaire.
The questionnaire is now one of the facts of life in our society. Educators, market analysts, sales firms,
social services, civic and federal governments, pollsters, politicians, and preachers all rely on them. And

          Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside
Down (New York: Random House, 1981), 55.
          James Engel, How Can I Get Them to Listen? A Handbook on Communication Strategy
and Research (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 121ff.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
this in spite of the fact that most of the questionnaires themselves are vague, muddled, and ambiguous.
Thus, the "facts" they are purported to yield can be no less.

The design, administration, and interpretation of questionnaires that yield trustworthy data is very difficult,
difficult because it is so complex. Also because it is much more of an art than a science, so Engel ar-
gues. The major difficulty in using the questionnaire, Engel asserts, is "to minimize that ever-present
problem of bias — errors and mistakes made in the communicative process which cause the findings to
deviate from the truth."

The questionnaire must then be designed in such a way that the ever-present problem of bias is at least
minimized. Unfortunately, so Engel laments, no formulae exist by which this can be done. The question-
naire is simply "structured, goal-oriented communication." And, as with all other forms of communication,
is an art rather than a science.

Engel then goes on to discuss types of questionnaires, their strengths and weaknesses, and suggests
general guidelines for questionnaire construction. The researcher who plans to use the questionnaire
method of gathering data should heed Engel well here.

Since the validity of the information gathered from questionnaires depends upon the respondents' under-
standing of the questions asked, the researcher must give very careful and detailed attention to the writ-
ing of the questions. This will take much more time than most students anticipate. Here again a writer's
maxim applies: "No such thing as good writing exists, only good re-writing."

How does one know when questions need to be re-written? One test is to have your research director
read them. If they understand exactly what information you are requesting, then the questions are proba-
bly clear — to academicians. A more certain method is to pre-test the questionnaire, using locally avail-
able respondents of the same general educational and social level as those who will ultimately be filling
out the questionnaires. If a question can be misunderstood, it will be in enough instances to alert the re-
searcher to the existence of ambiguity in the question itself. Questions can then be re-stated and re-
tested to assure that the correction is not itself ambiguous.

Ambiguous Questions

As the above discussion suggests, most problems in questionnaires come from inappropriately worded
questions. Ambiguous questions are one of the chief culprits. A question such as, "Would you say that the
pastor's sermons are helpful?" is highly ambiguous. Helpful in what way? It is conceivable that someone
could answer, "Yes, it is the only nap I get all week." Or, "No, he keeps shouting and wakening me."

The ambiguity of such questions is intensified by the fact that they most often, as in this case, call for a
yes-no answer. To ask for a yes-no answer to a question that is not itself a yes-no question adds to the
confusion the respondent is already experiencing. Yet, many questionnaires do exactly this.

A political opinion survey questionnaire in our possession consists of ten questions, all of which call for
yes-no answers. Yet few of them are genuinely yes-no questions. In some cases, "Don't know" is a more
appropriate answer. And at least in one other, respondents may want to answer both yes and no. "Is the
President doing a good job?" In some areas, yes; in others, no. But we have no doubt that this politician
used the results of his survey to score political points in Washington— even though the survey instrument
could not possibly yield accurate results.

Potential ambiguity lurks behind almost every word and sentence in any communication. Ferreting it out is
no easy task. But avoiding it is mandatory if our questionnaire results are to be trustworthy on specific
points. We must then be careful to avoid vague and imprecise language — often introduced by such
words as "usually," "generally," "normally," or "often." We should also avoid "jargon" or in-house terms

           Ibid., 71.
           Engel, 71.
           Ibid., 72.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
that may not be familiar to the respondents. Such language allows ambiguity to occur. We must re-
member, if it can be misunderstood, it will be.

Leading Questions

A second major problem in the wording of questions is the leading question. A leading question is one
which makes it easier for a respondent to give one answer than another. For example, "Wouldn't you say
that you are opposed to abortion?" The impulse of many respondents is to answer "yes," simply because
they are suggestible persons who are sensitive to what the questioner, or interviewer, wants to hear.

Indeed, the purpose of leading questions is either to find those who agree with the propositions implicitly
contained within the questions or those who can be represented as agreeing. In either case, the motive of
the so-called "researcher" is dubious, if not downright dishonest.

Loaded Questions

A third problem question is the loaded question. Like the leading question, the loaded question is one
which makes it easier to give one answer than another. The loaded question, however, also asks the
respondent to accept an assumption or set of assumptions that may themselves be highly volatile or de-
batable. For example, "If God forgives divorcees, is his forgiveness the same, in kind, as his forgiveness
of other sinners?" The issue here is not whether God forgives divorcees, but whether divorcing is sinning.

The unwary respondent who answers this question with a "yes" or "no" — as the questionnaire calls for —
may be accepting an assumption, namely, that divorcing is sinning, with which he or she really does not
agree. Wishing to affirm that God does forgive divorcees, the hapless respondent must also affirm that
divorce is sin, presumably against God.

Loaded questions are not uncommon in the survey instruments masquerading as research question-
naires. But, as in the use of leading questions, loaded questions are essentially dishonest. Their real pur-
pose is to assert a questionable "truth" and then to collect "reliable data" proving that a majority of "the
people" agree with the assumption. This is nothing short of self-serving manipulation of persons and


If questionnaires are to be manageable in terms of time and cost, then it is clearly impossible in most
cases to send out many of them. This will, of course, create a serious problem for the research project if
the population being studied is large. If the population is very large, then it is physically impossible to in-
clude every potential respondent in the survey.

To solve this problem, the researcher employs the technique generally known as sampling. Engel asserts
that "a sample will provide an accurate picture of the larger body within measurable error limits if the
sample is properly chosen." To be scientifically valid, the sample must be both representative and ran-
dom, so Engel continues. He then discusses in some detail how this representativeness and randomness
is achieved and how the sample size itself is determined.

Since sampling is based on probability theory and generally accessible only to mathematicians, it is ad-
visable that the researcher who is not mathematically skilled consult with someone who is. It will not do
simply to "guesstimate" as to the composition and size of the sample. If it is not both genuinely represen-

           Ibid., 81.
           Engel, 82.
           Ibid., 50.
           Ibid., 51f.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
tative and random, the data gathered will not be of any value. Any results then reported as "facts" will be
largely fictitious.

One final method of data gathering to be discussed briefly here is observation. This is an approach used
chiefly by the social sciences, anthropology in particular. We are not talking about just any kind of obser-
vation, however. Rather, our concern is controlled, directed observation. We are all aware that casual,
everyday observation is quite unreliable, as John Madge convincingly argues. But observation as a re-
search methodology is not casual, everyday observation.

Controlled, directed observation may take one of two general forms: (1) detached observation; and (2)
participant observation. In detached observation, the researcher is trying to observe what is going on with
a minimum of intervention. The problem is that without interruptions, the researcher cannot ask questions
or benefit from interaction. Most researchers get around this problem, however, by keeping detailed
notes, often in journal form, noting questions that can be asked in follow-up conversations or interviews.
The advantage of this type of observation is that it leaves the researcher free to concentrate on what is
going on rather than on his or her participation in it.

The participant observer, on the other hand, deliberately seeks to enter the life of a community and to
participate as fully as possible in it. This helps to avoid the distortion which will inevitably result from self-
conscious behavior or responses. And it often opens up avenues of inquiry and response which would not
be available to an "outsider."

The difficulty with participant observation, of course, is that it takes a great deal of time — often years —
to become an "insider," one with whom other insiders can be themselves. Most researchers do not have
that kind of time, unless their degree program demands it. But if it can be done, it will yield information
and insights that really cannot be gotten at any other way.

To be maximally effective, however, observation as a general research methodology must, of necessity,
be combined with other methodologies. The interview method is the one most commonly linked to it. Ob-
servations do need to be carefully verified, however. Even the researcher engaged in control-led or di-
rected observation can all too easily be misled. Observers must ask questions of actors in events in order
to confirm or correct what they think they have seen in the events observed.

Beyond data gathering, observation as a research method has yet another benefit. It can be very useful in
developing and testing research hypotheses. Many good research ideas have been born in the minds of
patient and careful observers as they have engaged in the kind of observation we have been talking
about. Further, many inadequate hypotheses have been abandoned or radically modified as a result of
such observation.

By way of summary, we have touched briefly on a variety of ways of gathering research data: the use of
books and articles; the use of documents, including archival, personal, and public documents; interview-
ing; the use of questionnaires; and directed or controlled observation. Generally, in any major research
project, such as a thesis, various combinations of these methods are employed.

It is important that the data we gather be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. It is for this reason
that research topics must be carefully delimited, otherwise too much has to be left out. By narrowing the
research topic sufficiently, however, one can limit the amount of data needed to manageable proportions.

In the gathering of data, a central concern is that of accuracy, fairness, and honesty. For a researcher to
eliminate from consideration data which would alter the hypothesis or thesis with which she or he has

             Madge, 124ff.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
been working is neither fair, accurate, nor honest. Data gathering, in other words, involves moral obliga-
tion on the part of the researcher.

Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
Chapter 3. Interpreting the Data

Having collected a great deal of data — in many cases, much more than the researcher will need for the
task at hand — the next question is what to do with it. Raw data do not come with interpretations at-
tached. Indeed, the data themselves may be quite ambiguous, that is, capable of being understood in
more than one way. The researcher then has the obligation of making coherent sense out of this great
welter of facts and ideas.

Many uninformed researchers, however, appear to assume that having collected the desired information,
all they need now to do is to arrange it in some kind of order. And so, for example, we have a plethora of
writings purporting to be histories which, in fact, are merely chronologies. What the writers present is
merely raw data in chronological order. They fail to enter into critical engagement with it, to analyze, to
question, to suggest what it all means and why it is important for us to pay attention to it.

In one way, the data are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: they have to be put together to form a picture.
But in another way, they are unlike a puzzle. A jigsaw puzzle can go together in only one way. In many, if
not most, cases, this is not true of the masses of data we collect. It is precisely this fact that creates nu-
merous problems for the researcher.

James W. Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, in discussing the writing of history, assert that history is "some-
thing that is done, that is constructed, rather than an inert body of data that lies scattered through the ar-
chives." In other words, history is interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. And histo-
rians are the interpreters. Davidson and Lytle conclude, “For better or worse, historians inescapably leave
an imprint as they go about their business: asking interesting questions about apparently dull facts, see-
ing connections between subjects that had not seemed related before, shifting and rearranging evidence
until it assumes a coherent pattern. This past is not history; only the raw material of it.”

Interpretation is a complex and difficult task. It is that because the interpreter's world inevitably intrudes
into the interpretive task. Each of us comes to that task with a different set of perspectives, presupposi-
tions, and life experiences that predispose us to understand things in certain ways. For that reason, a
common set of data is variously handled by various people.

This is not to say, however, that all readings of that data are equally valid. Nor is it to say that the data
themselves do not impose some categories and restraints upon us. What it is saying is that those who
handle research data have an obligation to be aware of their own biases, to the extent that anyone can do
that. And, further, that they attempt to follow the data where they themselves seem to go.

And so, to the task of interpretation. Following is a discussion of several areas of concern that will, we
hope, offer some guidance in this critical undertaking. The categories of discussion are not exhaustive, by
any means. But what we have included are those which, in our experience, continue to trouble research

Generally our problem is not a scarcity of data, but too much of it. The success of our data gathering itself
usually dictates that we must select from the mass of data that which will be presented and analyzed. The
very act of selection is the beginning of interpretation. Davidson and Lytle comment, “The historian's sim-
ple act of selection irrevocably separates ‘history’ from ‘the past.’ The reconstruction of an event is quite

          James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, After the Fact: the Art of Historical Detection
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), xvii.
          Ibid., xxix.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
clearly different from the event itself. Yet selection is only one in a series of interpretive acts that histori-
ans perform as they proceed about their business.”

If selection is an interpretive act, the question then is, how do we go about it in ways that do not force the
data to speak too narrowly or in a voice not their own? Two basic criteria should guide the researcher's
selection of data to be presented: (1) representativeness; and (2) pertinence.

The question is: Is this part of the data representative of the whole or is it, in some way, an aberration? It
is possible to select only what fits one's theories and ignore what does not. This is dishonest. The data
selected should represent the whole picture, not just that part of it which the researcher may wish to high-
light for apologetic or propagandistic purposes.

Second, what is selected must be pertinent to the objectives of the research project itself. The researcher
may uncover a great deal of fascinating information in the course of research. But a good deal of it may
lead the researcher far away from the stated intentions of the research project. So, select what enables
you to achieve your stated objectives — and be sure that what you select is representative.

Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff state: "To be successful and right, a selection must face two ways: it
must fairly correspond to the mass of evidence, and it must offer a graspable design to the beholder."
Barzun and Graff compare the researcher to a traveler who explores new country. In selecting from the
data, the researcher has no "synoptic view," with all the facts clearly laid out in plain sight. He is rather an
"explorer," who "forms his opinions as he progresses, and they change with increasing knowledge." The
selective conclusions of the researcher, however, are always "conditioned" by two things, Barzun and
Graff insist. First, the researcher’s "temperament," which includes "preconceptions." And, second, "the
motive or purpose" of the research.

Undoubtedly Barzun and Graff are correct in asserting that selection is greatly affected by the tempera-
ment of the researcher. But what exactly do they mean by that? The temperament of the researcher has
to do with her guiding ideas, intentions, and hypotheses. In other words, Barzun and Graff conclude, the
researcher's "total interest." This interest will determine discoveries, selection, pattern-making, and ex-

While this apparently is the case — and we shall discuss it more fully below under the heading of bias —
the fact remains that selection need not be fully subjective and arbitrary. If the criterion of representative-
ness is maintained, the researcher's "interest" cannot fully control selection. If it were to do so, then the
data could say only what the researcher has decided they should say. And, again, that is fundamentally

The extent, then, to which the research project and its results are determined by the researcher's bias is a
question warmly debated by scholars. A significant part of the debate centers on what is meant by the
term "bias" itself. Barzun and Graff make a distinction between "good" and "bad" interest. Bad interest is
that which is uncontrolled, heavily intrusive, and which leads to unfair or dishonest selection. It is this
"bad" interest which Barzun and Graff designate as "bias."

However, this gives the term "bias" a bad name — and a name which it may not deserve. According to
Barzun and Graff, the historian Edward Gibbon was "biased in favor of pagan Rome and against Christi-
anity." We cannot, then, trust Gibbon to give us an accurate account of early Christianity. While this is

          Davidson and Hamilton, 3.
          Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, Fourth Edition (New York:
Harcourt Brace Janovich, Publishers, 1985), 198.
          Ibid., 199.
Anderson University School of Theology Writing Guide
You can also read