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Goal!

By Daniel Hubbard | December 11, 2011

Another facet of research is that it starts with a goal. The goal may be fairly general. For example it might be to gather information about a certain surname in a certain area and during a certain time period. Often, though, the goal relates to a hypothesis.

Goals and Hypotheses

In most research a hypothesis acts as the spine that holds everything together. So what is a hypothesis? Roughly speaking it is a proposition based on limited information. One always needs to have some information in order to form a hypothesis. No hypothesis comes out of an information vacuum. There always needs to be something that acts as a basis for the hypothesis. The goal then is to test the hypothesis. A researcher must be careful not to set the goal of proving the hypothesis. Setting out specifically to confirm what you believe often leads to confirmation bias, the tendency to accept information that confirms our preconceived notions, whether the information is right or wrong, and also to disregard good information that contradicts what we believe. It may be a small semantic point to say that your goal is to test your hypothesis as opposed to proving your hypothesis but it can make a large difference to attitude and how you perform your research. Whenever a client asks me to prove something for them, I always try to respond that I can study whether it is true or not. It is a subtle difference in language but can make a big difference to the result. I need to look at sources that can only disprove the hypothesis.

A well formulated goal reminds a researcher to look for evidence both for and against the hypothesis. It also helps to focus the research. There is nothing wrong with coming up with new questions or taking advantage of serendipity but those may need to launch separate lines of research with their own hypotheses and goals. Expanding the goal in midstream often leads to muddled and confused research, or worse, research that never reaches or even could reach its goal. If the goal grows to the point where it is confusing all by itself, the research will have a hard time not following the goal into confusion.

Staying on Track

An important property that any goal should have is that it is clearly documented. A goal works much better if it is possible to refer back to it. In complex research it is important to be able to look at the goal and use it to make sure you’re still on track. It can be a tool in deciding what direction the research should take at each step along the way. It can help at a finer level as well. When poring over records it is easy to lose sight of exactly what you are trying to accomplish. A goal should be able to answer the question, “Wait, why am I looking at these?”

That  takes care of the “documented” part of the goal but what about the “clear” part? A fuzzy, unclear goal can lead to research that is fuzzy and unclear. All the things that went into the research might be fine but in the end, it doesn’t really answer the question. Sometimes the goal is broad. Often I’m requested to find out what I can about someone. Broad, but not it need not be unclear or fuzzy. A broad goal like that is easily broken down into a series of smaller, more succinct goals like finding parents, finding a place of birth, finding immigration details, learning about occupations.

A goal also allows the research task to be completed. In a very real sense research is never finished but if the work has allowed a specific question to be given an answer, not perhaps the final answer, but an answer nonetheless, then you should be able to look at your goal see that it has been accomplished.

Shooting for the Hoop

Last night I watched my daughter play basketball. The goal in a sport is always clear. In this case, put the ball through the hoop. There is another broader goal as well—put the ball through the hoop more often than the opposition before the game clock reads “0:00.” Factors like time and expense always figure into research as well. Funds are never unlimited, time always runs out. When setting longer term goals those factors often need to be accounted for as well. When doing research for ourselves, these extra factors are often implicit but they are there. In other situations it becomes more explicit. Professional genealogists usually have a set amount of hours to spend on a project and often have a deadline. Volunteers can only do so much before other duties call.

If you are researching, write down your goal. Make it a goal that is free of bias. Make the goal possible to achieve. Keep your focus on the goal and use it to stay organized. Last but not least, enjoy reaching your goal.

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