Researching political topics is a lot like researching anything else. We all know how to do it. Here are just a few things to help us not run the other way when we get stuck or intimidated.
Researching in General
Researching can be a lot of fun and interesting or overwhelming and frustrating. When embarking on a journey of learning more about something, here are a few things to keep in mind:
We often assume we all mean the same thing when using certain words. It’s all the same language, right? Experience proves that often misunderstanding takes place when we are talking about something that is being defined differently. Whether conducting research on your own, or discussing topics with friends, it’s always good to do a quick check on the terms being used.
Seeing the Whole Picture
Politics involves multiple interwoven systems. Current events may include multiple topics. When doing research, think about what’s going on in terms of the whole picture. If there are pieces missing, do more research to fill in the gaps. If some part can’t be filled in yet, recognize that you don’t have the full picture.
There is always more than one way to look at anything. When learning and researching, make sure you’re capturing multiple viewpoints. This will help you stay balanced and less vulnerable to being manipulated.
How and Where to Find Information
Even with all of the information that’s available, it can be difficult to know how and where to find information. It’s good to become familiar with the variety of resources that are available.
Federal and state governments are required to make information available to the public. It might seem awkward at first to navigate some government websites, but it’s worth becoming familiar with how information is shared as well as seeing what information is available. Remember each state, county and city has its own site and method for sharing information with the public. Try to find these sources first. Even if these resources don’t make sense, they are a good reference for further research.
News companies usually like to stay current with what is going on in politics and can provide good summaries of information. There is also usually some way to find references or verification of the information shared. News companies also tend to police each other, catching mistakes and misrepresentations. While not completely reliable, news stations are also a good place to start when checking on something.
If you’re not a fan of the news in general, use news outlets as a reference for a particular topic you’re interested in. You don’t have to regularly watch the news in order to find useful information.
Keep in mind each news station has its own bias. That’s not always a bad thing, but when reading or watching something from the news, keep in mind they are weaving the story for their viewers. Depending on their intended audience, you might notice a few twists or interpretations that don’t necessarily harmonize with each other. Include a full range of news outlets, even the biased ones, so you have a better understanding of multiple viewpoints.
Universities and Other Academic Sources
There are a variety of educational institutions that are dedicated to researching and publishing important information. Across the country and even around the world, you’ll find information that helps provide important pieces or perspective to the political puzzle.
Experiences and Stories
While many people would say that stories and experiences are used too heavily, it is still an important place to find information. People who experience something directly can provide some valuable insight into what’s really happening. In politics it is particularly important since it can be hard to know how laws and policies are impacting people. Finding out more from personal stories can help us understand better.
Keep in mind that first-hand experiences are best. Hearing stories of a story of a story of what someone experienced can lose important facts that may distort the picture. Also, personal stories are powerful and can be exploited to make us react in a certain way. You don’t have to shy away from personal stories, but be mindful of where the story is coming from and why it is being shared. Using other information in combination with personal experiences can help us have a better grasp of what’s going on.
Bias, that force which pulls us to support or oppose something, is part of the human condition. We see it in ourselves and we notice it in the way people convey information. Research is impacted by all forms of bias.
There’s no getting around our personal biases. We all have them. Think about moments when you hear something that just seems to make sense to you, naturally you’re going to support those ideas. In contrast, when you hear something that goes against your set of beliefs, it’s a lot harder to accept. The key is realizing how these biases may impact the way we research and understand different topics.
Research shows that not only can it be hard for us to accept ideas that go against our set of beliefs, it can be hard for us to even understand what people are saying. Maybe you’ve experienced this when you’re trying to explain something and the other person just doesn’t seem to understand. It might be that biases are getting in the way of understanding.
Rule number one in research — seek to understand. You’re not debating, you’re not trying to convince someone else of anything. Your goal is to simply understand. You don’t have to agree or disagree. You don’t have to support or oppose anything. Your biases, however, might get in the way. If you feel yourself getting upset, take a break. But don’t limit yourself to only information that makes you feel happy and comfortable. You might miss out on important perspectives.
Just like you have your biases, so do the people writing books and articles. Even the information here has baises. While it might be tempting to reject something because of an apparent bias, think about what it is the person is trying to convey. Each perspective is telling you something important about the things you’re trying to learn.
Keeping Track of Information
If you’re just collecting basic information for yourself to have a better grasp of what’s going on, you can enjoy the casual ride of reading and listening to a variety of sources. If you’re collecting information in the hopes of being able to later prove a point or for a more formal understanding, it would be worth creating a system of noting down sources of information. Not all information is easy to find again and when you need to be able to reference something, it helps to be able to find it.
We all likely have our own preferred ways of keeping track of things. Whether you have a physical place where you note things down, or you have things saved on an electronic device, the most helpful thing is to always include a quick note about the reference. If you’re saving a link to a website, make sure you include a brief note about what information you found (like, “this is a legal reference about asylum seekers” or “news article about election process“). If you’re saving a quote from somewhere, make sure you mark down where it came from. Books you’ve read may also have a quick summary along with the title (good book about foreign policy) so that you remember why the reference was useful.
Politics is often based on emotional reactions, so you’ll find it especially important to check your facts. Before following along with certain ideas, make sure what’s being shared is true. Verify information from multiple trusted sources. Tracking down the facts will empower you to make better decisions and prevent the spread of misinformation and propaganda. (Propaganda is information designed to push a certain agenda.)
Time Check and Timelines
Ever read something that made your heart race only to later learn that it was from 10 years ago? Check the dates when events occurred, when articles were written, when reports were complied, and when laws were passed. Having a rough timeline figured out while researching helps keep things in proper perspective. This is especially interesting in noticing the trends and connections in politics.
Opinions Have Their Place
Politics are about people. People have opinions. When encountering information that feels more like opinion and less fact, this information can be important too. It tells you something about a segment of our community that thinks and feels the same way. By listening to and understanding these opinions, you’ll have a better chance of making connections with other people and finding a pathway forward.
Yeah, there is going to be a lot of information to sift through sometimes. Just take things a step at a time. Pace yourself. There’s no rush.
No one has the luxury of knowing every topic perfectly. Everyone has something more they can learn. You don’t have to know something perfectly to have a good grasp of the main ideas. You might not always feel ready to put yourself out there, but don’t sell yourself short because you think you have to be perfect.