In the historical, social and cultural context of the event, what records could reasonably have been created that would provide information about my ancestor?This is really the first step in beginning a valid genealogical research project. Genealogical research (a kin to historical research) deals with historically created records. The core process involves locating pertinent records. As an interesting side note, in the process for become accredited by the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGEN), you have to show the following, "You should feel comfortable with your chosen area of specialization and have a good working knowledge of the records of that area. You must also have at least 1,000 hours of research experience in that geographical area." See the ICAPGEN website "The Application and the Four Generation Project. So the fundamental process of doing genealogical research involves identifying the records that may possibly be available.
Therefore, genealogical research consists of two phases; discovering records and then searching those records for information about ancestral families. If we understand that this is what is involved in "doing genealogical research," then we will understand the need for the basic reference works and why they are valuable. In the United States the basic book is The Source. See Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. This edition has been put online by Ancestry.com an incorporated into the Ancestry.com Wiki.
If simply identifying and locating source records were all genealogy was about, then life would be complicated but not too complicated. If the researcher is successful in identifying source records, that is only the beginning. Remember that these records could be anywhere, but most likely related to the location of the various events in your ancestor's life. For example, if the ancestor was born in Massachusetts and then moved to New York, records will be in both locations. This process can become extremely complicated when the records have moved to a state archive or even a regional one.
The next step is the one requiring persistence; searching the records. But even after finding the records (sources or whatever you want to call them) and searching them for evidence of your ancestors, the real hard work comes from analyzing the information in the records until the records have been milked as dry as Mesa, Arizona concrete on a hot summer day. Most beginning researchers think that finding the record and copying out the information is all there is to the doing research. That is only the barest of beginnings. The research part is in the analysis. In every case, the records need to be looked at for consistency and accuracy. But even more, the records need to be placed within the greater context of the lives of the ancestors so that the researcher can determine the weight to give the information contained in the document.
To summarize: genealogical research involves finding, searching, recording and analyzing records for information about your ancestors. Each step of the process is complex. As much as the purveyors of the Research Cycle diagrams would like it to be, it is not a linear process. No one can search records without connecting a variety of dots at the same time. Sometimes it is important to jump from one issue to another. But successful research comes from reasonably exhausting sources on one particular issue. In my experience, some research projects about the same issue can take years and years to complete and others are never ending. No conclusion in genealogy is every final. Every fact is always open to revision based on subsequent discoveries. Great genealogists are the ones who know where and how to find the information and then know what to do with it once it is found.