IT IS INTRIGUING that something as central to academic work as the “research question” would go without a clear-cut, consensual, practical definition. Some see it as a technically-worded version of the question you set out to answer when you start your research process. Others view it as a paradox—a counterintuitive formulation of deceptively familiar problems, shedding an entirely new light on them. Others still believe that it comes closer to a hypothesis you intend to prove, turned into a rhetorical question. Meanwhile, many students go years without truly grasping the concept supposedly at the heart of their dissertations.
If truth be told, the research question is a case-by-case determination that cannot be brought down to a scientific formula, leaves enormous space to subjective judgment, and is validated mostly by its effectiveness in shaping the argument: simply put, it is a question posed to organize the material garnered through research in such ways as to make it interesting to others. If we apply the “research question” as a concept to this very article, namely to the “research question” as a topic, the outcome could look like this: “why is the research question, ill-defined as it is, nonetheless indispensable to meaningful research?”
This interrogation is designed to spur various answers, or hypotheses, which flow from a certain research material—in this context, the reading, conversations, experiences and thoughts one can have on the issue of the “research question.” The exact formulation of this interrogation aims to structure this material into a satisfactorily consistent, well-rounded answer. Here, by way of example, the answer to the question posed can be broken down into five points.
First of all, the articulation of a research question comes at a crucial—and not altogether intuitive—moment in the research process. It cannot occur at the outset, before you have actually gathered the material you are attempting to organize. Nor should it be delayed too long, however, given its importance in shaping your late-stage interviews and analysis. The best timing is halfway through a given project. The first part of your project will see your research of a particular topic produce more and more data, analysis, nuance, complexity and, consequently, confusion. The second half must be devoted to outcomes, which always take much longer than we assume: drawing conclusions, drafting a paper, editing it, developing visuals and the like. The research question resembles a lens, used to refocus the widening scope of your research, and narrow it back down toward its closing stage; graphically, it connects two equally-sized, inverted cones.
Second, however conceptual it may seem, the research question must fulfill very pragmatic functions if it is to help you wind down your project and synthesize the final product. It should define the exact scope of it, based on what fieldwork you have managed to conduct: the research question is meant to frame your initial topic to fit within the contours of the actual data and interview transcripts you have on hand. In addition, it must also clarify, in straightforward terms, the interesting nature of the work you have done. The research question consists in highlighting the importance of your initial topic, as seen through the lens of your specific approach, in such ways as to make it relevant to others. (Therefore it has much in common with notions such as “angle,” for reporters, or “theme” in more literary narration.)
Third, it is wise to accept that what is truly significant in what we do typically eludes us in the early stages. Your research question will likely come to life only gradually, through a reflective process involving you, your manager(s) and people you engaged with during your fieldwork. As a matter of principle, your research should have challenged your initial thinking, added lawyer upon lawyer of facts, narratives and complications, and brought out very specific sources of blockage and frustration. These, typically, are precisely the cues you need: what resists conventional analysis is inherently interesting; and what confounds you in a topic is what you must understand. Discussing your confusion, as well as the hypotheses you form to get past it—both with people in the field and far removed—is how you will form your research question: such back-and-forth, between your thought process and their experience, will help you reword the enigmas you have run up against into an interrogation you happen to have better answers to than you thought.
Fourth, the research question essentially captures your own itinerary, as you explored your topic: what was most significant in what you learned and why? This entails undertaking the journey in the first place, and thus taking the risk of an open-minded and necessarily confusing exploration. And it involves a turning point at which you must step out, distance yourself from your own experience, juxtapose it to that of others, and figure out what fundamental truth you can hope to extract from the obstacles you encountered. Some academics would call this “problematizing,” in the sense of turning a general topic into a problem worth solving.
Fifth and last, there is an unconscious reason why we struggle to shift from wide-ranging reading and interviewing to narrow analysis: the challenge that is writing. The research question is a momentous decision, where we simultaneously unlock the riddles the topic posed to us and begin to lock-in our answers to them. Hence you are well-advised to de-romanticize the issue. There is no unique, definite research question for any given topic. There are options that you must try out like outfits, under the observant and sympathetic eye of people involved in your inquiry, to see which one works best for you. It “works” when you feel it captures best what you were grappling with and now understand. That is how meaningful studies are born: by questioning the research until it yields the research question.
Enjoy the occasional, thoughtful boost to your productivity!
Illustration credit: optometry by Pixabay / licensed by CC.