How to have productive research questions

How to have productive research questions

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘How to have productive research questions’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/HowTo/How-to-have-productive-research-questions, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. It has been commented, rightly, that it is not possible to have sensible research questions right at the beginning of a piece of work – the right questions to ask only become clear after research has been carried out and material from it thought through and analysed. But in spite of this, cohort after cohort of new postgraduate students and other researchers are terrorised on an annual basis by being told at the point that they start that they have to devise research questions! They are smart enough to realise that they will know the right questions at the end, but don’t have a clue when they start; unfortunately, too few of the people who devise research training programs seem to know this.

2. That being acknowledged, is it possible both to devise research questions and get the requirements of research training off of people’s backs, and to do this in a more productive way than has become usual? The view underpinning this How To… is that it is.

3. In general, research question within research training programs seem to consist of lists, a list of things that the researcher wants to know, but with these, if not entirely separate from each other, then still not cumulative nor fully integrated. This is not because the people concerned are daft or have a bad piece of research on hand, but that this exercise is almost invariably carried out in a mechanistic ‘if I really have to’ kind of way, to fulfil the formal requirements, rather than as a good way of sorting out some important things in a way that will be productive.

4. However, it is possible even at the start of a research project to devise set of interlocking questions or areas of work which taken together will help achieve the desired goal of the research. It involves thinking through what the goal is – what the researcher wants to know when the research is completed – and then devising a set of aims which when achieved will mean that the goal has been realised. An example, as ever, will help convey what is meant here.

5. Start with ‘what do I want to know?’. It is worth thinking about this hard, and it’s a difficult thing to do because it means forward thinking in a way that most educational systems do not encourage. This should be the big ‘It’, the thing that most grabs the attention and the mind. It might seem self-evident what this is, but thinking hard will reveal complexities. Someone I know is working on things to do with the Church of England and the experience of the clergy in terms of how they end up joining, as well as what they actually do while they are carrying out practical clerical tasks and roles,,taking her/his own experiences as a kind of thread running through as well as exploring those of others. The ‘It’ here seems clear enough –s/he wants to know about experiences of the clergy. But s/he is also interested in the historical comparative aspects of this, that the form that modern Protestantism takes and men and women join Protestant churches not only differs in different countries, but also in the same country over time, including the fairly short-run time of the period since the end of World War II. In addition, s/he is interested in the written testimonies of clergymen (literally) in the form of published biographies and autobiographies, and how these have achieved a kind of authorised status over and sometimes against the accounts of people like my friend.

6. What then happens to the ‘It’ my friend wants to know about? From the same basis, this can be variously stated as:

A. A Norbert Elias inspired account of the historical comparative aspects of the changing roles of Protestantism in a number of countries

B. A documentary analysis of written biographies and autobiographies of clergyman linked to an investigation of how these have come to stand as the authorised collective memory

C. A C Wright Mills ‘power elite’ kind of investigation of the interconnections between the established Church and other elite formations in one country

D. A narrative analysis of oral accounts given in project research by former and perhaps also current clergy women and men

E. An ethnographic account of the clergy role, either in the form of a retrospective ethnography (based on records of past experience), an ethnography (currently carried out), or an autoethnography (focusing on the researcher as central).

7. These are five rather different formulations of my friend’s core research interest – and there could have been more. They turn the research kaleidoscope in different directions and give rise to different ways of seeing, different methodologies, and different methods and analytical tools. The most important aspect of this concerns the different ways of seeing – these are all connected, but they envisage what the ‘It’ is in different ways, and they lead to very different programs of activity. They have been written here in the way that highlights this by picking out that some are documentary analysis based, some involve historical research, others are narrative inquiry or ethnographic in basis and so on.

8. Now play with the ‘It’, in the sense of following through with each of the formulations that a brainstorming session comes up with, by asking some fairly straightforward questions about each of them. These concerns such things as, what kind of data or evidence they require, how it would be produced or gathered or found, how much of it would be necessary and sufficient, how it might be analysed, what bodies of theoretical or other ideas might be helpful for this particular way of envisaging ‘It’. And it’s also worth remembering that these different versions of ‘It’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive and that elements of them can be mixed and matched.

9. What appears above is a list in the form of a set of bullet points. Although there is a connection, the different things on the list are neither integrated nor cumulative. This is the point at which to return to the earlier comment about the relationship between goals and aims, between the ‘It’ that a researcher wants to know about, and the things they need to achieve that will enable this. So another example to put some flesh to the bones here.

10. Contemplating the first bullet point, this was quickly ruled out because taking my friend away from the experiences of clergy and putting the emphasis instead on something larger and more abstract. They then began working through what was involved if they pursued the second bullet point version of my friend’s ‘It’.

11. There are two components to this second bullet point, one concerned with published works of biography, autobiography and memoirs and documentary analysis of this, and the other concerned with how some accounts rather than others become canonical and take on a dominant position over and above others. Too much! Pursuing them would lead in two rather different directions (for instance, the second aspect is not accessible using documentary analysis but would require a different kind of research investigation), although obviously there are also points of connection, but carrying out sufficient research on each aspect would take considerably more time and resources that is available.

12. So which of them would give greater access to the ‘It’ that my friend wants to know about? Sketching all of this out on large sheets of paper, s/he decided that it’s the accounts of ‘ordinary clergy now’ in a power/knowledge relation to published accounts in autobiographies and memoirs (not biographIes) that is the central concern. In shorthand, this can be formulated as the relationship between the accounts of ordinary clergy and super clergy.

13. Cutting a long story short, this was worked out on some large sheets of paper to arrive at a goal and a set of aims to achieve it along the following lines:

GOAL – To investigate, interpret and theorise key similarities and differences between the accounts of ordinary Protestant clergy and those which appear in published biographies and memoIrs, by comparing and contrasting biographical origins, journey towards clergy membership, clergy roles and experiences, and a number of other important  areas.

AIM 1 – To select a sufficient number (up to circa 20) of Protestant clergy biographies and memoirs to support making some generalisations and to analyse these using documentary analysis methods within the framework of auto/biographical theory.

AIM 2 – To specify from a documentary analysis of the accounts of ‘super clergy’ a set  of points around which to compare and contrast with the oral accounts of ‘ordinary clergy’.

AIM 3 – To carry out at least 15 and possibly up to 25 open-ended interviews with ‘ordinary clergy’ members within a narrative enquiry framework.

AIM 4 – To specify from the analysis of the narrative interviews the key elements of how the ‘ordinary clergy’ see their lives and roles.

AIM 5 – To compere and contrast what are presented as the key saliences by the ‘ordinary clergy’ interviewed, with those that appear in the published accounts of the ‘super clergy’, to interpret the reasons for differences arising, and to theorise the relationship between different components of the clergy body.

14. As can be seen, these aims are cumulative and taken together they enable to goal that has been specified to be achieved. Whether the data collected is appropriate is a matter of comparing with the goal and the different aims. Whether it is sufficient needs to be thought about in the context of what kind of study is being carried out and what kinds of generalisations the researcher wants to make from it.

15. What has been done here can – and really should – be done for every instantiation of the ‘It’ of a piece of research. It makes you think! It doesn’t take an enormous amount of time and it most certainly helps think through what is of most interest and what is not. And what results isn’t ‘research questions’ in the usual sense of the phrase, but something which tells the researcher where they want to get and how they can get there.

16. Strictly speaking, these are not research questions – but they do go to the heart of what the key interests of the researcher are and how they might explore these in an efficient and productive way. Also, of course there are other ways of arriving at a similar end, many of which involve learning new software and/or reading specialist books and require large amounts of time. What is proposed here needs some sheets of paper and felt-tipped pens, no extra homework, and just a few hours of productive time. Go for it!

Last updated: 1 April 2017


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