How to have productive research questions

How to have productive research questions

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘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 specify sensible research questions right at the start of a piece of work – the right questions to ask only become clear after research has been carried out and material from it thought about and analysis has begun. But in spite of this, cohort after cohort of new researchers are terrorised on an annual basis by being told right at the point that they start that they have to devise research questions! But what they all realise is that they will know what the right questions are only much later in the process.

2. That being acknowledged, is it possible to devise some beginning research questions and to do this in a productive way? The view underpinning this ‘How To…’ is that it is.

3. In general, the research questions that are formulated consist of lists of things that the researcher wants to know, but with these more formal kinds of research questions, if not entirely separate from each other, then still not cumulative nor fully integrated. This is not because the people concerned have a bad piece of research on hand, but that this exercise is often carried out in a mechanistic ‘if I really have to’ kind of way, to fulfil formal requirements from supervisors and Graduate Schools or from mentors, rather than being used as a 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. Devising this involves thinking through what the goal is – what the researcher wants to know when the research is completed – and then formulating a set of aims which when achieved will mean that the goal has been realised. An example will help convey what is meant here.

5. Start with ‘what do I want to know?’. This is in fact quite a difficult thing to do, because it means forward thinking in a way that most educational systems do not encourage. This ‘what’ 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 about it will reveal complexities.

6. 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 it, as well as what they actually do while they are carrying out practical clerical tasks and roles, and they are using their own experiences as a kind of thread running through as well as exploring the experiences of other people. 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 the process by which 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 men) 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.

7. What resulted as the ‘It’ that my friend wanted to know about? They eventually specified the possibilities as:

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

B. A documentary analysis of the published biographies and autobiographies of a number of clergymen, investigating 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 provided in a set of unstructured conversational-style interviews with former and 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), or an autoethnography (focusing on the researcher as central).

8. These are five formulations of my friend’s research interests and they look very different. They turn the research kaleidoscope in different directions and give rise to different ways of seeing, different methodologies, and different methods and analytical tools. They involve different ways of seeing the ‘same’ thing – they 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 the fact that some are explored using documentary analysis, or historical-comparative research, or narrative inquiry or ethnographic.

9. Now play with the ‘It’, in the sense of following through with each of these formulations (produced in a brainstorming session) 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 needed to be 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.

10. What appears above is a list in the form of some bullet-points. Although there is a connection between them, the different things on the list are neither integrated nor cumulative. This is the point at which to return to the comment earlier 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.

11. Contemplating the first bullet-point, this was quickly ruled out because it would take my friend away from investigating the experiences of clergy and put the emphasis instead on something larger and more abstract. They then began working through what was involved if they were to pursue the second bullet-point version of ‘It’.

12. There are two components to this second bullet-point, one concerned with published works of biography, autobiography and memoirs and a 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.

13. So which of these would come closest 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 is 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.

14. Cutting a long story short, this was then 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 carry out a documentary analysis of the accounts of ‘super clergy’ and derive from this 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 up to 25 open-ended interviews with ‘ordinary clergy’ members within a narrative enquiry framework.

AIM 4 – To analyse the narrative interviews and specify from this 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 aspects as seen by the ‘ordinary clergy’ who will be 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.

15. As can be seen, these aims are cumulative and, taken together, they enable the goal that has been specified to be achieved. Whether the data to be collected is appropriate is a matter of comparing the goal and the different aims. And 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.

16. What has been discussed here can  be done for every a piece of research. Thinking in a very structured way about what ‘It’ is but you really want to know about makes you think! It doesn’t take a lot of time to do and it 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, their goal, and how they can get there, their aims.

17. Strictly speaking, these are not research questions – but they do get 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: 20 May 2021