Thursday, December 4, 2008

Research and Research Questions

Some research--or at least some important discoveries--are not made as the result of a specific research question. We might imagine Newton under the apple tree: the discovery of an idea that appears through the data. Similarly we might imagine that Darwin had no interest in evolution, but was only cataloguing the creatures he observed in his travels.

Such research need not be driven by a question; it comes about serendipitously. And that is somewhat problematic when there is an expectation to publish, to complete research projects and write them up. Can we just wait for a discovery to come to use as we peruse ever more data? That depends on what you want your life to be.

However, if your goal is to finish a research project so as to get a degree or to get published, then it helps to have a research question.

Research questions shape a work and guide it. They provide the focus. Any question could be a research question, but some are better suited to study than others.

A research question comes from a way of looking at the world. It starts with a basic perspective. We each have a fundamental, mostly unconscious set of ideas about how the world works. This then shapes the way we interact with the world and the questions we will ask of it.

We might, for example, believe the Christian creation myth, and set off on a journey to discover and document the many different species that survived the flood on Noah's ark. This would all be consistent with a desire to know all of God's creation that it might be celebrated. Our research question in such a case might be "are there any creatures that have not been documented yet?" or "how many undocumented creature can I find and document to the greater glory of the Lord?" These research questions are unlike the questions that are asked in most universities in America, but they are consistent within a certain world view. In much the same way that the questions asked at a secular university are consistent with their own world view.

Whatever your world view, it is the place from where you start: "I believe the world operates this way," you assert. Usually we have a number of assertions about how things work: "the sun will rise tomorrow; water will run when I turn the tap; e=mc^2; the sperm fertilizes the egg; drinking too much alcohol will make me sick; etc." We have a whole world of assertions; each of us has slightly different ones. Some of them we accept without question, and some of them we're curious about.

We might believe "Process X will improve the quality of my work." It's of obvious value if it's true. As a researcher, it is appropriate to be skeptical. Is this assertion true? And that becomes the research question that you test. The first place to look for answers, of course, is in the literature. Has anyone else asked this question? If so, what was their answer? If not, has anyone asked similar questions? Perhaps no one has asked "will Process X improve work in my field (let's call it 'field A')?" but someone has asked "will process X work in field B (which is related to field A)?"

By starting with what you believe, and testing what you believe, you can move into the logic of your area of interest in search of a question for which you want an answer but which there is no answer to be found.

Maybe you found someone, Dr.Q, who said "Process X will improve work in field A," but their argument was only theoretical, and they had never tested it. This then becomes an assertion that is in need of an empirical test, so you can set up a study to see if it will work in your field.

Maybe you also found someone who said "Process X works in field B if you make adjustments 1, 2 and 3." One thing you could do is to say, "I want to test process X in field A, as Dr. Q suggests, but I want to make adjustments 1 and 2 because of the similarity of fields A and B." Or you could say "I wonder whether the conditions that require adjustment 1 in field B also hold in field A, and if so will adjustment 1 suffice in field A?"

The examples should be viewed as examples of ways of thinking and asking questions. The premises and assertions used as examples could be replaced by any assertion or premise. Once we have a premise, we can start to look at whether it is true, and what reasons we have to believe it, and we can then go from there.

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