From Topics to Questions

The previous entry in the blog series on work smarter provided some general tips on locating articles and managing references. If you have not had a chance to read it yet, please check it out here and share your thoughts. For this entry, however, we take a step back and consider some crucial but yet challenging steps that you need to take. As you might have guessed from the title of this entry, we will review techniques/concepts that will help you come up with a good research question. This entry is a loose summary of a chapter in the Craft of Research (Booth et al. 2008) with one or two examples of my own. As always, you are encouraged to participate and contribute to the discussion.

For those of you who are relatively new to research papers, the mere thought of finding a research topic and question can be quite intimidating. This can be rightfully so. After all, a research paper is less about “who”, “what” or “when” and more about “how” and “why”. It is more analytical than just reporting facts. But how do we even get to the question? This is the question that the authors explore using four processes. In a nutshell, these processes can be summarized in the following way:

interest -> topic -> broad topic -> focused topic -> question -> significance

This may seem quite obvious but it is quite important. Your interests should guide your exploration of research topics because your commitment will contribute greatly to the quality of your research. The research process will also be fun if you are personally interested in it. So you might want to list a number of topics/themes that you are interested in. Multilingual education? Dialect variation? You list it. And then you might decide on a couple of topics and narrow them down. You can start this by doing some general readings that are somewhat related to the topic. Or you might want to look up the topic in a linguistics dictionary, specialized indexes. You can even Google your topic to get a better idea of what it involves. Observe how the topic can be narrowed down and do the same with your own. This can be challenging so you should start early!

Once you have somewhat a narrower topic, the goal is to sharpen it even more. It has to be really focused, the authors suggest. For example, a topic like communication style and misunderstanding in workplace is quite broad. Instead you might add certain what the author call “action” words – which express actions or relationships. Adding the verb contribute on the other hand makes it more interesting and less static. So the general topic can be slightly narrowed down to something like communication style contributes to misunderstanding in workplace. This not only narrows your topic down but also makes a claim that can be potentially turned into a question. However, it is also important not to make your topic too narrow. Otherwise you may not find any relevant literature and thus may not be able to make much progress towards drafting a research question.

One of the common mistakes that early researchers make, the authors say, is beginning an exhaustive literature search right away and reading whatever one can find on the topic. This should be avoided because you cannot find answers to questions that you have not yet asked! So you need to formulate a question. The question will help you to cut back on the number of articles that you need to read and help you focus more. You might think about how your topic can be categorized and how it compares to and contrasts with others like it. What others have already said about it? If you are more experienced in your field, you might read through relevant articles and look for questions that other researchers have asked but not answered. When you have a number of questions, you need to evaluate them because not all questions are created equal. You want to evaluate them and condense them into a bigger question. Questions that call for “settled fact”, “mere speculative” and “dead” answers should be.

Thinking about the significance of your research question is the next challenging step in refining your research question. This is the “so what” part of your research and it is one of the problems that many experienced researchers face.  The authors recommend that you begin to think about this question earlier on and keep thinking about it as you make progress in your research. The “so what” question makes you think about how your work relates with others. This is a way to move beyond your own interests in the topic and make it relevant to your field. The suggested three steps can be summarized as follows:

  1. What you are writing about – I am working on the topic of …
    1. What you do not know about it – because I want to find out
      1. Why do you want your readers to know/care about it

So what do you think? Please sign in below to shout back your questions or comments.

Booth, W., Colomb, G. & Williams, J. (2008). The Craft of Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

One thought on “From Topics to Questions

  1. Moving from research topic to research question is KEY – great to have some concrete guidelines and examples! I think the most important thing is to cultivate and practice a very active reading stance. Put yourself and your ideas into conversation with every study that you read about. How would you use this work/ expand upon it / critique it?

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