Formulating Research Questions Amanda Wolf School of Government FGR Workshop Presentation 20 May 2010
Overview • Why is formulating research questions important? • Questions in perspective: Looking forward and backward on research questions • Matching questions to research purposes • Examples • Aim: to assist you to use thinking about research questions in ways that can improve the quality of the research and your satisfaction
Why Questions are Important • A PhD is a significant and original contribution to knowledge or understanding • Contribution may include critical, experimental, theoretical or creative components but must come together in a single integrated study • Research questions focus you on those criteria and help connect you to valuable knowledge resources
Looking Forward: Preparing to Formulate Questions • Know the requirements set by your supervisor, school, funder • Read a lot, keep a journal/idea folder, talk to people, reflect and review • As appropriate, investigate availability of data, equipment, access and other practical matters • Above all, bear in mind that your research has begun
A Conventional View of Question Formulation • You must, first, pose a question that: • Narrows down the ‘topic’ to a single problem (and often to an hypothesis) • Is not too big and not too small • Builds on what is known • Promises some new knowledge • Will ‘last’ the duration of the research
Typical Advice • “If you don’t get the research question right at the start of your PhD you probably won’t enjoy your studies and you will seriously reduce the chance of a successful outcome.” • Yes, yes, but . . . It’s a tall order and sets frustratingly difficult expectations
Problems With Conventional Views • Time: Takes too much time to sift through overwhelming amount of potentially relevant material • Spinning wheels: Getting stuck in a groove; you know so much about what is already known, and none of it helps • Goldilocks: ‘Just right’ scope remains elusive • Fit: Questions you like don’t seem to fit academic criteria, and those that fit you don’t like • Durability: Not entirely sure this is the question you want to commit to
An Alternative • Back into the task • Float ‘trial balloons’ in which possible questions are ‘situated’ in the research frame • Work with purpose (aim) in mind • Remind yourself that research does not start with the research question
Back Into the Task • Questions come from a puzzle, a curiosity, something that ‘grabs’ you • Think about that and write it down in two steps: • State where you are in the world/stream of literature • Name the puzzle (your puzzle, curiosity, think about your hunches . . . )
Example 1 • Excessive weight gain for women during pregnancy can be harmful for both mother and foetus. • But why do over 40% of women put on excessive weight while others do not? (I keep thinking that there might be something to do with hormones . . . )
Example 2 • New Zealand policy targets an increase in skilled immigration as a key response to addressing skill shortages and thereby increasing the country’s economic growth. • However, while we know a good deal in the aggregate about the work and settlement experiences of immigrants, I’m curious to know how immigrants’ experiences in NZ match their prior expectations
Trial Balloons in Four Parts • A coherent, feasible, interesting summary • As above, first: • A. Situate your study in an area ripe for investigation, or as the focus of your learning goals; Express as a declarative sentence • B. Name a puzzle or curiosity for focused attention (yes, but, however. . . ) • We study puzzles, not ‘topics’ • Next: • C. Name something specific about the puzzle that we need to know something about • D. Foreshadow the nature of what you will find out (the aim or purpose of the research)
Something Precise Needs Investigation • Your question: • Something specific about the puzzle that warrants asking and answering questions • To choose question, think about: • Personal or academic motives • Literature (existing theories, research, models) • Hunches • Assumptions • Preferred approaches to enquiry • Restrictions (audience, feasibility, politics, instrumental factors, logistics)
Example • Is pregnancy-related weight gain due to the interaction of two reproductive hormones: oxytocin, which is produced in the brain and suppresses food intake and prolactin, which may act by reducing the brain’s ability to respond to oxytocin, leading to a cycle of hunger, eating and obesity?
Example Generically • Is X (pregnancy-related weight gain) due to Y (the interaction of two reproductive hormones)? • What is the interaction between A (oxytocin, which is produced in the brain and suppresses food intake) and B (prolactin, which may act by reducing the brain’s ability to respond to oxytocin)? • Does the interaction between A and B lead to C (a cycle of hunger and eating)? • Therefore, is C a reason for X?
Purpose • The purpose foreshadows the findings of the research • What will be known • What you will have gained • Purposes “match” question, so develop together • Exploration (find thing) • Description (details of thing) • Explanation (establish mechanism) • Causes and/or effects • Understanding (establish reasons) • Meanings, context, process • Prediction (forecast outcomes under conditions) • Recommend action (change or process focus) • Evaluate (assess; judge) • Create/make something (new design, performance, tool, etc) • Purpose links to methods, which can provide a further check on coherence of the research
Questions Match Purpose • Why: understanding or explanation • How: change-focused • What: exploration, description, prediction, design solution • Only some purposes require a hypothesis • A hypothesis is a possible, testable, answer to why and some how questions, expressed as a relationship between two concepts, variables, things • Women gain weight because hormones interact in a weight-influencing cycle • No ‘hypothesis’ in ‘what’ questions • What happens to rocks surrounding volcanoes in response to changes in movement of potentially hazardous magma deep underground? • Note: If ‘hypothesis’ is taken as ‘an educated guess’, then ‘what’ questions can be motivated by an hypothesis
Getting the Question ‘Right’ • The ‘right’ question is the one that is centrally focused on your puzzle, your curiosity; it requires that other questions and problems are relegated (for the sake of research to the periphery) • A long list exercise can help • Write all questions that occur, group, sort, expose assumptions, rule out • A matter of balancing levels
Three ‘Levels’ of Questions • ‘Your’ research question refers to the precise focus of your original, independent research findings • Subsidiary questions guide the operational stages of your inquiry, the steps as you build the answer and address assumptions • A higher-level question shows the more general class of knowledge to which your research contributes: It is the essence of your question, the reason for your investigation significance of findings
Ruamoko’s Rumbles: What Happens Before a Volcano Erupts? • Mount Ruapehu caught scientists and the public by surprise when it erupted in 1995. • But analysis of data collected before and during this eruption indicates there may be subtle changes beneath volcanoes before they blow their tops. • We will examine how the rocks surrounding volcanoes respond to changes in movement of potentially hazardous magma deep underground. • The team hope to understand what happens just before a volcano erupts. This will make it easier to read telltale signs of stress build-up and magma movement. Although the underlying processes of eruptions have yet to be fully understood, this research offers hope of a reliable early warning system for volcanic activity.
Preventing Pregnancy-Induced Obesity • Excessive weight gain during pregnancy is a problem for women in modern society, and can be harmful to both mother and foetus. • But why do over 40% of women put on excessive weight while others do not? • This study will investigate whether pregnancy-related weight gain is due to the interaction of two reproductive hormones. Oxytocin is produced in the brain; one of its roles is to suppress food intake. The other hormone, prolactin, may act by reducing the brain’s ability to respond to oxytocin, leading to a cycle of hunger, eating and obesity. • By understanding how these hormones interact, Dr Brown hopes that strategies may be developed to limit excessive weight gain during pregnancy and so reduce health risks for mother and child.
War Captives in Māori Society • War captives or ‘slaves’ comprised somewhere between 10 and 50 percent of the Māori population in the early nineteenth century. Were the reasons for taking captives spiritual, political, or economic in nature? Were captives treated differently according to their rank or gender? Did codes of conduct govern their treatment? Did enslavement deprive individuals of their mana or personal tapu? • Slavery is an emotive term, and causes interpretive problems. This study will investigate the purpose and function of war captives in Māori society. It will attempt to dissect apparently contradictory accounts of their status and role, both before and after European contact. • English terms such as ‘slave’ may or may not have an equivalent Māori meaning and, therefore, may distort the reality such terms appear to represent. • But more important than vocabulary distinctions is the tendency to see such concepts within particular ideological frameworks or from culturally bounded perspectives. Perhaps they should be seen as distinct social or economic institutions, unique to their own society.
Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks • The traditional view of neural plasticity (changes in the number and strength of connections within the brain) was that children’s brains are more ‘plastic’ than those of adults. The less plastic your brain, the less able you are to acquire new skills, form new memories and recover from injury or impaired development. • Dr Thompson will investigate whether the use of Prozac can increase brain plasticity in humans (following studies with adult mice). • Using a variety of brain plasticity measures that target both movement and vision, Dr Thompson will investigate the ability of Prozac to increase brain plasticity in healthy adults and to facilitate recovery from the common visual disorder ‘lazy eye’. • This innovative project has the potential to alter neural plasticity in adults, with the view to enhancing learning and re-learning after brain injury.
The Story of My Life • Adolescents are urged to ‘get a life’, but they also need a sense of who they are. A strong sense of identity helps lead to greater life satisfaction, and academic and occupational success. How is a sense of identity formed? And is it shaped in the same way for adolescents in different cultures? • One important way that adolescents form an identity is through talking about their lives with others in order to form ‘life stories’, but the extent to which this is done varies between cultures. • Most previous research in this area has concentrated on life stories and identity in adults. At what point in development does life-story telling become crucial for well-being? • Associate Professor Reese will ask ninety 12- to 20-year-old adolescents from three culture groups to tell the stories of their lives and to report on their well-being. The expectation is that adolescents who tell more coherent and insightful life stories will experience greater well-being.
Managing the Levels • Independence is demonstrated by your ability to set up the questions • Original contribution is gauged by the detail in your reported answer to the main question • Significant contribution is shown by the reasons you give to justify your work and explain its contribution. • You need to find a good balance: • Too much detail, significance hard to find • Too little detail, originality unclear
Looking Backward • Especially in PhD research, the formulation of your questions helps assessors judge whether you have presented an original, integrated argument, and the significance of your contribution • Even though your questions will have evolved, everything in your final thesis should demonstrate you know what your research question is and what it has led you to add to knowledge and understanding
References • Blaikie, N. (2000). Designing social research. Polity • Hawke, G. (2010). Presentation to School of Government PhD students • Examples derived from studies designed by Di Buchan (skilled migrants) and Marsden award winners: Assoc Prof JE Reese (stories); Dr B Thompson (old brains); Dr H Petrie (slavery); Dr CH Brown and Professor DR Grattan (hormones); Professor MK Savage (volcanoes) (www.marsden.rsnz.org) • http://www.brighthub.com/education/postgraduate/articles/68825.aspx (‘typical advice’)