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  • 1. ~ ......,,. Creating a Writing Group CHAPTER THREE A downside of academic research is its isolation. Except for projects, youll read and write mostly alone. But it doesnt have to From Topics to Questions that way. Look for someone other than your instructor or who will talk with you about your progress, review your drafts, In this chapter we discuss how ro find a ropic among your interests, j., I pester you about how much youve written. That might be a na"ow it ro a manageable scope, then question it to find the makings I , i!..! ous friend, but better is another writer so that you can comment of a problem that can guide your research. Ifyou are an experienced ;·: .!i each others ideas and drafts. researcher or know the ropic you want to pursue, skip ro chapter 4· l .T Best of all is a group of four or five people working on But if you are starting yourfirst project, you wiU find this chapter !6 own projects who meet regularly to read and discuss one useful. ;r ers work. Early on, each meeting should start with a summary each persons project in this three-part sentence: Im working on because I want to find out Y, so that I (and you) can better understana If you are free to research any topic that interests you, that free- Z (more about this in 3-4). As your projects advance, develop dom might seem frustrating-so many choices, so little time. At opening "elevator story," a short summary of your project that you some point, you have to settle on a topic. But you cant jump from could give someone on the way to a meeting. It should include picking a topic to collecting data: your readers want more than your research question, your best guess at an answer, and the kind a mound of random facts. You have to find a reason better than of evidence you expect to use to support it. The group can then fol- a class assignment not only for you to devote weeks or months low up with questions, responses, and suggestions. to your research, but for your readers to spend any time reading Dont limit your talk to just your story, however. Talk about your about it. Youll find . that better reason when you can ask a question ~... _, - .. . .. .. ~ .. . . . . readers: Why should they be interested in your question? How might -.yhose answer solve~ a probLem that you can convince readers to they respond to your argument? Will they trust your evidence? Will care about. That question and problem are what will make read- they have other evidence in mind? Such questions help you plan eiithl.nkyour report is worth their time. They also focus your re- an argument that anticipates what your readers expect._ Your group search and save you from collecting irrelevant data. can even help you brainstorm when you bog down. Later the group In all research communities, some questions are "in the air," can read one anothers outlines and drafts to imagine how their , widely debated and researched, such as whether traits like shy· final readers will respond. If your group has a problem with your , ness or an attraction to risk are learned or genetically inherited. draft, so will those readers. But for most writers, a writing group But other questions may intrigue only the researcher: Why do cats is most valuable for the discipline it imposes. It is easier to meet a rub theirfaces against us? Why does a coffee spill dry up in the shape of schedule when you know you must report to others. a ring? "0~ts ~ow._~_l~t <?(!~§~~!.cl?- begins-not with a big q~es~ Writing groups are common for those writing theses or disser- tion that attr;tcts everyone in a field, but with a mental itch about. tations . But the rules differ for a class paper. Some teachers think a small one that only a single researcher wants to scratch. If you that a group or writing partner provides more help than is appro· feel that itch, start scratching. But at some point, you must decide priate, so be clear what your instructor allows. whether the answer to your question solves a problem significant 34 35
  • 2. •• A I It I N (; Q U £ ST I 0 N S, F I N D I N G A N SW E R S From Topics to Questions 37 to a teacher, to other researchers, or even to a public whose lives flow. Prime the pump by asking friends, classmates, even your your research could change. teacher about topics that interest them. If no good topics come to Now that word problem is itself a problem. Commonly, a prob- mind, consult the Quick Tip at the end of this chapter. lem means trouble, but among researchers it has a meaning so spe- · Once you have a list of topics, choose the one or two that inter- cial that we devote the next chapter to it. But before you can frame est you most. Then do this: your research problem, you have to find a topic that might lead to one. So well start there, with finding a topic. • In the library, look up your topic in a general bibliography such as the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature and skim theI·I ~~~{i}J~~~~~ ~ ·~~::, ::·; ~:.·- Qu~i~;~:~O;~P~o~LE~?.":·· c~·~ . :...~<. >: ·. ~. : :·: subheadings~-ifyo~·h.;v~-a--~~~~-~~r~o.;; f~~~·s : l~ok into spe- III~#J::~;;;J4~~~:r:;:7p:~;~1: cialized guides such as the American Humanities Index. Mostj :.I:1: -:" to libraries have copies on theshe""if:many-subs~i:ib~ their on-I" ~1(illl~ro~:rl!.i~e p,r~btem.s; b~f:te~·d~ not.Aquestiori rais~ ~ line equivalents, but not all of them let you skim subject head-I. ~·1tm~t:~~~[fn~·~-;~~eps,u$ ,ftbn;~kr:o~ing.som¢thini m~(~ im, · ings. (We discuss these resources in chapter 5 and list severalI ~t~~~t~ ~~n~YW". ;For :exarnp~~ . ify.te: ~an not an~wer th~. q!i~:>~ioh · in the appendix.)I ~~~~~"¥!;r~we•,partides? v:e ~tl~h~t ~now so·rne~hin~ eyen rn?e :rI ~!~1lli!~!l~ ~~~:~~~ur~ _Q: :pb~slca_ll!~l~t~~c~, ~ri t~~ o~her han,d, a·.. • On the Internet, Google your topic, but dont surf indiscrimi- ~ctf.~tc>~~~~~s~ a gr~~l~m 1f .f!o:( ar.l:;We~1~g 1t h~s no. appa~e11t .. nately. Look first for Web sites that are roughly like sources ~:,l.~~P-.:~,:~f:.dr; e~a1!1pfe_; :Warji~r,ahaf, ~~!~(~s ~gbt thu!~1on~er . . you would find in a library, such as online encyclopedias. Read ii~~!~~f~,~ ~~ 5~~~t ·!~Ink of~~~t wouJ~ we..~~tn :by k~owtn~;:Atl: the entry on your general topic, and then copy the list of refer- fib~~h~:~~~~~~;~ : i - . :: ences at the end for a closer look. Use Wikipedia to find ideas and sources, but always confirm what you find in a reliable 3.1 FROM AN INTEREST TO A TOPIC source. Few experienced researchers trust Wikipedia, so under Most of us have more than enough interests, bu t beginners often no circumstances cite it as a source of evidence (unless your topic find it hard to locate among theirs a topic focused enough to sup- is the Wikipedia itself).II ·i port a substantial research project. A rese(ircll .topic is an inter- ·i est stated specifically enough for you to-imagine becoming a locar . • You can also find ideas in blogs, which discuss almost every expert on it. That doesnt mean you alre~dy kno~ a lot about it-or contentious issue, usually ones too big for a research paper. that youll have to know more about it than your teacher does. You But look for posts that take a position on narrow aspects of the just want to know a lot more about it than you do now. larger issues: if you disagree with a view, investigate it. If you can work on any topic, we offer only a cliche: start with 3.1.2 Finding a Topic for a First Research Project in a Particular Field what most interests you . Nothing contributes to the quality of . your work more than your commitment to it. Start by listing topics relevant to your particular class and that in - terest you, then narrow them to one or two promising ones. If the 3.1.1 Finding a Topic in a General Writing Course topic is general, such as religious masks, youll have to do some ran- Start by listing as many interests as you can that youd like to .· dom reading to narrow it. But read with a plan: explore. Dont limit yourself to what you th ink might interest a • Skim encyclopedia entries in your library or online. Start with teacher or make him think youre a serious student. Let your ideas standard ones such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Then con-
  • 3. 38 ASKING QUESTIONS, F I NDING ANSWERS From Topics to Questions 39 sult specialized ones such as the Encyclopedia of Religion or the hand, be SU!!;_Y.<2~_liJ;>_:ra:ry:ha.s_atJ~as! some relevant sources. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If not:yot; may have to start over. .. .. . . J • Skim headings in specialized indexes, such as the ~hilosophers 3.2 FROM A BROAD TOPIC TO A FOCUSED ONE Index, Psychological Abstracts, or Womens Studies Abstracts. Use At this point, your biggest risk is settling on a topic so broad that subheadings for ideas of how others have narrowed your topic. . it could be a subheading in a library catalog: spaceflight; Shake- ,. • Google your topic, but not indiscriminately. Use Google .1 speares problem plays; natural law. A topic is probably too broad if Scholar, a search engine that focuses on scholarly journals and you can state it in four or five words: books. Skim the articles it turns up, especially their lists of · Free will in Tolstoy sources. The history of commercial aviation"!· When you know the general outline of your topic and how others : A topic so broad can intimidate you with the task of finding, much have narrowed it, try to n arrow yours. If you cant, browse through· less reading, even a fraction of the sources available. So narrow it: journals and Web sites until it becomes more dearly defined. That takes time, so start early. Free will in Tolstoy ..... The conflict of free will and inevitabil- ity in Tolstoys description of three 3.1.3 Finding a Topic for an Advanced Project battles in War and Peace Most advanced students already have interests in topics relevant to their field. If you dorit, focus on what interests you, but remember The history of ..... The contribution of the military in commercial aviation developing the DC-3 in the early years that you must eventually show why it should also interest others. of commercial aviation • Find what interests other researchers. Look online for recur- We narrowed those topics by adding words and phrases, but of ring issues and debates in the archives of professional dis- a special kind: conflict, description, contribution, and developing. ,..- cussion lists relevant to your interests. Search online and in Those nouns are derived from verbs expressing actions or rela- <-, journals like the Chronicle of Higher Education for conference tionships: to conflict, to describe, to contribute, and to develop. _I...ack- announcements, conference programs, calls for papers, any- ~!!:g~such "action words, your topic is a static thing:______ · thing that reflects what others find interesting. Note what happens when we restate static topics as full sen- • Skim the latest issues of journals on your librarys new arrivals tences. Topics (1) and (2) change almost not at all: shelf, not just for articles, but also for conference announce- (1) Free will in Tolstoy1opic--; There is free will in Tolstoy s ments, calls for papers, and reviews. Skim the most recent novels.cfaim articles in your librarys online database..1! (2) The history of commercial aviation 1opic--; Commercial aviation • Investigate the resources that your library is particularly rich has a history.cloim in. If, for example, it (or one nearby) holds a collection of rare papers on an interesting topic, you have not only found a topic But when (3) and (4) are revised into full sentences, they are closer but a way into it. Before you settle on a topic, on the other to claims that a reader might find interesting.
  • 4. ! j ·1~-~~,· : ~ I I ,. I ,l.j,. ,, " ~r1 · · ·l· I , .; 1 t41.;!~ i I ~! ,I ll· •., r · 40 ASKING QUESTIO NS, FINDING ANSWERS From Topics to Questions 41 : ....· ;;: ~~~ f ~~ ~ f•. . : ,,:, , ··•.• , . r 1.:1 facts. If a writer asks no specific question worth asking, he can offer 1;I 1 t!t:l,· r I;,!1 •• . . l ~. (3) The conflict of free will and inevitability in Tolstoys description -· ~·· • . . .c lI I If l of three battles in War and Peace1opic ~ In War and Peace, Tolstoy !!~ ~pecific answer worth supporting. And without an answer to /j.. . · :i .. i ,I··: describes three battles in which free will and inevitability conflict.cJaim support, he cannot select from all the data he could find on a topic : just those relevant to his answer. To be sure, those fascinated by 1! (4) The contribution of the military in developing the DC-3 in the Elvis Presley movie posters or early Danish anthropological films early years of commercial aviation 1opic ~ In the early years of will read anything new about them, no matter how trivial. Serious commercial aviation, the military contributed to the way the DC-3 researchers, however, do not report data for their own sake, but developed.cJaim to support the answer to a question that they (and they hope their Such claims may at first seem thin, but youll make them richer as readers) think is worth asking. you work through your project. ~?. tl:~- ~~~~..~.~y.to.1J.t::.&~n.~.~r.kil1~ ony(.)Lt~ . S.P.~.ci.~~ tl)p_c is .P:.9.! • i Caution: Dont narrow your topic so much that you cant find ~o find al_ t he data you c an on your general topic, bu! to formu._- l data on it. Too many data are available on the history of commercial late questions that point you to just those data that you need to . answer the~. . • . . aviation but too few (at least for beginning researchers) on the de- cision to lengthen the wingtips on the DC-] prototype for military use " . You can st~rtwith the standard journalistic questions: who, what, as a cargo carrier. when, and where, but focus on how and why. To engage your best critical thinking, systematically ask questions about your topics 3.3 FROM A FOCUSED TOPIC TO QUESTIONS history, composition, and categories. Then ask any other question Once they have a focused topic, many new researchers make a you can think of or find in your sources. Record all the questions, beginners mistake: they immediately start plowing through all but dont stop to answer them even when one or two grab your at- the sources they can find on a topic, taking notes on everything tention. (And dont worry about keeping these categories straight; they read. With a promising topic such as the political origins of · their only purpose is to stimulate questions and organize your an- legends about the Battle of the Alamo, they mound up endless facts swers.) Lets take up the example of masks mentioned earlier. connected with the battle: what led up to it, histories of the Texas Revolution, the floor plan of the mission, even biographies of 3.3.1 Ask about t he History of Your Topic generals Santa Anna and Sam Houston. They accumulate notes, • How does it fit into a]:.rg~,r.-~ev~Jopm:~n~!ll~.g..nt~~~? Why did summaries, descriptions of differences and similarities, ways in your topic come into being? What came before masks? How which the stories conflict with one another and with what histori- were masks invented? Why? What might come after masks? ans think really happened, and so on. Then they dump it all into a report that concludes, Thus we see many differences and similari- • What is its own internal history? How and why has the topic ties between ... itself changed &~h:~timerl-Iow have Native American masks Many high school teachers would reward such a report with a · changed? Why? How have Halloween masks changed? How has good grade, because it shows that the writer can focus on a topic, the role ofmasks in society changed? How has the booming mar- . ;_: : find data on it, and assemble those data into a report, no small ket for kachina masks influenced traditional design? Why have I :• achievement- for a first proj ect. But in any college course, such masks helped make Halloween the biggest American holiday after a report falls short if it is seen as just a pastiche of vaguely related Christmas?
  • 5. ,j; 1 : ii"·I•· I::~ -lr r I t 42 ASKING QU EST I ONS, FI N DING A NSW ERS From Topics to Questions 43 . ~T in African religions but not in Western ones? Why don:t hunters i: I 3.3.2 Ask about Its Structure and Composition !. ! in camouflage wear masks? How are masks and cosmetic surgery • How does your topic fit into the context of a larger structure alike? or function as part of a larger system? How do masks reflect the values ofdifferent societies and cultures? What roles do masks play 3.3.6 Ask Questions Suggested by Your Sources in Hopi dances? In scary movies? In masquerade parties? How You wont be able to do this until youve done some reading on are masks used other than for disguise? • How do its parts fit together as a system? What parts of a mask --- your topic. Ask..9.!!_estions that build on. agreement: - --·· · -~-- .... . - -- ~ ··~ - • If a source makes a claim you think is persuasive, ask ques- are most significant in Hopi ceremonies? Why? Why do some tions that might extend its reach. Elias shows that masked baUs masks cover only the eyes? Why do few masks cover just the bottom became popular in eighteenth-century London in response to anxi- half of the face? How do their colors play a role in. their JUnction? eties about social mobility. Did the same anxieties cause similar developments in Venice? 3.3.3 Ask How Your Topic Is Categorized • Ask questions that might support the same claim with new • How can your topic be grouped into kinds? What are the dif- evidence. Elias supports his claim about masked balls with pub- ferent kinds of masks? Of Halloween masks? Of African masks? lished sources. Is it also supported by letters and diaries? How are they categorized by appearance? By use? By geography or society? What are the different qualities ofmasks? • Ask questions analogous to those that sources have asked about similar topics. Smith analyzes costumes from an economic • How does your topic compare to and contrast with others like point of view. What would an economic analysis ofmasks turn up? it? How do Na_tive American ceremonial masks differ from those in japan.? How do Halloween masks compare with Mardi Gras .......__..,..!~k 9."1!~~-tions that reflect.disagreement:.... Now . .... --~··· ....., ........... , . . ~ ........ ··~· masks? • Martinez claims that carnival masks uniquely allow wearers to es- cape social norms. But could there be a larger pattern of aU masks 3.3.4 Turn Positive Questions into Negative Ones creating a sense ofalternative forms ofsocial or spiritual life? • Why have masks not become a part of other holidays, like Presi- (We discuss in more detail h ow to use disagreements with sources dents Day or Memorial Day? How do Native American masks in 6+) not differ from those in Africa? What parts of masks are typically If you are an experienced researcher,·--·-.............for·· - questions that look .. not significant in religious ceremonies? -~~~~E E.~~e~~~h~rs ~s~_ ~:!:~ ~c,mt answer. Many journal articles end with a paragraph or two about open questions, ideas for more re- 3.3.5 Ask What if? and Other Speculative Questions search, and so on (see p. 63 for an example). You might not be • How would things be different if your topic never existed, able to do all the research they suggest, but you might carve out disappeared, or were put into a new context? What if no one a piece of it. You can also look for Internet discussions on your ever wore masks except for safety? What if everyone wore masks in. topic, then "lurk," just reading the exchanges to understand the public? What if it were customary to wear masks on blind dates? kinds of questions those on the list debate. Record questions that In marriage ceremonies? At fUnerals? Why are masks common spark your interest. You can post questions on the list if they are
  • 6. From Topics to Questions 45 44 AS KING QUESTIONS, FINDING ANSW E RS story ask about the interests of the storytellers and their effects specific and narrowly focused. But first see whether the list wel- on their stories: How have politicians used the story? How have the comes questions from students. (If you cant find a list using a storytellers motives changed? Whose purposes does each story serve? search engine, ask a teacher or visit the Web site of professional These can be combined into a single more significant question: organizations in your field.) How and why have users of the Alamo story given the event a 3.3.7 Evaluate Your Questions mythic quality? When you run out of questions, evaluate them, because not all With only a topic to guide your research, you can find endless questions are equally good. Look for questions whose answers data and will never know when you have enough (mu ch less what might make you (and, ideally, your readers) think about your topic to do with it). T? go b~yond fact-grubbing, find a question that wil~ in a new way. Avoid questions like these: narrow you~ search_to just th()se4ata you need to answer it. • Their answers are settled fact that you could just look up. Do the Inuit use masks in their wedding ceremonies? Questions that 3.4 FROM A QUESTION TO ITS SIGNIFICANCE ~1 ask how and why invite deeper thinking than who, what, when, Even if you are an experienced researcher, you might not be able to or where, and deeper thinking leads to more interesting an- take the next step until you are well into your project, and if you are 1 :, :. swers. a beginner, you may find it deeply frustrating. Even so, once you have a question that holds your interest, you must pose a tougher • Their answers would be m erely speculative. Would church ser- one about it: So what? Beyond your own interest in its answer, why vices be as well attended if the congregation all wore masks? If you would others think it a question worth asking? You might not be able cant imagine finding hard data that might settle the question, to answer that So what? question early on, but its one you have to its a question you cant settle. start thinking about, because it forces you to look beyond your own • Their answers are dead ends. How many black cats slept in interests to consider h ow your work might strike others. 1 ,.. the Alamo the night before the battle? It is hard to see how an Think of it like this: What will be lost if you dont answer your ! A.. answer would help us think about any larger issue worth un- question? How will not auswering it keep us from understanding . .::) derstanding better, so its a question thats probably not worth something else better than we do? Start by asking So what? at first asking. of yourself: You might, however, be wrong about that. Some questions that So what if I dont know or unde rstand how butterflies know where seemed trivial, even silly, have answers more significant than ex- to go in the winter, or how fifteenth-cen tury musicians tuned their pected. One researcher wondered why a coffee spill dries up in instruments, or why the Alamo story has become a myth? So what the form of a ring and discovered things about the properties of if I cant answer my question? What do we lose? fluids that others in his field thought important-an d that paint Your answer might be Nothing. I just want to know. Good enough I. m anufacturers found valuable. So who knows where a question to start, but not to finish, because eventually your readers will ask about cats in the Alamo might take you? You cant know until you as well, and they will want an answer beyond just curious. Answer- get there. ing So what? vexes all researchers, beginners and experienced.! .~ I;· . Once you have a few promising questions, try to combine them · alike, because when you have only a question, its hard to predict into larger ones. For example, many questions about the Alamo
  • 7. 46 AS K l N G Q U E ST I 0 N 5 , F I N D I N G A N SW E R 5 From Topics to Questions 47 whether others will think its answer is significant. But you must If you are a new researcher and get this far, congratulate your- work toward that answer throughout your project. You can do that · self, because you have moved beyond the aimless collection of data. in three steps. But now, if you can, take one step more. Its one that advanced re- searchers know they must take, because they know their work will 3.4.1 Step 1: Name Your Topic be judged not by its significance to them but by its significance to~ I,..I If you are beginning a project with only a topic and maybe the glim- others in their field. They must have an answer to So what?I /} merings of a good question or two, start by naming your project:ii! ,t1 I am trying to learn about (working on, studying) _ _ _ __ 3.4.3 Step 3: Answer So What? by Motivating Your Question (j This step tells you whether your question might interest not just Fill in the blank with your topic, using some of those nouns de- you but others. To do that, add a second indirect question that ex- rived from verbs: plains why you asked your first question. In troduce this second I am studying the causes of the disappearance of la rge North Ameri- implied question with in order to help my reader understand how, ~--.---~~ can mammals ... why, or whether: I am working on Lincolns beliefs about predestination and their 1. I am studying the causes of the disappearance of large North influence on his reasoning . .. American mammals 2. because I want to find out whether the earliest peoples hunted 3.4.2 Step 2: Add an Indirect Question them to extinction Add an indirect question that indicates what you do not know or 3· in order to help my reader understand whether native understand about your topic: peoples lived in harmony with nature or helped destroy it. .., __, • ,... , 1. I am studying/working on _ _ _ __ 1. I am working on Lincolns beliefs about predestination and their 2. because I want to find out whofwhatfwhenfwherefwhetherf influence on his reaso ning why fhow - -- - - · 2. because I want to find out how his belief in destiny and God s will influenced his unde rsta nding of the causes of the Civil War, 1. I am studying the causes of the disappearance of large North 3· in order to help my reader understand how his religious be- American mammals liefs may have influenced his military decisions. 2. because I want to find out whether they were hunted to ex- tinction ... It is the indirect question in step 3 that you hope will seize your 1. I am working on Lincolns beliefs about predestination and its in· readers interest. If it touches on issues important to you r field, fluence on his reasoning even indirectly, then your readers should care about its answer. 2. because I want to find out how his belief in destiny influenced Some advanced researchers begin with questions that others his understanding of the causes of the Civil War . .. in their field already care about: Why did the giant sloth and woolly mammoth disappear from North America? Or: Is risk taking geneti· When you add th~~e I ~~nt J!!..JJ.rtd g.ut_h£~j_whyjwhethf! cally based? But many researchers, including at times the three of clause, you state why you are pursuing your topic: to answer a us, find that they cant flesh out the last step in that three-part sen - question important to you. tence until they finish a first draft. So you make no mistake begin- ~
  • 8. 48 ASKING QUESTIONS, FINDING ANSWE RS ning your research without a good answer to that third question- ICT" t.tlitaaaa:ss Finding Topics Why does this matter?-but you face a problem when you finish it · without having thought through those three steps at all. And if you are doing advanced research, you must take that step, because If you are a beginner, start with our suggestions about skimming answering that last question is your ticket into the conversation of bibliographical guides (F). If you still draw a blank, try these steps. your community of researchers. Regularly test your progress by asking a roommate, relative, or FOR GENERAL TOPICS friend to force you to flesh out those three steps. Even if you cant 1. What special interest do you have-sailing, chess, finches, old take them all confidently, youll know where you are and where comic books? The less common, the better. Investigate some- you still have to go. To summarize: Your aim is to explain thing about it you dont know: its origins, its technology, how it is practiced in another culture, and so on. 1. what you are writing about-/ am working on the topic of . ....); 2.what you dont know about it-because I want to find out . .. 2. Where would you like to travel? Surf the Internet, finding out} 3· why you want your reader to know and care about it-in all you can about your destination. What particular aspect sur- order to help my reader understand better . . . prises you or makes you want to know more? In the following chapters, we return to those three steps and 3· Wander through a m useum with exhibitions that appeal to their implied questions, because they are crucial not just for find- you - artworks, dinosaurs, old cars. If you cant browse in per· ing questions, but for framing the research problem that you want son, browse a "virtual museum" on the Internet. Stop when your readers to value. something catches your interest. What more do you want to know about it ? 4· Wander through a shopping mall or store, asking yourself, How do they make that? Or, I wonder who thought up that product? 5· Leaf through a Sunday newspaper, especially its features sec- tions. Skim reviews of books or movies, in newspapers or on the Internet. 6. Browse a large magazine rack. Look for trade magazines or those that cater to specialized interests. Investigate whatever catches your interest. 7· If you can use an Internet news reader, look through the list of "alt" news groups for one that interests you. Read the posts, looking for something that surprises you or that you disagree with. 49
  • 9. 50 Q U t C K T I P : f I 11 D I N G T 0 P I C S8. Tune into talk radio or interview programs on TV until you hear a claim you disagree with. Or find something to disagree with on the Web sites connected with well-known talk shows. CHAPTER F 0 U R See whether you can make a case to refute it.9· Use an Internet search engine to find Web sites about some- From Questions to a Problem thing people collect. (Narrow the search to exclude dot-com In this chapter we explain how to turn a question into a problem sites.) Youll get hundreds of hits, but look only at the ones that readers think is worth solving. Ifyou are an advanced researcher, that surprise you. you know how essential this step is. But if you are new to research,IO. Is there a common belief that you suspect is simplistic or just understanding its importance may prove challenging. Ifyou feel lost, wrong? A common practice that you find pointless or irritat- skip to chapter 5, but we hope you1l stay with us, because what you learn ing? Do research to make a case against it. here will be essential to all your foture projects.n. What courses will you take in the future? What research would help you prepare for them? In the last chapter, we suggested that you can identify the significance of your research question by fleshing out thisFOR TOPICS FOCUSED ON A PARTICULAR FIELD three-step formula: . ). . _ / , • •• ·If you have experience in your field, review 3.1.2- 3. V;,,1·1. !1 r( J.. 1. Topic: I am studying _ _ __I. Browse through a textbook of a course that is one level beyond 2. Question: because I want to fi nd out whatjwhy fhow ____, yours or a course that you know you will have to take. Look 3· Significance: in order to help my reader understand especially hard at the study questions.2. Attend a lecture for an advanced class in your field, and listen for something you disagree with, dorrt understand, or want to These steps describe not only the development of your project, but your own as a researcher. know more about.3- Ask your instructor about the most contested issues in your • When you move from step I to 2 , you are no longer a mere field. data collector but a researcher interested in understanding something better.4· Find an Internet discussion list in your field. Browse its ar- chives, looking for matters of controversy or uncertainty. • When you then move from step 2 to 3~ you focus on why that understanding is significant.5· Surf the Web sites of departments at major universities, in- cluding class sites. Also check sites of museums, national as- That significance might at first be just for yourself, but you join sociations, and government agencies, if they seem relevant. a community of researchers when you can state that significance from your readers point of view. In so doing, you create a stronger I relationship with readers because you promise something in re- !I: turn for their interest in your report-a deeper understanding of 51
  • 10. 52 AS KI N G Q U E ST I 0 N S, F I N DI N G A N SW ER S From Questions to a Problem 53 something that matters to them. At that point, you have posed a To solve either of those practical problems, someone first had to problem that they recognize needs a solution. solve a research problem that improved their understanding. Then on the basis of that better understanding, someone had to decide 4.1 DISTINGUISHING PRACTICAL AND RESEARCH PROBLEMS what to do to solve the practical problem, then report their re- Finding the significance of a problem is hard, even for experi- search so that their solution could be shared and studied. enced researchers. Too many researchers at all levels write as if Graphically, the relationship between practical and research their only task is to answer a question that interests them alone. problems looks like this: They fail to understand that their answer must solve a problem that others in their community think needs a solution. To under- Practical stand how to find that question and its significance, though, you first have to know what research problems look like. 7" "" /Problem " - mo<l•4.1.1 Practical Problems: What Should We Do? Research Research II Answer Question Everyday research usually begins not with dreaming up a topic to think about but with a practical problem that, if you ignore it, means trouble. When its solution is not obvious, you have to find leads to I defines out how to solve it. To do that, you must pose and solve a problem Research/ Problem of another kind, a research problem defined by what you do not know or understand about your practical problem. Its a familiar task that typically looks like this: 4.1.2 Academic Research Problems: What Should We Think? Solving a practical problem usually requires that we first solve a P RACT 1CAL PRos L EM: My brakes are screeching. research problem, but its crucial to distinguish practical research RESEARCH PROBLEM: Can I find a brake shop in the yellow problems from conceptual ones: pages to fix them? RESEARCH soLUTION: Here it is. The Car Shoppe, 1401 East • A practical problem is caused by some condition in the world 55th Street. (from spam to losing money in Omaha to terrorism) that P RACT I CAL SOL UTI 0 N: Drive over to get them fixed. makes us unhappy because it costs us time, respect, security, pain, even our lives. We solve a practical problem by doing Problems like that are in essence no different from more compli- something (or by encouraging others to do something) that cated ones. eliminates the cause of the problem or at least ameliorates • The National Rifle Association is lobbying me to oppose gun its costs. control. How many votes do I lose if I refose? Do a survey. Most • In academic research, a conceptual problem arises when we of my constituents support gun controL I can reject the request. simply do not understand something about the world as well • Costs are up at the Omaha plant. What changed? Send Sally to as we would like. We solve a conceptual problem not by doing find out. Increase in turnover. If we improve training and mo- something to change the world but by answering a question rale, our workers will stick with us. that helps us understand it better. I I t PNIIIMWJ<i~•,...,,,,v,,..,_.. "· , ~-,-·~c·.-..---,·:•"" " ":-····-....,•. " ,. ....,_..<!
  • 11. 54 ASKING QUESTIONS, FINDING ANSWER S From Questions to a Problem 55 The term problem thus has a special meaning in the world of re- What distinguishes them is the nature of those conditions and search, one that sometimes confuses beginners. In our everyday costs. world, a problem is something we try to avoid. But in academic research, a problem is something we seek out, even in:vent if we 4.2.1 The Nature of Practical Problems11 have to. Indeed, a researcher without a good conceptual problem A flat tire is a typical practical problem, because it is (r) a condition:1 to work on faces a bad practical problem, because without a re- in the world (the flat) that imposes (2) a tangible cost that you dorit: :. search problem, a researcher is out of work. want to pay, like missing a dinner date. But suppose you were bul- There is a second reason inexperienced researchers sometimes struggle with this notion of a research problem. Experienced re- lied into the date and would rather be anywhere else. In that case, the benefit of the fiat is more than its cost, so the flat is not a prob- ·II searchers often talk about their work in shorthand. When asked lem but a solution to the bigger problem of an evening spent with what they are working on, they often answer with what sounds like · someone you dont like. Low cost, big benefit, no problem. one of those general topics we warned you about: adult measles, To be part of a practical, tangible problem, a condition can be any- mating calls of Wyoming elk, zeppelins in the 1930s. As a result, some ...Q!i!!g1 so)Q!?:g.as·~~. iri;lposesint().le!~ble C?,~ts . Suppose you win a beginners think that having a topic to read about is the same as million dollars in the lottery but owe a loan shark two million and having a problem to solve. your name gets in the paper. He finds you, takes your million, and When they do, they create a big practical problem for them- breaks your leg. Winning the lottery turns out to be a Big Problem. selves, because without a research question to answer, with only To state a practical problem so that others understand it clearly, a topic to guide their work, they gather data aimlessly and en d- you must describe both its parts. lessly, with no way of knowing when they have enough. Then they struggle to decide what to include in their report and what not, I. Its condition: usually throwing in everything, just to be on the safe side. So its I missed the bus. not surprising they feel frustrated when a reader says of their re- port, I dont see the point here; this is just a data dump. The hole in the ozo ne layer is growing. To avoid that judgment, you need a research problem that fo- 2. The costs of that condition that make you (or your reader) un- cuses you on finding just those data that will help you solve it. It happy: might take awhile to figure out what that problem is, but from the I outset, you have to think about it. That begins with understan ding Ill be late for work and lose my job. how conceptual problems work. Many will die from skin cancer. ~4.2 UNDERSTAN Dl NG THE COMMON STRUCTURE OF PROBLEMS But a caution: Its not you who judges the significance of your Practical problems and conceptual problems have the same two- problem by the cost you pay, but your readers who judge it by the part structure: cost they pay if you dont solve it. So what you think is a problem, ~··~ they might not. To make your problem their roblem, you mu st • a situation or condition, and frame it from. th~rr_p_<;>int_of ~i_~w, s_9-that they see its costs to tnem. • undesirable consequences caused by that condition, costs that To do that, imagine that when you pose the condition part of your you (or, better, your readers) dont want to pay problem, your reader responds, So what? -~~ . J~l l·lr
  • 12. I~ 56 AS KI N C Q U E ST I 0 N S, F I N D I N G A N SW ER S From Questions to a Problem 57 I The hole in the ozone layer is growing. Thats why we emphasize the value of questions : they force you to )1 ,·_ _, So what? state what you dont know or understand but want to. ~ You answer with the cost of the problem: The two kinds of problems also have two different kinds of costs. A bigger hole exposes us to more ultraviolet light. • The cost of a practical problem is always some degree of un- Suppose he again asks, So what?, and you respond with the cost happiness. more ultraviolet light A conceptual problem does not have such a tangible cost. In fact, Too much ultraviolet light can cause skin cancer. well call it not a cost but a consequence. If, however improbably, he again asks, So what?, you have failed convince him that he has a problem. We acknowledge a pro • The consequence of a conceptual problem is a second thing that we dont know or understand because we dent under- 1 ( only when we stop asking So what? and say instead, What do stand the first one, and that is more significant, more consequen- ~ do about it? tial than the first. Practical problems like cancer are easy to grasp because wnen You express that bigger lack of understanding in the indirect ques- people have it, we dortt ask So what? In academic research, how- : , tion in step 3 of that formula: ever, your problems will usually be conceptual ones, which are lharder to grasp because both their conditions and costs are not palpable but abstract. 4.2.2 The Nature of Conceptual Problems I am studying stories ofthe Alamo, because I want to understand why voters responded to them in ways that served the interests of local Texas politicians, in order to help readers understand the bigger and more important question of how regional self-images Practical and conceptual problems have the same two-part struc- influence national politics. ture, but they have different kinds of conditions and costs . All this may sound confusing, but its simpler than it seems. • The condition of a practical problem can be any state of affairs The condition and the consequence of a conceptual problem are whose cost makes you (or better, your reader) unhappy. both questions: QI and Q2. But there are two differences: (I) the answer to the first question helps you answer the second, and (2) • The condition of a conceptual problem, however, is always the answer to the second question is more important than the an- f some version of not knowing or not understanding something. swer to the first. You can identifY the condition of a conceptual problem by com- pleting that three-step sentence (3.4): The first step is I am study- Q 1 ijjfiiilll~~f=" Q2 ingjworking on the topic of . In the second step, the indi- rect question states the condition of a conceptual problem, what Here it is again: The first part of a research problem is some- you do not know or understand: thing you dortt know but want to. You can phrase that gap in knowl- edge or understanding as a direct question: How have romantic I am studying stories of the Alamo, because I want to understand movies changed in the last fifty years? Or as an indirect question, as why voters responded to them in ways that served the interests of in: I want to find out how romantic movies have changed in the last Texas politicians. • .It fifty years.fl,:j,:;~·"j"Ilt ll~1! j; i!PJ,iWihli i~ili 1 ._ti~! 1 ;t•lli , ~·iil·j~ .:~·.~~~~..-................................_ ,_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _~----- I
  • 13. / _ Dfi- J( · 1: .;. l .. :(--ctt·C~~c t::-.,. r· __ :··. . . l ss A SK I N G Q UE S T ION S , FINDIN G AN SW ER S ~ ) , . .• .: ..). • ~ _ (Flam Questions to a Problem 59 i.,t , ( . . h () :_ . :.. -- ~ .:<-v~-· r·..., , Now imagine someone asking, So what if you cant answer 4.2.3 Distinguishing "Pure" and "Applied " Research question? You answer by stating something else more important We call research pure when the solution to a problem does not ;· • you cant know until you answer the first question. For example: bear on any practical situation in the world, but only improves the t .·· understanding of a community of researchers. When the solution l- ~ . If we cant answer the question of how roma ntic m~vies have to a research problem does have practical consequences, we call / changed in the last fifty yearsJConditionffirstq~<wion then we cant answer . the research applied. You can tell whether research is pure or ap- a more important question: How have our cultural depictions of plied by looking at the last of the three steps defining your project. romantic love changed?constq• encef larger, more importunt second question Does it refer to knowing or doing? If you think that its important to answer that second quc~Liuu. 1. Topic: I am studying the electromagnetic radiation in a section of youve stated a consequence that makes your problem worth the universe :t! suing, and if your readers agree, youre in business. 2. Question: because I want to find out how many stars are in But what if you imagine a reader again asking, So what if I the sky, know whether we dep ict romantic love differently than we did? 3· Significance: in order to help readers understand whether the have to pose a yet larger question that you hope your readers universe will expand forever or collapse into a new big bang. think is significant: That is pure research, because step 3 refers only to understanding. l:r· 1 ~J!: If we cant answer the question of how ou r dep ictions of romantic In an applied research problem, the second step refers to know- love have changed , econdquwion then we cant answer an even more ing, but that third step refers to doing: 1:1,1 important one: How does our culture shape the expectations of 1. Topic: I am studying how readings from the Hubble telescope young men and women about marriage and families?con,.quenceflargu, differ from readings for the same stars measured by earthbound mort irnJX)rtam question telescopes r I II J · 2. Question: because I want to find out how much the atmo- If you imagine that reader again asking, So what?, you might think, Wrong audience. But if thats the audience youre stuck with, sphere distorts measurements of electromagnetic radiation, you just have to try again: Well, if we dont answer that question, we 3· Practical Significance: so that astronomers can use data f ~ cant . .. from earthbound telescopes to measure more accurately the Those outside an academic field often think that its specialists density of electromagnetic radiation . ask ridiculously trivial questions: How did hopscotch originate? That is an applied problem because only when astronomers know i But they fail to realize that researchers want to answer a ques- how to account for atmospheric distortion can they do what they I!; ,,, 1,11 tion like that so that they can answer a second, more important want to-measure light more accurately. IIII one. For those who care about the way folk games influence the social development of children, the conceptual consequences of 4.2.4 Connecting a Research Problem to Practical Consequences not knowing justifies the research. Ifwe can discover how childrens Some inexperienced researchers are uneasy with pure research folk games originate, we can better understand how games socialize because the consequence of a conceptual problem-merely not children, and bef re you ask, once we know that, we can better under- o knowing something-is so abstract. Since they are not yet part of stand . . . a community that cares deeply about understanding its part of the IIi ..:~ .... ,, :ull: ~-! I rt ...
  • 14. I!il. 60 AS K I N G QU E ST I 0 N S, F I N D I N G A N SWE R S From Questions to a Problem 61 world, they feel that their findings arerrt good for m uch. So We may see a connection, but its a stretch. try to cobble a practical cost onto a conceptual question to make If you think that the solution to your conceptual problem might seem more significant: apply to a practical one, formulate your problem as the pure re- search problem it is, then add your application as a fourth step: 1. Topic: I am studying differences among nineteenth-century ver- sions of the Alamo story 1. Topic: I am studying how nineteenth-century versions of the IIIII 2. Research Question: because I want to find out how politicians used stories of such events to shape public opin ion, Alamo story differ 2. Conceptual Question: because I want to find out how politi- lh !! 3· Potential Practical Significance: in order to protect ou rselves cians used stories of great events to shape public opinion, from unscrupulous politicians. 3· Conceptual Significance: in order to hel p readers under- .1. ~ stand how politi cians use popular culture to adva nce their Most readers would think that the link between steps 2 and 3 is a bit of a stretch. political goals, 4· Potential Practical Application: so that readers might bet- ~ To formulate a useful applied research problem, you have to . ter protect themselves from unscrupulous politicians. show that the answer to the indirect question in step 2 plausibly I" · I. helps answer the indirect question in step 3· Ask this question: When you state your problem in your introduction, however, (a) If my readers want to achieve the goal of (state your formulate it as a purely conceptual research problem whose ~ objective from step 3], significance is in its conceptual consequences. Then wait until (b) would they think that they could do it if they found out your conclusion to suggest its practical application. (For more on - ~ ~.. -v·). ~. _ _ _ ? (state your question from step 2] this, see chapter 16.) I Most research projects in the humanities and many in the nat- Try that test on this applied astronomy problem: ural and social sciences have no direct application to daily life. But ljl as the term pure suggests, many researchers value such research 1:11 ! (a) If my readers want to use data from earthbound telescopes to more than they do applied. They believe that the pursuit of knowl- measure more accurately the density of electromagnetic radiation, u 1 ! edge "for its own sake" reflects humanitys h ighest calling-to (b) would they think that they could if they knew how much the know more, not for the sake of money or power, but for the tran- I! atmosphere distorts measurements? scendental good of greater understanding and a richer life of the )I ·I mind. As you may have guessed, the three ofu s are deeply commit- The answer would seem to be Yes. I ted to pure research, but also to applied-so long as the research Now try the test on the Alamo problem: is done well and is not corrupted by malign motives. For example, (a) If my readers want to protect themselves from uns crupulous there is a threat to both pure and applied research in the biologi- politicians, cal sciences, where profits not only determine the choice of some (b) would they th ink they could if they knew how ni neteenth- research problem s, but color how some research ers reach their century politicians used stories about the Alamo to shape public solu tions: Tell us what to look for, and well provide it! That raises an opinion? ethical question that we touch on in our afterword on ethics. I; lh 1! l!:i·~
  • 15. 62 From Questions to a Problem 63 ~ -,~. ·:~ is part of a bigger one. Though you wont solve the big one, your " ;~all piece ofltWilnnherit some of its larger significance. (You /""" ~~ will also educate yourself about the problems of your field, no small 1.. benefit) Ask your teacher what she is working on and whether you ,~~ can work on part of it. But a warning: Dorit let her suggestions de- i· •··. fine the limits of your research. Nothing discourages a teacher more ·. ).·, i.. than a student who does exactly what is suggested an.d no more. Teachers want you to use their suggestions to start your thinking, · .. not end it. Nothing makes a teacher happier than when you use her lJJ!: suggestions to find something she never expected. ,I I ~-- .: .. :: 4.3 FINDING A GOOD RESEARCH PROBLEM · 4.3.2 Look for Problems as You Read ~... ... .. ~~: . :.. , . What distinguishes great researchers from the rest of us is the · You can also find a research problem in your sources. Where in iJ brilliance, knack, or just dumb luck of stumbling over a problem them do you see contradictions, inconsistencies, incomplete ex- r ,, ... whose solution makes all of us see the world in a new way. Its ~-". . J planations? Tentatively assume that other readers would or should ..-;. easy to recognize a good problem when we bump into it, or it feel the same. Many research projects begin with an imaginary · bumps into us. But researchers often begin a project without be- conversation while reading anothers report: Wait a minute, hes • ~:"-- 1-~ ... ing clear about what their real problem is. Sometimes they hope ignoring ... But before you set out to correct a gap or misunder- just to define a puzzle more clearly. Indeed, those who find a new standing, be sure its real, not your own misreading. Countless problem or clarify an old one often make a bigger contribution to research papers have refuted a point that no one ever made. Be- ~~ -:~~;, ~ .. •.. ~, their field than those who solve a problem already defined. Some ;; fore you correct a source, reread it carefully. (In 6.4 we list several jl researchers have even won fame for disproving a plausible hypoth- · common "moves" that writers make to find a problem in a source, It, ~ .........., esis that they had set out to prove. . ..& -- - ~ - ~ variations on Source thinks X, but I think Y.) ..-~ :· ·-·· So dont be discouraged if you cant formulate your problem Once you think youve found a real puzzle or error, do more llt 1 :- ·...... ) ~~·) ...... fully at the outset of your project. Few of us can. But thinking about it early will save you hours of work along the way (and per- ·· than just point to it. If a source says X and you think Y, you may have a research problem, but only if you can show that those who haps panic toward the end). It also gets you in to a frame of mind misunderstand X misunderstand some larger issue, as well. i:t crucial to advanced work. Here are some ways you can aim for a Finally, read the last few pages of your sources closely. Thats -:~;·<:~- problem from the start and along the way. where many researchers suggest more questions that need an- swers. The author of the following paragraph had just finished 4.3.1 Ask for Help explaining how the life of nineteenth-century Russian peasants Do what experienced researchers do: talk to teachers, classmates, influenced their performance as soldiers: relatives, friends, neighbors-anyone who might be interested. Why would anyone want an answer to your question? What would And just as the soldiers peacetime experience influenced his they do with it? What new questions might an answer raise? battlefield performance, so must the experience of the officer If yol:l are fr~e,J.o W on any problem, look fora small one that ()rk corps have influenced theirs. Indeed, a few commentators after~ - -~ ---- · ·· --~--- ---~·-· ·-~ J
  • 16. ~..,11,. 64 A S K I N G Q U EST I 0 N S , F I N D I N G A N SW ER S From Questions to a Problem 65 the Russo-Japanese War blamed the Russ ian defeat on habits disconnected from a world in which so many people labor so hard acq uired by officers in the course of their economic chores. In a ny at getting ahead or keeping others down. But in business and gov- event, to appreciate the service habits ofTsarist officers in peace ernment, in law and medicine, in politics and international diplo- and war, we need a structural-if you will, an anthropological-analy- macy, no skill is valued more highly than the ability to recognize a sis of the officer corps like that offered here for enlisted personnel. (our problem, then to articulate it in a way that convinces others both emphasis) to care about it and to believe it can be solved, especially by you. If you can do that in a class on medieval Tibetan rugs, you can do That last sentence offers a new problem waiting for you to tackle. it in an office on Main Street, Wall Street, or on Queens Road in Hong Kong. 4.3.3 Look at Your Own Conclusion Ull ~. Critical reading can also help you discover a good research prob- lem in your own drafts. We usually do our best thinking in the last few pages we write. It is often only then that we begin to formu- late a final claim that we did not anticipate when we started. If in an early draft you arrive at an unanticipated claim, ask yourself . what question it might answer. Paradoxical as it might seem, you may have answered a question that you have not yet asked, and thereby solved a problem that you have not yet posed. Your task is to figure out what it might be. 4.4 LEARN lNG TO WORK WITH PROBLEMS ,, Experienced researchers dream of finding new problems to solve. - ·:,r A still bigger dream is to solve a problem that no one even knew 1 ; they had. But that new problem isnt worth much until others think (or can be persuaded) that they want to see it solved. So the first question an experienced researcher should ask about a prob- lem is not Can I solve it? but Will readers think it should be? No one expects that you ca:i; do that th; fir~ti~e out. But your teachers do want you to practice the mental habits that prepare you for that moment. That means doing more than just accumu- lating and reporting facts. They want you to formulate a question that you think is worth answering, so that down the road, youll know how to find a problem that others think is worth solving. Un- til you can do that, you risk the worst response a researcher can get: not I dont agree, but I dont care. By now, all this talk about airy academic research may seem i I ~irh~ .~t