Getting Started

This chapter is for those who have little to no preliminary knowledge of their chosen issue. Before any active research, we must arrive at a strong research question. Here we provide a strategy for formulating a question that is solid enough to sustain your subsequent research.

A few ways NOT to start your research

  • By doing a subject search on the internet. You will only encounter a crapshoot of info that is either too broad, lacking citation, unprofessionally written and the like.
  • With a recommendation already in mind. This will serve to diminish the objective quality of your research from the outset.
  • With interviews. If you conduct an interview too early, it will almost inevitably lack the kind of important info you could have gotten out of the same interview later, with more guided questions. Better to use interviews later to fill crucial gaps where documents failed to produce information
  • By investigating grand theories as they apply to public issues. It is engaging material, even important, but it is too abstract and broad. Not a good starting point.

The best entry point for research this a question that your research will attempt to answer. This must be a question, not a statement or a preliminary conclusion.



Theory teases out important relationships. It tells the story behind the story. For now, consider it as providing explanations of the types of phenomena discussed here, although we will address the role of theory in a deeper way, later.


Analysis allows you to go beyond the immediate questions (often narrow) pursued in your original research and focus instead on the larger ones that interest you.


Research, as understood here, is bringing new information to the table as a result of careful reading of documents and doing interviews.

“Good” research question

One that leads you to a satisfactory research experience. A bad one is either too frail or thin, or it cannot be accomplished in the time you have available.

Background discussion:

Fitting research into the larger picture

In forming your research question, have you cast your net too wide? Too narrow? We start with an example of a dilemma:

Example one: Let us suppose that you are interested in decisions concerning banks. The question arrived at for the purposes of research concerns changes to bank regulation in Canada between the years 2007-9. You are not really very interested in banking regulation in 2007-9:  Your real interest is banking, that is, all deliberations and decisions including regulations about banking.  Actually, your real interest is worldwide, not just about one country.  Furthermore your real interest extends beyond the tight time frame for this study, back as much as a decade.  And most importantly, your real interest is about the role of banks in determining the fate of the global economy.  Suddenly the manageable good research question looks paltry, not worth a year of research.

Two ways out of the dilemma

  • Give up on the idea of original research and read up on the wider issue—banking, globalization etc.
    • reach for theories to pull details together in an intelligible way
    • deal with the debates and conflicts among the various authors about theory and detail

This approach produces worthwhile insights and provides a basis for determining any subsequent research questions pursued. Beware, however, that you must mark out massive amounts of time to read, and the more you read, the more complexity you will encounter.

  • Reason your way from the general topic to a good (specific) research question by following the examples provided in the last two case studies below.
  • reason your way back toward the general topic only after the research is done
  • Use the narrowly-cast research to contribute to broader analysis

Your analysis here will draw most heavily from the detailed research. Start with a “low level” literature review (see chapter 3). Only after this should you conduct a “high level” review. The goal is to give you some ideas and points of comparison for what you want to conclude about broader issues, but your conclusions are mainly based on your own research.

This blog is premised on your following the second strategy.

Five pitfalls to avoid in arriving at a good research question

  • Underestimating the time you need to move from a topic area to a research question
  • Believing that time constraints are the enemy. No! They determine the appropriateness of the question that will drive the research.

Example two: Two weeks of research is not wasted, if two weeks can be used to gather information about something quite specific, and if the results can help arrive at a larger picture. Research is this case is equivalent to checking the facts. Two months is enough time to ask a more sophisticated question, and to tease out a few of the complexities needed for a good answer.  Four months allow for a good overview, and a sense of where useful research questions and usable information are to be found. In other words, four months can be worthwhile if they set the agenda for future research.  After a year’s worth of research, the contours of the topic become clear.  The actors, deliberations and decisions are identified. Parts of the story have been scrutinized in depth, either because they are interesting in their own right or as a microcosm of something larger that is happening.  A year is enough for a credible case study.  Four years produces a more sophisticated picture and thoughtful explanations about why things are the way they are.  Four years allow for several case studies, and comparisons among them.

Time constraints:

  • indicate what can and should be done
  • place necessary boundaries around the topic
  • show which research strategies are highest priority
  • provide guidelines about when to stop the research and begin making sense of it
  • choosing a question that is focused on the future
  • you cannot discover information about events that have not occurred yet
  • you can gather info about the past and extrapolate expectations about the future
  • thinking of research as proving a point
  • “proving a point” leads to bad research practices
  • it encourages you to leave out anything that does not advance the eventual arguments
  • blinds you to info that at first seems contradictory but later enriches understanding
  • thinking your research will by sustained by your beliefs
  • “I believe in locally produced food” cannot be readily turned into a research question
  • the words “should” and “can” are often signs that you have drawn conclusions before the research is done and that you are committed to proving a point

Research does not involve abandoning beliefs. You must simply put beliefs aside for the moment as you adopt a more empirical mindset. Later you can decide if your research coincides with your beliefs. It may or may not.

Getting started versus finishing

Research is never complete, no matter how much time is expended. Many important documents of all kinds are never released to the public. Some are not willing to be interviewed.

A note on “gaps”

Over the course of your research, the picture will start to solidify. However, some pieces to the puzzle will never be found. Later we talk about finding missing info, as well as gaps can be bridged in the analysis and writing phases.

Steps in research

Step 1:  Choose a public issue of great interest to you.

Step 2:  Choose a time frame as your primary focus.

  • You want to know about events that predate your time frame, these are important—but only insofar as they affect what happens in your chosen time frame. The same principle applies to events having occurred since.
  • Pick a time frame and adjust it later, as arbitrary as this seems.

Step 3:  Choose a jurisdiction as your primary focus.

  • Will your chosen jurisdiction be local, regional, national or international?
  • Again, it seems an arbitrary choice when considering the fact that all issues have a local and global meaning. The point is to pick one as your centerpiece, knowing that your narrowed research will extend outside your chosen jurisdiction when necessary or relevant.
  • You want to study what happens in other jurisdictions only as they impinge on decisions in your chosen jurisdiction.

Example three: Let us say that you want to study the situation of Tamil refugees in Canada.  You already know that events in Indonesia played a role and that there was a flurry of news coverage about these refugees in 2010. You pick three years, 2009-2011 as the time frame, knowing full well that the relevant history goes back at least twenty-five years. This history will be dealt with in the context of looking at the background to deliberations and decisions in the three chosen years. In the case of jurisdiction, you could focus on international conventions about refugees, on the federal government in Canada or on the measures being taken locally, say be welfare agencies.  Any choice would produce good results, albeit different ones.  That said, even in studying the actions of local welfare agencies, you would need to know something about international conventions and provincial laws about health care as background to the main focus of the study, local welfare.

Step 5:   Narrow down your research to the point where it matches the time you have available

Step 6:   Return to the larger questions that prompted you interest to start

  • research is likely to disappoint you unless you find ways to tie it to bigger issues you are truly concerned about

You want to start digging, collecting, talking to people immediately. Research is like painting a wall—the better the preparation, the better the result. It can take weeks of reading and thinking to come up with a viable research question.

Case studies

“I want to find out about climate change.”

The above statement is just that—a general statement. A topic area is not a question. You will need to choose a much more manageable and specific aspect of climate change for our kind of research. And you must turn the topic area, climate change, into a question.

Here are a few points to help this kind of decision:

  • Use what you are interested in about climate change to formulate a question. For example, if you are interested in it because it’s a political “hot potato,” it might raise the question by default: what caused this issue to become a hot potato?
  • Look at deliberations and decisions about climate change. “Climate change” is not a policy itself, so what factors have made the issue political?
  • But there has been an immense amount of dialogue about climate change. Which dialogues are useful for addressing your interests and formulating your question.

Example four: Let us say that the question finally chosen for the research is: How has the Canadian government dealt with international bodies’ recommendations on climate change (including Kyoto) in relation to the Canadian Arctic and over in the last three years?  This now is a good research question, although it would require lots of time to answer it.

With this good question, the time frame is 2009-2012. You now know that the Canadian government is the primary decision-maker of primary interest for this research. The Kyoto Convention is of interest, but only in the context of federal government decision making about the Canadian Arctic. You know that it is necessary to investigate the international bodies, finding their deliberations and decisions.  But knowing about these bodies is only the first step because the focus is Canadian responses to these international recommendations affecting the Arctic.

In narrowing the research focus, lots of side issues will crop up and beg answering also. None of these side issues (i.e. Canadian interest in protecting its sovereignty in the Arctic) can be put aside completely, but info concerning them is gathered as background for your research.

“I want to know the law on money laundering”

This is not a question either, but it can easily be turned into one. You could ask “what is the law on money laundering?” but you need to be more specific. For example:

  • Money laundering where? After 9/11? In what context?
  • Whose foreign policy is involved here?
  • In whose eyes is it perceived as “money laundering?”
  • What and whom do they think the law on money laundering applies to?

As these questions demonstrate, money laundering is a good example of a study where a little knowledge can be profoundly misleading. The interplay of international politics, let alone the politics within any particular country on sensitive issues, requires extensive study in its own right. Thus, although there is a good research question here, we may confine our question to law and legal information by concentrating on one or two jurisdictions. For example: “How does the legal framework for dealing with money laundering in Canada differ from the British one?”

“What are the regulations affecting the conditions for people in long-term health care?”

This is not yet a “good” research question…we may still ask:

  • Whose regulations are of interest?
  • Is the relationship between federal, provincial and local health authorities of interest?
  • To the extent that provincial regulations and the local situation are of interest, which provinces and localities will be the focus, given that the provinces differ in their approach and that there are local regulations of the conditions for people in the long term health care institutions?
  • What “conditions” are of interest?
  • Cost versus cleanliness or public satisfaction?
  • Is the time frame the present, the three years leading up to it, or longer?

We should also keep in mind that in cases of how long-term health care is conducted, personal values are often front-and-center. If you already have and answer in mind, don’t bother with the research. Remember, the point is to answer a question to which you don’t already have an answer. Even when you know the answers to the larger questions and when you have strong beliefs, you can always learn something new. Research should enrich original conclusions with a more nuanced analysis.

“How has energy policy changed in the last five years in Canada?”

 This seems a viable question at first glance. There is a timeframe and a specified jurisdiction.

Let’s look at the reasons why it is in fact NOT a good research questions (at least in the Canadian sense).

  • What kind of energy? Oil? Coal? Solar? Wind?
  • There are different laws, regulations, actors and institutions for each kind of energy. Some operate mainly at a federal level, some at the provincial level.
  • The international components vary based on which kind of energy is involved
  • Regulatory agencies are not involved in all cases

First, the notion of “energy” needs to be unpacked. Doing so will provide a clue as to the various jurisdictions involved. Then you can decide which jurisdiction is the primary focus.

Suppose we were to ask a better energy-related research question, such as “What are the changes that Ontario has made of the past five years with regard to its policy on renewable energy?”

With this new “good” research question, there is no need for a comparison of energy (oil versus solar). Now deliberations and decisions about renewable energy, a public issue in its own right, is the focus. Energy is a catchall term, just like family, or crime, or terrorism. When we start to unpack these terms, we come up with better-targeted questions, as well as clearer targets.

“The impact of globalization on north-south relations.”

 Let us suppose you are really interested in this topic. A few points to consider:

  • Aid and trade policies will inevitable be part of the story
  • There is insufficient time for a study of both international aid and trade policies
  • You decide to concentrate on aid policies, but aid policies are different depending on the country involved (not to mention that the international dimension offers a totally different perspective).
  • What Canada does in the way of aid is different, depending on whether agriculture or high tech industries are involved

So you choose to look at the agricultural policy embodied in Canadian aid initiatives. However, the choice of agriculture does not simplify matters, it complicates them. Different aspects of agriculture, say pesticides versus small scale farming, are involved. Each case carries a whole host of unique actors, deliberations, dilemmas, etc. Canada has two agencies that deal with international aid, and guess what—both deal with agriculture. You choose CIDA as a case study.

But CIDA today is not the CIDA of ten years ago. The good research questions becomes: What are the factors leading up to changes in the past three years (when globalization has really taken hold) in CIDA policy, discourse and initiatives in its agricultural aid projects?

Notice that the question itself is very specific, but by being so, it brings into play and makes more accessible the larger picture. You have a starting point, an anchor, so now you can move freely about your areas of concern without feeling lost or directionless. The detailed research is only a small part of the story to be told, but it helps comprehend the bigger picture. When the study is completed, you will know about more than just CIDA and Canadian policy toward agricultural aid—much more.

“Climate change in the Canadian Arctic”

Your real interest is not the federal government (as discussed in the earlier case study) but rather the relationship between the federal government and the first Nations communities insofar as this relationship affects climate change policies in the Canadian Arctic.

The narrowed down “good” research question: Have the Arctic-based First Nations had a role and influence in shaping federal policies about climate change?

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