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.
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.
- 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.
I want to find out about climate change
This is a statement, a topic area, not a question. Moreover, the topic, as it stands, is so huge and complex as to be unwieldy. The most one could do with such a topic is to read a books and articles, gathering various accounts, scientific and otherwise, about it. This is worth doing, but it is not original research.
Obviously the topic area should not be discarded. It is worth doing research to answer many different questions about climate change. However, you will need to choose a much more manageable aspect of climate change for the kind of research described in this book. Furthermore, the topic area, climate change, must be turned into a question so that you will know when you have found an answer.
Let us assume, for example, that you were interested in climate change because the issue has become a political “hot potato” in the past few years. Several research questions would now suggest themselves: What caused this issue to become a “hot potato”? Or have policies changed because the political consciousness about climate change has changed? Or even, what makes an issue a political “hot potato?” Or what role do scientists play in “hot potato” issues, the case study being climate change?
Alternatively, let us say that you were interested in a particular municipality and the degree to which it has altered its development approval process to take account of climate change. Deciding on your focus is a useful way to begin.
Next note that “climate change” is not a policy, it is a scientific development about which many policies have (and have not) been developed. You need to look at deliberations and decisions about climate change.
However, “deliberations and decisions on climate change” is not much smaller a topic area than climate change. Which deliberations, whose decisions, when and where? An example will illustrate how a question about deliberations and decisions can be narrowed to become useable.
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. Some of these might be: Canadian interest in protecting its sovereignty in the Arctic, the nature of the international bodies, the role of the territorial governments, the relative importance of Kyoto in relation to other recommendations and policy responses to climate change, the influence of other countries, especially the United States. None of these side issues can be set aside completely, but the information about these side issues is gathered as background for you research, mainly from the secondary literature. You need to stay focused on what is the Canadian government’s response in the last three years to international bodies’ recommendations as they affect the Arctic, because this is the question you have chosen to answer.
I want to know the law on money laundering
Although this is also not a question, it can easily be turned into one. You might ask: “What is the law on money laundering?” Of course, the answer to such a question will depend on which countries’ laws are of interest, and on whether international treaties and/or policies should be taken into account? It also depends upon whether you want to know about the period before 9/11 or after. A good research question is specific.
Assume you have made choices about focus. It is now important to learn something about foreign policy (in which country?) as this affects how governments conceive of “money laundering”. Foreign policy also affects whether and how the law on money laundering is enforced vigorously. And as always, you will need to know what counts as “money laundering” in the eyes of all the actors, including governments and courts. 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. There are all kinds of intricate relationships involved, actors with long histories of involvement, very different notions of money laundering and its relationship to other criminal activities. Foreign policy is not something that can be readily assimilated if one lacks background and is bent on knowing something else. The interplay of international and national politics, let alone the politics within any particular country on sensitive issues, require extensive study in its own right. These topics are not dealt with by a quick read of a few books and a smattering of interviews.
Thus, although there is a good research question here, it is not clear what the less-than-expert researcher can do about it. One option would be to concentrate on the law in one or more jurisdictions, leaving aside its political significance and much of the contextual information. The good research question would then be very limited, confined to the law and legal information. The question would be: “What was the legal regime (legislation and court cases) governing money laundering in Canada in the period just before, and just after 9/11?” Or: “How does the legal framework for dealing with money laundering in Canada differ from the British one?” Or simply: “What deliberations occurred, and decisions were made, to establish the current legal regime in Canada concerning money laundering?”
What are the regulations affecting the conditions for people in long-term health care?
This is indeed a research question, but not yet a good one. You need to define “long-term health care”. 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 which localities will be the focus, given that the provinces differ in their approach to and that there are local regulation of the conditions for people in 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?
This question as it stands is a bad one for a different reason as well, although it points to other good research questions. In the case of regulations about long-term health care, personal values are front-and-centre. Any researcher who takes up this issue likely believes that that something is wrong with long-term health care, for example, that older people or persons with disabilities suffer needlessly in the present system. Truthfully, you probably already have an answer to this question in mind, and no amount of research is likely to change it. Having an answer already in your mind turns an otherwise a good research question into a bad one. It is worth repeating that research must always be about answering a question to which you do not already know the answer.
Knowing an answer in advance certainly does not mean discarding the study or changing your mind. On the contrary, it opens up the research to many follow-up questions that are really interesting, questions that still need to be answered. To arrive at a good research question, however, you need first to be explicit about what is actually driving this study and the motivations for research. Only then can aspects of the topic arising solely from motivations and beliefs be set aside temporarily in the hope of identifying something new. Perhaps you are uncertain about the implications of federal-provincial jurisdictional issues on the provision of long-term health care. Or perhaps you want to know what is being done in other countries with single payer health insurance?”
In short, even when you know the answers to the larger questions and when you have strong beliefs, you can learn something new. Research is not likely to undermine the original conclusions. It should enrich them with more detail and a more nuanced analysis. The original question is a bad research question, but not because the original conclusions are wrong. The new research questions are good ones because they will lead to discoveries that have an impact on, and might even strengthen the original conclusions.
How has energy policy changed in the last five years in Canada?
At first glance, this question seems workable. The jurisdiction is specified. A timeframe has been chosen.
On closer examination, this is the most unworkable research question of all, at least in the Canadian case. This is so because, although there is a federal government department mandated to deal with energy but energy is not one thing but many. Oil? Nuclear? Coal? Solar? Wind?
There are different laws, regulations, actors and institutions for each kind of energy as well as a few pieces of legislation that deal with the larger energy picture. Several of these energy-related actors and institutions operate mainly at the federal level in Canada. Nuclear is an example. Several operate mainly at the provincial level, as is the case with mining. The international situation is obviously of interest here, but it is a different international situation depending on which kind of energy is involved. In some but not all cases, there are regulatory agencies involved.
In short, to make this research question workable, to make it a good research question, the notion of “energy” needs to be unpacked. You need to decide which kind of energy is of interest. Doing so will provide a clue as to the various jurisdictions (federal, provincial etc.) involved. Having this clue, you can decide which jurisdiction is the primary focus.
But supposing that you are truly interested in all these forms of energy together. Maybe the intended research question is actually something like: Why is oil chosen for government support over gas, or nuclear over solar, for direct government involvement? This question can be answered by research, but it is a long process to answer it. One would need to know a lot about the decisions and institutions in each case, that is, concerning each of oil, gas, nuclear and solar, in order to make comparisons of deliberations and decisions for different kinds of energy.
A more viable research project might explore something else, also energy related. Maybe the question of interest really is whether there has been a change in attitude, reflected in provincial government policy, with regard to renewable sources of energy. The research question would then be focused on renewable energy, not energy in general. Now the research question could be answered in a reasonable period of time. The good question becomes: “What are the changes that Ontario has made over the past five years with regard to its policy on renewable energy?”
With this new good research question, the research no longer requires a comparison of energy, say oil versus solar. This comparison has been put aside not because it is unimportant but because there is neither the time nor resources to do a good job. Now deliberations and decisions about renewable energy, a public issue in its own right, is the focus.
Energy, family health, sustainable development, gender equality, crime, terrorism, long-term health care: these are catchall terms. Each term encompasses many public issues, each with its own issue community and actors, institutions and history of decisions. If these topics are to serve as the basis for research, you need to unpack general terms by thinking of each term as a cluster of public issues. Which of the public issues within in the cluster is truly of interest? The cluster issue, “energy” might become oil or nuclear or renewables. The cluster issue “terrorism” might become hegemony, or the dispossessed, or money laundering, or terror methods, or incarceration, or whatever. Each sub-issue spawns its own good research questions, its own jurisdictional focus and its own appropriate timeframe for research.
The impact of globalization on north-south relations
Let us suppose you are really interested in the impact of globalization on north-south relations, that is, the relations between the industrialized, developed world and third world or developing countries.
Aid and trade policies are an important part of the story. Perhaps you already believe that aid policies force third world countries to adopt particular approaches to their own economic development and contends that trade policies undermine indigenous economic development by forcing indigenous producers to compete in their own country with multinational corporations. But these beliefs and contentions, while always relevant, are not the source of the good research question. All this is too much for the kind of research described in this book. That said, the fundamental concerns that motivate the research are an excellent starting point and must never vanish from view.
There is insufficient time for a study of both international aid and trade policies, let alone all of north-south relations. So you decide to concentrate on aid for the purposes of this particular research. Government aid policies are different depending on the country involved, and the international dimension offers a totally different perspective. Canada becomes the jurisdiction of primary interest, leaving aside for example, the IMF except insofar as it affects what Canada does in terms of north-south aid.
What Canada does in the way of aid is different, depending on whether agriculture or high tech industries are involved. There are different actors, different politics, different national interests involved in each case. You choose to look at the agricultural policy embodied in Canadian aid initiatives.
The choice of agriculture does not simplify matters. In fact, it makes the situation more complicated. Different aspects of agriculture, say pesticides versus small-scale farming, are involved. There are different deliberations, decisions actors and institutions in each case. Another way to get at useful information is needed. Rather than choosing the specific topic area, pesticides, you decide that it is important to know how aid to agriculture is carried out. Canada has two agencies that deal with international aid, and both deal with agriculture. Your choice is CIDA as a case study.
Now it is the role of CIDA in mitigating or exacerbating the impact of globalization on north-south relations that is of interest. The focus is on CIDAs agriculture-related programs. But CIDA today is not the same as CIDA ten years ago, indeed recent changes in government policy have wrought radical transformations. One last choice is needed. The good research question 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?
Note that the focus on the impact of globalization has not disappeared. The study is about the effects of globalization, writ small. The case study is useful for understanding part of the larger picture. Nor has the emphasis on north-south relations disappeared. The study focuses on the impact of shifts in CIDA’s situation as they affect north-south relations. CIDA is of interest because it is one of a number of ways that Canada shapes its international agriculture aid policies and policies have changed radically recently. The timeframe provides a before and after, a way of measuring the impact of increasing globalization.
Canada is of interest as an example of how one industrialized, “north” country has responded through its aid policies to the challenges of north-south relations in the last few years. In all likelihood, Canada’s response is not unique, but parallels that taken by other industrial countries though their own development agencies. As well, Canada’s response is shaped partly in response to what international agencies like the IMF has done. The IMF and other institutions will be factored into the study.
The detailed research is only a small part of the story to be told, but it helps understand the bigger picture. When the study is completed, you will know about more than just about CIDA and Canadian government policy towards agricultural aid, much more. The research provides the foundation to advance some tentative ideas about changing north-south relations.
Climate change in the Canadian Arctic
Let us suppose that your real interest is not the federal government, as discussed in the earlier case study. Your real interest is about the relationship between the federal government and the First Nations communities but only insofar as this relationship affects climate change policies in the Canadian Arctic. The good research question now becomes about the degree of involvement of First Nation communities in shaping federal climate change policies in the Canadian Arctic. Or more specifically: Have the Arctic-based First Nations had a role and influence in shaping federal policies about climate change?
You now reason that a good place to see the actors and institutions at work is an environmental assessment conducted by the federal government about a proposed development in the Canadian Arctic. How and to what effect were these particular First Nations involved in the deliberations and decision making about policies related to a development that has implications for climate change? The gas pipeline from Alaska through Canadian territory comes to mind, and especially the environmental assessments that preceded it.
You are not particularly interested, except for background information, in the pipeline and need only gather some background information from secondary sources to understand a little of the politics of gas and pipelines. The environmental effects of building the pipeline are of interest only inasmuch as they affect what the proponents and the First Nations are debating about. However, by looking at an environmental assessment on the pipeline, you can identify the actors. Moreover there is an institution involved, an environmental assessment. The scope of the research is limited to one of many relationships that illustrate First Nation involvement in federal decision-making about climate change in the Arctic.
This research question itself will not itself address the broad question of how the Canadian government comports itself in relation to First Nations when it is dealing with climate change policy about the Arctic. Instead, it will provide one illustration of the broader issues.
Your basic premises will remain unchanged throughout the research. Your perspective will inform each and every choice that is made. The research started with a general topic and never lost sight of it. At the end of the day, the research will generate more than an illustration. It will have provided the basis for saying something about a general topic, if not the whole story then something relevant to the whole story. In short, you will have discarded the oft-cited maxim that narrow interests make for uninteresting research. As long as the research itself remains manageable and the information is sound, the analysis of the broader issues is enriched by the research.