Deciding Upon a Research Question

Using A Topic to Generate Questions

Research requires a question for which no ready answer is available. What do you want to know about a topic? Asking a topic as a question (or series of related questions) has several advantages:

1. Questions require answers. A topic is hard to cover completely because it typically encompasses too many related issues; but a question has an answer, even if it is ambiguous or controversial.

Drugs and crime Could liberalization of drug laws reduce crime in the U.S.?

2. Questions give you a way of evaluating the evidence. A clearly stated question helps you decide which information will be useful. A broad topic may tempt you to stash away information that may be helpful, but you’re not sure how. A question also makes it easier to know when you have enough information to stop your research and draft an answer.

3. A clear open-ended question calls for real research and thinking. Asking a question with no direct answer makes research and writing more meaningful to both you and your audience. Assuming that your research may solve significant problems or expand the knowledge base of a discipline involves you in more meaningful activity of community and scholarship.

Developing a question from a broad topic can be done in many ways. Two such effective ways are brainstorming and concept mapping.

brain·storm·ing noun: 1. A method of shared problem solving in which all members of a group spontaneously contribute ideas. 2. A similar process undertaken by a person to solve a problem by rapidly generating a variety of possible solutions.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000

Brainstorming is a free-association technique of spontaneously listing all words, concepts, ideas, questions, and knowledge about a topic. After making a lengthy list, sort the ideas into categories. This allows you to inventory your current awareness of a topic, decide what perspectives are most interesting and/or relevant, and decide in which direction to steer your research.

con·cept map·ping noun phrase: 1. A process, focused on a topic, in which group or individual brainstorming produces a visual graphic that represents how the creator(s) thinks about a subject, topic, etc. It illustrates how knowledge is organized for the group or individual.

You may create a concept map as a means of brainstorming; or, following your brainstorm, you may take the content you have generated and create your map from it . Concept maps may be elaborate or simple and are designed to help you organize your thinking about a topic, recognize where you have gaps in your knowledge, and help to generate specific questions that may guide your research.

Combining brainstorming and concept mapping (brainmapping, if you will) can be a productive way to begin your thinking about a topic area. Try to establish as your goal the drafting of a topic definition statement which outlines the area you will be researching and about which you will present your findings.

Broadening a Research Question

A question that is too narrow or specific may not retrieve enough information. If this happens, broaden the question. Most questions have multiple contexts and varying levels of specificity.

The underlined terms below represent broader ways of asking without changing the basic meaning. If you find sources that treat a subject broadly, use the index or table of contents to locate useful sections or chapters. Or ask yourself, “How might the arguments made here support my argument?”

INSTEAD OF Should Makah whaling rituals be permitted despite endangered species laws?
TRY Should Native Americans practice religious and social customs that violate local and Federal laws?
INSTEAD OF What are the economic impacts of sweat shops on development in South Asia?
TRY What are the impacts of U.S. labor practices on developing countries?

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