Framing a research question

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In short: This entry provides an introduction on how to frame a research question.

Framing a research question is exactly how the wording already prescribes: You surround just as a you frame a painting with some parts of wood that allow you to basically differentiate a picture from its surrounding. You ask a question, and this question is about research. These are the three parameters, frame, research, question. Now let us break these three components down point by point and let us see how we can frame our research question best.

The framing
We all stand on the shoulders of giants. Any given research question is based on previous research. No research is an island. Whatever we do as researchers, we have to start with what was done before. Reading is the most essential skill of any person new to research. Balance is key to this end. If you read everything there is on a specific topic, then you are in for a long ride. Otherwise, if you miss something important that has been published before, you basically reinvent the wheel, which is a waste of your times and the time of your readers. Hence, make sure that you get the main approaches that have been attempted before, and the main knowledge that has been gained. You will eventually have to make a cut at some point, otherwise you would basically read everything there is, since almost everything is connected. Hence try to focus on what is specific for your topic and for the area you focus on, thereby gaining some insights about the respective context. Context knowledge matters to this end, because only if you know the context of the specific topic, it allows you to aim with the right ratio of focus and distance. Why both? If you look too close, your knowledge is too singular, too specific, or just beyond the point, or any point at all. If it is too broad, it may be generic, trivial, and thus again beyond any point whatsoever once more. Ideally, you work in a specific system. This may be a group of people, and institution, or any other constructed entity. This allows you to add specificity to your research topic. You aim at creating knowledge about this system, people or entity. Hence your framing can be about a specific topic, an entity or institution, but also about a theory. What matters to this end is to have the right angle. Did you ever try to look at a painting from the side? Basically, this does not work, because the framing will block the view, and you do not see the picture. In framing your research, this is basically the same. You need to have the same angle, not from the side, but up front. Within research, we often look at a topic or problem through a certain theory. While testing a theory is restricted to deductive research, regarding a research question our framing and viewpoint is more open minded. It is thus not restricted to the yes/no categories of a hypothesis, but instead allows us to ask a broader question that allows us to create contextual and novel knowledge.

The question
Our research question may start with a "How", thereby examining explanations of dynamics or patterns. "Where" questions will typically try to spatially locate phenomena, while "when" questions examine dimensions of temporality. "Why" questions try often to go deeper into reasonings and examine patterns that may in one extreme be pretty foundational, yet can in other extreme cases be borderline trivial. "What" question are one last example of research question that can either be rather procedural or again end up being vague. Some research question may avoid such question formats altogether, which is for instance true for much of the realms of descriptive research. Yet another example is critical research, which may not be occupied with questions at all, but instead offer a critical reflection or specific viewpoint. What should however be clear is that research questions can be at least partly answered, or we may conclude that based on the current design and data the research question cannot be answered. This is perfectly ok, and a part of scientific research. However, research is often biased towards positive or even potentially exciting research, while research rarely report that they could not find anything out at all, and the their initial research question remains unanswered.

The research
Testability and rejection is actually a key criteria that should differentiate knowledge gained through science from mere opinions, because we can have all sorts of opinions, but scientific empirical knowledge can be tested and can also be falsified, refined or changed if it turns out to be wrong. Hence wrong facts can be debunked, while it is really hard to debunk a conspiracy theory that is based on mere opinions. In addition to the process of testing or examining within the framework of research it is possible and indeed perfectly normal that our knowledge evolves; this is actually what science is all about. Consequently, the question we try to examine should represent a scientific process that can be handled by us. We cannot come up with a research question that is perfect in terms of everything but the fact that it is impossible to conduct it. Our research question does not need to be a breakthrough that changes the whole world, but more often than not it is a stepping stone in the bigger picture that is our united research working to unravel. Our framing is a piece of what we call reality, and building on a respective theory or theoretical foundation may help us to focus our research and create knowledge that is specific and not generic. Equally can a contextual focus or specification help within a research question to understand what we work about, or where our sample entity is located or rooted in. All this is part of our framing. Naturally, the framing also needs to be clear. If your wording or different parts of the frame are too many, then other researchers will not be able to follow. Hence we need to make sure to use fewer words instead of too many, and each word should be chosen carefully.

Taken together, we may indeed ask questions in our research questions, but these should be specifically frames, state the respective context, root deeply in previous research and knowledge, be neither generic nor hyper-specific, need to be feasible, and allow for a scientific conduct that can be documented, reproduced, or both. Specific theories allow for refined viewpoints, and empirical research may benefit from stating where it is conducted. The most difficult challenge in framing a research question is then to decide what to include and what to exclude. Researchers make choices, and need to focus. Creating a research question demands to keep the most important information, and omit all that is not central to the initial question. It takes practice to get good at framing research questions. Be patient, and keep going.


The author of this entry is Henrik von Wehrden.