Friday, 18 October 2019

From topic to problem to question

Helping a supervisee get from topic through the research problem and to a research question is one of the most important and difficult steps on the research path. If this is not managed appropriately, it holds the supervisee up from commencing their research; or, if they are allowed to proceed before the research problem or issue is identified and a question is clearly written, the resulting research project will lack: focus; answers; and unified, targeted outcomes.

While I have written about each of these elements before (here), I glossed over the fit of the research problem within this process. I have amended my diagram to five steps to include the research problem (illustrating this post), and this post will consider how the topic, the problem, and the question fit together.

The topic is the area - the general domain - that your research problem and question come from (Ellis & Levy, 2008). We need to explore the literature within our topic area to find a research problem which we can examine. The research problem (or issue) is something which sits within that topic area that we want to find out more about; something that merits further investigation. The research problem then needs to be applied to our specific context in order to scope it appropriately. The research question is how we aim to find out about the research problem, scoped and scaled down enough for us to be able to deliver an answer within our constraints of time, expertise and method.

For example, our topic may be social media. After exploring the literature, we may find a problem that social media may have an unintended effect on attention spans. After scoping, the resulting research question might be What effect does the daily use of Instagram have on the attention span of [name of institute] Business School students? (McCombes, 2019). This, and some further illustrations are listed below, using edited research questions from Ellis and Levy (2008) and McCombes (2019), then reverse engineering them to identify a research problem, and a topic area:

Topic area Research Problem Research Question

Social mediaSocial media may have an unintended effect on attention spansWhat effect does the daily use of Instagram have on the attention span of [Institute] Business School students?

National
housing crisis
Increasing international student enrollment demand may have had an effect on [country] house affordabilityWhat impact have [Institute] international student enrollments had on the availability and affordability of rental property in [city]?

Road safetyDetermining which legal approaches are effective in preventing drink-driving is difficultWhat effect do different legal approaches have on the number of [Hospital] surgeons who drive after drinking in [city]?

Knowledge managementIt is difficult to retain knowledge in organisationsDoes [organisation] employee involvement in the development of knowledge management systems (KMS) affect their resistance to KMS implementation?

I hope that helps!


Sam

References:

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