Book review: Developing Research Questions

This review refers to

White, P. (2017). Developing research questions : a guide for social scientists. 2nd ed. Basingstoke England ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan which is available to buy on Amazon here (non-affiliate link). I was not paid to write this and bought the book myself.

Introduction

This is a book which I picked up quite early in my ‘research journey’ and I picked it up because it was one of a number on a reading list. It was written by Patrick White who is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester.

Content

This is a book that is best suited to the beginning of a research project as you start out. It’s focus is entirely the start of the process and how to build both effective research questions but while doing that, identify the key areas to focus on when starting with a topic and trying to narrow it down. As well as focussing on the process of defining a clearly focussed topic with an answerable research question, which is the starting point in terms of the aims of the book, it also covers aspects of this including what a good research question looks and sounds like.

For experienced researchers this is probably more than they need but it helps to clarify some of the confusion which can start at the beginning of a project when you have an idea but want to make from it, questions that are not just interesting but answerable.

When I bought the book, I read through it start to finish, which probably isn’t necessary, but I also tried the suggested exercises as I went, saving my initial thought processes into my research diary to return to and to help me understand and then reflect on my thinking early on in the process.

White gives frequent examples, which are taken from a range of disciplines, about what might make a good research question and the different types of questions one can ‘ask’ or at least, identify in research. It is written very much from a social science perspective and as that is where I am coming from, I’m not sure how translatable it is but it makes sense.

Summary

This is a book very much aimed at novice researchers but it highlights the importance of clarity of purpose in research from the very start in the building of research questions that might well be dipped into from people at different stages of their careers. As well as an explainer of types of questions in the context of research questions specifically, and how ‘answerable’ they need to be, the book covers broader areas around research design and levels of evidence, information required to answer them.

Starting from a premise that literature reviews, lead to identification of areas in need of research in order to justify the research questions being asked, White writes, taking a logical order to offer clarity in the face of what can be an surplus of information and studies and cleverly helps the reader find a path through the jungle of information to read the end goal.

While the focus is clear in the title of the book, there are some excursions into later stages of the project including whether and how one manages to answer the given research questions and use of hypotheses and what ‘counts’ as evidence and linking evidence to claims which can help to answer these questions.

This is a practical text which refers to the answerability of a question which can depend on time, resources and level of research projects. Each chapter ends with exercises and has chapter bibliographies for further reading. Personally, I found the earlier exercises in particularly, helpful in narrowing down some of my initial thoughts.

Key strengths and gaps

I enjoyed this book. The strength was in the narrowness of it’s aim, in a way. I have other books which talk about research processes from start to finish but this was focussed solely on identifying research questions which work. It is a cross disciplinary book which a focus on social sciences and the research methodologies used predominantly in social sciences.

There are some useful conceits introduced, or were for me in any case, including the ‘literature funnel’ which models broad reading across a topic, through a funnel of contemporary issues, debates and findings to establishing a relevant and useable research question.

One of the suggested exercises was to reduce your topic to 140 characters. It can provide focus but it was other similar exercises that allowed me to think about things in different ways.

Of course, many of the issues raised in this book which will very familiar to experienced researchers so this is a book aimed at novices and primarily aimed at novices in universities with access to libraries and wide ranges of reading materials.

The examples given are from across social sciences and some of the exercises might not be useful. I like the key points which were set out at different points and above all, it is clearly written and concise which only works to its benefit.

Use in practice

I’ve mentioned this previously but this was one of the most useful books I found around methodology towards the start of my research. ‘Research questions’ can be frightening and establishing a good mix between pertenant and manageable is not always easy, especially if it is a first time research project. It might be that these are the things you learn early in university careers but if not, I’d recommend finding this book.

As well as clarity of scope and purpose, it has some useful glossaries of research terms which help when learning the different professional language needed to become a researcher. Even if you are not doing the research yourself, some of the exercises and background information about types of questions can be useful in appraising and understanding the research of others and identifying distinguishing research questions in papers that you read to keep up with the subject area in which you are working.

Conclusion

I both enjoyed reading this book and found it useful. It is a short text and it is written with a style that is conversational and therefore not too intimidating. It has provided an additional confidence in understanding what might make research both good and logical. It has definitely helped me along my journey.

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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