From a question to a research design

Your research question is King! It shapes and controls everything. This is why you need to get it to a stage where it can drive the development of your research design. There is a logic at play here. Here is a well known humorous story:

A policeman comes across a drunk one dark night who is scrambling around under a street lamp. “What are you doing?”, asks the policeman. “I’m looking for my keys”, replies the drunk. “Do you think you dropped them here?”, asks the policeman. “No”, says the drunk. “I think I dropped them way over there”. “Then why are you looking here?”, asks the policeman. “Because the light is better here”, replied the drunk.

The story reveals a logic. Not an appropriate one, but a logic nonetheless. It also points to an appropriate logic, however. Given that at night one needs light to see things, the appropriate extension of the logic would, of course, be to get a movable light (e.g., a torch) and look in the right place.

Further, we used the term “look” in the story rather than “search”. Although there is something a bit odd about the idea of someone looking for an object in a place they don’t think it will be, it is not quite as odd as the idea of people searching in areas they don’t think something will be. “Looking” can tolerate some randomness, some indulgence. But “searching” implies a more systematic and rational approach to tracking something down. While a search may work off hunches or hypotheses, these have to be plausible. There is no way the drunk could have provided such an explanation that could have made her activity into a search.

Doing competent research is about

  • developing a coherent, appropriate, efficient approach to investigating a problem which can be posed as a question or a set of questions, and
  • undertaking this approach in a competent manner. Your approach must cohere with your question.

In this respect, your approach can be understood as containing your design for the research project, and the methods and techniques that will be used to undertake it.

Your approach may involve other sorts of choices. For example, will we be taking a quantitative approach to this question or a qualitative approach, or some kind of mix? Another choice though has been made for you by the duration of the course, your research will be working with artefacts of one sort or other, most likely text and perhaps images. In the days before the Internet, this might have been categorised as library research.

Moreover, this vague notion of an "approach” to the research question opens up all sorts of other issues when we think in terms of how the thing is to be done. What theory will I be using to inform and guide this project? And what will the key conceptual tools be that give it shape?

You can think of all of this as a system. Systems are organisations of things. If we think of research as systematic inquiry (as opposed to random or ad hoc inquiry), then we need to think about it in terms of following or involving some kind of system.

Let’s deal with the more general level of research as a system. We have already identified what we see as most of the key components.

The research question
This underpins the whole activity, and it is the final basis for determining to what extent the things we are doing are appropriate. What we do must “fit” our research question – which is why it is SO important to get our question as refined as possible.

The research design
This is the broad shape of the project, and needless to say, it MUST “fit” the research question. It must “cohere logically” with it. Moreover, the design of the study should be as “elegant” and “economical” as possible. It should give you the best bang for your buck, so to speak.

To use an analogy if you were building a house there are a lot of things you would need to take into account before you could begin. Perhaps the most important of these is the land on which you plan to build. Then there are local government regulations, the connection to sewage and electricity, the local climate, your budget for building and so on. Some of these considerations may well preclude you from doing certain things with your new house. After working through all of these you will end up with a blueprint, a design for the construction of the house. This is a critical document. It will describe where everything goes. The size and shape of rooms, windows, etc.

This is exactly what your research design will do for you research. It has to be detailed and most importantly cohere with your research question. Hence the importance of getting your question clear and tight.

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