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IDS 403 2-3 Asking Research Questions

One of the most important early steps in a research project is the formulation of a question to answer. In the previous learning block, you thought about the ways in which historians choose topics. Once the historian chooses a topic, he or she has to decide what to say about it. One of the most effective ways to decide what to say is to ask a question about the topic that you would like to answer.

Creating a research question can be difficult, and you will probably revise your questions many times as you conduct research and write. Start big. What attracted you to the topic in the first place? What did you want to know about it? Now that you have thought about the topic a bit, what do you still want to know about it?

Once you have thought of these initial questions, you will need to refine your research questions. Not all research questions are useful. They may be too broad, too narrow, or unanswerable. A question that is too broad cannot be answered in a reasonable amount of time or space. For example, imagine that your topic is the American Civil War. If you try to write a paper on the Civil War, you will never finish. The topic is too big. To adequately cover the entire war, you would have to analyze the experiences of the more than 30 million Americans who lived through it. In order to trim the project to a manageable size, you must decide what part of the Civil War is important to you and ask questions that will guide your research. Perhaps you are interested in economics: How did the Civil War affect interstate commerce? The environment: How did the war and war-related industries affect the collection and distribution of natural resources? The military: What strategy did Union General Ulysses S. Grant pursue in the Overland Campaign in 1864? These questions are more practical for a term paper like the one you could complete in a history class.

A research question may also be too narrow. The question for a term paper must require more than a one-sentence or one-paragraph answer. “Where and when was the Magna Carta signed?” will not yield a very substantial answer, and the answer can be found in any encyclopedia. There is no research involved. A narrow question like this needs to be broadened. “What economic and political issues prompted the creation of the Magna Carta in 1215?” is a more substantial question that can be answered with historical sources. Another problem with narrow questions is the issue of significance. Your project should contribute something new to our collective understanding of history. A question that can be answered in one paragraph is probably offering nothing new.


Finally, the research question may be unanswerable. There may be no historical sources to help you answer the question, either because the sources were destroyed or because they never existed. The question may also be unanswerable by a historian, but a practitioner from another field could answer it. A historian could not answer a question about plate tectonics, because there are no human-made primary sources that support an argument about it. A geologist, on the other hand, could use rock formations and other natural phenomena to make an argument for or against plate tectonics. Similarly, a question like “why does the universe exist?” is not answerable by a historian, but is better answered by a theologian or a philosopher. Questions that are too vague may also be unanswerable. “How does the mass media influence history?” is too vague. It is hard to figure out where to start researching that question. What is meant by “mass media”? Does it mean television, radio, stone tablets, the internet? What does “influence history” mean? Does that mean mass media’s influence on the study of history or its influence on decision making at the time? As written, the question is not answerable.

In this learning block, you will read some documents that discuss research questions, and the revision thereof, in greater detail. You will also gain experience in formulating and evaluating research questions on your own.

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