Research Question Questions

I am fortunate to have had the privilege of getting research instruction from different librarians, including Sara Smith and Dunstan McNutt, during my time preparing for and writing my senior honors thesis with the Architectural Studies department. Despite the multiple instruction sessions, however, I cannot claim to be a seasoned researcher. The skill of research is as iterative as the process of research itself. The instructors’ support, nonetheless, has not been in vain.

Before receiving research training, I approached research projects with a lock-and-key mentality; the research question being the lock, and my argument or thesis being the key. Often, I would either find myself entangled with multiple keys struggling to open one door, or exhaust my efforts into trying to find the door in a seemingly endless hallway to match a key that I had crafted. In some cases I got weighed down by multiple keys, failing to figure out how best to find the key that would match one door among multiple possibilities. None of these approaches were sustainable.

For my thesis I read widely around apartheid planning in South African townships before attempting to find what question(s) my findings unlocked. With a general interest but no specific research question to drive my inquiry, I collected a bucket list of books, articles, and journals that would help me get a better understanding of apartheid planning. My visit to Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, over winter break resulted in a breakthrough. I learned how apartheid infrastructure was being used to benefit the locals, and then proposed ways to replicate this form of vernacular urbanism to other African cities that share a similar history of colonial planning. While this approach opened possibilities in generating further questions (or doors leading to new doors), it often resulted in a frustrating task of trying multiple and often self-contradicting arguments to fit a research question.

At the start of the Digital Humanities internship, I had a linear way of thinking about and executing research projects. In his article, “Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities,” Trevor Owens discourages the approach of trying to fit the tool to the question, as I often did, and instead proposes incorporating Joe Maxwell’s five components into all research endeavors: setting goals, having a conceptual framework, defining clear research questions, applying effective methods, and validating the research. He suggests that research questions function to define the scope of a project rather than to define the project itself. They provide a reference point as the project develops, and develop concurrently with the project.

Combining Owens’ insight with the methodology workshop on concept mapping, I will be conducting my research this summer with a more holistic approach. I will map out my parameters using a definitive research question and dive into the archives with as open a mind as is possible about what my findings will be. Thus, in keeping with the lock-and-key analogy, my new approach is the equivalent of crafting the lock and the key for a frame that opens the door to new possibilities. I am confident that the library staff and my colleagues can help me find the right tools to match this task.

2 thoughts on “Research Question Questions”

  1. I love the lock and key analogy! I think it’s very true that often we become too attached to rigid formulations and try to force them to fit into the question-answer paradigm. Crafting the lock and the key– that is to say, constantly adapting them– is an approach better suited to iterative process of archival research.

  2. I’m so excited by the open mind you have and the ways that Owens’ article developed your research strategies and concepts–the same thing happened to me! How awesome to have our eyes opened to new ways of exploring. I love your lock, key, and door analogy; I oftentimes feel the same way about navigating research, and I think that your new approach based on Owens’ tips will lead to many a discovery! And hey, it seems like you’ve already made a new discovery in discovering how to newly discover… That was a bit confusing, but you get my point. I’m eager to see what you discover next!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *