“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Research questions are central to every study. Not only do they help you develop the study in the right direction (to enable you to understand the situation you are trying to understand/solve the problem you’re trying to solve, etc.), but they will also later help the reader evaluate the extent to which you really have achieved these goals.
When I am asked to help someone with their study, either as a tutor or a research associate (e.g. to analyse and describe the data or to help develop research methods), the first thing I will ask of them is to tell me about the aims of the study and to tell me their research questions. I can do without knowing the former, but I cannot do without knowing the research questions. Similarly, one of the first things the examiner looks at when evaluating a dissertation are the research questions. So, what do the research questions say about you and your study?
What your research questions say about you
Let’s imagine for a minute that you are planning to investigate your participants’ “identity”. You are planning to conduct interviews in which you will ask the participants about their experiences and beliefs. You will also collect their diaries in which they will reflect on these experiences and beliefs and conduct a focus group discussion. You are interested in the participants’ perspectives and beliefs and you want to investigate how they are formed. You want to explore their perceptions of themselves, or their self-concepts, and their beliefs about their own, and other people’s, status in the wider social world. This is because you subscribe to the philosophical assumptions typically referred to as constructivism or social constructivism which are rooted in interpretive theories, which assume the existence of multiple emergent realities and aim to gain an understanding of the ways people construct meanings and actions within these realities. You believe that “identity” is not just who we are, but also who we think we are. These assumptions will be evident in both your research methods and your research questions that are likely to ask about “the participants’/students’/migrants’ beliefs about…”.
Was your philosophical stance rooted in positivism, however, which assumes that “knowledge about the social world can be obtained objectively: what we see and hear is straightforward and recordable without too many problems” (Thomas, 2009: 74), you may not have any interest in the participants’ opinions whatsoever. In fact, you think that these views are completely irrelevant for a study of their identity. According to the principles of positivism, universal facts can, and should, be separated from subjective perceptions and beliefs and should be assessed using rigorous scientific methods that seek to ‘systematise’ knowledge, treat themes and concepts as ‘variables’ and use them to develop universal explanations and predictions of the researched issues (Charmaz, 2014). Therefore, using quantitative questionnaires, designing identity scales and applying inferential statistics (e.g. Khatib and Rezaei, 2013), or using observational methods (e.g. Jenks, 2013), to carefully document and ‘measure’ one’s identity would be seen as a methodological strength, according to the positivistic worldview. Furthermore, the participants’ subjective views would not contribute to, and would, in fact, obstruct, the understanding of their experiences. Your research questions ask what the participants’/students/migrants’ identity is, not what they think about it.
What your research questions say about your study
Research questions that ask whether “task-based teaching is effective in the Chinese context” imply that the methods you adopt will probably attempt to measure the participants’ achievement and that there are likely to be at least two (experimental-control) groups of participants whose achievement will be compared in order to investigate the effectiveness of this teaching methodology. When we see research questions that ask about “the students’ beliefs about the effectiveness of TBT”, however, we will, again, expect to see interviews, focus groups, etc., as well as a good rationale for why it is important to understand these beliefs rather than the actual effectiveness of the method.
Finally, why is keeping the above in mind important? It is important because having good research questions is crucial for your study. Make sure that your research questions fit the methods that you chose in your study, so that the reader understands how your methods helped you answer these questions. If you ask whether “task-based teaching is effective”, for example, he or she will expect you to evaluate this effectiveness and answer this question by the end of your thesis/dissertation/paper. If you are a student, you are also required to discuss your philosophical assumptions in your thesis – make sure that these assumptions fit, and justify, the way you framed your research questions.
Jenks, C. (2013). ‘Your pronunciation and your accent is very excellent’: orientations of identity during compliment sequences in English as a lingua franca encounters. Language and Intercultural Communication, 13 (2), 165-181.
Khatib, M. & Rezaei, S. (2013). A model and questionnaire of language identity in Iran: a structural equation modelling approach. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 34 (7), 690-708.
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing Grounded Theory. London: SAGE.
Thomas, G. (2009) How to do your research project: a guide for students in education and applied social sciences, London: Sage.