Identifying a Research Question

“Re-search” is an exploration into already existing facts and knowledge, with a specific set of purpose in mind; which might eventually even guide us to novel inventions. A “research question“, aka a “research problem”, is what defines that particular set of purpose, and is the first functional step in research project, setting the foundation for the structure of the entire research process.

“More than a set of skills, research is a way of thinking”

[Kumar, R. (2011). Research Methodology: A Step by Step Guide for Beginners. Sage Publications.]

Research is a furtherance of one’s inquisitiveness, and thus, there is no boundary on what influences and initiates the formulation of a research question.

Here is a list of 5 such unforeseen sources of inspiration for a researcher:

  1. Social/Global Crisis – One of the primary impulses in humans is our survival instincts and consequently, any crisis situation brings out our most creative sides. Since the advent of the human civilization, every crisis, be it local to a particular community or a global issue, has given rise to a whole new set of knowledge base.

Two of the most prevalent examples of this is the journey, and constant advancement, of the food industry, and the field of medicine. A massive coffee shortage in France during the 1800s saw the introduction of chicory roots as a substitute, the variety of rice available today is a mark of the limitations and physical characteristics of the soil and natural water availability in the region of their origin, the increasing demand for  indigenous and organic products and the advent of green technology are all a response to the global environmental crisis. Much alike how surgical instruments and medical equipment were developed when hunting and farming tools could no longer cater to urgent health risks, and pharmaceuticals and supplements were created when natural food sources were found to be inadequate in combatting severe illness and deficiencies. Even in the justice system, the waning deterrence effect of existing legal punishment has channelized research into preventive policing, correctional administration, therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice.

  1. Hobbies – A researcher’s personal favourite pastime can also lead to interdisciplinary research ideas.

It is common knowledge that every prison does their best to engage the inmates in several activities irrespective of the duration of their prison stay, and the offence they are accused or convicted of. However, for the purpose of rehabilitation and reintegration of inmate into the civil society, the need of the hour is research into art therapy and movement-based therapy as part of behavioural therapeutic interventions in correctional homes. Also, an inmate’s choice of activity inside the prison and what they express through their paintings and sculptures and handworks need further study to understand an offender’s characteristics and criminal tendencies. Even outside the prison setting, sports, dance and music have been proven to greatly help in understanding and communicating with people living with physical impairments, autism, down syndrome, and the likes.

  1. Myths/Common Perceptions/Folklores – Every myth buster article that we come across requires sufficient research so as to be factually accurate. Once-upon-a-time folklores may sometimes lead to myths in that particular community or locality, calling for more questions into how or why the stories started.

Before Jack the Ripper in London, or Troilokya in West Bengal were studied as classic serial killer case files, several versions of folklore did the rounds in the respective communities. It was only a detailed research and analytical investigation that led to the facts behind the gruesome tragedies of the victims. In the field of cyber security, common misconceptions like a virus in the system would immediately indicate its presence and only large industries and not personal systems or small sized business being under threat have been clarified with sufficient thoughtful research about the same.

  1. Regular Chores – Our lifestyle probably receives the least bit of our mindful attention and we usually go about our daily tasks without even a minute’s thought put into it.

For example, boiling water for our favourite beverage is a mundane every day task for everyone. However, it was a kettle of boiling water that led to research into the power of steam as a source of energy and consequently to the invention of the steam engine. Something as commonplace as an apple falling off a tree gave the opportunity to question the strength and direction, or even the existence, of Earth’s gravitational pull. In fact, the appliances, tools and machines we use today, be it a pair of scissors or the nail-cutter, from the pulley to draw water from a well to the hand pump to the electric motor; the never-ending array of household appliances; and today, the endless list of apps on several platforms – all cater to increasing efficiency of the essential chores for purposeful, healthy living. This has been possible because of several research projects that designed a research question revolving around our everyday must-do activities.

  1. Daily Habits – Similar to the regular chores we complete, we all have some habits ingrained into our personality with or without our conscious awareness. Being observant of people’s habits and practices can motivate us to research further into a particular culture or tribe, or even conduct cross-cultural and anthropological studies. Paying close attention to simple habits can give ideas for pertinent research questions too.

For example, different users have different habits of organizing, deleting and up-keeping their digital data. This can influence a research into how these different practices can, whether they even, affect data retrieval. Giving a thought to how we use our phones or laptops while being engaged in other activities can also make us research into different types of mechanical damage possible to the device and the ways of minimizing such harm. As a matter of fact, most marketing strategies including Google AdSense and online subscriptions, banking services like new debit card or credit card plans, and insurance researches like regular policy upgradations feed off the general population’s habitual patterns. The current trend in evolving educational practices and modifications to the age-old outlook on effective working hours is also greatly moulded by a research into normal daily habits of children and adults.

And a probable 6th source of inspiration in a researcher’s life may be –

  1. Pets – Humans have always tried to domesticate a variety of animals. This urge to adopt a pet and give it a healthy and comfortable life with us not only led to plethora of researches into animal behaviour and animal nutrition and health care, such as veterinary medicine and surgery as a branch of health care facilities; customized pet foods; pet creches and pet-keeping services; but also into the durability and eco-friendliness of common household items, the average concentration span and productivity levels of humans in the presence of a constant distraction, and the likes. Even electronic gadgets and applications are now aspiring to be dog-friendly and not just human friendly.

All the above-mentioned sources of influence for a research question can be seen as precursors to a researcher’s eureka moment when (s)he gets a research idea from plausibly the most unrelated reference.

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