Shifting perspectives and shaping questions

FullSizeRenderWe moved offices recently. Not far, just down the road. The same city, Manchester, arriving at the same train station, Oxford Road, exactly the same first few hundred meters but then a slight shift of a couple of street to the left.

What has struck me over the last week as I have taken a number of new routes to work is the difference this slight shift has brought in terms of my perspective of the city. I used to just come out of the station, walk over a busy foot bridge and arrive at the office. A journey of maybe 3 minutes full of the hustle and bustle of a lot of people heading over a small bridge, cross the tram line and there I was.

Now the same beginning but then a diversion, in a few short steps a completely different world opens up. Different architecture, incredibly grand and indicative of the industrial heyday of a thriving victorian industrial powerhouse. Juxtaposed with modern architecture and a new tram system. Little gunnels and backstreets going knows where, new shops waiting to be discovered as the go to place for lunch. A few meters one way or the other and everything changes and, as I was strolling along, I was reflecting on the relevance of perspective to research. A few weeks ago someone asked me, ‘what kinds of questions make researchers roll their eyes?’ Several thing came to mind and one of them was being asked, ‘what is your research question?’

This is the one that cuts to the chase and is the bane of the lives of many a researcher.  You know immediately when someone asks you this that you are required to come up with something short and pithy. There is no way you can waffle your way out of this one. The usual round the house explanation of your general topic, why is it important and roughly what you are interested in just won’t get you out of this one.

One word to the left or right can make all the difference, the addition or deletion of a verb or noun can shift the focus dramatically. Having been convinced that you were going to be undertaking a quantitative study you may suddenly find yourself heading towards something qualitative. Being certain that you wanted to avoid statistics like the plague you may find yourself contemplating the prospect of grappling with correlations and regressions. Oh those verbs and nouns, small words with great power.

And this brings me back to my walk to work. I am experimenting with different routes, seeing what’s involved in each, trying them out to explore the different perspectives brought by each. Which is right when it’s raining, which if I want a coffee? Which is quickest if I am late, which makes me smile and feel happy?

At the start of a research project this is exactly what we all need to do to craft a great research question. The nuance may not be immediately apparent, we may need to write several versions, explore several routes, speak them out loud to hear what they sound like. There is skill and expertise in crafting a clear research question which, at some point in all of our research careers, has had us rolling our eyes. If you think the first question is right treat it with caution, before committing to it explore a few more perspectives first, who knows where that might take you.

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