Good research rests on good questions: on good research questions, good interview questions - and good questions about questions. It is these latter ones, the meta-level ones, that I attempted to collect for today's post. I tried some of them with the students I tought and advised this spring; some more occured to me while reading their final papers.1 Whether you ask these questions about your own project or pose them to students: I believe they work best if answered in only one concise sentence each. Give it a try:

First step: finding an empirical puzzle and a research question (I am deliberately not talking "topics" here, since research built primarily around a topic rather than around "questions" and "puzzles" tends to be not as good)

1. Which incident or reading inspired your research idea?

2. What exactly puzzled you about this incident or reading?

3. What larger issue is that puzzle an example of?

4. Which questions does this puzzle put on the agenda?

5. Which of these questions do you want to answer?

6. How would an hypothetical sample answer look like?

Second step: plotting a viable research design (Here, I switch from the "puzzle" metaphor to an attention to "difference", since all good research at its core tries to explain a difference - be it between here and there, then and now, us and them, theory and reality, or something else. There needs to be difference)

7. How have other scholars posed and answered your question?

8. What convinces you about their approach, what not, and why?

9. What is the main difference you want to explain?

10. What could be three hypothetical explanations for this difference?

11. What kind of data do you need to convince me of either explanation?

12. Where are you likely to obtain that data?

13. Through which method are you likely to obtain it?

Step three: doing the research and making sense of your data (Good questions at that stage generally depend very much on the specific project at hand, but here are some which might be worth asking about any kind of project - most of them trying to prevent overly quick answers2)

14. What are the key terms and categories that come up in your data?

15. Which expected findings did not turn up?

16. Why are your findings not the random outcome of chance?

17. Which of your data does not fit your hypothesis?

18. What would be a good counter-example? Have you looked for it?

Step four: reflecting before submission (These questions return to the wider context of one's research and try to push for maximum clarity about both one's contribution and the limitation of one's research)

19. What were your puzzle, your question and your difference again?

20. What are your solution, your answer, and your explanation?

22. What are good reasons to believe you? Are they clearly stated?

21. What are good reasons to not believe you? Are they clearly stated?

23.3 Which new questions, puzzles, differences did you encounter on the way?

As I wrote before, I believe these questions work best when answered in as few words as possible - and definitely in no more than a sentence each. Some of them will only work for the social sciences, but many seem universal. I should also add that I am still a fan of narratives: these questions do not necessarily need to structure your thesis - but they are useful to structure your thinking.

Finally, this list is work in progress; if you have good questions about questions which worked for you or your students: please pose them in a comment below!

  • 1. One of the joys of teaching this term was the chance to see actual (if small) research projects through from start to finish - a rare chance before you are tenured and have your own research students. Thanks to all of you students (and the staff at SIT New Delhi) for this opportunity!
  • 2. Some of these are borrowed from Howard Becker, one great teacher indeed, who compiled a wonderful list of "questions about questions", which he calls "tricks of the trade": Becker, HS. (1998). Tricks of the Trade. Chicago: Univ. Press.
  • 3. That this list really ends with 23, the answer to all questions! Coincidence?