Research Questions: Less is More
Robin (not her real name) is a student of mine who came to my office to discuss her research paper for my class, due two weeks from the day she came to see me. She is very excited about her topic, which she selected for the assignment. She would like to study how poverty impacts education.
This is a big question, and an important one at that. But it is too big to explore in any sort of depth, especially within two weeks. Scholars can spend their entire careers researching questions like these; the first step to being able to conduct your own research—especially for the first time and within a tight time frame—is to narrow your focus.
My first suggestion to Robin was to think about how she would measure both poverty and education. Since she will be using secondary data sources, in this case data collected by government agencies, she needs to first see what kinds of information sources like the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)have already collected, and what sort of data will be useful for her.
Then she needs to be much more specific: what does she want to find out about education? High school graduation rates? Test scores? Reading levels? How will poverty be defined: the percent of students receiving free or subsidized meals at school? The poverty rate by ZIP code? She would need to make sure her measures are concrete, rather than abstract, or operationalize her measures.
If she were collecting data herself in the form of a survey or interview, she would need to refine her question even more. Who would be her potential participants? How will she find them? Would she conduct a random sample, or (more likely) a convenience sample? The answers to these questions would dictate what sort of question her research would address. In all likelihood, it would be a relatively narrow question because she would likely only be able to sample a small group that she has easy access to studying.
I have noticed that many of my undergraduate students like to ask big questions, and that’s not a bad thing. Sociology is appealing because it helps us answer the big questions about society; students want to find big answers too. They rarely start with specific, focused questions for this and other reasons. A “small” question may seem like it won’t yield enough information to meet the assigned paper length, so to assure they’ll have ample material, many students start big—even if it means writing a very superficial paper.
“Small” questions seem less important, and thus less worthy of a good grade for some students. This is a common concern they have when I encourage them to narrow their focus. After they ask for reassurance on whether they will have enough material to write however much they need to write, they ask if it isn’t somehow “cheating” to ask a more focused question. “Wouldn’t that be too easy?” I often hear. If they only find out a little about their topic of interest, is that still okay? The underlying concern: “If my research doesn’t find the answer to solve a major social issue, will I still get a good grade?”
The secret is that’s what sociologists actually do: research small bits of a larger issue to find pieces to a larger sociological puzzle. Doctoral dissertations are often so specific that they are often the butt of jokes. If you check out ProQuest’s Dissertation Abstracts International database and look up titles of dissertations, you will see what I mean. (Or you can ask your TA what their dissertation research is about and find out first hand).
Asking smaller questions means sacrificing breadth for depth, and while at first it may seem less satisfying to do that, understanding a topic in greater depth is ultimately what we are trying to do not just in the social sciences, but within education as a whole.
The impulse to ask big questions is a good one, as is the desire for big answers. But the answers arrive in small packages, little by little. As much as we might wish to find the answers in one study, it takes many studies—and many researchers—to get big results.