It's possible that you've already written research papers by this point in your academic career. If your experience has been like mine, was writing these papers went one of two ways:
c) The teacher assigns a specific topic for you to research, and sometimes even a specific thesis for you to prove.
d) The teacher provides more freedom, allowing students to choose a topic at their own discretion or from a set of options.
In both situations, my teacher expected me to figure out what I wanted to argue, then find research to back me up. I was expected to have a fully formed stance on an issue, then use my sources to explain and support that stance. Not until graduate school did I encounter inquiry-based research, which inverts this sequence.
Put simply, inquiry-based research refers to research and research writing that is motivated by
|Your research begins with an answer and seeks out evidence that confirms that answer.
|Your research begins with a question, reviews all the evidence available, and then develops that answer.
|For example, a murder occurs and I get a bad vibe from the butler. I look for all the clues that confirm that the butler did it; assuming I find what I need, I can declare that the butler did it.
|For example, a murder occurs. I look for as many clues that I can, then determine the most likely culprit based on that evidence.
|It's quite possible that the butler did it, and both logical processes might lead me to the same conclusion. However, an inquiry-based investigation allows more consideration for the possibility that the butler is innocent.
Consider the difference this can make: if research is about learning, then an inquiry-based perspective is essential. if you only seek out the ideas that agree with you, you will never learn.
Even in the same event that the investigation yields the same answers, their differences are crucial. The example in the table above demonstrates confirmation bias, or as we called it in Chapter Four, "projection." (You might be familiar with this phenomenon from politicized social media spheres which tailor content to the user;99 you may have also identified it as the force behind many axes of prejudice, racialized police violence, and discrimination.) When we only look for answers that agree with our preexisting ideas, we are more likely to ignore other important ideas, voices, and possibilities. Most importantly, confirmation bias inhibits genuine learning, which relies on challenging, expanding, and complicating our current knowledge and worldviews. Consequently, inquiry-based research is time-consuming and intensive: instead of only dealing with evidence that supports a certain answer or perspective, it requires the reasoner to encounter a great diversity of evidence and answers, which can be difficult to sift through.
This distinction has important implications for the kind of research and research writing for which this book advocates.
e) You don't have to- shouldn't, in fact- have a thesis set in stone before starting research. In lieu of a thesis guiding your process, a research question or path of inquiry will motivate your research and writing. You might have a hypothesis or a working thesis, but you must be tremendously flexible: be prepared to pivot, qualify, nuance, or entirely change your answer as you proceed.
f) In order to pursue your research question, you will need to encounter a lot of sources. Not all of the sources you encounter will make it into your paper, which is a new practice for some students. (When I engage in inquiry-based research, I would approximate that one in every twelve sources I encounter makes an appearance in my final draft. The other eleven may be interesting or educational, but might not have a place in my discussion.) This is a time-consuming process, but it leas to more significant learning, more complex thinking, and more interesting and effective rhetoric.
Imagine yourself arriving at a party or some other social gathering. You walk up to a circle of people chatting casually about Star Wars. It's clear they have been on about it for a while. Some of them you know, some of them you've heard of but never met, and some of them are total strangers- but they all seem to have very strong opinions about the film franchise. You want to jump into conversation, so when someone posits, "Jar Jar Binks was the worst character of the prequels, and maybe even the whole canon," you blurt out, "Yeah, Jar Jar was not good. He was bad. He was the worst character of the prequels. He might even be the worst of the whole canon." The circle of people turn to stare at you, confused why you just parroted back what the last person said; all of you feel awkward that you derailed the discussion.
Even writing that example makes me socially anxious. Let's try option B instead: as you arrive to the group, you listen attentively. You gradually catch the flow and rhythm of the conversation, noticing its unique focus and language. After hearing a number of people speak regarding Jar Jar, you bring together their ideas along with your ideas and experiences. You ease yourself in to the conversation by saying, "I agree with Stan: Jar Jar is a poorly written character. However, he does accomplish George Lucas's goals of creating comic relief for young audiences, who were a target demographic for the prequels." A few people nod in agreement; a few people are clearly put out by this interpretation. The conversation continues, and as it grows later, you walk away from the discussion (which is still in full force without you) having made a small but meaningful contribution- a ripple, but a unique and valuable ripple.
This dynamic is much like the world of research writing. Your writing is part of an ongoing conversation: an exchange of ideas on a certain topic which began long before you and will continue after you. If you were to simply parrot back everyone's ideas to them, you would not advance the conversation and it would probably feel awkward. But by synthesizing many different sources with your unique life experiences, from your unique vantage point (or, "interpretive position" viz. Chapter Four), you can mobilize research and research writing to develop compelling, incisive, and complex insights. You just need to get started by feeling out the conversation and finding your place.
"Discussion" by University of Baltimore Special Collections & Archives is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
Developing a Topic
Finding a conversation that you're excited about and genuinely interested in is the first and most important step. As you develop a topic, keep in mind that pursuing your curiosities and passions will make your research process less arduous, more relevant, and more pleasant. Such an approach will also naturally improve the quality of your writing: the interest you have for a topic will come across in the construction of your sentences and willingness to pursue multiple lines of thought about a topic. An author's boredom results in a boring paper, and an author's enthusiasm translates to enthusiastic writing.
Depending on the parameters your teacher has set, your research topic might need (a) present a specific viewpoint, (b) focus on a specific topic, or (c) focus on a certain theme or set of ideas. It's also possible that your teacher will allow complete autonomy for one or all of your research assignments. Be sure you review any materials your instructor provides and ask clarifying questions to make sure your topic fits the guidelines of their assignment.
To generate ideas, I recommend completing some of the activities included later in this chapter. I find it most productive to identify areas of interest, then develop questions of all sizes and types. Eventually, you will zero in on a question or combination of questions as your path of inquiry.
What makes for a good research question or path of inquiry? Of course, the answer to this question will depend on your rhetorical situation. However, there are some common characteristics of a good research question in any situation:
- It is answerable, but is not easily answerable.101 Engaging and fruitful research questions require complex, informed answers. However, they shouldn't be so subjective, intricate, or expansive that they simply cannot be answered in the scope of your rhetorical situation.102
- It is specific. By establishing parameter on your scope, you can be sure your research is directed and relevant. More discussion of scope and focus continues below, and you can try the exercise titled "Focus: Expanding and Contracting Scope" later in the chapter to learn more.
- It matters to someone. Research questions and the rhetoric they inform valuable only because they have stakes: even if it's a small demographic, the answers to your research question should impact someone.
- It allows you to say something new or unique. As discussed earlier in this chapter, inquiry-based research should encourage you to articulate a unique standpoint by synthesizing many different voices, interpreted from your individual perspective, with your life experiences and ideas. What you say doesn't have to be groundbreaking, but it shouldn't just reiterate ideas, arguments, histories, or perspectives.
It is difficult to find a question that hits all these marks on your first try. As you proceed through research, pre-writing, drafting, and revising, you should refine and adjust your question(s). Just like any other part of writing, developing a path of inquiry is iterative: you've got to take a lot of chances and work you way toward different results. The activity titled "Focus: Expanding and Contracting Scope" in this section can help you complicate and develop your question along a variety of axes.
To hear a different voice on developing research questions, check out this short video from Wilfrid Laurier University.
In order to find the best version of your research question, you should develop "working questions" - questions of all sizes and types that are pertinent to your subject. As you can see below, you can start with a handful of simple working questions that will eventually lead to a viable research question.
|Working Research Question
|Revised Research Question
Too easy to answer, low stakes, not specific enough:
What do people eat in Vietnam?
Higher stakes , more specific:
What does Vietnamese food reflect about Vietnamese culture?
More complex answers, higher stakes, very specific:
How does Vietnamese cuisine reflect a history of colonialism?
Too straightforward; not specific enough:
Are people in the United States more obese than they used to be?
Have obesity rates increased in the United States over the last 100 years?
More complex answers, higher stakes, very specific:
Is there a correlation between obesity rates and economic instability in the United States over the last 100 years?
Not specific enough, difficult to answer in-depth:
What is the role of religion in the Middle East?
More specific, easier to answer:
How has religion influenced politics in the Middle East in the last 50 years?
Very specific, higher stakes, more complex answers:
How has religion's influence on government impacted the day-to-day lives of Qatari citizens?
As you hone your path of inquiry, you may need to zoom in or out in terms of scope: depending on your rhetorical situation, you will need different degrees of focus. Just like narration, research writing benefits from a careful consideration of scope. Often, a narrower scope is easier to work with than a broader scope - you will be able to write more and write better if your question asks for more complex thinking.
Consider the diagram above. As you build a working knowledge of your topic (get the feel for the conversation that began before you arrived at the party), you might complicate or narrow your working questions. Gradually, try to articulate a research question (or combination of questions). Remember to be flexible as you research though: you might need to pivot, adjust, refocus, or replace your research question as you learn more.
Ahmed began his project by identifying the following areas of interest: racism in the U.S.; technology in medicine and health care; and independent film-making. After doing some free-writing and preliminary research on each, he decided he wanted to learn more about racially motivated police violence. He developed working questions:
Are police officers likely to make judgments about citizens based on their race?
Have police forces instituted policies to avoid racism?
Who is most vulnerable to police violence?
Why does it seem like police officers target people of color?
Who is responsible for overseeing the police?
He realized that he needed to narrow his focus to develop a more viable path of inquiry, eventually ending up with the research question,
Over the last thirty years, what populations are most likely to experience police violence in the U.S?
However, after completing more research, Ahmed discovered that his answers came pretty readily: young Black men are significantly more vulnerable to be victims of police violence. He realized that he's not really saying anything new, so he had to tweak his path of inquiry.
Ahmed did some more free-writing and dug around to find a source that disagreed with him or added a new layer to his answers. He discovered eventually that there are a handful of police organizations that have made genuine efforts to confront racism in their practices. Despite the widespread and normalized violence enacted against people of color, these groups were working against racial violence. He reoriented his research question to be,
Have antiracist police trainings and strategies been effective in reducing individual or institutional racism over the last thirty years?
Writing a Proposal
Bigger research projects often require additional steps in preparation and process. Before beginning an extended meditation on a topic- before rushing into a long-term or large-scale research project- it's possible that your teacher will ask you to write a research proposal. The most effect way to make sure your proposal is on the right track is to identify its rhetorical purpose. Are you trying to process ideas? Compile and review initial research? Demonstrate that you're pursuing a viable path of inquiry? Explain the stakes of your subject?
Although every rhetorical audience will value different parts of the proposal, there are a handful of issues you should try to tackle in any proposal.
- Your subject. Introduce your topic with a general introduction to your topic- not too general, but enough to give the reader a sense of grounding.
Too general: Education is something that happens in every facet of our lives.
Better: Access to education is a major concern for people living in a democratic society.
- Your occasion. When you developed your research question, you chose an issue that matters to someone, meaning that it is timely and important. To establish the significance of your topic, explain what's prompting your writing and why it matters.
Since Betsy Davo's nomination for U.S Secretary of Education, the discussion surrounding school choice has gained significant momentum. Socioeconomic inequality in this country has produced great discrepancies in the quality of education that young people experience, and it is clear that something must be done.
- Your stakes and stakeholders. Although you may have alluded to why your question matters when introducing your occasion, you might take a sentence or two to elaborate on its significance. What effect will the answer(s) you find have, and on whom?
Because educational inequality relates to other forms of injustice, efforts to create fairness in the quality of schools will influence U.S racial politics, gender equality, and socioeconomic stratification. For better or for worse, school reform of any kind will impact greater social structures and institutions that color our daily lives as students, parents, and community members.
- Your research question or path of inquiry. After introducing your subject, occasion, and stakes, allow the question guiding your research to step in.
Some people believe that school choice programs are the answer. But is it likely that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can experience parity in education through current school voucher proposals.
- Your position as a working thesis. Articulate your position as a (hypo)thesis- a potential answer to your question or an idea of where your research might take you. This is an answer which you should continue to adjust along the way; writing it in the proposal does not set your answer(s) in stone.
In my research, I will examine whether school choice programs have the potential to create more equitable schooling experiences for all students. Even though proponents of school choice use the language of freedom and equality to justify school vouchers, recent propositions for school choice would likely exacerbate inequality in education and access.
- The difficulties you anticipate in the research and writing process and how you plan to address them. In your proposal, you are trying to demonstrate that your path of inquiry is viable; therefore, it is important to show that you're thinking through the challenges you might face along the way. Consider what elements of researching and writing will be difficult, and how you will approach those difficulties.
There are a vast number of resources on school choice, but I anticipate encountering some difficulty in pursuing my guiding question. For example, many people discussing this topic are entrenched in their current viewpoints. Similarly, this issue is very politicized, diving people mostly along party lines. I also need to do more preliminary research: I'm not certain if there have been school choice experiments conducted on any significant scale, in the U.S or elsewhere. Finally, it is difficult to evaluate complex social phenomena of inequality without also considering race, gender, disability status, nationality, etc.; I'll need to focus on socioeconomic status, but I cannot treat it as a discrete issue.
- Optional, depending on your rhetorical situation: A working list of sources consulted in your preliminary research. I ask my students to include a handful of sources they have encountered as they identified their topic and path of inquiry: this shows that they are working towards understanding their place in an ongoing conversation.
Worsnop, Richard L. "School Choice: Would it Strengthen or Weaken Public Education in America?" CQ Researcher, vol. 1, 10 May 1991, pp. 253-276.
Zornick, George. "Bernie Sanders Just Introduced His Free College Tuition Plan." The Nation [Article], The Nation Company LLC, 3 April 2017.
Combining these examples, we can see our proposal come together in a couple of paragraphs:
School Vouchers: Bureaucratizing Inequality
Access to education is a major concern for people living in a democratic society. Since Betsy Devos' nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education, the discussion surrounding school choice has gained significant momentum. Socioeconomic inequality in this country has produced great discrepancies in the quality of education that young people experience, and it is clear that something must be done. Because educational inequality relates to other forms of injustice, efforts to create fairness in the quality of schools will influence U.S racial politics, gender equality, and socioeconomic stratification. For better or for worse, school reform of any kind will impact greater social structures and institutions that color our daily lives as students, parents, and community members. Some people believe that school choice programs are the answer. But as it likely that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can experience parity in education through current school voucher proposals?
In my research, I will examine whether school choice programs have the potential to create more equitable schooling experiences for all students. Even though proponent of school choice use the language of freedom and equality to justify school vouchers, recent propositions for school choice would likely exacerbate inequality in education and access.
There are a vast number of resources on school choice, but I anticipate encountering some difficulty in pursuing my guiding question. For example, many people discussing this topic are entrenched in their current viewpoints. Similarly, this issue is very politicized, diving people mostly along party lines. I also need to do more preliminary research: I'm not certain if there have been school choice experiments conducted on any significant scale, in the U.S. or elsewhere. Finally, it is difficult to evaluate complex social phenomena of inequality without also considering race, gender, disability status, nationality, etc.; I'll need to focus on socioeconomic status, but I cannot treat it as a discrete issue.
Worsnop, Richard L. "School Choice: Would it Strengthen or Weaken Public Education in America?" CQ Researcher, vol. 1, 10 May 1991, pp. 253-276.
Zornick, George. "Bernie Sanders Just Introduced His Free College Tuition Plan." The Nation, The Nation Company LLC, 3 April 2017, Bernie Sanders Just Introducted His Free College Plan The Nation [Article]