Identifying an Animating Question and Research Problem
Once you have articulated a field and a topic, you will work to transform your topic into an animating question and then a research problem.
We research because we are driven to answer questions. Skillful researchers often inadvertently fool us by stripping away the complexities of their research when they explain their projects. In fact, they often simply introduce their projects by just citing their general topic. You might hear, for instance, “I study the end of the Cold War,” or “I study political applications of social media,” or “I study Iran’s nuclear program.” Each of those three introductions merely offer topics that the researchers study, but each is driven by a question.
As you engage your topic and the relevant literature, you will need to work conceptually to turn your topic into a question to investigate. Booth, Colomb, and Williams explain that “you can’t jump from picking a topic to collecting data: your readers want more than a mound of random facts. You have to find a reason better than a class assignment not only for you to devote weeks or months to your research, but for your readers to spend any time reading about it. You’ll find that better reason when you can ask a question whose answer solves a problem that you can convince readers to care about. That question and problem are what make readers think your report is worth their time. They also focus your research and save you from collecting irrelevant data.”
Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 50.