Creating a viable and appropriate research question is something I’ve seen many students struggle with.
Over time, I’ve developed a conceptual analogy to explain the role that past knowledge has on the value and feasibility of a proposed research project. This model makes it easy for students to understand and relate to a complex concept.
Whether you are a student, researcher or supervisor, I encourage you to read, share, and use this model as you please – I hope it will be of as much value to you as it has been to my students and I.
The island is a metaphor that represents existing knowledge. This is the foundation for our current understanding, and is established primarily by empirical evidence. As with knowledge, the island has boundaries, where the land ceases to continue. The edges of the island are often irregular. As is common with disciplinary knowledge; some disciplines have made greater progress in their understanding of concepts than neighbouring disciplines. The landscape within the island may also be irregular, where hills and valleys represent areas where there is the greatest depth of knowledge, or where knowledge is lacking. Finally, there may be some (rare) areas where the knowledge is based on assumptions or poor research, and our understanding of the terrain is not as it seems – these are sinkholes and quicksand.
The ocean represents the unknown. It is the enticing and exciting frontier that attracts many researchers seeking to discover new lands. However, the risk with this ambition is that it can be very difficult – or even impossible – to truly understand the meaning of any new discoveries when too far from the land. This land is what provides us with the reference and valid tools that we need to understand what is out at sea. References may be as simple as having some normative data, or past experiences, from which to relate. Without having clear sight on the land, outcomes from research located in the ocean can be confusing and potentially meaningless. Furthermore, constructs and models must be well-defined and thoroughly validated before we can consider how to evaluate new concepts.
The cliff is the critical point that separates the island from the ocean – it represents the point at which further knowledge on the matter does not yet exist. It is at this point where we see the ideal coexistence of solid references, validated tools, and new findings waiting to be discovered. It is from this vantage point that researchers can make calculated steps forwards, and subsequently, provide themselves with the highest likelihood of meaningful discoveries. The strong reference provided by the land enables the researcher to justify that their research question is both important and feasible. And regardless of the answer of that question, this cliff is where the most valuable research usually takes place.
Formulating Research Questions Using the Island Model
Using this landscape of empirical knowledge, we can start to model what I believe are the two most common approaches to generating a research question: To continue with the established theme, I call these the Explorer and Skydiver approaches.
The Explorer will begin their journey on solid ground, in the environment they are most interested and comfortable in, and will start by following a well-established path. The explorer will continue to venture, carefully exploring and observing their surroundings, until eventually they reach the cliff. For the explorer, the journey preceding this means that they will be well-orientated and can quickly identify the logical next step. That is, once having navigated from the land to the cliff, they are well-equipped to formulate a feasible and useful research question.
Explorers tend to be students that have developed their knowledge and identified their starting point through undergraduate and postgraduate studies. While they have a great understanding of the local landscape of knowledge, they are not as familiar with where that knowledge ends.
The Explorer, being inquisitive and interested in many paths, may be easily distracted by the multitude of possible explorations. They are at risk of spending too much time observing and familiarising themselves with existing knowledge, and may struggle to settle on a research question.
From my experience, Explorers benefit from structuring and planning their literature engagement to ensure that they stay on track. Prior to reviewing the literature, the Explorer should identify the key questions which need to be answered by the literature, rather than simply perusing. These questions should include hypothetical answers and logical follow-up questions. For example, a common question is “Has anyone looked at the effect of this on that?”. If the answer was “Yes”, then the follow-up would be “How was it measured?”. If the answer was “No”, the follow-up could be “What is the closest study?”. The Explorer’s literature searches become task-orientated and focused on answering these specific questions, so that their search is kept relatively progressive and linear.
Unlike the Explorer, the Skydiver begins their journey from the sky, with little knowledge of whether they are above land or ocean. The Skydiver is the researcher that creates research questions without having explored existing knowledge in the area.
In my experience, these are often individuals that are more familiar with their practice than with the scholarly literature, or those that work across disciplines to conceptualise hypothetical innovations. They are more likely to pose questions that would not have been posed by the Explorer, and can provide innovative and unique perspectives. However, they will likely struggle to reach the ground if uninformed assumptions that bind the concepts together fail to hold true.
The task for the Skydiver is to navigate down to the earth, and then to identify where they have landed. This process tends to involve validating assumptions and defining concepts. If they land on the ground far from the shore and their research question has already been answered, then there may be little value in asking it again unless a unique and important perspective is lacking (e.g. if they find themselves in a valley). If they land in the ocean, which seems to be more likely, they are tasked with identifying just how far out at sea they are. This will usually involve them looking around to see if they can identify any references or tools that could be used to support their question. It may be that the next step is to develop references or tools to enable the original question to be asked.
Finding the Cliff
Regardless of whether the researcher is approaching the task from the land or from the sky, they must navigate to the point where the land meets the ocean. However, the cliff can be elusive. I often suggest students look across at the land adjacent to them by searching neighbouring disciplines to identify whether similar knowledge exists that might lead the way. For example, many advancements in understanding human behaviour are owing to research done in the context of sports performance, yet much of this knowledge is applied in occupational contexts. Knowledge that exists in neighbouring disciplines can provide a logical framework to extend the relevant boundaries of the land outwards in a similar direction.
While it is acceptable to extend boundaries with logical arguments, this can become somewhat of a fragile structure, and care should be taken to avoid relying too heavily on such extensions. The wharf is never as secure as the land.
This model has already helped many postgraduate students to successfully navigate to the edge of solid land. As with any model, there will be exceptions, and I would never constrain anyone to this, should their circumstances differ. In fact, I am eager to find the Skydiver that lands a feasible project out in the ocean, as this is where the most unexpected and innovative discoveries may lie.