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Step 4: Developing a Research Question: Turning a Topic into a Research Question

Almost every capstone research project begins with a research puzzle and governing question. The puzzle and the question guide the selection of the remainder of the steps in the research process: identifying appropriate theories, selecting sources of data and information, choosing methodologies, and ultimately, the findings of the project as appropriate for your discipline.

Research Puzzle
A research puzzle is a question or paradox about the causation or the consequences of a particular phenomenon. A "good" research puzzle is theoretically and empirically interesting. The puzzle should make a reader think and typically resonates with readers because a particular phenomenon does not appear to match theoretical expectations. A research puzzle also calls for specific measurable components to the question.

Tips Open-ended questions that begin with phrases such as, "how can we understand" or "how can we explain," often lead to vacuous answers. For example, almost anything qualifies as an answer to the question, "How can we understand the nuclear revolution?" A better approach might focus on tangible consequences of nuclear weapons or the threatened use of nuclear weapons in the foreign policy of a major state.

Governing Question
Your governing question is the question that directs the structure of your research project. It is the question, or questions, you ask to explain your research puzzle. Your governing question derives from competing observations, i.e., observations that appear to be in tension with one another and to indicate a puzzle, problem, discrepancy, mystery or surprise. As you begin to investigate and evaluate scholarly literature, you may need to return to your governing question and revise it. You may find, particularly when abroad, that it is not possible in practice to solve the puzzle or to answer the question. There may also be ethical considerations that limit the scope of your research question. This is all part of the research process.

Tips Research plays a role in every step of the process from identifying a topic to defining a puzzle and developing a question. Once you have transformed your general topic interests into a specific puzzle, you can begin to list your research questions. Are there answers to these questions? What kind of evidence would be necessary to answer these questions? Are there constraints (practical and/or ethical) to investigating the answers? These issues will most likely drive which question, or questions, you decide to focus on for your research.

Your governing question informs your research, which, in turn, informs your governing question. Throughout each step of the research process, you need to be reading the literature, identifying the main arguments, evaluating the explanations of key scholars, and determining the practical and ethical constraints of your proposed research question. You might find out that you're asking the wrong questions and therefore need to revise your governing question. You might find a more interesting puzzle as you delve deeper into the existing literature. Having a governing question allows you to be flexible in your research plan and to be open to the possibility of change.

Faculty example:

The literature on China portrays the central government as very powerful, even monolithic [General topic]. And yet, there is a huge amount of variation in local policy implementation. [This is the Research Puzzle: A gap between expectation and reality.] Professor Remick's governing questions to explain this puzzle are: Why does local variation in policy implementation occur? Why do certain patterns of variation exist?

Research Milestones

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Planner Checklist

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Keep track of research jottings.