When you walk to work or to the shops do you have a regular route. An inbuilt sat. nav that means you’re almost on automatic pilot? It can feel safe and familiar can’t it? Perhaps you see the same people, check out a favourite shop or see the progress of some new development. Have you ever, just for the hell of it, gone off piste? Taken a different turning, moved a street to your left or right? Changed your perspective from the familiar to the new.
What has struck me over the last week as I have made a conscious effort to do this is the difference a slight shift can bring about in terms of the way you see something.
The same beginning but then a diversion, in a few short steps a completely different world opens up. Different architecture, little gunnels and backstreets going who knows where, new shops waiting to be discovered as the go to place for lunch. A few meters one way or the other and everything changes.
I was reflecting on the relevance of perspective to research. A few weeks ago someone asked me, ‘what kinds of questions make researchers roll their eyes?’ Several thing came to mind and one of them was being asked, ‘what is your research question?’
This is the one that cuts to the chase and is the bane of many a researcher. You know immediately when someone asks you this that you are required to come up with something short and pithy. There is no way you can waffle your way out of this one. The usual ’round the house’ explanation of your general topic, why it’s important and roughly what you are interested in just won’t get you out of this one.
One word to the left or right can make all the difference, the addition or deletion of a verb or noun can shift the focus dramatically. Having been convinced that you were going to be undertaking a quantitative study you may suddenly find yourself heading towards something qualitative. Being certain that you wanted to avoid statistics like the plague you may find yourself contemplating the prospect of grappling with correlations and regressions. Oh those verbs and nouns, small words with great power.
And this brings me back to my walk. I am experimenting with different routes, seeing what’s involved in each, trying them out to explore the different perspectives brought by each. Which is right when it’s raining, which if I want a coffee? Which is quickest if I am late, which makes me smile and feel happy?
At the start of a research project this is exactly what we all need to do to craft a great research question. The nuance may not be immediately apparent, we may need to write several versions, explore several routes, speak them out loud to hear what they sound like. There is skill and expertise in crafting a clear research question which, at some point in all of our research careers, has had us rolling our eyes. If you think the first question is right treat it with caution, before committing to it explore a few more perspectives first, who knows where that might take you.