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GETTING STARTED AND DECIDING A TOPIC

The hardest parts in any research project are, as a rule, the starting-out and the completion stages, assuming nothing untoward happens in-between. For now though we shall concentrate on getting started.

Getting off on the right foot

Martin Davies (2007) has a very helpful set of ten tips to help you to the starting blocks in the right frame of mind. Extrapolating with reference to others and my own experience and those of colleagues and mentors, consider the following:

  • recognize you need a supervisor; being positive about supervision is beneficial;
  • with their permission, make use of your peers, your family, friends, if not other tutors and lecturers;
  • embrace brainstorming, avoid the temptation to second-guess;
  • accept that criticisms, especially early on, will arise; they help you move on;
  • get a sense of available resources, close to home and further away;
  • don’t get too set on a topic/research question too early or too hastily; keep your options open . . .
  • . . . but do decide eventually! This is not your life’s work;
  • plan what you want to achieve for group or individual supervisory sessions;
  • ‘ RTFM’, i.e. become acquainted with mandatory and optional formalities for your institutional setting; ignorance of the ‘specs’ (e.g. word-limits, formatting) is not an argument;
  • keep track of useful and inspirational resources; return to them to touch base;
  • assess the time, resources, and current skill-sets you have; particularly if you want to set out in a new direction;
  • plan, plan, and plan again; revise and reschedule where necessary. Time flies!

There is nothing like a deadline to get you going. Many students and working researchers, in academe and the workplace, rely upon – indeed thrive on – the impetus an approaching deadline provides. However, for a research project that leads to a dissertation which will be then be graded, how you get ready (get set, and then go) has implications for how to manage moulding your initial ideas or sense of a general topic into a feasible research question; moreover, one that you can live with, let alone one you want to, and can do, over a sustained period of time. So, moving on: What
is
your research actually going to be about; the
topic
?

Coming up with and committing to a topic

Unless stipulated otherwise the topic is up to you; how this emerges as a research question and in a larger context is another matter. This is easier said than done, particularly when you may be overwhelmed with new information, or unable to decide between several ideas.

Here are some tips to help you when deciding on a topic:

  • figure out just how much choice you have and how motivated you are;
  • start with those topics that interest, inspire, or concern you; thinkers, theoretical streams, ideas, or debates that have caught your attention;
  • ascertain which terms, thinkers, debates, and areas of research are developed within your programme, and the department at large;
  • look up the staff research interests and personal profiles in your department and programme for cues, inspiration; or for rejection purposes;
  • look up previous dissertations; they are available online or in the library;
  • in light of the above; consider what kinds of research is being done in institutions nearby, or in collaborative projects within your department;
  • think about continuing a previous project (many do). Alternatively, eliminate that from your options (many do again);
  • ‘start anywhere’ (see Blaxter et al. 2006: 32–3); why not?
  • put all your favourite ideas in a hat and pick out one. Don’t like it? Well that much is clear already;
  • brainstorm, alone but even better with others; ‘good ideas tend to generate others’ (Gray 2009: 47);
  • in light of the above, set a time or another sort of limit to the expanding list of ideas to avoid becoming overwhelmed; here deadlines are very useful;
  • don’t overlook, or underestimate how you may already have a topic in mind based on the reasons for enrolling in this programme, university, or past experience; ‘go forward with confidence’ in this respect.
    6

Some things to keep in mind about searching for any topic: the subject should be timely in as much that the previous research done on the topic leads to an interesting puzzle for you to investigate. For example, previous research may have left a particular explanation or concept unexplored or there may be research that led to inconsistent results; your research proposes to address these anomalous findings. This is where you
can use your research project as an opportunity to be creative – this is a sort of
originality
as well.

**TIP: If the research topic is too speculative or considered too ‘left field’ in your setting, you may find it difficult to find an appropriate supervisor to support your research.

  • So, along with striving to be creative and independent some compromise may be necessary.
  • Be inclusive but be realistic. You should really enjoy the subject and want to spend a significant portion of your time on it.

At the end of the day, though, you do need to settle on a main theme; what you do decide to do need not take on hugely life-long implications. This need not be your life’s work. Agonizing too long over which topic on the basis that this will define you intellectually, confine you in your future options, or must be
directly
applicable to your future career ambitions is often misplaced, particularly at the undergraduate and master level.
7

For Ph.D.s these questions can take on a larger personal or professional dimension. But even then I would argue that academic careers are not necessarily made or broken on the one research topic, or methodology for that matter. Right now, decisions need to be made. Furthermore, many such concerns get ironed out; even early on in the design stages we need to enrol, enthuse, ‘pitch’ the idea, get it out of our heads and onto paper where sympathetic and sceptical listener/s, experts and lay audiences can get a handle on it and challenge us to improve.

From the general to the particular

This shift is not a straightforward one; any new research project shuffles between our own ‘grand designs’, our view of precursors in the research literature as inspirations or competitors, and the need to knock a topic or an idea into the shape of a so-called doable research question. All researchers are looking to find ‘the puzzle and gaps’ in a particular area.
8
For this reason:

  • making notes and committing your earliest ideas in writing is indispensable to moving you along (see Creswell 2009: 78–82); an often overlooked role of research proposal-writing (
    Chapter 3
    );
  • as is breaking down topics arising from your studies and reading, or dissertation projects from students in previous years.

For example, which of the topics below, all taken from the initial ideas of eventually completed research, are more general? Which are more specific? How could you make some of the broader topics into more focused questions?

  • ‘body-building’
  • ‘the anti-sweatshop movement and globalization’
  • ‘political blogs and democracy’
  • ‘gender and voting behaviour’
  • ‘anti-immigration policies in the European Union’
  • ‘states and markets after the Credit Crisis’
  • ‘young women and urban violence’
  • ‘popular culture and world politics’
  • ‘multilateral institutions and new social movements’
  • ‘actor-networks and social activism on the web’.

Once you have decided on the subject-area, or areas you are interested in, your research
topic
usually boils down to one sentence or phrase. This can designate both a general rubric, sub-themes and ideally (for supervisory meetings especially) a specific issue. So, if you look at the above examples again, and you can see that they point to any number of more specific questions, you could ask which can be broken down into sub-topics and how you would go about breaking them down (e.g. by geography, periods of time, groups around gender or ethnicity, older or newer media).

** TIP: If you want to do something that is counter-intuitive or against the grain in a field, then the ‘burden of proof’ is greater.

  • Note that listeners will voice reservations quite quickly if a research topic is unusual, too narrow, or too broad.
  • That said, most research starts out as topics that are too broad. So if you get this comment in the early stages don’t take it as a condemnation.

There are two additional points around these initial steps when you go about deciding on a topic and then move on to formulating a research question, or hypothesis if this is the preferred formulation (see
Chapter 3
):

  1. What happens if you are in the luxurious position of not being able to decide between several topics or, conversely, discover that your topic of choice is considered not-doable or inadvisable?
    9
    The basic answer to this is to acknowledge, preferably in consultation with your supervisor or trusted others, the point at which you will make an executive decision; hovering between options for too long is a form of procrastination.
  2. Once you have a Plan A think of a possible back-up, Plan B. Put it this way: in the early phases, don’t be afraid of changing your mind or topic. That said, and depending on how your institution sets deadlines in this respect, if changing your mind, do it sooner rather than later and be clear as to why. In a pressure-cooker situation like a one-year dissertation programme, beware of losing too much time changing your mind; this is the converse of putting off making a decision.

Now that you have decided your topic, more or less, the next step will be refining the
research question
; the next step in sequential terms albeit one that can take more then several tries before it sounds, reads, or feels ‘right’. Take note that:

  • deciding on our topic does not mean we have devised a research question. A research topic is not quite that same thing;
  • formulating a question that guides the inquiry entails some sort of larger ‘puzzle’ that is articulated as ‘doable’, i.e. in the time allotted and with the requisite resources;
  • different sorts and styles of research questions, hypotheses, have respective articulations pointing to different research paths in turn, e.g. literary excursions or large-scale surveys.

Chapter 3
addresses diverging and converging approaches to developing research questions, or hypotheses. These point to respective sorts of research planning and execution. Whilst all approaches would concur that a successful piece of research is in the final analysis ‘all about the research question’, they part company on the weighting given to whether this aspect needs perfecting early on or whether, at the other end of the spectrum, it is something that necessarily evolves during the research itself.

So, already, we are on shifting sands. The boxes we want to tick start to shimmer and shudder under the weight of our own desire to get on with chosing the best method to pursue the topic, usually resisting admonitions that we take our time, do undertake a selective or comprehensive search of the literature, write these findings up as our ‘literature review’ (see
Chapter 4
), or reconsider the topic as we are told to refine or ‘develop a research question’. Students literally wriggle in discomfort at this point during supervisory meetings when asked to ‘focus’ or to ‘go away and refine your research question’. They are not the only ones; researchers dealing with negative comments in these sections of a proposal for research funding do so too.

To understand why even this earliest point can create pressure, we need to take a step back from the
perpetuum mobile
of a formal research trajectory in order to move up a level of abstraction.

THEORY AND METHOD – OF CARTS AND HORSES

Here is some more food for thought:

  • What is (a) theory?
  • Is theory singular or plural?
  • Isn’t theory the same as methodology?
  • What counts as (a) method?
  • Is method singular or plural?
  • Isn’t method the same as methodology?
  • Which should come first – the theory or the method?
  • What
    is
    research?

Which of the above terms of reference relate to which aspect of our proposed plan of work? When are they analytically distinct, how do they interact in our larger project, and how do we deal with them organizationally – in the final report?

Easier to ask than they are to answer satisfactorily, these FAQs (frequently asked questions) beg a number of thorny questions beyond their functional role in the jargon of degree-specification or supervisor-speak around the mandatory elements of your eventual dissertation; the ‘methodology chapter’, the ‘theory chapter’ as cases in point. Getting to grips with the way in which these distinct yet
interdependent
elements often have the researcher, newbies particularly, going around in ever-decreasing circles are amongst the first, and last hurdles to jump. This is because arguments about their definitions and practical implications are at the heart of debates about the form and substance of credible scholarly knowledge, let alone whether the latter can only be encapsulated as knowledge acquired by application of
scientific method
; detractors and defenders line up along the quantitative–qualitative divide accordingly.

The next chapter explores some aspects of these debates more closely. Suffice to say, they have been raging for centuries, going as far back as ancient Greece. Some great minds and lesser mortals have thought about these issues, and fought long and hard with opponents about them. Indeed, in some cases books have been burned, and high-profile figures ridiculed or even killed for daring to counter accepted wisdoms of the time. Whilst hindsight has vindicated many or condemned others, the jury is still out in other instances. Successive iterations of these debates are the scholarly ‘back-story’ and cast of characters in the history of modern science; as incarnated in western European and Anglo-American renditions of this particular story, its critics and counter-narratives.

How (i) and how (ii)

At the outset of any research project these terms can be addressed as two roughly equivalent parts of the
how
element of a research project (see
Box 2.1
). Each will get its equivalent weighting and attention within and across research traditions; for example, in some settings references to ‘methodology’ are construed as synonymous with ‘theory’ whilst in others, experimental psychology for instance, a full account of specific methods used to design and carry out the experiment is indispensable, for instance the role of a
control group
, sampling criteria, and what sorts of consent are involved.

  1. The first aspect of the
    how
    is abstract; conceptual frameworks, specific concepts, philosophical considerations;
    theory
    in so many words.
  2. The second
    how
    is on the more practical side; specific ways of going about getting data, or information – the facts of the matter if you like, of investigating your object of inquiry; commonly referred to as
    method
    , or methods. Each has their own literature base.
  3. Nestled, not always comfortably, between is a third notion, often referred to as
    methodology
    . This term is often used to underscore how the conceptual (abstract)
    and concrete (pragmatic) dimensions (namely theory and method) are inseparable. How this interconnection is explicitly addressed, or whether the relationship is seen as an integral, or peripheral issue for the research at hand pertain also to various
    worldviews
    (see
    Chapter 3
    ).

This push and pull between how we represent the conceptual – abstract, and the concrete – practical dimensions of a research undertaking is where overtly competing approaches collide (see Moses and Knutsen 2007). But this is also why as we look to hurry our research design into getting into what we consider to be the research proper we can ‘hit the wall’; if one aspect of the
how
is considerably less thought through it becomes the ‘weakest link’, as the TV quiz show has it, when it is put under pressure.

So let’s try and make some sense of this terrain, by taking each element one at a time – theory, method, methodology – as analytically distinct albeit practicably overlapping one another.

On theory – how (i)

The two excerpts below each put their finger on what is often the sore point within and between research methodologies; the ‘T’ word – theory; as something pragmatic so ‘messy’ or, rather, as something quintessentially abstract; elegant and economical with words.

[R]esearch . . . is more than a mere pragmatic activity; behind it lies the foundations of academic theories that have emerged through the process of scientific inquiry and investigations over many decades and centuries.

(Gray 2009: 5)

A theory is more that a definition; it is a framework that supplies an orderly explanation of observed phenomena. . . . It should systematically unify and organize a set of observations, building from basic principles . . . Theories have practical consequences, too, guiding us in what we value (or dislike), informing our comprehension, and introducing new generations to our cultural heritage.

(Freeland 2001: i)

At the risk of sounding trite, theories come in all shapes and sizes along these two poles, from grand narratives explaining historical change over time, how the universe began, to highly specialized ‘propositions, or hypotheses, that specify the relationship among variables (typically in terms of magnitude or direction)’ (Creswell 2009: 51), to more fluid interrogative formulations.

Similarly, different categorizations of theory, or theorizing, also make sense at different levels of disciplinary recognition with respect to their being statements about ambitions to generate truth-statements about the world. These ambitions are evident in micro-level (where details and focus count) through to the macro-level (where generalizations and range matter). More recently, a move to generating ‘mid-range’ theories looks to accommodate these two poles (see Callon and Latour 1981, Creswell
2009: 52, Foucault 1984, Neuman 1997, Rosenau 1999). In short, the sort of tightrope researchers walk continually (often gesticulating at one another from either side) in this respect spans:

  • one end of the spectrum where there are definite ideas about what is meant by theory, taking their cue from the natural sciences;
  • to the other end where there are some very definite ideas about what is
    not
    meant by theory.

The next chapters will discuss these relationships and respective differences in modes of reasoning as they arise. For now, let’s take an oft-cited working definition of theory from the social sciences by Kerlinger and Lee. They propose that theory is a ‘set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting phenomena’ (cited in Creswell 2009: 51, Gray 2009: 5; see Berg 2009: 21–2).

This conceptualization, steeped in how theory and theorizing have been codified and contested in the natural sciences and philosophy of science, has a relatively restricted focus. It also lays the stress on aiming for explanation and prediction. Whilst there are significant differences amongst scientists, and philosophers of science, about the relationship between said ‘theory’ and the ‘facts’ to which it is referring, the former effectively boils down to the formulation of an ‘appropriate conceptual framework’ (Chalmers 2004: 13) for the appropriate data set (facts).

More pragmatically, theorizing is by definition thinking at a certain level of abstraction; to theorize, posit a theory/theory about something, is to do more than describe, annotate, or classify what you see – observe; recall the discussion from
Chapter 1
). It means to make explicit the underlying assumptions that govern the description, the annotation, or the classification. Stronger still, theoretical physics, mathematical theorems, and the models put forward in the ‘high theory’ of modernist and postmodernist thinkers in the social sciences and humanities all take leave of absence from the material – empirical – world in order to extrapolate and postulate; leaving the proof of their veracity for later generations (e.g. Einstein’s theory of relativity, or the state of sub-atomic theories today). The degree of reference made to alleged facts (historical, contemporary, physical, or symbolic) varies in the social sciences and humanities.

So where do the core differences lie?

Here, keeping one’s balance is crucial given the more strident expressions of research variants that emphasize
parsimoniousness
as the deal-breaker for anything claiming the title of ‘theory’:

  • Here, theory is tantamount to hypothesis-formulation and accompanying causal models (‘laws’). This is by definition exclusive and narrowly defined and closely allied to work looking to predict, explain, or generalize on the basis of facts gained by observational techniques (see
    Box 2.1
    ).
  • This restricted notion of theory, as hypothesis-testing, will not do for its opponents; if for no other reason than whilst there are observable patterns in the social
    world and human behaviour these are neither as predictable as assumed nor as universally applicable as claimed. As the argument goes, the laws of physics do not apply to human subjects, social relations, or cultural practices. People and societies are notoriously fickle, the argument goes on. This distinguishes the social world from the natural world, cultural practices and artefacts from animal drives, instincts, or behaviours.
  • Less categorical approaches to these questions from both sides of the polemic, would go along with the Kerlinger and Lee definition as far as this: theory – or theorizing – entails the articulation of a ‘set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of phenomena . . .’ (see Creswell 2009: 62–4).

As we will see, these positions are taken from within often diametrically opposed working assumptions about whether the natural sciences, e.g. the laws of physics, are best practice for all scholarly research undertakings. The history of scientific discovery, famous debates in the philosophy of science, and their corollaries at the intersection of twentieth-century social sciences and humanities suggest otherwise (see Chalmers 2004, Radder 2006, Schulz 2010).

  • Whilst many such approaches – those looking to critique mainstream assumptions – do not shy way from explanatory frameworks, if not cautious sorts of ‘predictions’ about the future, they use theory more as an orientation device. It is regarded as a more inclusive notion, a heuristic as opposed to an open-and-shut hypothesis that ‘specifies the [causal] relationship among variables’ (Creswell 2009: 51).
  • And then there are many research modes that eschew the term altogether, opting for references to theoretical lenses, perspectives, conceptual frameworks (see Burchill et al. 2001, Peterson and Runyan 1999). The view here is that ‘theory’, or ‘Theory’ is too much of a straitjacket for investigations that are less concerned with locating cause and effect (‘why?’) or prediction.
  • The term also appears in some well-known models about how the natural world, the cosmos, or the human psyche works, and why. These are also brand names: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Newtonian Physics, Quantum Mechanics, Freud’s Theory of the Unconscious, World Systems Theory, and so on. The same term can be applied to trends if not broad rubrics in the social sciences and humanities for multiple positions and their main representative thinkers: Postcolonial Theory, Postmodern Theory, Literary Theory, and Feminist Theory being cases in point.

So what are our options?
Another way to pin down this elusive term, beyond its evocative powers, is to ask where it fits in with the aims and objectives of the project. As noted above, the natural sciences and their quantitative cousins in the social sciences privilege theories that can underwrite models for explaining and/or predicting outcomes. Other approaches look for frameworks that can interpret and critique the same, if not transform or ‘deconstruct’ underlying assumptions; for example, of hypotheses that investigate how humans may behave in structured ways; patterns that certain sorts of observational research can uncover and so understand.

As such theorizing is treated as a process, not a product, and so an inter-textual endeavour; couched as a sort of open-ended dialogue, an ongoing conversation with others albeit in written form. This is why theory for qualitative work is so closely allied to a discussion of the pertinent literature, accompanied by cross-references and notes. This is in contrast to hypothesis-construction whereby the reference points are to planned observations: an experiment or survey-based exploration designed to ‘test’ or ‘prove’ the hypothesis – part of a larger ‘theory’. The thing to remember is that theory, however defined, operates as both container term and contested terrain within and between approaches.

**TIP: Whether the world, or particular phenomena being theorized about come first, or are conjured into existence by virtue of these theoretical reflections and hypotheses, has been the subject of much debate over the ages; with little prospect of this abating.
10
In the meantime, taking the working definition above on board for the sake of argument, and as far as you are comfortable in your supervisory and institutional setting, your ‘theoretical chapter’ needs to aim at articulating a ‘set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of phenomena . . .’ (Kerlinger and Lee cited in Gray 2009) relevant to your inquiry.

For the moment, no matter what your viewpoint, theory whether it be with a little ‘t’ or a capital ‘T’ is when you work at a more abstract, more generalized level of thinking, speaking, and writing. To ‘theorize’ means to abstract, to take a certain distance from the immediate object of analysis by stepping back in order to distinguish the literature’s wood from the trees of your inquiry. In some quarters, theory – understood as an organic practice – is not only there to facilitate how to understand, or explain phenomena (namely ‘data’) but is also open to being challenged by these data (see Adorno 1976). More on these matters in
Chapters 2
and
7
.

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