Brandel Library

BTS 2650 Eastern Orthodox Theological Tradition

Formulating Questions for Research Papers

Identifying Topics for Research (Step 1)

  • Research cannot begin until you have something to research, some subject matter to investigate.
  • The first step, therefore, is to identify what it is you want to investigate. 
  • Sometimes the course assignment specifies the subject of your research, but in upper-level undergraduate and in most graduate courses, the subject is often chosen by the student.
  • Two simple options for subject selection:
    • Choose something about which you know nothing, but about which you want to learn.
    • Choose something about which you already know something, whether it is only an introductory knowledge or more extensive, and enlarge your understanding through the assignment.
      • This option can include arguing for a viewpoint or interpretation about which you hold strong convictions.
  • Possible subjects to investigate may be
    • listed in the syllabus
    • suggested by your professor
    • identified in your textbooks or in reference sources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, companions).
  • Subjects about which others have written are likely worth your research and writing as well, especially in your introductory investigations of a subject.
  • Scholarly disputes about how to understand a person, event, or writing usually indicate that they are worth your investigation, to determine the issues being disputed and the relative merits of the respective positions.

Formulating a Research Question (Step 2)

  • A subject must be turned into a question in order for it to be investigated.
    • Any subject entails one or more questions to be investigated.
    • Most questions involve multiple sub-questions which must be addressed in order to answer the primary question.
    • Arranging these sub-questions in appropriate order will help you organize the flow of your research.
  • What is it that you want to know about the subject?
    • The meaning of a portion of Scripture? How large a portion? More than one portion of Scripture?
    • The relationship of one portion of Scripture to another portion (e.g., Paul and James on justification)?
    • The origin or development of a movement or tradition (the origin of the Wesleyan movement or Liberation Theology)?
    • The development over time of the thought of a theologian? (e.g., Augustine on the freedom of choice; Karl Barth)
    • The relationship of a theologian to another theologian, on a specific doctrine? (e.g., Luther and Cranmer on the Lord's Supper; )
    • The reception of a document(s) within a determinate time period or by a specific group of people? (e.g., the reception of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by churches in the Eastern churches; the reception of the Barmen Declaration (1934) by German churches)
    • The results of actions of a person or corporate body? (e.g., the effect of the Edict of Milan, 313 or of Catherine of Siena on Pope Gregory XI; Phoebe Palmer's shaping of Holiness and revivalist movements; Dorothy Day's shaping of Catholic and Protestant social justice work)
  • Some of the questions will prepare you to research and write the paper, but may not appear in the paper itself; other questions will shape how and what you write and may prominently structure the paper's argument. 
  • The questions you formulate may be different from those formulated by other students, depending on
    • what you already know
    • and what you decide you want to know
    • and why you want to know it.
  • "Questions that ask how and why invite deeper thinking than who, what, when, or where, and deeper thinking leads to more interesting answers." (Wayne  C. Booth, et al., The Craft of Research, 4th ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016], 42).
  • Suggested formula for research questions, built into one sentence (Booth, et al., The Craft of Research, 46):
    • "What you are writing about - I am writing about...."
    • "What you do not know about it - because I want to find out...."
    • "Why you want your reader to know and care about it - in order to help my reader better understand...."

 

Right-Sizing Research Questions (Step 3)

  • The research question should be precise enough to be analyzed and explained within the page limits of your assignment. 
    • Doctoral dissertation research questions are larger and more complex than master's theses research questions.
    • Course paper or published scholarly article length research questions must be much smaller and more focused than either of those.
  • Finding the correct-sized research question is crucial.
    • There is a correlation between the size or breadth of the question, and the depth in which it can be explored.
      • The larger the question, the more generally it will be addressed within a space limit.
      • More in-depth questions must either take more space or be more narrowly asked, more focused.
    • Our initial questions are often bigger than we realize and bigger than we can adequately treat in the assignment's size limits.
    • This is so common in part because these are preliminary questions, "first draft questions," asked before we begin our research (of course!), so we are asking a question in at least partial ignorance, even if we know something about the subject from prior reading or research.
    • An essential step - or steps! - in this process is to reduce the size of our question as we go through the research process and gather information.
    • The more information we gather, the more we should make more precise our research question.
    • Sharpening the focus of the question helps us
      • by reducing our labor in some respects (that is, less subject matter to cover)
      • by making our research goal clearer
    • This process of sharpening the focus, in order to reduce the size of our question, may need to happen more than once.
  • The question must not be so specific that adequate information does not exist on it. Trivial questions, whose answers are inconsequential, should also be avoided.
    • E.g., what size nail did Luther use when nailing the 95 Theses to the University of Wittenberg church door (if he actually nailed the theses)?
    • How big were the pears that Augustine and his friends stole from the neighbor's trees?

Shaping Research Questions (Step 4)

  • Research questions should ask something of significance.
  • This significance must be explained in the introduction of your abstract and introduction to the paper.
    • Why do you want to know this?
    • Why is it important to scholarship?
    • What difference does the answer make to the understanding and practice of a discipline or profession or community?
    • How does your question relate to other scholarship? Is it in line with recent developments? Does it diverge from or challenge recent scholarship?
  • Determining the significance of your research question is done in conversation with other scholarship in the field.
  • This requires research into the present state of research on your question, that is, what are scholars saying now?
  • The present state of the agreements and disagreements, the points of consensus and of dispute, is sometimes called the "state of the question."
  • When you know the state of the question on a specific scholarly issue, you can contribute by addressing a specific point of agreement or dispute.
  • Your contribution may support a point of agreement, dissent from a point of agreement, or propose a new point of dispute.