Thursday, February 23, 2012

Social Science Research Questions

contributed by Lisa Garnham

I think there really is something of a tension in setting research questions or hypotheses in the social sciences. On the one hand, you need to have a good, clear indication of what it is you are doing (even if you are following grounded theory or doing exploratory research) and how you are practically going to achieve that goal. This is essential, not just so that you feel as though what you are doing has 'purpose' but also so that you can justify your approach and methods to your supervisor, your peers and others. In particular, having a solid research objective that you fully understand and are comfortable with will help you to think laterally about your methods and approach and will allow you to stand your ground if you want to do things a particular way and someone (e.g. your supervisor) disagrees with you. Putting your thoughts on your objectives into writing and forcing yourself to articulate them for others to see, understand and critique is vital. On the other hand, setting things in stone too early can be hazardous. As you move through your literature review and your method, you might see other opportunities opening up or find that your initial objective isn't the aspect of your research you are most interested in. Personally, my approach has been to change my objectives when these sorts of things happen, mostly because I know that, if I don't, I'll be forever distracted by the things I could have been researching or the questions I could have been addressing. At the end of the day, your research questions must encompass aspects of your research that you actually genuinely have an interest in discovering the 'answers' to - this is what will drive you to actually complete your PhD, instead of getting to the end of your literature review and then feeling like you've read a lot of interesting things but feel a little disheartened about what you might actually have to say on the subject.

A large part of how you go about setting these objectives depends on your supervisory team, your background and approach to research, the field of study its self and how clearly delineated your project was when you started. You may have very little scope to make your own mark on your objectives, if they are already heavily prescribed. In my case, the objective was very broad and I have ended up with objectives quite different from those originally envisaged by my supervisor. Whatever your particular situation, my advice is threefold:

1. Make sure you properly understand your research questions AND the conclusions you are likely to be able to come to within the confines of your PhD. If you don't you are almost guaranteed to become either lost or disillusioned with your work. Your PhD is unlikely to have a major impact within your discipline BUT other researchers in your field will be interested in what you have to say - make sure you pitch your objectives right and understand fully how your work might be of interest to others in your field and beyond.

2. Make your objectives 'your own', even if only in a small way. Draw on your degree, postgraduate work or work experience and try to bring something of 'you' to the table, particularly something that your supervisory team might not be overly familiar with. It will give you personal satisfaction to know you have made a tangible theoretical contribution and help foster your interest in the topic and your drive to complete.

3. Don't even try and get your research objectives 'right' first time. Set them up clearly and properly at the beginning and revisit them every three months. Properly pick them apart on these occasions, critique them, force yourself to consider how relevant they are, how much you really care about them and whether you can really address them on your own (warning: don't do this if you're already having a bad day!). Amend them - no need to make wholesale changes, just a few tweaks here and there and then print them out and put them on the wall above your desk. This isn't something that everyone can do, it really does depend on your PhD/supervisory set-up and you may have to consult your supervisor on any changes you make. But if you can, I wholeheartedly recommend constantly revising and amending your objectives, especially as the process keeps them almost permanently at the forefront of your mind when you are doing your research. At least have a critical conversation with your supervisory team about them at your annual report meetings.

To give you an idea of how much objectives can change and a PhD can still be considered to be progressing adequately, I've supplied a scattering of my own examples:

At 12-week review:
"The excess mortality experienced by the Scottish population relative to the rest of the UK and other deindustrialised areas of the UK is known as the ‘Scottish Effect’. This is comprised of the poor health outcomes of the Scottish population that cannot be attributed to poverty or deindustrialisation (unemployment, underemployment, poor urban environment etc) but must have other causes specific to Scotland. This problem is especially prevalent in the West of Scotland/Strathclyde. This study will explore how the policies of the Thatcher government may be connected to these specifically Scottish health problems. An hypothesis has already been put forward by Collins and McCartney (2009), which will be used as a basic map that will be developed as the study progresses. The aim will be to explore these issues to the extent that connections are well supported by field evidence, by way of both qualitative and quantitative data.
The field work element of this study is still in its infancy, but at this stage is likely to involve neighbourhood or small town case studies, e.g. Clydebank, as a test bed for the hypothesis. Analysis will be undertaken on 2-3 such areas in Scotland, with the possibility of comparison areas being chosen from the rest of the UK and Europe. Initially quantitative analysis on existing health, poverty, employment and housing data will be undertaken for each area. Issues raised by this analysis will be explored by way of interviews, focus groups and other ethnographic methods, such as observation."

At ethics application (8 months):
"This project aims to explore the ways in which the environment and society can affect our health, with a specific focus on what may have caused differences in health to emerge between places where the measurement of risk factors provides little clarity. Particular emphasis will be placed on the influence of the neoliberal agenda on place and place-making activities since the 1980s for the population of the West of Scotland. Attention will be focussed on how those features of neoliberalism explicit in the landscape can become embodied in people, thereby affecting their health.
This leads us to three key research questions:
What are the effects of neoliberalism on different places?
What are the consequences of place and place-making on health in the West of Scotland?
How does place-making and its effect on health vary between people and neighbourhoods?
Quantitative data will enable analysis of the ways in which neoliberalism has affected spaces, economic circumstances and attitudes towards certain spaces and so will ground this project in an ‘abstract’ reality (Leung et al. 2004). The exploration of the effects of place on health is centred on both social constructionist and advocacy world views: there is simultaneously an acknowledgement that people construct their own ‘reality’ (to a certain extent) but that specialist knowledges are sometimes vital to enable people to use their knowledge constructively and communally. Therefore, a qualitative approach will be a fusion of phenomenological and grounded theory, incorporating the importance of the lived experience and meaning in the construction and elaboration of the theory framework."

At 12-month review:
"Main Research Objective:
To explore the extent to which the concept of place, and geographical theory more widely, be usefully mobilised in developing an understanding of the ways in which neoliberalism can affect health.
Research Question A:
What have been and are the effects of neoliberalism and its implementation on particular neighbourhoods in Clydebank? How do neighbourhoods with different histories, demographics and infrastructures compare to one another?
Research Question B:
How do the residents of particular neighbourhoods in Clydebank perceive the effects of their neighbourhood on their health and the health of other members of their community? How do neighbourhoods with different histories, demographics and infrastructures compare to one another?
Research Question C:
Drawing on A and B together, to what extent can neoliberalism be considered a contributing factor in the emergence of the Scottish Effect?"

At Transfer (20 months):
"Main Research Objective:
To explore the extent to which the concept of place (as a lens) could be usefully mobilised in developing an understanding of the ways in which politics affects health.
Research Question A:
How does Clydebank refract and express neoliberalism and how has this developed since the 1970s?
Research Question B:
How have the socio-political forces expressed in Clydebank affected the habitus and, therefore, the health of those living and working there since the 1970s?
Research Question C:
Drawing on A and B together, to what extent could neoliberalism or a political attack be considered a contributing factor in the emergence of the Scottish Effect?"

At 24-month Review:
"Objective A
To develop and evaluate an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that can be used to explore the relationships between socio-political change, place and health, in the context of the Scottish Effect. The following research questions, which relate directly to the prototype framework already drawn from the literature review will guide this objective:
Research Question A1
How might a place ‘refract’ and express neoliberalism and how might this have developed since the 1970s?
Research Question A2
How might the socio-political forces expressed in a place have affected the habitus and, therefore, the health of those living and working there since the 1970s?
Objective B
To generate new insights into the potential causes of the Scottish Effect and, thus, make tentative policy recommendations, in respect of both health policy and general social and economic policy."

There are lots of things changing and going on here, but there are two key changes. The first is that we started out thinking I would do a comparative study. By the 12 month report (although I think I was still clinging to this idea that I would do something comparative) I'm doing a single in depth case study. Secondly, the role of geographical theory gets stronger and stronger as we go through and the research questions become more and more specific to the ideas and theories I came across and decided were important during my literature review. I did a Geography degree and my supervisor teaches Politics - it took us about a year to get a point where I knew enough about the topic to understand how my previous experience might fit in with the PhD topic - and I'm still trying to fully figure that out. This is what I mean about not being afraid to change your objectives as you get deeper into your research! As you review other's ideas, carry out your field work and start to realise your 'findings' new questions will emerge. If you are flexible enough (and not overly ambitious) you will be able to grab these opportunities and work them into your objectives, giving a fuller and more relevant contribution to knowledge.

Feel free to email me with any questions/comments you might have!

Lisa Garnham
PhD Researcher