27 Mar

Advancing Knowledge by Asking Questions: an illustration from award-winning research

Posted By Politybooks

First posted 13th October 2009


In the first of our ‘ask an expert’ sessions, Norman Blaikie (formerly RMIT University Melbourne, and University of Science, Malaysia) writes about the importance of questions in research as demonstrated by 3 recent Nobel laureates, and answers a couple of your questions… 

All research is about solving puzzles, both intellectual and practical. And puzzles entail questions. So the starting point of research in any discipline is deciding, firstly, what question or questions to investigate, and then using questions to stimulate and provide direction for further research on a topic.

The importance of research questions has been clearly illustrated in the research that was recently awarded the Nobel prize in medicine, conducted by Jack Szostak, Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackman, at the University of California, San Francisco.

The work for which they received the award is the discovery of telomeres, or caps, that protect the ends of chromosomes from degradation. They also identified the enzyme, telomerase, which makes the telomeres. In explaining this phenomenon, Dr Blackburn suggested that a chromosome is like a shoelace, and a telomere is like a sheath at the end of a shoelace that prevents it from fraying. If the telomeres are shortened, cells age. But if telomerase activity is high, telomere length is maintained and cellular ageing is delayed.

Certain inherited diseases are characterized by defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells. Hence, this research opens up exciting new possibilities for applications to both cancer and ageing.

In a radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, shortly after the award was announced, Dr Blackman attributed the success of their research to the team’s persistence in asking questions about the phenomenon, thus enabling them to push the boundaries of existing knowledge.

Viewing research as a process of answering questions appears to be common in the natural sciences, but much less so in the social sciences. A number of disciplines in the social sciences are hung up on using hypotheses to direct research. However, such hypotheses are commonly answers to research questions that have not been stated. Hence, on their own, hypotheses have very limited potential to extend knowledge.

In the social sciences, decisions about where to conduct the research, who to include in the study, how to collect data, and what kind of analysis is appropriate, have all to be made in the context of research questions. Until one or more research questions have been formulated, it is impossible to begin to think about how to research a topic.

Sarah asks: The scientists who won the Nobel Prize kept on asking new questions to push the boundaries of knowledge. Is this a potentially never-ending process? Do you think you still need an overall hypothesis to be able to know when to stop the research, and stop asking questions?

If you were to ask these Nobel laureates I think they would say the process is potentially never-ending. Perhaps they will reach a point in their questioning where either they are satisfied with the answers to their questions, or they are unable to find answers – when they have pushed the boundaries of knowledge in a particular field as far as they are able. This does not mean that the questioning process has stopped. Perhaps some time in the future, with new theories and methods, their unanswered questions can be answered. My experience in research is that you frequently end up with more questions at the end than you started out with.

When hypotheses are presented as possible answers to a research question it is possible for a researcher to feel that the job is finished once the hypothesis has been supported or corroborated (the question has been answered). However, if the test of the hypothesis fails (the answer to the question does not work) then a new hypothesis, or even a series of them, may need to be tested. As researchers, we have to stop somewhere, and we may do so when we think we have found a satisfactory answer to our research question. Whether we have arrived at this answer by using one or more hypotheses will depend on the type of research questions we have asked and the approach to research that we have adopted.

David asks: We did a geography project at school where we had to find out why people shopped where they did (e.g. was it near their house, was it where there was more choice). I had a gut feeling why people might have been making the decisions they did, and that formed the basis of my questions. Do you think it’s good to follow your gut feelings to ask questions, or should you try to avoid that?

Perhaps your ‘gut feeling’ was a possible answer to your research question. Setting out with this hypothesis may be inappropriate as it may prevent the researcher from recognizing unexpected answers to the question. However, the process of generating an explanation can involve asking and answering questions as they arise, and hazarding a guess at the answer can help to keep the process going.

Just as I regard hunches as poor hypotheses, so I think you need reasons for asking questions of people, certainly if you are posing them all the same questions with the view to quantifying their answers (a ‘top-down’ approach). However, the situation is somewhat different if you conduct in-depth interviews (a ‘bottom-up’ approach). You may ask fewer direct questions, and just try to get people to talk about shopping and explore their reasons for behaving as they do. As the interview proceeds you may decide to ask more focussed questions. These may emerge from what you have already been told, or you may want to try out some ideas suggested by theory or previous research. Either of these strategies is better than just asking people questions based on your gut feelings. 

The newly released second edition of Norman’s  Designing Social Research  takes research questions as the key starting point in social research, exploring in detail all the other major decisions that need to be made before research can begin, and giving advice on how to save yourself a great deal of time and anxious energy!

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