Research Questions

Who cares?

You’ve been reading Chapters 1-6 of The Craft of Research, have worked up a research question, and now your teacher says you’ve gotta work on the third, conceptual level question: “why you want your reader to know and care about it …”

  1. “I am working on the topic …” was easy, everybody has a topic, except it is all over the place …
  2. “Because I want to find out …” is basically easy, it helps you narrow your problem down to something practical, which might well be what you started out with …
  3. “In order to help my reader to understand better …” is the hard part, because the answer has got to be one that interest other people … otherwise: who cares?

Finding People Who Care

  • Your Friends If we are speaking with our friends, we can already answer the question of “who cares”, because we know them and their interests, and when we talk to them we talk to their interests and expectations: our problem is expanding our audience to relevant professionals — the people who will hire us and put us to work
  • Street Level Let’s say you are interested in the coffee shop business. Pick a quiet hour, walk right in, order a coffee, and ask: “how is it going?” If you are are lucky and do this right, one thing will lead to another and the next thing you know your future boss will think: “this is the person for us — someone who knows our business, will work hard, and will fit in.” Arrive at 10 am, when they are opening their shop, unlocking the front door, setting out the tables, and greeting passersby: you want engage people who want to be engaged: those who don’t, won’t.
  • In a business meeting If you’ve got something to say, your fellow workers will certainly want to hear it, and to know that you’ve got to talk to them, and others like them, to figure out what they are interested in — what the pressing questions of the daymight be. Look for more of that: go on the web and into the library and find out what others, like them, have discovered, so that you can add to the ongoing conversation
  • Current Trends Say your boss is interested in that new coffee shop on the other side of town is charging higher prices and has a long line of customers, but when you visit the place nobody will talk to you. Search the web for “current trends coffee industry” and discover that there is something called “third wave of coffee”. Survey the articles.
  • Conferences Say you want to meet some of the shakers and movers, but you are not finding them in Berlin. Try this: go on the web and look up “third wave of coffee,” but to make that work you’ll need to find the relevent field, such as the hotel industry, and soon you’ll learn that you’ll need to look for “hospitality industry”, and if you want to meet the hot shots you’ll need to find a conference, where they make it their business to meet people like you — those “innovators” and “early adopters” willing to experiment with new business models. Look for “hospitality industry conference topics coffee” Basta!

So, how do you find them on the web?

That third, conceptual level

You are not looking for “background,” but “foreground”: the new trends that the leaders in a field are getting excited about. If you look for “background” you’ll end up on Wikipedia and lots of interesting description, but if you are seeking competitive advantage you need to look forward, to what is emerging from this background: “current trends YourTopic 2016 RelevantSources”. That is you may be interested in your particular coffee shop, but nobody cares about your particular coffee shop: professionals are certainly concerned with their particular shops, but when they meet they talk at a higher, conceptual level: they talk about trends, new business models, new technologies or resources or methods: stuff that transcends any particular instance

To find that you’ll need Google, and learning how to use Google effectively is not trivial

  • Keywords Since Google is organized by keywords (learn about Google Search), you need to translate your interest and question into such keywords — the names, topics, and special terms they use so — so that Google Search might use these terms to sort through its huge database and deliver what you want
  • The key to understanding Google Search is to understand that you use search terms not only to find your topic, but to limit it — to select only the handful of articles that best suit your needs
  • Thus, you do well to start off using the general terms you know and then, as you evaluate the results, determining which topics and terms are more relevant to your task, more precise, and will lead you to your goal: people who might advise you on how better to proceed
  • This is detective work, you are looking for clues, thinking about them, making educated guesses, until you eventually stumble upon the conversations you are looking for
  • Since I know little about this business and here learned much, I’ll walk through my steps as I can imagine others doing so

So, for example

  1. I am helping a student find sources dealing with his topic of selling good quality wines online, which he started off thinking would be a viable, innovative business strategy, and was determined to find support for, so I searched for something like “current trends 2016 digital marketing wine” and ended up with some very general discussion of trends as you see in my list of bookmarks, pictured here, and beginning with the article at the bottom: 9 Trends Driving Wine Sales in 2016
  2. Evaluating the results, the only topic I found relevant to the topic of digital wine marketing was at the very bottom of these trends, “9) Direct-to-Consumer Sales Rose 8.1% in 2015”, and where I observed what was for me an unusual, specialized term for this business: “direct-to-consumer sale” — a term which would narrow my search, if I was lucky, to experts who use such terms
  3. I then included this term in my second, revised search, evaluated a bunch of articles where this term was used, found I was heading in a good direction, such as Consumer Demand Shapes DTC Wine Industry in 2016, and where I learned much, but quickly realized that this discussion was not scholarly enough: that I needed a more scholarly term to narrow my search in the direction of research
  4. So I reformulated my search using the term “factor”, searched for “factors governing direct to consumer wine business”, because when one uses this word, one is using a specialized scientific term common to many fields — as you will find discussed by the Oxford dictionary — and so Google narrows its search results to articles using this term in the specialized scientific/professional way the dictionary describes
  5. Well, you might ask: what if you are just starting off and don’t happen to know such terms? I would answer you’ve got one now — “factors” — and that as you read textbooks and professional and scientific articles you will learn more as I learned about “DTC”: keep track of the special terms used in your field, and use them
  6. Among the results, I found “Technological change in the wine market? The role of QR codes and wine apps in consumer wine purchases“ and was attracted to it because it appears in a high quality professional journal, the abstract describes survey data based on a respectable sample of 631 people, and it includes as most important findings something compelling which the authors clearly want us to consider:

While disruption appears to have occurred on the supply side (number of wine applications available and the number of wine labels with a QR code), this research suggests that relatively little change is occurring on the demand side (a relatively small segment of the population—those already interested in wine—are employing the technology to aid in their purchase decision).

What might be the lessons learned from this example?

  • That we are likely looking for people who have already addressed our research question and at conceptual levels that might apply to our particular question
  • That formulating a research question’s conceptual component helps us learn about larger business and professional issues, methods, and studies that may well apply to our particular case
  • That when researching we do well NOT to go about proving our point, but to use our first ideas as hypotheses, be open to surprise, and treat the enterprise as a process of discovery

What did this student likely learn from this demonstration?

  • That he was on the right track, the article confirms his assumption that older wine consumers would make use of digital technologies for wine purchases
  • That this data suggests this avenue might not be a game changer and he might do well to try a different angle
  • He now has a scientific article that he is well-prepared to examine for its content, form, and scientific standards: he knows now better what to look for.
  • That there is much to be learned, that he now has a better way of finding good advice, and so there is hope!