We don’t talk enough about research questions. Well, that’s according to the authors of a book I’ve just read. They are Mats Alvesson and Jorgen Sandberg, and the book is Constructing research questions: Doing interesting research (Sage 2013).
Alvesson and Sandberg take issue with the dominant mode of generating research questions – they call this gap spotting. They argue that the usual process consists of reading literatures, finding what’s been said about a particular topic and locating something that isn’t done – the gap. This gap spotting leads to an incremental approach to research, they say. While gap spotting is perfectly defensible, and will certainly garner the do-ers of gap-spotting research PhDs and even research grants, it won’t, they suggest, produce game-changing research, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Instead, gap-spotting produces work which is predictable. Gap filling adds to what is known, but doesn’t change the field.
Gap-spotting, the most common approach to generating research questions, does not generally produce interesting questions, or questions that are of interest to large numbers or people. It does not, these authors write, “deliberately try to challenge the assumptions that underlie the existing literature, it is less likely to raise the proportion of high impact theories”. It thus continues, rather than shifts, pre-existing ways of thinking and doing research. Gap-spotting, incremental research focuses on identified confusions, neglected areas or applications. Alvesson and Sandberg include in their notion of applications theoretical work which applies a game-changing theorist ( Bourdieu, Foucault and so on) to a new context, text or phenomena. This doesn’t meet their test of innovation and ambition. It’s too predictable, safe.
Gap-spotting research they say is different from:
1. critical confrontation – in which a researcher systematically identifies the shortcomings in a field, and
2. offering a new idea – where the researcher does not rely on the existing literature as the basis for original thinking,
Both of these, Alvesson and Sandberg suggest, are relatively uncommon. The reliable way to strengthen traditions of paradigm shifting, they propose, is to find research questions through problematisation.
Problematisation is a systematic process used to challenge assumptions made within a field. The problematising typology developed by the authors suggest that it might take the form of questioning – a particular school of thought; assumptions based on a common metapho; shared ontological/epistemological/methodological assumptions within the field; or ideological assumptions or beliefs which underpin several schools of thought. The problematising process is thus not undertaken without recourse to literature.
Alvesson and Sandberg offer a staged strategy for problematisaton – six methodological principles. These begin with identifying a domain of literature for assumption challenging, identifying and articulating the assumptions, and then evaluating them. The researcher must then develop an alternative, consider how to present that to other researchers in the field, and also carefully evaluate it. The authors present two worked examples of what this looks like in practice. They also address the question of researcher identity – what it means to becomes a reflexive and inventive researcher as opposed to a gap spotter – and canvass the opportunities for publication and influencing the field.
One of the things I most liked about the book was that the authors do not offer their approach as a replacement for gap spotting. They do not suggest that problematisation becomes the new one-best, correct way to generate research questions. They do not argue for abandoning gap-spotting research. Rather, they propose that the wider use of a problematisation approach is a way to strengthen fields of inquiry and generate more interesting ideas. This is as beneficial to a field as incremental research.
It seems to me that Alvesson and Sandberg’s is a text which has something to say to established and new researchers. It would be a helpful addition to course readings in those mandatory doctoral ‘training courses’ but also a useful way to consider an ongoing research agenda, or kick off a bid to a funder.