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Formulating the Question

One aspect of studying sociology is particularly demanding. Instructors generally expect that students who wish to write a seminar or term paper propose a question of their own which they will address independently. “Set the hook!” is what the editors of the Academy of Management Journal call this challenge, which arises over and again in academic work (Grant und Pollock 2011). “The heart of every good paper is a puzzle and a good idea of how to solve it”, as Andrew Abbott (2004) opens his textbook _Methods of Discovery_. He presents an impressive explanation of how to actually ‘do’ social sciences.

 

The Difference between Topic, Scientific Question and Research Questions

In order to arrive at a sociological question that orients and motivates your research, we recommend first thinking consciously about the difference between topic, scientific question and research questions (Ebster & Stalzer 2008: 40).

  • The topic is a relatively general description of your object of investigation. It is generally included on the cover or in the title of your text.
  • The scientific question is – in the words of Abbott – the puzzle that characterizes your object of investigation. In short: What would you like to find out? You generally explain this puzzle in the introduction of your text. It’s a good idea to use the formulation, “I would like to find out how/what/why/for what reason/how come …”.
  • Research questions are directed to those aspects of your object of investigation which you know and have to explain to your audience in order to solve the puzzle you have placed at the centre of the work and to present your conclusions in a comprehensible way. This knowledge is generally explained step by step in your text. Answering the research questions is thus essentially the way to solve your puzzle. It is a good idea to list these questions in the introduction, right after introducing your puzzle (“I would like to find out…”).

The famous ‘screw tap study’ by Joseph Bensman and Israel Gerver (1973; Kühl 2015) is a good example to illustrate the difference between topic, scientific question and research questions. The topic of the case study is informality in industrial plants and its function in fulfilling required tasks. The central puzzle is why assemblers at a large airplan factory continuously use a tool – the noted screw tap – although it is officially prohibited, they face penalties for violating this prohibition, and what is more, it endangers flight security. Various research questions suggest themselves in order to address the puzzle: How many assemblers use the screw tap? Who is present when they do so? Where is the tool kept? What penalties are there if an assembler is caught? And so on and so forth. The given set of research questions can thus also be called the operationalization of a study.

Especially students who are relatively early on in their studies tend to address just a topic, but no question. Such cases are often associated with two additional mistakes: On the one hand, they cover the topic with the first material they come across. They do not search enough for a specialized guideline as to which material could be relevant for their work (Abbott 2010: 28). On the other hand, they put pressure on themselves to cover the selected topic as comprehensively as possible, but end up casting more substantial threads than can be linked meaningfully in their conclusions. Our recommendation is thus: Limit yourself! This will prevent frustration while writing as well as writer’s block.

 

Discover a Puzzle

One thing’s for sure: Studying and research require a good dose of inspiration. But there is no need to be a genius. There are a variety of pragmatic ways to find the requisite inspiration for sociological puzzles and for suitable points of departure to address them. Three suggestions:

  1. Use your own observations “on the street” – which, of course, includes the tram, your university seminar, bars, your workplace, etc. (Hoebel 2012). Take a look around! This is essentially the best strategy to cultivate your sociological imagination (Sztompka 2008: 24).
  2. Focus on issues when reading the specialized literature discussed in seminars, the daily newspaper, weekly magazines, or the investigative blog of your choice. Focusing on issues means scrutinizing an argument, the data presented by the authors, and the theoretical concept used. What do you find surprising, astonishing, contradictory, unjustified, or incomprehensible? Make your own ‘resistance’ to what you read into a potential point of departure for a work of your own on the given topic.
  3. Also focus on problems when following what are hopefully lively discussions in the seminars you attend. Pay close attention to what questions arise in discussion, what problems the instructors raise, and what suggestions are proposed in the room in order to treat a discussed aspect in greater depth, to understand it better, or to explain it coherently. If one of these suggestions interests you, just pursue that interest!

All three suggestions are based on the basic idea of shifting into ‘astonishment mode’ whenever anything happens to you, or whenever you read or hear about something. “The capacity for astonishment about the march of the world”, as Max Weber long ago emphasized (1998: 221), “is the prerequisite for the possibility of asking about its meaning”. Often an event, a process or a situation is presented as self-evident, or something that happened appears quite ordinary to you. In ‘astonishment mode’ you approach the matter differently, namely by questioning it. Then you might critically examine, for instance, (a) how and why something happened, (b) why it is (apparently) self-evident that something happens, or (c) what the conseqeunces are that something always happens in a similar way. By posing these questions you are already well on your way to reflect sociologically on the given events, processes and situations, and to develop sociological questions.

 

The Six Ws and One H

Beware! Your own observations, reading and seminar discussions initially present ‘merely’ good points of departure for an academic work of your own. You alone are not the hook. Generally you have to bring the suggestions into the form of a question or a thesis first before you can apply them to an area of investigation you would like to address or substantiate. Six ‘W’ questions and one ‘H’ can help you set the hook (Esselborn-Krumbiegel 2008: 64-66; slightly modified):

  1. What do I want to find out?
  2. What sub-questions could I ask?
  3. How similar is my question to other questions asked in my area of investigation, to what extent is my thesis similar to other theses?
  4. What differentiates my questions from similar approaches to my area of investigation, where are the differences between my thesis and other theses?
  5. What about my question or thesis could change once I start working to address or substantiate it?
  6. What about my question or thesis cannot change?
  7. What approximate position does my question or thesis occupy in the research landscape? (Are you in a bachelor’s programme? Then don’t worry too much about the seventh question. It does not start becoming important until the Master’s degree.)

Always take the liberty of working on only one detail of the proposed topic, as Judith Wolfsberger expresses in her guidebook _Frei geschrieben_. She recommends Peter Elbow’s ‘freewriting’ method (1989, 1998) to get a grip on this detail and focus all of your energy on one question. With this method, simply start writing and allow yourself to produce ‘dirty’ text versions first.

 

Quality Criteria of a Workable Question

What ultimately makes it possible to recognize that you have a question that can be addressed scientifically? Ideally, you believe that your question contradicts none or only a few of these ten points (Wolfsberger 2009: 83-84; slightly modified): Your question

  • is interesting for you as the writer.
  • is relevant in the specialized context in which the work is to be located.
  • emerged from your own observations about a striking situtaion, about a topical probem, a contradiction or a gap in the research.
  • allows you to develop an argument.
  • allows you to contrive final conclusions.
  • takes the form of a direct question or a statement you can substantiate.
  • contains a clear main question, and side issues only if absolutely unavoidable.
  • is formulated precisely.
  • is short (rule of thumb: five lines maximum).
  • is introduced in the introduction and constitutes the basis for how to structure your text.

 

Quick links to more

Freewriting? Good idea! External link

 

Literature Used

Abbott, A., 2004: "Methods of Discovery. Heuristics for the Social Sciences". New York: W.W. Norton.

Abbott, A., 2010: Varianten der Unwissenheit. pp. 15–33 in: D. Gugerli, M. Hagner, P. Sarasin & J. Tanner (eds.), “Nach Feierabend: Universität”. Zürcher Jahrbuch für Wissensgeschichte, vol. 6. Zurich: diaphanes.

Bensman, J. & I. Gerver, 1973: “Vergehen und Bestrafung in der Fabrik: Die Funktion abweichenden Verhaltens für die Aufrechterhaltung des Sozialsystems”. pp. 126–138 in: H. Steinert (ed.), "Symbolische Interaktion. Arbeiten zu einer reflexiven Soziologie". Stuttgart: Klett.

Ebster, C. & L. Stalzer, 2008: "Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten für Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftler". Vienna: Facultas-WUV.

Elbow, P., 1989: “Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting”. Journal of Basic Writing 8: 42–71.

Elbow, P., 1998: "Writing without Teachers". New York: Oxford University Press.

Esselborn-Krumbiegel, H., 2008: "Von der Idee zum Text". Paderborn; Munich; Vienna; Zurich: Schöningh.

Grant, A.M. & T.G. Pollock, 2011: “Setting the Hook. Publishing in AMJ--Part 3”. _Academy of Management Journal_ 54: 873–879.

Hoebel, T., 2012: “Die Themen liegen auf der Straße. Doch wie sammelt man sie ein?” SOZusagen (Sommersemester 2012): 38-39. PDF

Kühl, S., 2015: “Rezension: Bensman, Joseph/Gerver, Israel (1963): ‘Crime and Punishment in the Factory’”. pp. 85–88 in: S. Kühl (ed.), Schlüsselwerke der Organisationsforschung. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Sztompka, P., 2008: “The Focus on Everyday Life. A New Turn in Sociology”. European Review 16: 23–37.

Weber, M., 1998: "Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie". Vol. 3. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Wolfsberger, J., 2009: "Frei geschrieben: Mut, Freiheit und Strategie für wissenschaftliche Abschlussarbeiten". Vienna; Cologne; Weimar: Böhlau.