Identifying an International and Area Studies (IAS) research problem (G. Ruffer 2009)

Advice from The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb and Williams)m 3rd edition.  Chapter 4. University of Chicago Press, 2008: "From Topics to Questions: Finding your Literature"

Contributed by G. Ruffer, International and Area Studies,
Posted: 2009

Are you trying to answer a question or solve a problem?

  • Think about the way in which the question you want to pose raises a problem that needs to be solved.
  • Does your question raise a problem that, if left unanswered, has consequences?

Example: Free Will in Tolstoy becomes “The conflict of free will and inevitability in Tolstoy’s description of three battles in War and Peace.”

  • Narrow your topic by using “relationship” words such as conflict, contribution, developing.
  • Distinguishing practical from research problems.

            Practical problems ask “what should we do” – these are more typically policy    concerns.  A practical problem is caused by a set of conditions in the world that   cause unhappiness, poverty, sickness or other problems.

            Research questions improve our understanding of the context within which the    practical problem is situated. An academic question looks at a conceptual problem that arises when we simply do not understand something about the world as well as we would like. We solve a conceptual problem by answering a question that helps us understand the world better. Focus on what is not known or not understood. Your job will be to provide a new, different or better understanding.

Complete this exercise:

I am studying ______________ because I want to find out what/why/how____________ in order to help my reader understand_________________.

This last point, what people will understand, should explain the significance of your research project.