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LIBS 302 Intro to Liberal Studies

This guide will help you define your research topic and identify resources

Research is a Conversation

"...research is not just finding something that already exists, but an endless...process of discovery that creates knowledge...To 'research' is to encircle, and the object of that encircling is not to find but to define." - Reed Wilson

When you start a research project, you're entering into a conversation that, in many cases, has been going on for a long time. Other people have been thinking and writing about your topic, and your job is to listen to what they've said, and then to contribute something interesting back to the conversation. 

This video might help you understand how this conversation works. 

Defining your research question

A research question is different from a topic. A topic is a broad area of investigation, like climate change or gentrification. A research question is more specific, and addresses one aspect of the topic. In order to identify your research question, you need to think about your own curiosity, and to uncover all the things you know about the topic and the gaps in your knowledge. 

A research question also needs to be something that you can investigate. Some questions are just as broad as the topic. For example, if your topic is climate change, and you want to know why people deny the existence of climate change, you still have some work to do to get to a good research question. "Why do people deny climate change" is a big question, with a complex and multi-faceted answer. You need to spend some time thinking about the big questions in order to break them down and identify what you know and don't know. Let's walk through this process a little bit. 

Topic: Climate change

If I've identified climate change as my topic, I need to spend some time thinking about why I chose climate change. Why am I interested in climate change? As I think about this, I realize that I'm particularly interested in climate change deny-ers. It seems so strange to me that there's so much evidence for climate change and yet so many people who refuse to believe in it. Why don't people believe the evidence? At first I think this could be my research question. This is what I want to know: Why don't people believe in climate change? 

As I mentioned above, this isn't a great research question because it's big and complicated. So I need to go about breaking down this question. Here are some questions I might ask myself to get at my research question. 

  • What do I know about climate change denial, and how do I know it? What do I know about climate change and how do I know? 
  • Which political figures are climate change deny-ers? How do they talk about climate change in public venues? What language and rhetoric do they use? 
  • In what publications do articles denying climate change get published? Who writes them? Who reads them? What kind of language and rhetoric is used in these articles? 
  • How do people address the evidence when they are denying climate change? What claims do they make about the evidence? Are those claims reasonable? 
  • How do people understand scientific evidence about climate change? Do people understand the evidence? 
  • What is the science on climate change? Who is conducting this science and where is the research being published? 
  • How do people think about scientific research in general? 
  • How is scientific research shared with non-scientific audiences? 
  • Are there other scientific theories and facts that people deny, like evolution? Is the rhetoric around denial of evolution similar to the rhetoric around denial of climate change? 

As you can see, there are many ways to approach the general question of why people deny climate change. Any of these questions provide a good way into your topic.

The following construction can help you identify your research question: 

A) I am studying...

B) In order to find out...

C) In order to help my reader understand...

Using the climate change denial example, here is how I might fill out this sentence: 

I am studying climate change denial in order to find out whether the rhetoric of climate change denial is similar to the rhetoric of evolution denial in order to help my reader understand why people deny the existence of cilmate change.

Now I have my research question: Is the rhetoric of climate change denial similar to the rhetoric of evolution denial?