Once you have a topic, you should start asking questions that can drive your research. I call them research questions, but that can be a little confusing. These are not just questions which researchers answer with research. These are questions which motivate research. They are questions which actually have many possible answers, and really no one can say they know which is right. Research contributes to a debate. Hence a research question is a debatable, open-ended question.
Aristotle once said:
Not every problem, nor every thesis, should be examined, but only one which might puzzle one of those who need argument, not punishment or perception. For people who are puzzled to know whether one ought to honour the gods and love one’s parents or not need punishment, while those who are puzzled to know whether snow is white or not need perception. The subjects should not border too closely upon the sphere of demonstration, nor yet be too far removed from it; for the former cases admit of no doubt, while the latter involve difficulties too great for the art of the trainer. (Aristotle, Topics, Book I, Part 11)
In other words, if you’re wondering why the snow is white, then just Google it. If you are wondering whether Piss Christ (Serrano 1987) or The Holy Virgin Mary (Ofili 1996) is art, or if there is a meaning to life, then you will be talking forever because everyone has their own answer. What Aristotle meant was only some questions are really worth asking. Different kinds of questions lead to different kinds of knowledge. There are, if you read his statement closely, three distinct types of questions:
Type I. Questions of fact. These are questions for which there is only one possible answer. Asking “What is the capital of Australia?” is not debated by anyone because there is simply a factual answer which is either right or wrong. It is not simply to say that these questions are easy. One might need to research obscure facts, but ultimately there is no deeper understanding of the facts gained by acquiring them.
Type II. Questions of belief. These are questions which people may disagree on, but for which there is no definitive answer because the answer turns on values or opinions. Questions such as Is Canberra a good site for the federal capital? or What makes good art? or Why does God permit evil? depend on people's beliefs. They may have reason for their beliefs, but ultimately no amount of research will prove one answer right or wrong.
It’s the sweet spot of the unknown that we want to aim for (this is Aristotle, after all). Are there questions for which we don’t know the answer, but could know, if only we thought more deeply? Yes, and they are…:
Type III: Research questions. These are questions which motivate research, not simply to find a factual answer, but to complicate our understanding of the topic (see Choosing a topic). Research questions force us to think about things in a new way. The answer to a research question is not a fact, nor is it an opinion, it is an explanation of the deeper reasons for why things are.
That word - why - is, I believe, key to Type III questions. The best questions are the child’s questions: why questions. Why does the dog chase the cat? Why do we dream? Why is this sign post wearing a sweater? Why do people fight? Why are there people? Why is there something, rather than nothing? Why questions are, in other words, questions whose answers develop our knowledge, thinking, perspective, and indeed, our wisdom. A child asks in order to grow.
Incidentally, these are not the ‘levels of questions’ taught in many high schools (Bloom et al. 1956). Also, as one can see, Type I questions blur into Type III questions, so this schema is not absolute either. Think of this way: Type I questions lead to information on which we base our understanding of a topic, and that leads to problems. We solve these by asking Type III questions.
Many Type I questions are very hard to answer. What is the weight of Saturn? How many exoplanets are there? Yet just because people search for the answer does not mean that the answer is the goal. The answer changes the way we see things, and then we get into the real questions. Why are there so few Earth-like exoplanets? Why do Earth-like exoplanets, like Earth, have life?
In a research paper, you always want to ask a question of Type III. How can you tell? A Type III question has more than one possible answer, but some answers are better than others. The answer to a Type III research question is a thesis statement, or a claim. More on that later… But as you probably know, you have to argue for a thesis statement. You support a thesis statement with reasoning and evidence because there is more than one possible answer, but you want to show that some answers are better than others. Develop a research question on your topic, and then try to think of all the possible thesis statements one could put forward as answers.
Aristotle. 350 BCE. Topics, Book I. Translated by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/topics.1.i.html. Accessed January 24, 2015.
Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., Krathwohl, D. R. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Company.
Ofili, Chris. 1996. The Holy Virgin Mary. Oil and mixed media on canvas.
Serrano, Andres. 1987. Piss Christ. Photograph.