Constructing Research Questions

Academic Research Questions

How academics come up with research questions is an interesting and important topic (at least to academics). Sandberg and Alvesson study the question by looking at how academics in organizational studies describe the way they came up with research questions . The journals reviewed were major journals: Administrative Science Quarterly, Journal of Management Studies, Organizational Studies and Organization from 2003-2005. They selected random issues (which seemed a bit lazy — they probably could have read all issues) but when you see what they found you probably realize why reading all the articles wasn’t that appealing.

A Caveat

As academics they have to list the caveats we all expect. It may have been a reviewer insisting but there is a lot of discussion on the fact that what is said in academic papers about how the ideas arose isn’t necessarily how the ideas arose. Academics often come up with impressive sounding justifications for their research that aren’t necessarily how it came about. This is a true, and important, caveat but I take the author’s point that how academics choose to present the genesis of their ideas is interesting in itself even if it isn’t “100% true”.

How do Academics Develop Research Questions?

How then do academics say they develop research questions? To be honest it is all pretty depressing.  Sandberg and Alvesson note that gap-spotting is the main way. “The most dominant way of constructing research questions in our empirical material was gap-spotting. Researchers reviewed existing literature with the aim of spotting gaps in the literature.” (Sandberg and Alvesson, 2011, page 27). They identify gap-spotting variants, e.g., neglect spotting and confusion spotting.

Is Gap-Spotting Good?

It is not that gap-spotting couldn’t be useful; you might find a genuinely interesting gap. I would however suggest that often gaps are left for a reason, the gap wasn’t worth filling. Furthermore, as the authors note if you only look at gaps you implicitly buy into the assumptions of past research. You don’t really challenge past thinking. You certainly don’t think what might be useful research for non academics to learn about. Gap-spotting is really academic navel gazing. You know you can interest other academics, who will value the citations you give them, but gap-spotting papers are, at the risk of over-generalizing, a bit boring and useless. The authors suggest and alternative problematization — thinking differently about a problem.

A key point the authors make is that academic incentives often make gap-spotting a “rational” response. It is easier than addressing a real problem. As such if we want to have more problematization, and less gap-spotting, we need to work on academic incentives. We won’t solve that today but at least we have more detailed evidence that gap-spotting happens (too much to my mind) after this paper.

Read: Jorgen Sandberg and Mats Alvesson, 2011, Ways of constructing research questions: gap-spotting or problematization? Organization, 18,1 pages  23-44