Developing a research question - Methods

Discursive Psychology: Theory, Method and Applications - Sally Wiggins 2017

Developing a research question

The starting point of any research project or data analysis is with a question. Not all questions are relevant or appropriate for a DP approach, so you will need to ensure that your question fits with the epistemological, theoretical and analytical approach of DP, or else choose a different approach to fit your question. While you may be eager to start collecting your data and diving into the analysis, you first need to plan out your research project and define your research question. This is essentially the process of clarifying exactly what it is that you want to study. This chapter therefore presents a dilemma. Ideally, you should choose a research question and then an appropriate analytical approach that is compatible with this question. In this case, a chapter on developing a research question might not really be necessary in a book that focuses on a specific methodology, because it assumes that you have already gone through the process of refining your research question and have chosen DP as the appropriate approach. On the other hand, you may have decided before you designed your research question that you wanted to use DP for your research, in which case this chapter could help you to develop your research question and ensure that it is compatible with a DP perspective. There is a risk here, however, that this can lead to ’methodolatry’, where the methodology is given priority over other concerns, so we need to be careful here. Our research question should be driven by the issues that you want to address as much as by the approach.

The aim of this chapter, therefore, is to guide you through the process of developing your research question: that is, a specific type of question that can be answered with a DP approach. This is an important stage and can ensure the success (or failure) of your DP project; planning, therefore, is essential. When developing your research question, you will need to consider issues such as: What do I want to know? Why is this important? How am I going to do this? When will I tackle each stage? Where will the research take place? What, why, how, when and where questions. Developing your research question, therefore, is also the stage at which you’ll move from possibly idealistic, abstract questions (such as How do infants learn about tastes?) to focused, concrete questions (such as How do parents manage and orientate to their infant’s responses to ’first foods’ during the early weeks of weaning?). You might want to read this chapter in combination with Chapter 9, where you’ll find examples of DP research across different topic areas.

Getting started with a DP project

The first step in undertaking a DP project is in beginning to approach the world from a DP perspective; to use our DP ’camera lens’ (see Chapter 2) as a way of observing and examining social interaction. Developing your research question is the bridge between theory and practice, between the assumptions DP makes about the world and how these translate into research projects. For example, DP offers a radically different re-working of psychological concepts and topics, and as such requires us to take a different stance on how we approach empirical work. We cannot simply take an existing psychological theory or topic and ’apply discursive psychology’, because DP starts from a different place: it starts with people’s practices rather than theory. For instance, instead of examining ’how people’s attitudes might be changed by others in interaction’ or ’how people are persuaded to change their attitudes’, we would focus instead on how assessments are produced in interaction, and in different kinds of social situations. Table 3.1 provides a comparison between the kinds of questions that would, or would not, be appropriate for DP research.

Before we think about a topic area, then, we need to align our research gaze with DP and to begin to identify the kinds of questions that it can answer. DP research examines discursive practices and the psychological issues that are enacted within these practices. Our analytical gaze is on people and interaction, not individuals or their mental processes. If you are not already familiar with DP research, take some time now to read through Chapter 1 (for DP theory) or Chapter 9 (for DP research ideas), and then consider the activity in Box 3.1 to test out your understanding of how DP might approach different topics.


Box 3.1: Activity

Using your understanding of DP so far, consider how we might use the DP lens to examine the following issues:

· Military conflict and war

· Children’s emotional development

· Tackling climate change

What areas of focus might DP enable us to examine? What would it miss out? Each of these issues is deliberately very broad but it should encourage you to think about the possible relevance of DP for issues such as these and to consider how DP might be used. To get you started on the first issue, think about where conflict might be reported (e.g., news media, political speeches, government documents) or where we might see conflict in action (e.g., confrontation between political leaders or military personnel, interaction between military troops and civilians in war zones, soldiers’ messages and video footage from the front line). Focusing on psychology in interaction should help you to work through the kinds of issues that DP can examine.

Selecting a topic

The topic you select will be partly dependent on the purpose of your research project, whether this is for undergraduate coursework or a large research grant. Time and resources are important considerations, so you will need to be practically, as well as theoretically, grounded. Some topics may be of interest to you but would require access to the kind of interaction that you may not be able to gain easily. For example, the decisions made within advertising companies about tobacco marketing or the lunch-time conversations in a secure prison might be rather difficult to access, so some topics may require ingenuity in identifying alternative sources of data.

Ideas for DP research topics can come from many sources. For instance, you may have read research that you were particularly curious about, or which identified key areas of new research that might be developed further. Reading is also essential to the process of developing your own ideas for topics and research questions, as you will need to know — if not now, then when you are at the stage of writing up your research — how your work fits in with existing research developments. Better to find out early on if your amazing idea for a project has already been done, to save you the time and heartache of finding out once you have collected and analysed your data. Do not worry about coming up with a completely original idea either; sometimes all you need is to think of a slightly different angle for an existing study. For instance, you might use a different cultural context, participant sample or choose a different analytical focus for the same kind of data. This is true of most kinds of research — not just DP research — but the beauty of discursive research is that conversations and social interactions are unique and hard to replicate exactly. In that sense, there is always something new to analyse and a different interpretation to be made.

Since DP is focused on psychological business in social interaction, we can also get ideas for topics in the social world around us: with how people make accusations of blame, how our identities are often implied in particular settings, and with how some people appear to be more knowledgeable than others. Being engaged in the social world — listening and watching others around us, reading the news and social media — can thus often inspire great research projects. That is another benefit of discursive research: it studies people in real-time interactions, and so our research is already applied in the sense that it is based within an empirical context.

One of the most important things about choosing a topic for your study is that it should be something that motivates you, even if the reason for using DP is for a particular course requirement that has been assigned by a tutor. DP research takes time and effort, and cannot be accomplished by pressing buttons or ticking boxes. You need to work through it carefully and rigorously, and spend time thinking through and reflecting on the analysis. For this reason, you should ensure that you plan in as much time for the analysis stage as possible, as it can lead to unexpected interpretations and sometimes requires you to return to the transcription and coding stages to refine your analyses further. Choosing something that you are interested in will make it much easier to stay focused on your project at each stage.

Turning your topic into a research question

Once you have chosen a topic, you now need to refine this to develop a research question: a question that will drive the project in a particular direction. The research question needs to be specific enough so that it can be answered by DP, but not so specific that you constrain or limit the analytical work that can be done (i.e., it should not be a question that can be answered with ’yes’ or ’no’). Unlike a hypothesis, which is designed to make a very clear prediction about the effect of one variable on another variable, a research question is designed to guide both the design of the project and the analysis itself. It should state clearly what it is you want to know about a specific topic. The proof of the research question is whether or not you can answer it once you have conducted your analysis. This is vital: your research question should not be too ambitious or too unstructured. Keep it focused on a specific interactional context (e.g., a veganism online discussion forum rather than any online discussion forum) and don’t try to do everything. No matter how large your research project, you can’t answer everything. The best research projects are those that are clearly defined and carefully conducted. That is, do something simple and do it well.

What also distinguishes a research question from a hypothesis is that it is okay to refine and adapt your research question once you have begun your data collection and analysis (see Box 3.2). This is because our understanding of the research context and our data develops as our analysis develops and we may need to slightly shift our focus to better capture the phenomena we are examining. Before you get too excited (or worried) about how ’flexible’ a research question can be, bear in mind that you can only go so far. Any refinements to the research question will have to remain compatible with the type of data you have, and with the topic area within which you have based your study. For example, my own research on family mealtimes was initially interested in how people discussed weight issues while eating; when they made reference to their own body size or processes while making choices about how much or little to eat, for example. Once I had collected some data, I soon realised that these issues were very rarely discussed in my data corpus, so I shifted the focus onto what people actually talked about much more often: food assessments.

Box 3.2: A student’s perspective on changing research questions after data collection

’The research question in my proposal for my PhD funding was great. It was an important issue to investigate, and tied in with the ethos of my external funders, so I was excited to get started once I had collected my data. However, once I started viewing my recordings and typing up the transcripts I had a sinking feeling that my original question was simply far too broad and impossible to cover coherently in the three years of my PhD. Tentatively, I broached the subject with my supervisors, who almost laughed and told me this was totally normal, and ultimately my research focus went from being this massive topic to one tiny aspect of it which, even still, involves a huge amount of work. The advice I would give to a student undertaking a discursive PhD is be prepared for your research question to change. Yes, it’s important to have a focus, but be guided by the data and analyse what is there, not what you thought was going to be there.’

Gillian Hendry, PhD student (2012—2016), University of Strathclyde

Although there are variations in how a research question might appear, a rule-of-thumb for a suitable DP research question would:

· Be a single sentence if possible: this forces you to keep it simple and focused

· Use specific psychological concepts (e.g., accountability, blame, identities)

· Use terms that capture DP issues (e.g., manage, construct, negotiate)

· Specify the participants (e.g., older men) or discourse type (e.g., ice hockey matches)

· Specify the cultural context (e.g., urban areas in south-east Canada)

Given that the aims of DP are to examine the action orientations of talk and text, the management of psychological business in interaction, and the functions that these serve (i.e., the consequences that these have for theory and everyday practices), research questions tend to be focused on ’how’, ’what’ and ’when’ questions. For example, how is accountability managed in marriage counselling? What identities are produced in an online food blog? When are food assessments used in mealtimes and what functions do these serve? There is one kind of question that you will not see in DP research, and that is the ’why’ question: Why do people say that? Why does that occur then? This is because DP does not claim to identify or measure causality.

Box 3.3: Top tips for DP research questions

· Use open, not closed, questions (e.g., How does… not Does…).

· Focus on actions in discourse, not meaning (e.g., When are assessments used…? not Why do people use assessments?).

· Common terms used in DP research questions are: examine, explicate, identify, as these focus on the interactional context within which discourse features, rather than the people ’behind’ the discourse.

· Avoid terms such as: effect, impact, cause, relate, influence, as these suggest a causal relationship between different factors.

· Stay focused on a specific research context (e.g., gender identities in sports news reporting on television).

· Ensure that your research question matches the data format (i.e., online discussions, face-to-face interaction) as well as the epistemological stance.

With larger projects, or when you have a large data set, you might find that you need more than one research question or one main question and a series of sub-questions. This can help you to tackle a number of issues within the same project, though do be careful to keep these focused and limited. There is a risk, if you add more research questions, that your project will ’grow arms and legs’; it will try to do more than is feasible within the limited period you have for your research.

Finally, when developing your research question, you need to know when your question is good enough to get started; how do you know when you have a ’good’ research question? First, consider how you are going to collect and analyse your data. You may not have planned this yet, but if you cannot anticipate your data then it will be very difficult to proceed with your research question. In some ways, your question should specify the kind of data that you will be analysing either in terms of data collection method, participants or interactional context. If it does not do this, then consider how you might refine your question a little further or be more specific on these issues. Second, in most cases it is possible to refine your research question after data collection, coding or analysis. Your research question will become ’fixed’ during the writing up process (see Chapter 8), and up until that point it can be changed slightly to reflect a more specific, or slightly different focus on the context that you are analysing. As long as you have planned out the practical and ethical aspects of your research, you can proceed with a research question that might not yet be perfect, but which is good enough to get you started and to focus your analysis. And so it is to the practical and ethical aspects of research questions that we turn next.

Ethical and practical considerations

All research involving people should engage with ethical considerations. With DP research, we are analysing the words and interactions of people in everyday or institutional settings, and so it is important that we are sensitive to the data as, first and foremost, people’s practices. While ethics are particularly important at the data collection stage, we also need to be aware of this during the design and planning of our project. Ethical considerations can also be considered from a social constructionist stance, in terms of how we produce knowledge through our own discursive practices. For example, our status as researcher brings with it rights to construct our own version of reality in research papers and textbooks (mitigated, of course, by reviewers and editors), as well as issues around privacy and anonymity of those whose discursive practices we are examining. These rights should not be treated lightly; we are in a position of power in being able to produce ’knowledge’ in published form, and as such ethical issues involve not only protecting our participants in terms of anonymity and respect, but also doing justice to the data we have and to ensuring that our research is rigorous and sensitive.

When considering your research question, then, you should also think through the implications of this question in terms of ethical considerations. Which participants are we hoping to collect data from and what format of data will we use (audio or video recordings? Written documents? Online discussions?). Will our research involve people who are more vulnerable, such as young children or those who have a limited ability to make decisions or understand the implications of our research aims? Are we considering doing research on sensitive issues?

The range of ethical issues to consider while developing your research question might therefore involve the following considerations:

· Participants: are they likely to be able to give informed consent? Are there alternative participants that you might be able to recruit to your research in the case that consent is not given by your preferred participants?

· Topic: is it a particularly personal or sensitive issue? How will you handle this? Does it require seeking audio or video data directly from participants? If it is online or textual data, will the participants be aware that you are using their words?

· Data collection method: are you using audio, video or collecting textual data? Will you need to acquire an extra layer of consent for this? Who will be operating the recording devices, and will consent be required for those people to access the research setting?

In addition to these considerations, you should also become familiar with the process of gaining ethical approval from your own institution. This is likely to differ depending not only on your departmental or institutional requirements, but also the discipline and the country you are based within. Becoming familiar with the procedures for gaining ethical approval will help to ease you through this process, and also to be aware of the limitations of the kinds of data you are likely to get. Doing this before you set your heart on a particular project would be wise; we can change our research ideas much easier than we 2can change the policies of a particular institution or discipline-governing organisation. Alongside ethical considerations there are also practical ones, and these can be no less complicated. We will deal with equipment and recruiting participants in Chapter 4, but for now it is worthwhile thinking through your research question in terms of the practical implications. You might find the checklist in Box 3.4 useful as a way of pre-empting any potential issues at this early stage.

Box 3.4: Checklist for practical considerations

· Project timetable

o How long will you have to conduct the research?

o What happens if there are delays at any stage?

o What other commitments will you have to maintain alongside the research?

· Resources

o Does the research need specific equipment or software?

o Can you make use of available equipment (e.g., your own, or your participants’ smartphone or tablet devices may have recording functions that are easy to use)

o Is anyone else going to help with the research?

· Participants

o Do you need specific access to a certain participant group, and can you gain this yourself, or will you need help with this?

o How many participants will you need? What happens if you have difficulties recruiting them? Do you have an alternative option for recruitment (i.e., other participants)?

o Will you need to reimburse the participants for their time or efforts, with money or vouchers, for example? Who will pay for this?

There may well be other practical and ethical concerns that are unique to your research project, and so it is important to talk through your ideas — while you are still at the ideas stage — with peers, tutors or colleagues for advice or to act as a sounding board. It can be very easy to become attached to an idea or research question that you think will be a fabulous research project and which you feel perfectly suited to, but which has serious flaws or unforeseen problems ahead. Seek feedback at an early stage in the development of your research, to save yourself time and effort in the long run.

Examples of research questions from student projects

The final section of this chapter provides examples of some of my own students’ projects that made use of different types of data, to illustrate the kinds of research question that can be produced with DP research. Even in the same interactional context — such as a family mealtime — many different research questions can be asked. In this way, multiple projects can develop from the same data source. This might be a way in which student projects could be combined, or build on an existing project and use the data for secondary analysis later on. The student examples shown here are drawn from undergraduate, Masters and PhD levels, so the research question can be adapted according to how much time is available and your research skills and knowledge.

Everyday family mealtime interaction

My own research interests focus around family mealtimes and so it is probably no surprise that some students of mine have conducted projects in this area, focusing on issues such as: parents weaning their infants onto solid foods, families with younger children negotiating food preferences, and adolescents with Type 1 diabetes dealing with carbohydrate counting around mealtimes. Research questions for everyday mealtimes might include:

· How and when are food preferences claimed by parents and/or children during family mealtimes? What kinds of activities are these involved in?

· What strategies are used by parents to negotiate children’s consumption of food at different ages? What strategies are used by children, and how do these relate to parental strategies?

· How are specific eating requirements (such as diabetes, food allergy, vegan or gluten-free diets) managed within a social eating context (e.g., family mealtime, dinner with friends, work canteen)?

Institutional interaction

Institutional interaction is not as formal or serious as you might expect; it is any interaction where there are constraints on what different participants can contribute, where there are specific goals for the interaction, and where the interaction is interpreted in terms of institution-specific frameworks (e.g., Drew & Heritage, 1992). This could include, for example, interaction between tutors and students, doctors and patients, in courtrooms and police stations, and in shops or cafés. The physical location is not important; what matters is that the participants orientate to the interaction as being institutional. Using data from such settings therefore provides another important way in which we can examine how people manage psychological business and the functions this serves. We can also consider interaction in an interview or focus group setting as being institutional, with a specific agenda and conversational structure. Examples of student work that I have supervised in institutional interaction include: examining identity management in weight loss support groups, dealing with accountability for children’s behaviour by parents in a parenting support group, examining student interaction in a problem-based learning tutorial. There are many examples of institutional interaction that do not require a lengthy process of gaining access and consent, and you might belong to an organisation or do voluntary work in a setting where institutional work might be examined. Examples of research questions for institutional settings might include:

· How do students make decisions in group tutorial settings? How are their identities or accountabilities for ’knowing things’ managed in such settings?

· How is ’good parenting’ defined in a parenting group? How are praise or rewards used to construct particular understandings of good practice?

· How do young men account for alcohol consumption in an interview setting? What strategies do they use to normalise or attribute responsibility for their drinking behaviour?

Online discussion forums

While everyday and institutional interaction provide examples of face-to-face interaction, the expansion of the internet and social media provide an alternative landscape where we can examine discursive practices and psychologies in interaction. The internet now provides multiple and various forms of potential data sources: YouTube videos (and comments), blogs and vlogs, access to radio and TV programmes, and online discussion forums. The data on the internet are interactive in ways that are not possible in face-to-face interaction; people can interact across time and space, and using multiple modalities (i.e., text, talk, images). As a starting point, online discussion forums can provide a large amount of data that can be collected fairly quickly and easily. My own students have examined online interaction, including forums for discussion about eating disorders and for discussions about suicide. The benefits of using online interaction are the ease and speed with which data can be collected, without needing to transcribe any audio or video footage. While it might not provide the variety of analyses that can be developed using face-to-face interaction, it does lend itself very well to student projects. Examples of research questions for online data could include:

· How do people manage their identities in online forums as new members, returning members or ’experts’ on particular issues? How are these orientated to by other forum members?

· What discursive strategies do people use to challenge other people in online forums or discussion boards? What psychological notions are used to support or refute their accounts?

· How do websites on mental health issues construct particular understandings of ’illness’ in relation to people’s accountabilities for ’being ill’ or seeking support?

Key points

· All research begins with a question, so find a question that you want to answer.

· Research questions can be refined as the research develops.

· DP research questions often begin with ’how’ or ’when’ rather than ’what’ or ’why’.

· Think practically: a research question won’t work if you can’t get the data or find the participants.

· Think creatively: DP works with most forms of talk or text, so consider approaching your research question or topic area from other angles.

· Ethical considerations need to be addressed throughout the research process and you need to be prepared to adapt your plans if concerns arise.

Recommended reading

Braun, V. & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. London: Sage. Particularly Chapter 3.

Read as many research articles as you can — in any field, using any approach — and use these to get ideas for your own research questions. See also Chapter 9 for past DP research in different topic areas.