Research process and topic

When starting a new research project, you need to do a little “research” in finding a suitable topic. Watch the video Picking your topic is research

When learning online from video lessons, it’s good to take notes as you go, just as you would in a regular lecture.
Lastly, summarise what you got out of this resource by completing these statements:

  • I didn’t realise that ….
  • The most important message is …


Choosing a research topic

Now that you understand the research process, you can go ahead to define your topic, and your research questions.
Have a look at the next video to learn how.

It is time to write down your preliminary research topic and research questions.

  • I am interested in ….
  • My Research Question is…

Refine your research questions to ensure they pass the interest and feasibility tests

Learning objectives:

  1. Describe common sources of research ideas, and generate research ideas using those sources.
  2. Describe techniques for turning research ideas into empirical research questions, and use those techniques to generate questions.
  3. Explain what makes a research question interesting, and evaluate research questions in terms of interest.
  4. Explain what makes research questions feasible, and evaluate research questions in terms of feasility.

Good research must begin with a good research question. Yet coming up with good research questions is not simple for novice researchers: they often find it difficult and stressful. One reason is that this is a creative process, with no clear steps, and experienced researchers may seem to easily come up with interesting research questions. However, psychological research on creativity has shown that creativity is neither mysterious nor magical. It is largely the product of ordinary thinking strategies and persistence (Weisberg, 1993). [1] This section covers some fairly simple strategies for finding general research ideas, turning those ideas into empirically testable research questions, and finally, evaluating those questions in terms of how interesting they are, and how feasible they would be to answer.

Finding Inspiration

Research questions often begin as more general research ideas—usually focusing on some phenomenon or behaviour. In international studies, this could include poverty, gender differences, distribution of power, conflict resolution, and so on. Before looking at how to turn such ideas into empirically testable research questions, it is worth looking at where such ideas come from in the first place. Three of the most common sources of inspiration are informal observations, practical problems, and previous research.

  • Informal observations include direct observations of our own and others’ behaviour as well as secondhand observations from nonscientific sources such as newspapers, books, and so on. For example, you might notice that you always skip articles about boats of asylum seeks. Could it be that most people do the same thing? Or you might read in the local newspaper about people objecting to the settlement of refugees in their suburb.
  • Practical problems can also inspire research ideas, leading directly to applied research in such domains as law, health, education, and sports. What form of government intervention is most effective at reducing poverty? How does the effectiveness of grass-roots peace initiatives compare with curriculum-embedded peace content? How do donations and charity actions affect developing and rural communities? Research examining the answers to these questions aims to solve a practical problem, and the research is designed to help with this.
  • Previous research is probably the most common inspiration for new research ideas. Think of science as a crowd-sourced work, or a large-scale collaboration in which many different researchers read and evaluate each others’ work, and conduct new studies to build on it. Usually, experienced researchers, who are familiar with previous research in their area of expertise, probably have a long list of ideas. Therefore, novice researchers can find inspiration by consulting with a more experienced researcher (e.g., students can consult a faculty member). Novice researchers can also find inspiration by reading through the titles and abstracts in any professional journal. In one typical issue of Political Research Quarterly, for example, you can find articles on the perception of poverty, anti-Semitism, political financing, and many other topics. If you can narrow your interests down to a particular topic (e.g., poverty) or domain (e.g., Latin America), you can also look through more specific journals, such as Economic & Political Weekly, or Latin American Politics & Society.

Research Questions: how to get good ones

A research idea is a great start. The next step is to generate one or more research questions which can be empirically tested. In quantitative research designs, the questions will need to be expressed in terms of a single variable or relationship between variables. Qualitative and mixed research designs are a bit more flexible, and investigate specific phenomena in depth.

Finding a research question out of an existing journal paper

Another way to get research questions is to use questions others have asked (but not answered). If you look closely at the discussion section in a recent research article on the topic, you may find some. In the last major section of the article the researchers summarize their results, interpret them in the context of past research, and suggest directions for future research. These suggestions are often in the form of specific research questions, which you can then try to answer with additional research. This can be a good strategy because it is likely that the suggested questions have already been identified as interesting and important by experienced researchers.

See an example from [Canadian Political Science Review]:

“There is vast room for future productive research on non-Indigenous political responses to Indigenous people, with several important questions for which there are yet no answers. For example, what motivates non-state settlers to mobilize in
opposition to Indigenous peoples, within or outside of institutions? “


Reflective Activity: Refining your research question

  • What is your revised research question? Explain how it passes the interest and feasibility tests. What method did you use to refine it?
  • Find a research question suggested in a paper in your field of interest? How might you re-write or refine it to suit your interests and, again make sure it is feasible to study?