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A REALISTIC APPROACH

There are five questions to ask yourself about every research question you are thinking about pursuing. Most of these can also be asked about potential research sites and research methods. If you answer these questions honestly (at least to yourself), chances are you’ll do good research every time. If you cheat on this test, even a teeny bit, chances are you’ll regret it. Here are the five questions:

  • 1. Does this topic (or research site, or data collection method) really interest me?
  • 2. Is this a problem that is amenable to scientific inquiry?
  • 3. Are adequate resources available to investigate this topic? To study this population at this particular research site? To use this particular data collection method?
  • 4. Will my research question, or the methods I want to use, lead to unresolvable ethical problems?
  • 5. Is the topic of theoretical and/or practical interest?

Personal Interest

The first thing to ask about any research question is: Am I really excited about this? Researchers do their best work when they are genuinely having fun, so don’t do boring research when you can choose any topic you like.

Of course, you can’t always choose any topic you like. In contract research, you sometimes have to take on a research question that a client finds interesting but that you find deadly dull. The most boring research I’ve ever done was on a contract where my coworkers and I combined ethnographic and survey research of rural homeowners’ knowledge of fire prevention and their attitudes toward volunteer fire departments. This was in 1973. I had young children at home and the research contract paid me a summer salary. It was honest work and I delivered a solid product to the agency that supported the project. But I never wrote up the results for publication.

By comparison, that same year I did some contract research on the effects of co-ed prisons on homosexuality among male and female inmates. I was very interested in that study and it was much easier to spend the extra time and effort polishing the contract reports for publication (Killworth and Bernard 1974).

I’ve seen many students doing research for term projects, M.A. theses, and even doctoral dissertations simply out of convenience and with no enthusiasm for the topic. If you are not interested in a research question, then no matter how important other people tell you it is, don’t bother with it. If others are so sure that it’s a dynamite topic of great theoretical significance, let them study it.

The same goes for people and places. Agricultural credit unions and brokerage houses are both complex organizations. But they are very different kinds of places to spend time in, so if you are going to study a complex organization, check your gut first and make sure you’re excited about where you’re going. It’s really hard to conduct penetrating, indepth interviews over a period of a several weeks to a year if you aren’t interested in the lives of the people you’re studying.

You don’t need any justification for your interest in studying a particular group of people or a particular topic. Personal interest is . . . personal. So ask yourself: Will my interest be sustained there? If the answer is ‘‘no,’’ then reconsider. Accessibility of a research site or the availability of funds for the conduct of a survey are pluses, but by themselves they’re not enough to make good research happen.

 
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