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Introduction to library research in the arts: Developing a research question

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objectives

  • Transform your topic statement into a research question.
  • Identify what kind of sources you need to begin answering your research question.

How do you turn your topic into a research question?

in the last section, Booth, Coloumb and Williams explained how to state your research topic in terms of:

  1. the thing you're interested in (I am studying ____ )
  2. a question that is important to you (because I want to find out ____ )
  3. and a deeper problem that is significant to your readers (to help my readers understand _____ )

Stating your topic in this way helps you confirm that it is interesting and meaningful to you and your readers. You can focus your topic further by transforming it into a research question. Having a research question gives you a clear goal and saves your time and effort later in the research process, when you are trying to find relevant sources and organize your thoughts.

Effective research questions recognize that the world is full of relationships and interactions between people, ideas and institutions. They may seek to understand the nature of a relationship, or explain the various factors that cause something to be the way that it is.

As you develop your topic into a research question, you may need to gain more understanding by doing some background reading on your topic in a trusted source such as a book, encyclopedia article or blog post by an informed observer.

Another way to develop your topic is to answer the 5W and H questions (who, what, when, where, why, how) about your topic. Journalists rely on these questions to gain deeper understanding of an event they are covering.

Let's look at a case study (adapted from Karen Turcho's module for Los Rios Libraries) to see what developing a research question can look like.

What kind of sources do you need?

As you develop your research question, you will start to understand what kind of sources you need to continue learning about your topic.

Your background reading might suggest sources to consult. For example, the podcasts in our case study referenced other books, articles and researchers studying the school to prison pipeline and restorative justice.

You might have discovered your research topic by following social media or news articles on an issue or event. Books are often an excellent next step to deepen your understanding of your topic. Because they are written at some remove from initial events and they delve into topics in depth, they can provide rich analysis of your topic and explain how the different parts fit together.

Scholarly articles are usually written on very specific topics with an expert audience in mind, so you may want to consult them once you're more familiar with the topic.

Scholars produce even more specialized sources such as conference presentations and dissertations to share new knowledge they have created. If you are studying a new, emerging topic in a discipline, these types of sources might be useful.

Let your understanding of your topic guide your strategy about what kind of sources to find when. Take notes on your sources, following the strategies we discussed earlier, and consider how each source addresses your questions (or not) and where it fits alongside the other sources you have found.

I'll share strategies for finding all these sources (books, articles, and more) in later sections of this guide.

Key points

  • You can expect your research question to change a bit as you gain understanding of your topic.
  • Try doing background reading and asking the 5W and H questions to revise your topic into a focused research question.
  • You may need to find different types of sources at different times in your research process.