A brief comment on research questions

research questions

Jan Vanhove


June 27, 2018

All too often, empirical studies in applied linguistics are run in order to garner evidence for a preordained conclusion. In such studies, the true, perhaps unstated, research question is more of a stated aim than a question: “With this study, we want to show that [our theoretical point of view is valuable; this teaching method of ours works pretty well; multilingual kids are incredibly creative; etc.].” The problem with aims such as these is that they take the bit between square brackets for granted, i.e., that the theoretical point of view is indeed valuable; that our teaching method really does work pretty well; or that multilingual kids indeed are incredibly creative – the challenge is merely to convince readers of these assumed facts by demonstrating them empirically. I think that such a mentality leads researchers to disregard evidence contradicting their assumption or explain it away as an artifact of a method that, in hindsight, wasn’t optimal.

A healthier attitude is to formulate research questions as, well, questions: “We carried out this study since we wondered whether [our theory explains the data better than extant theories; our teaching method yields better results that the current one; multilingual kids are more creative than their peers; etc.].” Genuine research questions at least leave open the possibility that the theory doesn’t explain the data better than extant theories; that the new teaching method isn’t any better than the current one; or that multilingual kids aren’t more creative than their peers. I think that consciously phrasing research questions as genuine questions puts the emphasis on evaluating different possibilities rather than on convincing the audience of an assumed fact.

Yes/no questions obviously invite yes/no answers. When the answer to a yes/no question isn’t trivial, this is fine. But when the question boils down to a vague “Are there some differences between these groups?”, it’s often highly likely that the answer will be “yes”. In such cases, it may be more fruitful to phrase the research question as a wh-question instead: “We wondered how/when/under which circumstances/in which respects/to what extent these groups differ?” The answers to questions such as these may still be “very little”, “rarely”, “in hardly any”, etc., but that’s more informative than a trivial “yes”.