by Joanna Lenihan, Impacxt of Social Sciences: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/10/13/constructing-research-questions/
Joanna Lenihan is a final year PhD researcher in
University College Cork, Ireland.
Her primary research focuses on
intentional communities as models for sustainable living and how their
knowledge impacts outward into mainstream society.
She is currently
researching Eco Communities in Ireland. She lectures in Sociology at UCC
Social Theory, Culture of Cities, Living Spaces, Social Construction of
Habitat, Education, Learning and Work and Sociology of Community. Read more reviews by Joanna.
Traditional textbooks on research methods tend to ignore, or gloss over, how research questions are constructed.
In this text, Mats Alvesson & Jorgen Sandberg seek to challenge researchers to look past the easy or obvious choices and create more interesting and rewarding questions.
feels that this is potentially a valuable and practical tool for
researchers and could be integrated into required reading for research
students in the humanities and social sciences embarking on research.
This review originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.
Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. Mats Alvesson & Jorgen Sandberg. SAGE Publications. February 2013.
“All researchers want to produce interesting and influential
theories. A key step in all theory development is formulating innovative
research questions that will result in interesting and significant
So write Mats Alvesson & Jorgen Sandberg on the cover of their recent book Constructing Research Questions, which
attempts to address what they see as an “increasing shortage of more
interesting and influential studies in many disciplines within the
social sciences” (p.3) by presenting a clear new method for constructing
research questions that - the authors argue - will result in more
Alvesson and Sandberg develop a problematization
methodology for identifying and challenging assumptions underlying in
existing theories, and guide the reader through this methodology through
the use of examples from across the social sciences.
This book holds relevance for students
starting out in research and for academic and experienced researchers as
it highlights the need to be creative when formulating research
questions and provides alternative ideas in the pursuit of this.
would be an interesting tool for early-on researchers to spark a wider
debate on choosing and formulating research questions, as this element
is often lacking at undergraduate level.
Across the first five of seven chapters, the authors discuss some of
the reasons why current methods of research question construction are
not producing the results they should be.
‘Gap spotting’ - defined as
the method of research question construction “where the researcher
reviews existing literature with the aim of spotting gaps in the
literature and based on doing so formulates specific research questions”
(p.29) - is identified the main culprit and takes the focus of these
chapters, though funding and other academic pressures play a part.
spotting gaps in the current literature and not questioning the accepted
scholarship in a particular discipline, the authors argues that “many
scholars tend to ask well defined and neat (and as a consequence,
sometimes trivial) research questions rather than dedicating themselves
to investigating large, messy, complex, controversial, and important
societal issues” (p.12).
In chapters five and six, the authors develop their problematization
methodology as an alternative to gap-spotting, and take the reader
through a typology of assumptions that can problematized, then through a
set of methodological principles for how this can be carried out,
Alvesson and Sandberg identify assumptions in
ideology, field of study, and discipline-level root metaphors as
locations for problematization.
This section of the book becomes quite
technical at times where the authors really strip back conventional
research question ideas and assumptions regarding previously taken for
granted ideas and theories.
The authors follow on the development of the problematization method
by testing it in relation to two different established theories - Dutton et al.’s 1994 study of identity in organisations and West and Zimmerman’s (1987) study of the un-doing of gender
- in order to provide the reader with a rich and detailed illustration
of how problematization methodology can be used in research question
The main subject matter in Dutton’s et al.’s study is how
individuals are attached to social groups, which the authors
conceptualize as ‘member identification’.
They explain this as when
members strongly identify with their organization, the attributes they
use to define the organization also define them.
West and Zimmerman in
their un-doing of gender literature take issue with a number of common
theoretical views on gender, such as the view that “gender is a set of
traits, a variable, a role or a structural characteristic. Instead they
see gender as the product of social doings of some sort” (p.80).
authors unpick some of the literature in these two bodies of research
and deliberately challenge some significant assumptions they hold.
identify and articulate the assumptions underlying the chosen domain of
literature, evaluate articulated assumptions, develop an alternative
assumption ground where they suggest using critical theory.
consider assumptions in relation to their audience and they evaluate the
alternative assumption ground all the time focusing on the perceived
audience as a guide.
The authors stress that “the alternative
assumptions are not necessarily ‘better’ than those challenged, but
after some time the latter may be worn out and parts of a research field
may be caught by these and will then mainly conduct predictable
The primary aim of the book is to encourage a more reflective and
creative way of thinking about the construction and development of
Although very heavily referenced, the book makes for
interesting reading, focusing in depth into a subject many scholars
grapple with: developing interesting research questions.
The book gives
step-by-step guidelines on how to unpick existing research and challenge
many of the ideas held in order to apply the problematization method.
The book also ties in with the current debate around how the REF may affect academic research in the UK.
Alvesson and Sandberg are two senior academics from Sweden who felt
the need to write this book as they were all too aware of the seduction
of journal rankings and rejections of submissions and other such
possible limitations to interesting innovative and inspiring research
They sometimes over use the phrase “interesting research
questions” without defining what they mean by this, and who decides
which questions are interesting and to whom, but much of the book is
focused on really giving a method of searching for alternative methods
of formulating research questions.
They wanted to write the book to
convey the feeling that something “odd and problematic was going on” in
academia (p.123) such as the narrowing of research in general due to
funding and publishing constraints.
They decided to do something about
this ‘problem’ and the result is this book, which, although sometimes
quite technical and slightly repetitive, is a valuable and practical
tool for researchers and could be integrated into required reading for
research students in the humanities and social sciences embarking on