Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 34

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Chapter 4
Research Topics, Research Questions and
Hypotheses

Learning Outcomes
After studying this chapter, you should be able to:
1. Distinguish between a research topic, a research question, and an
hypothesis, showing how the three items inter-relate.
2. Describe the process of research topic selection and indicate what
constitutes a good research topic.
3. Explain the process of research question selection and the parameters
of a good research question.
4. Explain the process of hypothesis or proposition selection and the
requirements for a strong and symmetrical hypothesis.
5. Describe a range of research question selection and appraisal
techniques, including brainstorming, De Bonos Six Hat Method, and
SWOT analysis.
6. Distinguish between deductive and inductive research approaches,
and the effect these can have on the selection of research topics and
research questions.
7. Discuss how the research question and hypothesis or proposition
relate to the overall research process.
4-1

Masters Level Module Research Methods

4.1 Introduction
Conventional academic commentaries on the research process suggest
that the selection of the research question occurs after the study of the
literature and the familiarisation with the field are complete. The research
process is assumed to be linear and sequential, with the definition of the
research question representing a systematic focusing of the scope of the
research, a narrowing of many potential studies down to one. There is a
deliberate and well-founded logic to this, based on making decisions
from a position of knowledge and a wide perspective. It is based on the
premise that if the research question and the definition of the entire
research project are not considered against a broad setting, the results are
unlikely to be widely applicable.
The act of defining the research question usually involves producing an
explicit written statement about the boundaries of the research project, in
terms of the scope of its coverage, and commenting on the assumptions,
which are being made. The research question or its justification may also
stipulate specific issues, which the research will not cover. You should
begin the identification of your research question by first finalising the
research topic.

Activity
In this chapter will be involved in the process of selecting a research
topic and a research question. You will require a realistic or actual issue
to act as a focus for the activities. If you do not already have a specific
research field in mind for your dissertation, choose one for which you
have rounded background knowledge.
Record it in the box below now, before starting work on the chapter.
Research Field:

4.1 Research Topic Selection


4.1.1 Research field
4-2

Masters Level Module Research Methods

When you have completed the literature review, you may find that the
maturity of knowledge in the research field significantly influences the
final selection of your research topic. Highly evolved research fields,
such as the physical and chemical sciences, progress by building upon a
vast and established body of knowledge. The research conventions and
methodologies are usually well defined, and therefore the selection of a
research topic and research question is generally a fairly straightforward
exercise.
In contrast, emerging research fields tend to be turbulent and are often
characterised by the fluidity of their definitions and theories and rapidly
changing boundaries. These research fields usually reach maturity before
a significant amount of research can progress in a co-ordinated manner.
In such instances, the research topics, contemporary literature, and
associated research methodologies tend to be exploratory in nature (such
as happened recently with the fields of quality and environmentalism).
Here the selection of a coherent research topic and research question,
which will not date rapidly, can be more challenging.
For construction, and in particular construction management, the research
field appears to be approaching an intermediate phase, where an
emerging consensus on some fundamental issues will start to offer a
sufficient body of knowledge to explore specific research questions in a
co-ordinated manner. For now there are still so many issues requiring
attention that finding an issue to research is not difficult. The difficulty
often lies in identifying a base for your conceptual foundations and
research question.
You can best accommodate the differences in maturity of the research
fields and their contemporary research approaches by adopting different
topic selection techniques and research methodologies. In order to do so,
it is worthwhile to consider the principles of research topic selection and
the definition of research questions more closely.

4-3

Masters Level Module Research Methods

4.2 Selection Process


If you are approaching research in a commercial sense, the topic may be
pre-determined. For academics, and research students in particular,
however, it is common to have the scope to select your own research
topic. In such cases, it is most important that you take a systematic
approach to how you select a topic. It is possible that when you approach
the research field that you will already have preconceptions of what the
study should entail, also your previous experience will suggest what is a
useful and practical output and what isnt, or what the industry may or
may not need.
Where you have the choice over the direction of the research you should
choose a topic which interests you, but it is important not to let this
overshadow your objectivity in how you tackle the project. In selecting a
topic based on personal preference, there are distinct advantages to
having a personal interest in a subject. Personal research can be a lonely
path, and in the periods when progress appears to be slow, it is important
to have a deep commitment to the issues, which you are grappling with.
Where research is conducted under commercial circumstances and the
topic is dictated, this can still work well for the individual researcher,
since there will be a focus from an early stage of the project and there
will usually be benefits of explicit support within the organisation in
terms of resources and access to data and experience.
Where there is an extensive body of existing knowledge in the research
field, this can tend to predetermine the methodological conventions and
scope for new research work. In the context of problem-solving research,
this can give a great boost to the project, whereas in personal academic
research a large body of existing research can be a barrier to identifying a
short and self-contained (but pertinent) piece of research.
In the
established academic disciplines, such as the physical sciences, this can
mean that a great deal of background familiarisation is needed before an
apparently small step forward can be made. The contrasting situation of a
research field with little or no existing published research findings can
mean that the first steps in a project are very difficult, since there is a
scarcity of agreed knowledge or research conventions upon which to

4-4

Masters Level Module Research Methods

build. In either of these circumstances there may be uncertainties over


how generally applicable your findings will be.

Activity
version of your research topic now and record it here. It may change as
you progress through the chapter.
Is your research topic accessible to quantitative or qualitative analysis, or
both? Why?
Record your thoughts here;

4.3 Inductive And Deductive Research


As we saw in Chapter 1, the conventional process of research is that you
commence by analysing the literature, you identify and state a single
selected problem, from which you then isolate the major research
question(s) for which the existing knowledge is inadequate. Based on
this, you formulate a hypothesis (usually accompanied by a series of subhypotheses), collect the necessary data using an appropriate research
methodology, and analyse your findings in terms of the existing
knowledge as you found it. Note that the hypothesis may be in the form
of a conceptual model. If the testing of your hypothesis illuminates new
knowledge either way, that is the hypothesis is clearly proven/ unproven
(unusual) or partly proven/ disproven (more normal), you may be able to
answer the purpose of the research, perhaps even make a contribution to
knowledge.
This exercise starts with your presentation and analysis of the existing
work in the field. This will probably need to cover issues such as the
principal theories and the distinctions between them, perhaps making a
4-5

Masters Level Module Research Methods

statement about the evidence to support existing data and findings, The
purpose behind this is to ensure that the research topic is worthy of
contributing resources to its study, and also to define the foundations
upon which these studies can build.
The major research questions could arise from a variety of circumstances,
such as the identifiable gaps between existing theories or evidence.
Where there are overlaps between findings or theories, there may be
contradictions, which you wish to explore. Apparently sound findings
may simply be out of date and need repeating for todays context. In
some cases, the assumptions underlying previous research may render
them invalid for your application. In these circumstances, your research
might focus on testing others findings in your own context.
If you were working within the scientific method paradigm (see Chapter
6), you would next go on to identify your hypothetical answers and
preferred methodology for gathering the evidence to test these
hypotheses. By considering these issues now you can filter the research
questions on the basis of availability of data or methodological expertise.
The advocates of some alternative methodological paradigms dispute that
this is always the most appropriate way of selecting realistic research
topics and research questions. The main arguments against the scientific
method hinge on the constraints which its methodological paradigms
place upon realism. Undertaking a linear and focal approach to research
tends to stifle the open-ended questioning from which new perspectives
and new knowledge comes. In essence the scientific method, or
deductive approach, is claimed to perpetuate the methodology and
assumptions underlying existing work and therefore constrain novelty.
Certainly the conventional research process presents the researcher with
conventional views and methodologies, but this may be a strength rather
than a weakness for the novice researcher. In the context of an industry
based upon engineering and scientific experience, research findings
produced using recognisable and traditional methodologies tend to be
given a greater amount of credit compared with the novel, qualitative
insights emerging from some of the more interventionist social science
methodologies.

4-6

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Novel methodological approaches originating in other disciplines and


now emerging in construction research include grounded theory, action
research, and ethnography. These approaches certainly offer new insights
into existing issues, however there are recurrent disputes about the rigour
and reliability of findings produced using these methods. Such concerns
usually originate from concerns and
unfamiliar, but are nonetheless heartfelt.

misunderstandings

about

the

These alternative techniques are inductive, that is explanations and


theories are developed from observations of the empirical world
(deductive is vice versa). The argument for their adoption is that
phenomenological explanations which are not based on a grounding or
observation and experience of the real world are worthless in real use.
Taking this to its application to research questions, the inductivist stance
is that a research question has to relate to all the complexities of the real
situation if the findings are to be at all applicable to the real world.
Inevitably, as soon as the researcher attempts to deal with the breadth of
direct and indirect issues associated with a single research issue in its
broad real-world context, the data and its analysis becomes horribly
complex. The attraction of deductivist research questions is immediately
appealing, since they simplify the world with systematic assumptions to
control the scenario and allow it to be simulated. In very simplistic terms,
the decision rests on whether you want a simplified research question
which may not be very realistic but is relatively straightforward to
express and explore, or a complex research question which is problematic
to explore and analyse, but of potentially greater value ultimately. This
decision depends on how applicable or extendable your results will be in
a simple form.
In many, or most, cases the nature of the available data or resources
coupled with the purposes of the research and the expected form and
content of the findings will tend to dictate the approach to the problem,
and therefore the type of research question. In instances of industrysponsored research, the pragmatic approach to yield real-world solutions
to real-world problems will win through. This can cause tensions for the
academic requirements of research, and there is some skill required, to
balance the two sets of expectations of research process.

4-7

Masters Level Module Research Methods

As always, research questions and research methodologies are interlinked. An inductive, or alternative, approach to the research question
will attract an inductive research methodology. The inductive approach is
more suited to theory building than theory testing, and is therefore better
for fields where there is not a strong body of accepted theory. Examples
include action research that can be used to influence and measure change
from a position internal to the research problem. This is particularly
useful for researchers undertaking a piece of reflective study on an issue
in which they have the scope to make changes. These methodologies are
outlined in Chapter 6.
A deductive research question will require a deductive research
methodology. Examples include experimentation, questionnaires, and
surveys, all of which involve collecting evidence to test a hypothesis. The
deductive approach is more suited to theory testing than theory building,
and is therefore better for fields where there is a strong body of accepted
theory.

Activity
Think of some research issues for which the construction industry needs
answers and distinguish between those, which have to be tackled in a
deductive manner and those, which could be dealt with inductively. Can
any issues be addressed in both ways?
Record your thoughts here;

4-8

Masters Level Module Research Methods

4.4 Sources Of Research Topics


In a commercial scenario, research topics, and therefore research
questions, tend to lead the research process and do not have to be
searched for. In academia, there is often more scope to assist and
collaborate with others in a range of areas, which interest the researcher.
Here it is common for there to be a choice of areas and topics for the
researcher to work within. In funded research, there is clearly some preselection by the theming of the research funding initiatives, and the
development of an industry/ academia collaborative bid usually involves
a compromise to produce something which is practically useful and may
push the general field knowledge forward. In such cases, the research
questions tend to appear pragmatically through the discussions.
In the academic context, perhaps in the particular scenario of a student
seeking a dissertation, one of the most obvious sources of research topics
lies within previous or ongoing work experience. Others include personal
experience, publicised industry trends or issues, or a straightforward
analysis of the field. A fruitful area to search lies in other contemporary
research papers and academic theses, which usually complete with
suggestions for further work.

Activity
What sources of information did you use to select your research
question? How could you supplement these?
Record your thoughts here.

4-9

Masters Level Module Research Methods

4.5 Research Questions


Once you have confirmed the research topic, the research question
usually follows closely. Good research questions should satisfy several
parameters that can be considered under the broad headings of
accessibility and achievability . Both are potential blockers to the project
as a whole or to particular components of the research process. It is
important to look systematically at the research project when defining the
research question. Use the research question as a vehicle for enclosing
the scope of the project to keep it controllable and manageable.
Activity
What is the question your research topic most readily needs addressing,
and why?
Record your thoughts here.

4.5.1 Accessibility And The Research Question


Look at accessibility from all aspects of the project and the process of
doing the research. Consider personal accessibility, both physical and
intellectual, literature and data accessibility, access to expertise and other
resources, and finally the perspectives of sensitivity and confidentiality
essentially these represent accessibility to publication of the findings.
Literature: Is the literature on the subject accessible, more to the point is
there too much or too little, because both can be problematic for the
researcher. Can you get the key documents, and in time. If, for instance,
your research relates to issues that are the subject of a new code of
practice, do you have access to the draft codes during the consultation
phase? What will be the impact on your project if the publication of the
4-10

Masters Level Module Research Methods

code is delayed for a significant period of time? Can you afford the
specialist literature if you have to purchase it? Is your key reference
source an overseas one, which will attract special costs, delays in access,
and/ or language problems?
Data: The issue of accessibility may extend beyond simply accessing
data, since it is important that you have confidence in the reliability and
pertinence of the data that becomes available. For instance, it is very
difficult to get neutral interview or questionnaire data on quality
assurance, partly because of the difficulties in defining it, but also
because of sensitivities and the unwillingness to admit that there is any
shortcoming in a quality assurance system.
Activity
For your chosen topic, list examples of data which will be readily
available, and data which will be difficult to get hold of (or verify).
Record your thoughts here;

The form of data is also relevant. Is your research question one which
requires access to subjective or objective data? For instance, a research
question concerned with exploring the differing perspectives of truth
about the causes of adversarialism in the construction industry will
probably involve the collection and analysis of subjective opinion. This
raises several issues of accessibility. First, can you access the breadth and
depth of opinion needed to make a rounded assessment of the issue? Will
it be available to a sufficient depth to make a meaningful analysis?
Perhaps the negotiation of access will involve signing a confidentiality
agreement, which may compromise the publication of your analysis
and/or findings? Once collected, these opinions are unlikely to directly
4-11

Masters Level Module Research Methods

correspond or correlate with each other. Do you have access to the


methodological and analytical skills required to rigorously collect and
appraise the data? Furthermore, is a complex qualitative analysis going to
suit the purposes for which the research was originally intended?

Activity
What sort of study approach do you find most appealing, and how might
this be reflected in your research design (through the research question)?

Expertise: Consider who the gatekeepers are for your data


requirements. In an emergent field, the sole data source may be expert
opinion, which in turn may be difficult to elicit, and be geographically
dispersed. This will have an impact on its physical collection and also
what you actually expect to be able to collect. Also, do you have the
influence to gain and maintain access to the expertise personally or via a
third party? If not, you will not be able to answer your own research
question (note that this is distinct from it being unanswerable).

Activity
Who are the gatekeepers for your data?
Record your answer here.

4-12

Masters Level Module Research Methods

In addition to the problems of physical remoteness of data, issues of


political, professional or commercial sensitivity may block any or certain
data being collected. Alternatively, they may restrict its depth and
therefore pertinence to the project. Highly variable data depth or quality
can make comparative analysis very difficult, and if you are looking for a
replication of phenomena in different circumstances as the test of your
research issue, it may be difficult to make a very meaningful appraisal.
There is always the potential of a completely unforeseeable event
occurring which seriously affects the data or your access to it. Take
timing and external unpredictable events for instance. In the mid-1980s I
was conducting research into life safety in building fires and collecting
interview data via a Delphi group which had Fire Service personnel as
one of the sources of expert opinion on building performance in fires. In
the middle of the data collection, a major fire led to an urgent review of
fire safety at all sports grounds, which meant that my access to certain
fire service personnel vanished almost overnight.

Activity
Consider your research question. What are the accessibility issues
surrounding it and how can they be resolved? Use the sample
accessibility issues outlined above as a starting point. Are there any
other accessibility issues particular to your research topic?
Record your thoughts here;

4-13

Masters Level Module Research Methods

4.5.2 Achievability And The Research Question


This relates to the resources available to you to undertake and complete
the entire research project, also to the ultimate value of the research once
it is completed. As you design your research question, consider
objectively whether the research as proposed is really worth doing. Will
it add to the existing field knowledge in a meaningful manner, or will the
limited scale, excessive and unrealistic assumptions or limited data
access mean that it is only an addendum to the existing material? Can
you achieve the necessary rigour, in the methodology, in the data, and
within the time available to you?
Research often takes longer than you anticipate and a small but rounded
piece of work will usually be more valuable than an ambitious underachievement. The deeper the study becomes, the more likely it is that
issues emerge which appear to be central to the research question, and
may divert your efforts away from the initial goal and objectives of the
project. Defining the research question and its attendant assumptions and
limitations tightly at the start will allow you to systematically retain your
focus on the original goal.
Consider also the following issues related to achieving the goals of the
research. Are the data that you require straightforward and economical to
collect? Are your capabilities in accordance with the type of data analysis
that will be involved in answering the research question which you are
posing? These issues can be addressed by working in collaboration with
someone else with a specialism and/or geographical location and access
to data that complements yours.
Achievability is also relevant where your methodology or data are
hostages to fortune. What will be the effect on the achievability of your
research of a sudden event, and could you still learn something if the
hypothesis is unproven or the data analysis is inconclusive? For instance,
if you are studying an issue based on the assumption of a recessionary
market when a sustained upturn appears, this will invalidate the
assumptions upon which your data collection or analysis are based, and
may be fatal for the results. Here it is worth considering the symmetry of
your hypothesis, the subject of the next section.

4-14

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Activity
Consider your research question again. What are the achievability issues
surrounding it, and how can they be resolved? Use the sample
achievability issues outlined above as a starting point. Are there any
other achievability issues particular to your research topic?
After considering the issues of research question selection outlined in this
chapter, you may feel that you need to re-define your research question
from that which you recorded at the start of the chapter.
If your research question has changed, record the new version here and
compare it with the old version. Why have you changed it and in what
ways is it a better research question now?
Record the current version of your research question here;

Transfer the starting version of your research question to here:


Why have you changed the research question and in what ways is it a
better research question now? Record your answer here.

4-15

Masters Level Module Research Methods

4.5.3 The Research Hypothesis


The research question and the hypothesis are of course intimately related,
one being the expected answer to the other. The hypothesis should as a
minimum be logical and testable. To help protect the research project
against the risks of loss of data availability, inconsistency or
inconclusiveness, it is also worthwhile designing symmetry into the
hypothesis where possible. This is sometimes referred to as a refutable
hypothesis. Note that the qualitative research approach usually refers to
propositions rather than hypotheses, since the hypothesis implies a
greater degree of fixity and more of a testing approach, whereas the
proposition is more tentative and liable to change during the research
process. This will be discussed further in a later chapter. Symmetry is
used rather imprecisely here, but is akin to vulnerability or brittleness. A
symmetrical hypothesis is one which illuminates or adds to knowledge
whether the evidence proves or disproves it. Symmetrical hypotheses are
supple, and are characterised by open-ended research questions. The best
hypotheses yield insights even if the data analysis is only partly
conclusive.

4.5.4 The Symmetrical Hypothesis


Consider for instance the hypothesis that the creation and implementation
of the new Quality Assurance System within a department will change
the way in which people view their role at work. This is related to a
research question about the creation and implementation of QA systems
and their effectiveness in a tightly defined boundary of a single
department. The question and hypothesis could be tightened further using
a time boundary, either now or during the progress of the research.
The testing of this hypothesis will probably yield useful knowledge about
whether the QA system is adjudged to have made an influence or not, or
indeed if it is shown to be only partly influential. Even if people in the
department are not very familiar with the QA system when questioned,
this is a finding in relation to the influence it has on them. The
unfamiliarity can be explored further for its causes for instance does
4-16

Masters Level Module Research Methods

the unfamiliarity originate in the creation or implementation of the QA


system, or both? Were changes made which improved the situation, and
how and why did people change their views of their role?
The hypothesis is supple and can adapt to changes, even extreme
circumstances such as a redesign of the QA system, or its complete
withdrawal from the department. Perhaps the impact of removing a QA
system would be as illuminating as its installation. It would certainly be
novel research and its analysis appears to have the potential to make a
meaningful contribution to the research field and practice.
By deliberately including the dual issues of creation and implementation,
extra scope is given for exploring the nature of quality assurance in
operation and managing the change process. If the study produces too
much data, you can focus on that which emerges as the more relevant as
the research progresses is it predominantly a creation or
implementation phenomenon, or the interface/ continuity between both?
If the access to data proves to be shallower than anticipated, perhaps
expanding the boundary to include two departments would be valuable. It
is an extreme case where the research question produces no findings of
value. Importantly, the research question and hypothesis are supple and
therefore controllable.

4.5.5 The Asymmetrical Hypothesis


In contrast, the hypothesis that all surveyors are negligent at some time in
their professional activities is asymmetrical or brittle. The research will
yield little knowledge if all the surveyors who are approached refuse to
comment on negligence, or respond by denying that they are ever
negligent or have ever found incidents of third party negligence.
Incredible data or no data at all leaves the researcher with an unanswered
hypothesis and very little obvious scope to adapt the research.
Furthermore, continued access to the data sample may have been
jeopardised. The research is forseeably unachievable, and in its current
form the project will probably be valueless.

4-17

Masters Level Module Research Methods

The research question could be adapted so that it is concerned with the


broader and more symmetrical issue of professional performance and the
definition of and consistency of quality standards in the surveying
profession. An alternative supple hypothesis about what professionals
believe constitutes the minima of professional practice, perhaps analysed
against the researchers hypothetical model of minimum standards or
performance parameters would have allowed the grey areas over
professional competence and negligence to be illuminated or explored in
a more subtle manner. The hypothetical model of professional standards
could be derived from the literature and/or experience of the researcher,
and would form the terms of reference for the collection and analysis of
the data. If the model turns out to be inadequate, it can be altered
according to the evidence of the data. Furthermore, if there really does
turn out to be little or no evidence of negligence, the research would still
produce a valuable output by defining more clearly where professionals
consider the boundaries of professional competence lie. Symmetry and
flexibility replace rigidity and asymmetry.
Similarly, the hypothesis that Partnering will cease to be an issue if an
upturn in the construction industry occurs is risky since it is a hostage to
the general fortunes of the industry. Interviewees may be reluctant to
admit that their company is not in upturn, also the hypothesis is timebound. At the time of writing (1997), partnering continues to be a highly
popular claim by most construction companies, yet its definition and
evaluation is still the subject of uncertainty. Research conducted now
would require you to include defining the term or making an assumption.
However, the researcher reading this workbook in the year 2000 may be
immediately aware that the partnering phenomenon evolved into another
concept and would be therefore be unresearchable for a variety of
currently unforeseen reasons.
A less vulnerable hypothesis would be that attitudes to creating
formalised relationships between contractors and their clients are
influenced by professional expectations and beliefs about a range of
issues including the economic fortunes of the UK construction industry
generally this is answerable in a recession or boom, is not company
specific, and could yield insights irrespective of the contemporary
fortunes of the industry. If an upturn arrives fortuitously for the
4-18

Masters Level Module Research Methods

researcher then this can be explored through the data collection by


searching for trends in changing attitudes. Overall, it is a more openended research question and hypothesis.

Activity
Create a series of symmetrical and asymmetrical hypotheses for your
current research question using the guidelines in the above section.
Indicate which you think are strong, or weak. Which is the best one and
why?

Record your answer here;

4.5.6 Generating Research Questions


There are several useful techniques for generating research questions and
selecting the most practical. Bear in mind that the research question is a
tool for deliberately focusing the research from a range of potential issues
4-19

Masters Level Module Research Methods

which are directly or indirectly relevant to a single research problem


which is directly relevant.
The section below features four questioning techniques to generate
and/or evaluate research questions: Brainstorming, De Bonos Six Hat
Method, the Who, Why, What, Where, When and How Technique, and
SWOT Analysis. The brainstorming exercise requires a group to be really
effective, the others can be done individually but are better done in pairs
with a colleague prompting you.

Use all the techniques, in the order in which they appear to:
a) systematically open up your research topic and research question
issues (Brainstorming and De Bonos Six Hat Method)
b) define the specific objectives and controlling parameters for the entire
context of the research project (Who, ...)
c) refine the design of the research topic and research question back
down to a focused, informed and rounded decision made on the basis
of coincident strength and opportunity (SWOT Analysis).
Used properly, these exercises will show you how to make a robust
research topic and research question selection. Expect this exercise to
take a little while if done properly, and reflect on the decision before
moving on to the next part of the research process.

4.5.7 Brainstorming
Brainstorming can be a useful starting point if you have a group available
to you. The process operates by the generation of unevaluated lists (the
brainstorming), followed by their analysis and clarification to produce a
collection of ideas for rejection or uptake.
The key rules of brainstorming are that, during the generation phase, any
perspective or issue related to the research problem can be raised, all of
4-20

Masters Level Module Research Methods

which are recorded by the person who takes the facilitating or chairing
role. This person also ensures that everyone has the chance to participate
and that no issues are pursued during the brainstorming session.
Immediately after this all the emergent points are discussed by the group
in rotation to allow their categorisation, and to look for cross-overs and
opportunities for solving the research problem, and eventually to make a
selection of options by rejection or uptake. This technique was originated
by Edward de Bono.

Activity
If you can arrange a group meeting about your research with colleagues
at work or other IGDS students, organise a Brainstorming session on
your research question.
Review the Brainstorming session to systematically open up your
research topic and research question issues.

4.5.8 De Bonos Six Hat Method


This technique appears to be used primarily as a business problemsolving device, but I have applied it successfully in groups and
individually for the design and critique of research questions. De Bono
outlines it in the context of an application in his essay on improving
democracy Thinking Hats on, Please in the Independent (1994).
The technique revolves around the problem being viewed, in turn, from
six different perspectives. Each perspective is considered in isolation
from the others, and is denoted by metaphorically (or physically) wearing
a different coloured hat. Hence:
The white hat corresponds to information availability and requirements.
This could relate to information source issues, literature appraisal and the
identification of gaps in the information. It could also be extended to
explore data availability and requirement issues.
4-21

Masters Level Module Research Methods

The black hat represents caution and the assessment of risks. This is
useful for taking a realistic view of the problems in achieving the
research goals, or accessing the literature, other information or data. It
could also be used to critically explore issues such as the risks to
methodological success or to proving/ disproving the hypothesis.
Whilst wearing the yellow hat the researcher considers the benefits,
values and feasibility of the research question. In commercially driven, or
problem-solving research, this may be a useful hat to commence with.
The green hat signifies creativity and energy, so could be used to explore
the originality of the research, also novel ways of approaching the
research question, the collection of data, and/ or the application of
methodologies and/ or findings. It is concerned with new possibilities.
The blue hat corresponds to the organisation of the thinking process, so is
best used for looking at the operational and strategic design of the
research process.
The red hat addresses feelings, such as intuitive feelings about the
research, its probable findings, needs, and the researchers likes and
dislikes about the content and process as proposed.
Clearly, the hats need to be interpreted loosely for maximum benefit; the
value lies in addressing the research question from several perspectives
in isolation. There is no particular order for considering the different
perspectives, and they can be revisited if you like. Once all six
perspectives have been considered the results are compared and crosscorrelated to identify the opportunities and threats for each possible
research question.
Activity
Use De Bonos Six Hat Method to systematically open up your research
topic and research question issues. Record your comments in the boxes
on the following pages. The technique depends on rigorously thinking
about a single perspective at a time. You may take the hats in any order,
but once you have selected a particular hat you should not change to
another hat until you have completed your written comments on that
page:
4-22

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Wear the yellow hat and consider the benefits, values and feasibility of
the research topic and the research question. Do not change to another hat
until you have completed your comments on this page.

Wear the green hat and consider the creativity, energy, and originality
which your research will bring to the research topic and the research
question. What creativity can you build into your research question, your
hypothesis, and the methodology of collecting your data? Do not change
to another hat until you have completed your comments on this page.

Wear the red hat and consider your feelings about the research. Include
your intuitive feelings about the needs for the work, and your likes and
dislikes about the field, the existing works, and your proposed research
question. Do not change to another hat until you have completed your
comments on this page.

Wear the white hat and consider the balance between the availability and
requirements of data. What data is available to you, and in what form
does it appear? Is it qualitative or quantitative? Are there access issues?
Do not change to another hat until you have completed your comments
on this page.

4-23

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Wear the black hat and consider the risks and requirements for caution in
undertaking the research. Looking at the research project realistically,
what are the potential blockers to answering the research question, for
testing the hypothesis, for accessing and interpreting the data? Is your
research question or hypothesis weak in any way which could be
resolved? Consider any identified risks which you are unwilling to
continue with. Do not change to another hat until you have completed
your comments on this page.

Wear the blue hat and consider the thinking process which is required to
design and conduct the research. What is required to answer the research
question, to test the hypothesis, to collect the data? What steps do you
have to take in order to process the research? If you can encapsulate your
conceptual thoughts about the topic, do so here as well. Do not change to
another hat until you have completed your comments on this page.

Start this page only when you have worn all six hats.
If you have any other thoughts about any of the hats you may go back to
the pages and include them now.
Now gather together your summarised thoughts to systematically open up
your research topic and research question issues. Consider:
does your research topic need altering?
does your research question need altering?
is your hypothesis strong?

4-24

Masters Level Module Research Methods

is the process clear and of an acceptable level of risk?


How do you plan to move forward from here? Produce a set of
recommendations for progressing the research.

4.5.9 Who, Why, What, Where, When And How?


This technique is similar to the De Bonos Six Hat Method, and can be
used as a check on the proposed research question(s) before finalising
their selection and design. Used carefully, it can be extended to assist
with focusing the entire research design. It operates by splitting the
research problem down into a series of justifications, such as those
detailed below.
In addition to defining the research question, with some imagination this
technique can be applied to selecting information sources, defining the
research methodology, even for identifying the terms of reference for the
design of the methodology or analysis of the research data. The use of the
technique can generate the basis of a written research proposal, a
document which combines the justification of what research is to be done
with a pragmatic review of how it will be achieved. Example questions to
ask might include:
Who are the immediate and ultimate customers for the research, who will
benefit?
is funding the research (and what are their priorities and terms)?
are the other stakeholders (and what are their obligations and
priorities)?
will do the research (who else will assist, manage, or facilitate)?
else could be doing similar research (collaborators or
competitors)?
will be required to contribute to the research (will they, and
how)?
could deliberately or unwittingly block the research (the
gatekeepers)? may be sensitive to the output?
4-25

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Why does it matter whether the research is done at all?


will this research provide knowledge that is not already available?
should you do the research instead of some other research?
should you do the research instead of some other researcher doing
it?
will the research benefit the customers or industry?
should the research be done this way?
What are you trying to achieve?
information is needed to commence and complete the research?
resources are required to conduct the research?
is the research question?
are the major external and internal sensitivities raised by doing
the research?
data is available (what is the critical data)?
assumptions do you have to make in order to start?
risks are there to the data availability
external risks are there to the research project?
is the hypothesis or proposition?
knowledge will this research provide that is not already available?
are the major benefits of doing the research?
are the success criteria for the research?
are the major risks to the research?
Where are the gaps in the literature and field knowledge?
should the boundaries of the research lie?
will the expertise come from?
does the critical information reside?
do the major foreseeable problems lie?
will the findings be published (what market)?
When will the research need to be completed by?
will the relevance of the research cease?
should the research start?

4-26

Masters Level Module Research Methods

will the critical knowledge become available, or cease to be


available/ relevant?
will the data commence availability, cease availability, or cease to
be relevant?
How could the design be improved?
can

the

vulnerability

to

external

knowledge

availability

be

minimised
can the vulnerability to data availability be minimised?
will the assumptions affect the value/ applicability of the results?
could the research project be made smaller without compromising
its value?
will you know when the research is complete (seriously)?
will the output and process be evaluated?
will the results be disseminated (and to whom)?
much work has already been done in this area?

Activity
Use the Who, Why, What, Where, When, and How? technique to review
your research topic and research question. Gather together your
summarised thoughts to define the specific objectives and controlling
parameters for the entire context of the research project.
Record your comments in the boxes on the following pages;
Who are the immediate and ultimate customers for the research, who will
benefit?
is funding the research (and what are their priorities and terms)?
are the other stakeholders (and what are their obligations and
priorities)?
will do the research (who else will assist, manage, or facilitate)?
else could be doing similar research (collaborators
competitors)?

4-27

or

Masters Level Module Research Methods

will be required to contribute to the research (will they, and


how)?
could deliberately

or

unwittingly

block

the

research

(the

gatekeepers)?
may be sensitive to the output?
Any Other Who Questions?

Why does it matter whether the research is done at all?


will this research provide knowledge that is not already available?
should you do the research instead of some other research?
should you do the research instead of some other researcher doing
it?
will the research benefit the customers or industry?
should the research be done this way?
Any Other Why Questions?

What are you trying to achieve?


information is needed to commence and complete the research?
resources are required to conduct the research?
is the research question?

4-28

Masters Level Module Research Methods

are the major external and internal sensitivities raised by doing


the research?
data is available (what is the critical data)?
assumptions do you have to make in order to start?
risks are there to the data availability
external risks are there to the research project?
is the hypothesis or proposition?
knowledge will this research provide that is not already available?
are the major benefits of doing the research?
are the success criteria for the research?
are the major risks to the research?
Any Other What Questions?

Where are the gaps in the literature and field knowledge?


should the boundaries of the research lie?
will the expertise come from?
does the critical information reside?
do the major foreseeable problems lie?
will the findings be published (what market)?
Any Other Where Questions?

4-29

Masters Level Module Research Methods

When will the research need to be completed by?


will the relevance of the research cease?
should the research start?
will the critical knowledge become available, or cease to be
available/ relevant?
will the data commence availability, cease availability, or cease to
be relevant?
Any Other When Questions?

How could the design be improved?


can the vulnerability
minimised

to

external

knowledge

availability

be

can the vulnerability to data availability be minimised?


will the assumptions affect the value/ applicability of the results?
could the research project be made smaller without compromising
its value?
will you know when the research is complete (seriously)?
will the output and process be evaluated?
will the results be disseminated (and to whom)?
much work has already been done in this area?
Any Other How Questions?

4-30

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Start this page only when you have completed all the sections on Who,
Why, What, Where, When, and How.
Now gather together your summarised thoughts to define the specific
objectives and controlling parameters for the entire context of the
research project.
Consider, does your research topic need altering? Does your research
question need adjusting again? Is your hypothesis strong? Is the process
clear and of an acceptable level of risk? How do you plan to move
forward from here?

4.6 SWOT Analysis


Another potentially useful evaluative technique is SWOT analysis. This
can be done individually but is better done in pairs or even groups with
one person acting as a facilitator. The group or individual looks at the
research issue from one of four perspectives in rotation: Strengths,
Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.
The more appropriate research opportunities or research questions lie at
the coincidence of strengths and opportunities, and should be selected in
preference to others. Research questions characterised by weaknesses or
threats should be avoided.

Activity
Use the SWOT Analysis Technique to refine the design of the research
topic and research question back down to a focused, informed and
rounded decision made on the basis of coincident strength and
opportunity
Record your comments in the boxes on the following pages. The
technique depends on rigorously thinking about a single perspective at a
time. You should not change to another perspective until you have
4-31

Masters Level Module Research Methods

completed your written comments on the first. If you have completed the
previous exercises, you should find that this is essentially a systematic
refinement and re-presentation of the issues you have raised earlier into a
structured format.
Summarise the Strengths of your Research Topic, Research Question,
and Hypothesis, ranking them where you can:

Summarise the Weaknesses of your Research Topic, Research Question,


and Hypothesis, ranking them where you can:

Summarise

the

Opportunities

for

your

Research

Topic,

Research

Question, and Hypothesis, ranking them where you can:

Summarise the Threats to your Research Topic, Research Question, and


Hypothesis, ranking them where you can:

Now review the summarised Strengths and Opportunities together, and


consider whether your research as intended lies within their coincidence.
4-32

Masters Level Module Research Methods

Similarly, combine the summaries of identified Weakness and Threats,


and consider whether your research as intended lies outwith these issues.
Do you need to make any further adjustments? Record any other
comments here, together with your refined research topic, research
question, and hypothesis.
Use a mind map if this is helpful.

4.7 Summary
You should now be familiar with the roles and format of a research topic,
a research question, and an hypothesis. You should also understand the
process of research topic selection and how to distinguish between strong
and weak research questions and hypotheses. Having been introduced to
a range of techniques for deriving research questions, you should be able
to apply creativity to the design and evaluation of the remainder of the
research process as you undertake it.
The next stage of the research process involves creating a written
research proposal which will encapsulate your research topic; the
conceptual thoughts you have on it after reading around the subject; the
research question; the hypotheses or propositions which you are starting
with; and the outline design for the remainder of the research process.
This will include methodological issues and the terms of reference for the
collection and analysis of the data to support your studies. This exercise
represents a design freeze for the research, and is dealt with in Chapter 5.

4-33

Masters Level Module Research Methods

4.7.1 Personal Feedback Questions


PF 4.1

What distinguishes inductive and deductive approaches to


research?

PF 4.2

Discuss the issues of accessibility and acheiveability


which can surround research questions.

PF 4.3

What is a symmetrical hypothesis and why is it valuable?

4.7.2 Recommended Reading


Buzan, T., 1989. Use Your Head, BBC Publications. ISBN 0-563-208112. Excellent on Mind Maps.
De Bono, E., 1992. Teach your Child How to Think . Penguin ISBN 0-14012680-5. Written for the adult, this book gives a thorough contextual
explanation of the concepts of the six hat method (pp 74-100), and many
other approaches to creative thinking. Dont be put off by the title.
De Bono, E., 1994 Thinking Hats on, Please, The Independent, May 2nd
1994. (p15) A brief overview of the Six Hat Method.
De Bono, E. 1990 Lateral Thinking. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-013779-3. This
book offers many different approaches to problem definition and problem
solving which can be applied to research or everyday business issues.

4-34