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Discussion Questions: Discuss your process to develop a research question and preliminary hypothesis. What resources did you consult in addition to those offered in your Lessons? What difficulties did you encounter along your way?Instructions: Fully utilize the materials that have been provided to you in order to support your response. Your initial post should be at least 500 words.



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Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting Theories – SAGE Resea… Page 1 of 11
Chapter 1 | Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting
In: Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research
By: Mats Alvesson & Jörgen Sandberg
Published: 2013
Methods: Research questions
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Research in the social sciences takes many different forms and is guided by several different
objectives. Some researchers aim for prediction and explanation while others search for
understanding. Sometimes empirical description and accuracy are central; sometimes these
are subordinated to theoretical ambitions. In certain cases researchers try to develop theory
through careful empirical investigations; in others the fieldwork is exploratory and aims to
trigger theoretical inspiration; and in some instances empirical investigation is bypassed all
together by pure armchair theorization. Despite the huge variety in research styles within the
social sciences, there is broad consensus about the importance of generating original and
significant theoretical contributions. A theoretical contribution offers insights that clearly go
beyond the diligent reporting of empirical findings and the validation of established
knowledge. In particular, as researchers, most of us want to produce not only credible
empirical results and revisions of theories but also interesting and influential ideas and
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Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting Theories – SAGE Resea… Page 2 of 11
A fundamental step in all theory development is the formulation of carefully grounded
research questions. Constructing and formulating research questions is one of the most,
perhaps the most, critical aspects of all research. Without posing questions it is not possible
to develop our knowledge about a particular subject. One could even say that good research
questions might be as valuable and sometimes even more valuable than answers. Questions
may open up, encourage reflection and trigger intellectual activity; answers may lead to the
opposite: to rest and closure. Good research questions, however, do not just exist they also
need to be created and formulated. As many scholars have pointed out it is particularly
important to produce innovative questions which ‘will open up new research problems, might
resolve long-standing controversies, could provide an integration of different approaches, and
might even turn conventional wisdom and assumptions upside down by challenging old
beliefs’ (Campbell et al., 1982: 21; and see Abbott, 2004; Astley, 1985; Bruner, 1996; Davis,
1971, 1986). In other words, if we do not pose innovative research questions, it is less likely
that our research efforts will generate interesting and influential theories. A novel research
question may be what distinguishes exceptional from mediocre research and the production
of trivial results. Yet, despite the importance of posing innovative questions, little attention has
been paid to how this can be accomplished.
In this book we argue that problematization – in the sense of questioning the assumptions
underlying existing theory in some significant ways – is fundamental to the construction of
innovative research questions and, thus, to the development of interesting and influential
theories. We define both research questions and theory quite broadly. Research questions
concern the input and direction of a study, defining what a study is about and reflecting the
curiosity of the researcher. Theory is about concepts and relationships between concepts
offering a deeper understanding of a range of empirical instances. Theory for us overlaps with
ideas – in this book we focus more on the overall theoretical idea than on the fine-tuning of a
theoretical framework.
Several factors will influence the development of research questions (such as research
funding, publication opportunities, fashion and fieldwork experience), which we will discuss
further in Chapter 2. In this book we concentrate on one core aspect, namely, how
researchers can construct research questions from existing academic literature that will lead
to the development of interesting and influential theories. Existing literature can be seen to
summarize and express the knowledge and the thinking of the academic community – and to
some extent of our time, as there is an overlap in many areas between academic knowledge
and broader knowledge shared by educated people more generally. Existing academic
literature refers both to the theoretical perspectives and the substantive (empirical) studies
conducted within the subject area targeted. A theoretical perspective and an empirical domain
may overlap (that is, when a theory is closely linked to a domain, such as classroom theory).
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However, in other instances they may be more loosely linked, such as when ‘grand theories’
Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting Theories – SAGE Resea… Page 3 of 11
or master perspectives (for example, Marxism, symbolic interactionism, Foucauldian
power/knowledge) are applicable to a wide range of subject matters.
Although not many studies have specifically looked at how researchers construct research
questions from existing theory and studies, several have come close. For example, Davis’s
(1971, 1986) research about what defines interesting and famous theories; Campbell et al.’s
(1982) investigation of the antecedents of significant (and less significant) research findings;
Abbott’s (2004) suggestion of using heuristics for generating new research ideas; Starbuck’s
(2006) advice that researchers should challenge their own thinking through various disruption
tactics, including ambitions to take other views than the one favored one into account; and
Yanchar et al.’s (2008) study of the components of critical thinking practice in research.
Although these studies point to important ingredients in constructing research questions, they
do not specifically focus on how researchers arrive at, or at least claim to have arrived at,
their research questions. For example, although Becker (1998) and Abbott (2004) provide a
whole range of tricks and heuristics for generating research ideas, those tricks and heuristics
‘are not specifically aimed at any particular phase or aspect of the research process’ (Abbott,
2004: 112). Existing studies focus even less on the ways of constructing research questions
from existing literature that are likely to facilitate the development of interesting and influential
Similarly, in most standard textbooks on research methods the actual ways of constructing
research questions are scantly treated or not discussed at all (Flick, 2006). Instead, the
primary discussion revolves around how to formulate feasible research questions in a
particular sequential order. We are advised to first define the topic (for example, leadership,
adult vocational learning, diversity among male engineers, middle-class status anxiety in UK
higher education institutions, attitudes to group sex among mature students), then to clarify
the domain of the research, that is, what objects should be studied (individuals, social
interaction, and so on), state a purpose and finally to decide the type of research questions,
such as descriptive, explanatory and prescriptive questions. Some textbooks (for example,
Silverman, 2001; Van de Ven, 2007) advise that formulating good research questions does
not only involve defining domain, topic, purpose and type of question. It also involves
considering contextual issues, such as how various stakeholders, the background and
experience of the researcher and the field of study, may influence the formulation of research
questions. While important, such advice does not provide specific directions on ways to
formulate innovative research questions by scrutinizing existing literature in a particular
research area. We will therefore only briefly address such advice. Instead, we will concentrate
on what we see as the key issues around constructing research questions from the existing
literature that are likely to lead to more interesting and influential theories within the social
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sciences. In particular, we argue that in order to construct novel research questions
existing literature, careful attention, critical scrutiny, curiosity and imagination together with
Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting Theories – SAGE Resea… Page 4 of 11
the cultivation of a more reflexive and inventive scholarship are needed. We hope that this
book will contribute to achieving such an endeavor.
A Paradoxical Shortage of High-Impact Research
The need to better understand how to construct innovative research questions from the
existing literature appears to be particularly pertinent today, as there is growing concern about
an increasing shortage of more interesting and influential studies in many disciplines within
the social sciences (Abbott, 2004; Becker, 1998; Gibbons et al., 1994; Richardson and Slife,
2011; Slife and Williams, 1995). For example, many prominent sociologists, such as Ritzer
(1998) and Stacey (1999), are concerned that sociology has ‘gone astray’ (Weinstein, 2000:
344) in the sense that most sociological research is increasingly specialized, narrow and
incremental, and therefore not ‘likely to interest a larger audience’ (Ritzer, 1998: 447).
Similarly, in our own field, the outgoing editors of the Journal of Management Studies noted in
their concluding editorial piece – based on their review of more than 3000 manuscripts during
their six years in office (2003–2008) – that while submissions had increased heavily it is hard
to conclude that this has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in papers that add
significantly to the discipline. More is being produced but the big impact papers remain
elusive …’ (Clark and Wright, 2009: 6).
The perceived shortage of influential ideas and theories, that is, those reaching beyond a
narrow and specialized area, is paradoxical in the sense that more research than ever is
being conducted and published within the social sciences. The increased use of research
assessment reviews in many countries (for example, RAE/REF in the UK and ERA in
Australia) and of designated journal lists for evaluating research performance is a central
driver behind the rapid growth of articles published within the social sciences. Not only has
the number of published journal articles increased substantially but also the competition to get
published. Most journals’ acceptance rates have been steadily shrinking and are now close to
5% in many top-tier journals. Publishing in these journals is typically a very long and tedious
process, involving numerous revisions before getting the final decision, which is usually a
rejection. Given all this, one would expect a relative increase in high-quality research, leading
to more interesting and influential theories being published. Paradoxically, this is not the case.
Quality may have risen in some respects, but hardly the number of interesting and influential
theories. Rather than innovation and creativity, it is technical competence and the discipline to
carry out incremental research that seem to dominate all the hard-working researchers within
the social sciences.
What Differentiates an Interesting from a Non-Interesting Theory?
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But why does incremental research rarely seem to generate high-impact theories? In order to
answer this question we need first to understand what makes a theory interesting. That is,
Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting Theories – SAGE Resea… Page 5 of 11
how a theory attracts attention from other researchers and the educated public, leads to
enthusiasm, ‘aha’ and ‘wow’ moments, and triggers responses like ‘I have not thought about
this before’ or ‘Perhaps I should rethink this theme’.
While different people may find different theories interesting and it is a fact that very few
theories are seen as interesting by everybody, interestingness is hardly just a matter of
idiosyncratic opinion (Das and Long, 2010). Collectively held assessments of what counts as
interesting research are much more prevalent than purely subjective views, even though the
collective can be restricted to a sub-community (interested in say sexual harassment at a
nightclub or Muslim immigrants in Belfast) rather than an entire field (such as higher
education or leisure studies).
During the last four decades, originating with Davis’s (1971) seminal sociological study, a
large number of researchers have shown that rigorously executed research is typically not
enough for a theory to be regarded as interesting and influential: it must also challenge an
audience’s taken-for-granted assumptions in some significant way (Astley, 1985; Bartunek et
al., 2006; Hargens, 2000; Weick, 2001). In other words, if a theory does not challenge some
of an audience’s assumptions, it is unlikely to receive attention and become influential, even if
it has been rigorously developed and has received a lot of empirical support. This insight has
meant that the criterion of ‘interestingness’ in most top-tier journals has ‘become a staple for
editorial descriptions of desired papers’ (Corley and Gioia, 2011: 11). We are, however, as we
will come back to, skeptical as to the scope and depth of the actual use of this criterion in
many situations, as other more conservative criteria often seem to carry more weight for
some, if not most, journals (we offer support for this claim in Chapter 7).
Arguably, there are also other reasons or mechanisms than interestingness for why a theory
becomes influential in the sense of garnering citations and sometimes even becoming well
known in the public domain. For example, a theory’s influence can be related to power
relations within academia where a dominant coalition can more or less dictate mainstream,
imitation tendencies and fashion following. A theory can also be ideologically appealing and
serve broader political interests that are willing to generously fund the ‘right’ kind of research.
The impact and success of a theory may also be dependent on how easy it is to grasp and
apply the credentials of its proposer(s) and to what extent it is in line with existing political and
social values (Peter and Olson, 1986).
Hence, the answer to why a theory becomes influential is not always because it is seen as
interesting but also related to other factors. We shall not venture into this complex area,
merely emphasize that a theory regarded by fellow academics and intellectual members of
the public as interesting is more likely to become influential in academic disciplines and
sometimes also more broadly in society. The fact that other factors than ‘interestingness’
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determine influence does of course not diminish the significance of ‘interestingness’ as a key
element in a theory being influential. Our focus in the book is on the combination of interesting
Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting Theories – SAGE Resea… Page 6 of 11
and influential. Therefore, theories that some people find interesting but which do not attract a
larger audience and theories that are influential but which are not considered to be
particularly interesting both fall outside our primary focus.
From Gap-Spotting to Problematization
If interesting theories are those that challenge the assumptions of existing literature,
problematization of the assumptions underlying existing theories appears to be a central
ingredient in constructing and formulating research questions. However, established ways of
generating research questions rarely express more ambitious and systematic attempts to
challenge the assumptions underlying existing theories (Abbott, 2004; Locke and GoldenBiddle, 1997; Slife and Williams, 1995). Instead, they mainly try to identify or create gaps in
the existing literature that need to be filled. It is common to refer either positively or mildly
critically to earlier studies in order to ‘fill this gap’ (Lüscher and Lewis, 2008: 221) or ‘to
address this major gap in the literature’ (Avery and Rendall, 2002: 3). Similarly, researchers
often motivate their projects with formulations such as ‘no other studies have examined the
associations between children’s belief and task-avoidant behaviour … which is the focus of
the present study’ (Mägi et al., 2011: 665) or ‘our goal in this study was to address these
important gaps by focusing on the effects of the group-level beliefs about voice’ (Morrison et
al., 2011). Such ‘gap-spotting’ seems to dominate most of the disciplines in social science, or
at least management, sociology, psychology and education – areas that we have chosen as
samples for illuminating broader conventions in social science. Gap-spotting means that the
assumptions underlying existing literature for the most part remain unchallenged in the
formulation of research questions. In other words, gap-spotting tends to under-problematize
the existing literature and, thus, reinforces rather than challenges already influential theories.
There are, however, an increasing number of research orientations that directly or indirectly
encourage problematization, such as certain versions of social constructionism,
postmodernism, feminism and critical theory. Since the primary aim for many of these
orientations is to disrupt rather than build upon and extend an established body of literature, it
could be argued that they tend to over-problematize the research undertaken. In particular,
these orientations tend to emphasize the ‘capacity to disturb and threaten the stability of
positive forms of management science’ (Knights, 1992: 533) as a way to highlight what is
‘wrong’ (for example, misleading or dangerous) with existing knowledge (Deetz, 1996), that is,
‘negative’ knowledge is the aim (deconstruction being the ideal). This is often interesting and
valuable but such ‘tearing down’ may also be tiresome after some time. For a large majority of
researchers with a more ‘positive’ research agenda that aims to advance knowledge of a
specific subject matter, such over-problematization is often seen as inappropriate and
unhelpful (Rorty, 1992). In addition, a lot of disturbance-specialized research, which could be
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referred to as programmatic problematization, tends (after some time) to reproduce its own
favored assumptions and thereby lose its capacity to provide novel problematizations.
Research Questions: A Core Ingredient in Developing Interesting Theories – SAGE Resea… Page 7 of 11
Nevertheless, we do consider this kind of research to offer valuable resources to challenge
the assumptions of various literatures.
Aim of the Book
The primary aim of this book is to integrate the positive and the negative research agenda by
developing and proposing problematization as a methodology for identifying and challenging
assumptions that underlie existing theories and, based on that, genera …
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