Survey Research in Anthropology: Part 2 – Finding a Research Question

Research Question. Image of a man in front of a wall covered in paperwork.

So, in a previous blog post, you learned that sometimes Anthropologists use surveys to collect data on the people they are studying. In the last blog post, I talked about finding a research topic, and I narrowed down a topic from health & illness to infectious diseases and then down to influenza.  In this blog post, I will talk about finding a research question.

Even though I narrowed things down to arrive at influenza, that is still too broad of a topic to research. Are we talking about influenza in a certain country? A certain city? Are we considering all ages or just children? Or, maybe the elderly? And what specifically about influenza are we interested in— how people decide to go to the doctor for treatment, or how people avoid the flu, if people get their flu shot, or what? There are so many things that fall under the topic of influenza. We need to narrow this topic down even further into a research question. 

One way to narrow down a topic is to consider it from different angles. For example, you can narrow a topic chronologically (by time) or geographically (by place). Using our influenza example, you could narrow it to a certain time frame, like the last flu season. Or you could narrow the topic by place, and only look at influenza in a certain city or country. Try to narrow down your topic into a more specific one. 

If you are doing original research, you need to ask a research question that has not already been answered yet, so how do you do that? How do you know what to ask as your research question, and what hasn’t been asked already? You need to do more background research. 

The first thing to do is to make a list of keywords relating to your research topic. Think about everything that you read about your topic and subtopic and come up with a list of keywords to use in searching. For example, you may want to search for the term “flu” along with the medical term “influenza.” For each word on your list of keywords, try to come up with another word that means the same thing (a synonym) and add that to your list of keywords. For example, if one of your keywords is “flu shot,” make sure you also add “influenza vaccine,” because these are different words that mean the same thing. As another example, if you add “survey” as a keyword to find out about surveys that were done relating to influenza, then also add in the similar keyword “questionnaire.”

The next thing to do is take your list of keywords and start doing some more library research. This time, you need to be looking for journal articles that match your research topic. You’ll need access to a database of journal articles—ask your librarian if you don’t know how to find these kinds of databases in your library. Some examples of article databases are JSTOR and ProQuest, but there are many, many more! Then, start putting your keywords into the database’s search engine and see what you find. 

You need to find out 2 things: what other researchers have already studied about your topic, and what further research still needs to be done. The journal articles you find will show you what research has already been done, and reading these may give you ideas for your own research question. And, most journal articles will end with a section where the researcher suggests ideas for further research, so check articles carefully for this kind of information. After studying these journal articles, you should have a good idea of what research questions other researchers have studied, and what they suggest people research next. Use this information to come up with your own research question. 

You also need to consider which theoretical approach you want to use. For example, studying influenza in Anthropology falls under the field of Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology has several ways to look at health and illness, which are called theoretical approaches. One theoretical approach is the Epidemiological Approach, which focuses on identifying risk factors for diseases. Another theoretical approach is the Interpretivist Approach, which focuses on now people describe and respond to illness. A third approach, called Critical Medical Anthropology, focuses on how politics and economics impact health. 

Using our influenza example, say you are interested in the Interpretivist approach, and you find a bunch of articles describing surveys about what people think about influenza, meaning people’s perceptions of that disease. And that seems interesting, and so you decide you want to study how people’s perceptions of influenza influence their behavior. 

Let’s say there is a lot of research on this topic, but no one seems to be studying the immigrants in big cities in the United States. These people may have different ideas about influenza, and that may affect their behavior in a way that affects their risk for getting the disease. 

So, you finally decide a good research question would be, “Perceptions of Influenza Among Immigrant Populations in a Large City in the USA.” We still need to refine this topic, and choose a population and a sample to study, but I’ll talk about that in the next blog post.

Want to learn more about survey research in Anthropology?

Just join my Udemy class, “Exploring Surveys in Anthropology Research: Anthropology 4U” at this link:  https://www.udemy.com/course/exploring-surveys-in-anthropology-research/

Thanks for reading!

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