Finding a focus for searching
Sometimes you may start out with too broad an idea or too big a problem to start searching immediately. Here we ask: What is it you want to know? Having a clear, focused idea, written down as a research question, will provide you with a strong starting place for your thinking and for searching for the best evidence for your work. (Some agencies and organisations may subscribe to CareKnowledge, they also provide a free trial for individuals.)
For students at all levels there may be times when you are asked to find a focus for a piece of research and nothing stands out for you. You may have several 'fuzzy' ideas which come in and out of focus with no real definition, or even one fuzzy area, where you know you are interested, but you are not sure in exactly what.
As an example, you may be interested in children and neglect, but not really sure beyond that. What aspect should you look for, and how should you make your mind up? One way is to start with a preliminary search for a key term or two in a few places and see what comes up. Good places to look to spark a more specific interest are:
Google Scholar. This search engine will display journal articles, book titles, some online resources and Google Books that relate to your search terms.(These, usually a number of restricted pages, but are still a good starting place for reading.) As with all online searching, be careful about your sources. Reputable journals will be peer reviewed but not all information on the internet is reputable! Peer reviewing means that the quality of the papers will have been checked by other academics, it is a way to improve credibility but not a guarantee of accuracy.
The Guardian. The online Guardian newspaper can be searched for topics and reports on research of interest, which can then be followed up at the source. The 'Society Guardian' section will be of particular interest.
Community Care. Community Care is an online magazine for social care. Its news stories, which are sometimes based on research reports, are useful for getting an overview of a topic, and there is a section within the 'Resource' area which specifically looks at recent research.
The BBC.The BBC sometimes reports on research but also provides a useful overview of a topic from the news if you are trying to find a clearer focus out of a fuzzy idea.
Choose an area of 'fuzzy' interest, or select from the three given below, and use the 'search' box on each of the above sites to see what comes up. Make a list of the more specific focuses within your fuzzy area. These can be used in a mind map to tighten up the focus.
Remember to check the dates of reports; although for this exercise it's not especially important, you should be aware of what is most current. This is certainly important when conducting a real-life search in your work or study.
- 'children neglect'
- 'learning disabilities employment'
- 'Alzheimer's social care'.
Fuzzy ideas and the information you can find about them can form the basis for formulating a research question
One way to discover a focus to help you find research is to think of an area of work or a placement where things don't work as smoothly as they might, or there seems to be a gap in the way that services are provided. What would you like to see researched there? How can you write down the problem? There are different approaches that you might take.
A problem may well be something that is bothering you within a work context, and that you would like to explore to improve things:
It is clear that at my workplace communication with older people with dementia is very poor. What would be the most effective way to help practitioners to improve their communication in this area?
An idea can start off as something quite vague, though it will have to be refined eventually into something more focused. For example:
I wonder whether parents prefer social workers coming to their homes, or having to come into the office?
A general area for research can also start out as something imprecise, such as:
In my job we spend a lot of time on driving from place to place, or waiting for people to show up. I wonder how people use this time?
A data gap can be a hole in our field of human knowledge, but it is more likely to be a gap in our practice knowledge, or something relatively new. For example:
Online forms of communication such as Facebook are used by many young people, including children who are in the care system. What sort of problems and possibilities might this present? What do young people think about this?
Evaluations of services are widespread because such evaluation is seen as a powerful way to provide evidence about whether a service is working well and indications about the ways it could be improved. Evaluations can be used to with a service-related problem. For example:
What do service users say are the best ways to provide satisfactory appointments and reception arrangements for office-based visits?
The point is that the inspiration to look for research can come from very different interests, and be approached in many different ways.
Using research questions
A 'research question' provides a focused place from which to begin your search or to frame your literature review, and can provide some of the keywords for your search. A keyword is a word which is central to a description of your topic, and will provide the basis for searching online.
Research questions for literature reviews need to be written in a way that lets you think: 'When I have answered this question, will I have looked critically at the evidence field of the practice area that I am researching?' Once you have written a main research question, it can be useful to break it down into second-level questions to help you focus your thinking and searching.
Some second-level questions that you might want to ask about your main research question are:
What do we mean by...? Where and how is it defined?
What is the context for it - legal and policy, social or professional?
What is going on? Where, with whom, how much or how often? How is it experienced? Whose accounts/perspectives do we have? Are there gaps?
What helps to explain what is happening? What factors underlie it? What helps to make it happen? What concepts and theories help us to understand why it is happening?
How useful/effective is it? Is there evidence that it works? Over what period of time? How well and for whom? How can we tell?
What are the implications? Why does it matter? Does it help us to recommend plans for change or development? Should it affect practice or policy priorities? How and why?
When you have formulated your main research question, come back to this section. Write down this list of second-level questions and see which ones you will want to answer in relation to your own topic. Try and write down what you need to know next to each type of question.
In the exercise at the start of this section, three examples of reasons for searching the literature were given, with the related context or focus next to each example. You might have noticed that each statement had a different 'feel' to it. The first, 'domestic violence in same-sex relationships', and the third, were contexts, a general area to explore. Aveyard (2010: 89) calls this a 'main topic', and suggests using a mind map to explore the topics around it and see how they sit with each other. This can help you to start to focus in on your search, or if done post-search, will help you consider the relationships between various parts of your search. In this case the map might look something like this.
A more focused question that might come out of this mind map would be 'What are the experiences of lesbians who contact domestic violence services?'
Use one of the examples from the first two exercises (or one of your own devising), and create a mind map to open the topic out.
Once you have started writing research questions, you need to think carefully and critically about any assumptions that may have been made. Look at the following example.
- What helps to improve communication with adults with autism and challenging behaviour?
- What do we mean by 'challenging behaviour'?
- How do we measure 'improvement'?
- Why might we need to 'improve communication' with adults with autism and challenging behaviour?
- Whose definition of 'helping' should we be looking at?
These further questions raise the importance of considering the theoretical frameworks which will help you to think about your topic, and the ways these shape what you will find when you start to search. For instance, working from a social model of disability (Shakespeare 2006) would suggest that practitioners need to improve their communication skills, whereas working from a medical model which places the 'fault' for disability within the individual body may suggest that people with autism must improve their understanding of 'normal' social communication in order to 'fit in'.
Thinking about your own area of professional practice or current practice interest, what might be interesting to research? Can you write this down as a question? Try and make it:
- clear and unambiguous (for instance, don't say 'parent' if you mean 'mother')
- focused (thinking about specific groups or areas of practice, for instance)
- achievable (considering that it is unlikely that many people will be working on the project, nor that there will be very much funding)
- a question, not a statement!
Your research question will differ depending on whether you are testing an idea, looking for 'what works' or exploring a problem or phenomenon.
Then look critically at the question and write down any assumptions you may have made within it.