To win a scholarship, it goes without saying, I think, that your proposal has to include all the usual elements of a viable project: a research question, a brief review and critique of the literature, and a summary of how you are going to answer the question and fill current gaps in our understanding of the phenomenon in question. Proposals range from weak to great. How good of a proposal you produce will depend upon how well you write, how clearly you understand the topic, and, in some ways, on how ‘real’ the topic is, that is, is there a genuine gap or are you just calling something a gap because that is what you are supposed to do. I am going to focus on how to develop a research question that won’t turn your reviewer off of your project.
In my experience, research questions should always be why questions, like why do some cats have tabby fur while others don’t. The virtue of why questions is twofold. First, they present meaningful variation to be explained. Secondly, they do not presuppose any sort of explanation. The first point is pretty self explanatory, but I will return to it in more detail below. The second point can best be unpacked with some examples. Suppose I proposed to research how disenfranchised ethnic minorities affect negotiations to end civil wars. At first blush, this may seem like a reasonable question to try to research. The problem is that the question either presumes an effect that has yet to be demonstrated or entails that a possible answer to the research question is that there is no effect at all. In the first problem, you are confusing the question that you are researching, which should appear prior to your argument, with the argument that you are trying to make. If I read a how question, I know that the author is going to find a connection that they want to find. At the proposal stage especially, how questions seem quite disingenuous.
The second problem – a presumed effect – is best illustrated through another example. If I changed disenfranchised ethnic minorities to ninjas and asked how ninjas affect negotiations to end civil wars, the obvious thing that comes to mind is that they probably have no effect at all. A how question only allows the reviewer to consider this one possibility and it is more likely than not, in this case at least, a dead end. This is not a finding worthy of funding. The worst part of how questions is that, in a reviewer’s mind, your question can be both things at the same time–both leading and likely to be a null finding. In short, how questions either pre-empt your argument, making the question seem superfluous, or they are open to negative findings, ninjas have no effect on civil war endings, which is not really fundable.
Why questions fix both problems by disaggregating the question to be studied from the argument that is going to be made. Why questions also allow for many possible answers, at least one of which is going to be right in some measure. If the question is re-framed as a why question, it becomes why do some negotiations to civil wars result in agreements while other do not? Both disenfranchised ethnic minorities and ninjas are potential answers, but the empirical variation that is going to be explained in your study, come what may, exists independently of any argument that you might want to advance. Also, should your particular pet theory be wrong, the question remains and you, as a researcher, can go on to find some explanation that fits better.
Eric Jardine, PhD Candidate, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs