During my most recent PhD candidate peer meeting and again while interacting with my students, I began to consider the mental process of historians as they settle on a research question. Additionally – and quite crucially – when do they reach the point in their research process when they feel like they’ve gathered enough evidence in order confidently analyze it?
Natural sciences are both blessed and cursed by real world demands and limitations when they’re faced with these tasks. First, they mostly attempt to find answers to questions that will ultimately (and hopefully) benefit the society by pushing our cumulative knowledge that little bit further in the margins of an already marginal sub-field. Second, research questions of natural science articles often require less mulling over by the ultimate author of the article and the conductor of experiments, as new discoveries in these fields tend to open a Pandora’s Box of new questions for subsequent scientists to answer. From these questions what ends up getting picked by any given scientist or lab team then is then usually determined by their own limitations what comes to funding, equipment, staff, etc.
For historians, the process of coming up with a research question is quite different.
Not only is history a vast ocean of unattainable truths, whatever questions get picked and answered by historians rarely if ever have any tangible impact on our future. One could argue otherwise, but at the very least it seems obvious that the impact of one historian is miniscule unless their interpretations get a boost of support from the research community at large, and then further clout by mainstream popularity. The baseline expectation for the societal impact factor of historical articles relative to the impact factor of most other sciences should be that people who read it outside your own niche circles will go :- “Neat.”
The positive side to this insignificance is that we are quite free to do whatever we like. Even actual limitations regarding the availability of source material are usually only as restricting as we perceive them to be, and a creative and/or skilled writer will often make it seem like there never was any obstacles at all.
The downside to this freedom comes – as it often does – in the form of indecision. If there is a historian whose underlying motivation for becoming one wasn’t personal interest and passion, point them out to me because I’ve never met one before. But with passion also come a lot of options, and the wider one’s interest pool the more difficult it becomes to just go ahead and focus on one thing. Moreover, once you’ve made the choice there are pitfalls to a historical research question that should definitely be considered in advance of conducting any research. So many layers exist in any historical phenomenon that not keeping your eyes on the road can and will come and haunt you later.
And this brings us to the Big Five ‘W’ Questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why), and why it is so essential to consider them carefully before anything else. By clearly defining an answer to all these questions as they relate to your research topic, you are shaving off enormous amounts of excess sources, literature, and perspectives to consider from the get-go. Figuring out your scope as soon as possible will make it much less likely that your precious grant paid time will be wasted on dead-ends and fascinating but ultimately pointless detours.
So let’s look at them:
The Who: By narrowing down your research to a very specific group of people (or objects, as is the trendy thing to do these days) you give yourself a free pass on considering the experiences of people who are similar but fundamentally different. Essentially, in a room full of shouting people, you are deciding to focus on that guy first and foremost. It’s a limited story, but at least it will be cohesive.
Regarding my own dissertation, this was one of the most crucial and useful early eliminations. Focusing on regular officers’ instead of all officers’ perspective of their identity and role allows me to focus on a very homogenous group of people with comparable backgrounds, while it also allows me to navigate the sea of sources with a very cutthroat mentality about whose accounts of the war I will give the time of day.
The What: I don’t think anyone can really avoid defining the specifics of what they are studying, but the scope of the ‘whats’ that I’ve seen vary greatly. A good rule of thumb is to consider how easy it is to define the terms used in your research question. Terms like ‘meaning’, ‘influence’, ‘experience’ etc. are particularly precarious in how many ways they could be interpreted. You should look at your research question while trying to imagine how it could be interpreted: If two readers can have two completely different ideas of what exactly are you studying based on your research question, your what needs some work.
The When: Perhaps the most obvious of the five for a historian to establish, lest they want to be pulled into the void. However this is never as easy as it sounds, as historical events don’t tend to have a definitive beginning and end, on top of which you can’t get away with saying nothing of the stuff that led to the situation where your own study begins. It’s a pain to choose a cut-off point at either end, but it must be done. And it must be done sooner rather than later.
The Where: Along with The When, this limiter is usually one of the most obvious and luckily the easiest to define early on, while also yielding the research process vast amounts of material now safe to be discarded.
The Why: Finally, this is the most important question of all, both when deciding on a research question as well as when meta-thinking out your own motivations for embarking on the journey to answer it.
When considering your own motivations, knowing the why of settling down on your research question will help you navigate your own biases along the way. It will also illuminate for yourself something about yourself, and at this stage, revelations such as “I’m just doing it for the money” or “I’ve just always wanted to find out” will also help you put the research project within the proportions it deserves.
What comes to the why of your research question, it is what defines historical research. If you answer all the above questions and leave out the why, you’re a chronicler rather than a historian. And if you refuse to answer the why as a historian, rest assured someone else with likely much narrower perspectives and more unhinged ulterior motives will step in and do it for you.