Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

How Does My Research Question Come about? the Impact of Funding Agencies in Formulating Research Questions

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

How Does My Research Question Come about? the Impact of Funding Agencies in Formulating Research Questions

Article excerpt

It is a well-known post-positivist myth that the empirical researcher can be neutral politically and ethically with his/her field, and even many qualitative researchers somehow agree with this statement, since neutrality seems to guarantee inquiry's rigor, trustworthiness, and legitimacy (Diebel, 2008). The researcher is supposed to be politically independent in designing the research project and ethically detached from the participants. The paradigm turn (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) and especially the critical theory paradigm has powerfully criticized this assumption from a political perspective (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2005). In particular, many scholars have argued that locating funding for qualitative research is a political process (Cheek, 2005; Roth, 2002). However, what I would like to illustrate here is that the funding body has also a methodological impact of which the researcher should be aware and should learn to deal with.

Few years ago, I was funded by a broadcasting company associated with the former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. This circumstance made me very concerned and unsettled for many reasons. But this was also the reason for taking very seriously the problem of the ethical (and political) underpinnings of funded qualitative research. Doing research under these circumstances made me understandably worried about the possibility to carry out my research with the autonomy I wanted. The research topic--television experience of 3-6 years old children--was very controversial and a heated debate divided, and still is dividing, professionals, academics, NGOs in two opposite perspectives on the role of TV viewing for little children.

And I actually realized that the impact of funding agencies also has methodological consequences on the research practice.

After a brief review of some main positions about the issue of the development of the research topic and the research question, I will examine the sources from where a topic or a general problem comes about, and then how it can be shaped into a workable research question. In this passage, I identify four specific constraints. In this paper, however, I will deepen only one of them: the funder-related constraints. I will illustrate the methodological impact of funding agencies by presenting a case of a research on the use of television in families, funded by a mixed board of television industries and children's advocate groups. Then, I will show four possible solutions to the methodological problem of funding related to four different paradigms, and, finally, I will present what we actually did in our research to deal with this issue.

1. Choosing a Topic

Choosing a research topic (or problem) in qualitative inquiry and establishing a workable research question are two different, but interrelated processes, and it is difficult to define which one comes first or after (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Researchers are always embodied in the world they wish to explore and their stance is never neutral or separate from the world in which they live. So the research question that one cuts off from the whole topic is difficult to isolate like a figure on the background.

However, in the practice of research the passage from the first step to the second step is necessary, and represents one of the most difficult processes, especially (but not only) for novices (Silverman, 2000).

Traditionally, every research comes from a topic that then requires to be transformed (or reduced) into an experimental hypothesis or a focused research question. Quantitative research calls this delicate passage "operationalization"--the transformation of abstract concept in something measurable. By the way at the beginning of the 1970s even some qualitative methodologists talked about operationalization too (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973, p. 101; see also Denzin, 1971).

Before examining the problems in qualitative research that are also related to the transformation/reduction of a concept into a workable research question, it is interesting to see how a research theme emerges and how one considers a research area as relevant. …

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