September 13, 2011

Defining my research question

This month I've been slowly working on developing my research question. A research question represents why you want to do your research. It will be crucial to explaining my research to other academics, to my field contacts, and to eventually shape my dissertation. Some professors think the "what" should come first- what methods, field sites, case studies you want to use- and others, the "why." Clearly, they are interdependent, and will both change as I engage more and more with my topic.

I have been struggling a lot with this. I clearly know what I want to study- climate change and agriculture- and am drawing from a variety of theoretical traditions to frame my interest. But I struggle with what methods I want to use- history? anthropology? empirical research? econometrics? geography? I believe this has been the primary block to me narrowing down my research question.

Since I am taking a proposal writing class this semester, and am resubmitting an NSF graduate fellowship proposal, I'm forced to really work on my research question. Last semester I created a few questions for my NSF and other proposals, but they were broad, heavy, and highly influenced by a few of my professors.

So here is the evolution of my progress this semester, and I'm still working on it.

Draft 1) How is scientific expertise used to shape international agricultural development agendas in the context of perceived socio-ecological crises (such as the "population bomb" and climate change)?

Criticisms: Is this really what I want to study? Do I want to study agriculture or environmental crises? This question precludes the on-the-ground fieldwork that I want to do. The word "shape" is ambiguous, the rest is too abstract- need concrete variables.

2) How do policy-makers use scientific knowledge to define and respond to socio-ecological crises that affect food production and consumption?

Criticisms: Same as above, too broad.

3) How do agricultural research institutions utilize plant genetics as a strategy for climate change adaptation, and how is this affected by past technological trajectories?

Criticisms: What is my focal point? Research institutions? Climate change adaptation? Plant genetics? What assumptions am I embedding in this question?

4) How do international agricultural research institutions portray innovations in plant genetics, such as biotechnology, as a strategy for farm-level adaptation to climate change?  In particular, what is the interplay between national and international agricultural research agendas with regards to climate adaptation, and how is this affected by historical technological trajectories of plant-based innovations?

Criticisms: Still too broad! What is my case study here? How am I going to study this, and is it a manageable project?

5) How does a specific technological innovation in agriculture, such as flood-tolerant rice developed at the International Rice Research Institute, become a climate change adaptation strategy at different levels of the agro-innovation system, from farmers to scientists to policy-makers, in South Asia?

Criticisms: Much more concrete! But the language is clunky. Specify what I mean by "climate change adaptation strategy"- what are the physical implications of this- in science, seed marketing, farmer education, policies, agricultural technologies, etc.?

I'll be meeting with my professors all week to narrow this down and clean up ambiguities/clunkiness in my language. But yay, I have progress! What do you think, is my research question reasonably clear? Any suggestions?

In other news, some interesting analyses of climate change, food security, and conflict: the new environmental determinism!


    1) This is about people with scientific expertise, rather than farmers. Is that really who you want to study?

    2) Waaaaay to broad.

    3) Your critiques are spot on, but also the only way to do this is some kind of counter-factual. Very messy.

    4) Better, but this is about the appearance of adaptive strategies, rather than the reality of adaptive strategies.

    5) The best of the lot, and actually a question that is sufficient in scope to be answered in a single journal paper. Climate change adaptation strategy means "what must be done to allow agriculture to continue in the face of global climate change, and who is responsible for carrying out various parts of the program." So that lets you see who has a plan relating to climate change (rice biologists, climatologists, the ministry of agriculture, village farming collectives, NGOs, individual farmers, etc), and how those plans prescribe different kinds of action.

  2. Good luck on this! I think you're on a good start.

  3. What about: "What can the history of flood tolerant rice's development and adoption tell us about successful strategies, both scientific and political, for adapting agriculture to climate change?"


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