Asking the Right Question: Part 1

Picture your typical routine when you sit down to work on your family history. Perhaps you’ve switched the computer on, maybe your notebook is open and waiting to receive more scribblings, and there might even be a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits at the ready. You’re all set to jump into the past. But what happens next? Where do you start?

In this series of posts, I’m going to think about research questions and how they can guide and assist us in exploring our ancestry.

What is a research question?

Put simply, a research question is a carefully thought-out question which summarises the goal of your current investigations.

You’ve probably been using research questions of a sort in all your genealogy work, perhaps without realising it. Every time that you type search terms into an online genealogical database, or spend hours scrolling through microfiche to read parish registers at your local archives, you’re usually hoping to find references to a particular individual or family.

Perhaps you’ve been asking: “Where was Ignatius HOLLOWAY born?” or “Did Euphemia CROSS, born in Oxford in April 1873, have any siblings?” You might have been asking much more specific questions; or maybe instead you’ve just been thinking “What can I find out about Anthony STEWART?”

The questions we’re asking matter.

If we can be more upfront about our questioning process, it can work wonders for our research, making our research time more productive and helping us to find what we’re really looking for.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned when I first trained in professional scientific research many years ago is common to research in any discipline: if you’re plugging away at your research for ages without making any progress, sometimes it’s that you’re asking the wrong question. An ill-posed or too-vague research question will generally yield poor-quality answers or none at all.

A good research question is rather like Dorothy Gale walking along the Yellow Brick Road in Oz. The route ahead might be beset with dangers and distractions, but if you have a good research question to follow you’ll always have a clear idea of where you’re going.

Research questions: the Yellow Brick Road of genealogy research.
Photo credit: Pascal Rey; image licensed CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

During this series of posts, we are going to formulate and use a research question, based upon a simple example. Before I introduce you to the Pearson family though, take a moment now to think about one of the “brick walls” in your own family tree. If you were trying to research your brick wall individual, what would you ask?

Write down the question you’re trying to answer now.

How will a research question help me?

The records you need and want may not always survive, but a good question will always give you a clear path forwards.
Photo: Cesar Bojorquez, CC-BY 2.0

Taking a few moments at the start of your genealogy session to identify what it is you’re hoping to achieve – by writing down your research question – is likely to make your research much more successful.

Having a good question won’t guarantee you’ll find the information you’re after – maybe because a baptism went unrecorded at the time, a parish register was eaten by mice or the probate records you need were destroyed in the Blitz. It will give you a soundly-reasoned path of enquiry which explains why you’re not able to push through that wall any further.

Having a research question…

…gives your research structure and direction

We’ve all been tempted sometimes to wander off into intriguing but irrelevant records, when something unrelated to our search piques our curiosity. Write down your research question and stick it up somewhere in your line of sight while you’re working. It’ll help you stay on course, and you can always note down those interesting-but-unrelated pages to have a wander through another time!

…assists you in defining the parameters of your search

Once you’ve identified what you’re hoping to find out, you can start to think about where you should be looking for that information. Which record sets should you be looking in, and how will you access them? This helps you to build a sensible research path and understand what it is you’re actually looking for.

…helps you to identify any gaps or mistakes in your existing work and stops you jumping ahead too soon

An important factor! The process of writing your question makes you look at other, related work you’ve done on the same family. Do you already have all the information you need to make an effective search for Great-Grandpa Jeremiah’s military service, or do you actually need to do a bit more research on the dates of his major life events first?

Perhaps in trying to write a good research question, you’ve noticed that the dates of birth and death you have for Jeremiah don’t add up somehow: maybe you’ll need to go back and check those before you proceed. This might seem frustrating at first, but it will improve your chances of looking in the right places for the right people – and you won’t end up with other people’s ancestors in your tree instead!

Introducing the Pearsons

Now for a sneak preview. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll be discussing how to write and use a research question in practice, using a simple example from the PEARSON family shown below. If you were investigating Charlotte OLIPHANT, what research questions might you want to ask?

The PEARSON family of Carlisle, Cumberland. What research questions would you formulate if you were investigating Charlotte OLIPHANT? How might those questions be influenced by information for other family members?

In reality, there are often many different questions we could ask. In the next post I’ll be looking at how we might write a good research question for investigating Charlotte’s life, how we might refine that question during our research, and how one question can lead to another.

And keep your own “brick wall” question safe too, as we’ll be returning to that later – perhaps Part 2 will get you thinking about whether or not you’re asking the right questions…

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