Research as Inquiry

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

We discuss the following topics on this page:

The ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy states that inquiry-based research is “a process that focuses on problems or questions in a discipline or between disciplines that are open or unresolved.” They add that “The spectrum of inquiry ranges from asking simple questions that depend upon basic recapitulation of knowledge to increasingly sophisticated abilities to refine research questions, use more advanced research methods, and explore more diverse disciplinary perspectives.” The goal is not to ask simple questions with easy answers but to focus on increasingly complex questions that generate discussion in the field or across disciplines. In this way, inquiry is a precursor to the following sections of this chapter: Searching as Strategic Exploration, and Scholarship as Conversation.

Inquiry & Curiosity

There is a direct correlation between inquiry and curiosity. Curious people ask questions, which drives inquiry. Think of how many times you’ve steered a conversation toward something you’re curious about by asking questions and trying to make a personal connection to the discussion. This same principle applies to the research process. Inquiry-based research is a form of active learning and is a sign of an open mind. Embracing this idea can help cultivate a sense of investment and turn your research into a true passion project.

For example, in the video on Scholarship as Conversation, Jada discusses how she connected to “Sonny’s Blues” because she is from the same area the story was set in and that her father was a jazz fan. She also mentioned how she was fascinated by the different ways scholars approached Baldwin’s story and how those approaches shed light on how she viewed her upbringing. In this way, her paper became a passion project because she was genuinely curious about the varying perspectives on the classic story that deepened her connection to her research. You may not always have such a strong personal connection to your topic, but this process of asking questions and probing can pique your curiosity and provide an entry into the scholarly conversation.

The Art of Asking Good Questions

Asking good questions is not always intuitive. It’s a skill that should be developed by anyone planning to do sustained research. It may even be helpful to think of it as an art. Thoughtful questions generate discussion in research just as they do in a social setting; the two feed into each other. Focus on formulating critical, open-ended questions while avoiding closed questions that provide a definitive answer or attempt to prove a preconceived claim. Closed questions are the opposite of inquiry, which requires an open-ended approach that sparks deeper questions that drive the discourse around a given problem.

For example, the ACRL Framework emphasizes that “Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions or lines of inquiry in any field.” Even though we often think about research linearly, it’s helpful to keep this iterative model in mind as you begin your research and start looking for your entry into the scholarly conversation. You will no doubt find yourself circling back before you move forward. This iterative process is normal and even encouraged.

Think Questions, not Topics

Topics tend to be broad and general. For example, you may start with topics such as James Baldwin or “Sonny’s Blues” as starting points. However, once you begin your research in books, journals, and databases, realize that the authors you discover there are trying to engage with you as much as you are with them. As you review the literature, be aware of open questions and unexplored perspectives that may open doors for your research. Keep a running list of questions as you read and continue refining them until one emerges as a fully-realized research question.

Literary theories, which we discuss in a following chapter, provide many of the open-ended questions that help us get into the inquiry process. Theorists are people who ask broad open-ended questions that spark discussion, and it is quite common for researchers to begin with one of these theory-based questions. For instance, a question common to Marxist theory is to ask why people behave in ways that seem to be contrary to their own interests.

We will return to these issues in Chapter 10 when we discuss how to refine and evaluate a research question more in-depth. Try to have a few questions ready for that section so you can work through that process with us.

The Invention Process

For your research project, you will need to make an argument: a claim with supporting evidence and logic. But how do you generate that “stuff”? Where does it come from? Fortunately for us, people who lived thousands of years ago figured it out! Inventio is the Latin term for the discovery of arguments. Most arguments already exist (and we discover them). Sometimes we need to get creative and make a new argument (we invent them). The term inventio covers both discovery and invention.

Imagine a warehouse full of ready-made arguments that you can visit and discover. That approach works a lot better and is a lot easier than making up the whole thing from scratch, and it is not cheating. The Roman lawyer Cicero used the term stasis for the process of using ready-made questions to clarify an issue and persuade an audience. He noted four types: conjectural (What are the facts?), definitional (What does it mean?), qualitative (How good or bad is it?), and translative (Was the matter handled appropriately?). Using Cicero’s stasis, we can discover the “stuff” we need for our research by asking the right questions and then answering them.

Dr. Kip Wheeler, of Carson-Newman University, has produced a handy guide to inventio that includes many other types of inventio such as narration, description, process, cause, effect, etc. If you get stuck figuring out what questions to ask, visit Dr. Wheeler’s page and discover what’s already available for you to use!



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