Introducing research in law and beyond
Introducing research in law and beyond

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Introducing research in law and beyond

2.8 The difference between a topic and a research question

It is often relatively easy to identify an area you want to learn more about or investigate in some way. Formulating this into a research question can be more difficult. The statement ‘I want to study the work of the International Labour Organisation’ is too ill defined to be a research question. It is an area of inquiry that will be addressed over time by a number of researchers. It is not enough to identify a subject or phenomenon and say ‘I want to know about X’. You need to specify what you want to know about X, how you might know it and why it is worth knowing.

There are two other pitfalls into which it is relatively easy to fall.

Not starting with an open mind

Some researchers want to investigate an issue about which they have already a firm opinion. These problems are value laden:

  • Why is the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 not working?
  • Investigation into why special international courts deliver better justice than traditional justice mechanisms.

Each implies an answer or assumes something about the world. The danger is that the ‘research’ will be distorted to serve the assumption and will therefore have little value. Research should step back to ask a general question without assuming outcomes so the evidence can speak. Asking why the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 is not working assumes that it is not. The starting point should be questioning whether or not it is working. As a legal text your work must be transparent in using evidence to evaluate and not preload your research outcomes.

Lack of context

It is easy to be so focused on your own ideas that you forget that there is an existing discourse, a whole literature, to consult. An idea may be so consuming to an individual that they miss (or ignore) the possibility that someone has already dealt with it in a similar context. At first sight this example might seem to have potential for a legal study:

  • Undertaking a feasibility study of the effectiveness of the law of the sea.

However, a brief look at relevant literature quickly suggests there is already a significant body of knowledge on this topic. The big questions have already been answered so a particular niche would have to be found in order to say something grounded and original.


This section has introduced the first three stages of the research selection process. It has enabled you to generate a number of research ideas using a research diary and a range of other techniques. The process of undertaking a suitability analysis was outlined as a way of identifying which potential research question was the most suitable from a personal, stakeholder and research project perspective. A further process of evaluation was also presented which considered the difference between a topic and a problem, bias and a lack of context.


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