Formulating Research Questions

from Theresa Senft

The Question

After you locate your object, you’ll want to come up with your question. For many of you, your question and your object will be intimately connected. For others, teasing out your question may take some work.

The”question” portion of your essay strategy is most easily dealt with by asking yourself, “What about my object fascinates me? How can I formulate my fascination as a one or two line interrogation?”

Helpful advice regarding questions

• Use words like “how” or “what” rather than “why” to form your questions.  Asking “why” generally yields the answer,“because,” which gets you nowhere as a researcher.

• Realize that you won’t have room to tackle more than one question in a short paper.That said, you will –and should– have ancillary or  “follow up” questions coming from your big question.

• State your questions as concisely and clearly as possible. This means that two short sentences are better than one long one.

• Avoid leading questions. For example, “How does the Internet lead to the

collapse of communication?” is an argument masquerading as a question, and is not acceptable for a proposal.

Some Common Types of Questions

Below, I provide a few categories of common questions asked in media and cultural studies. This list is by NO MEANS EXHAUSTIVE. It is meant to spark your thinking, nothing more. Here are some things you might want to ask of your objects:

Questions of PLACE AND SPACE

1.   In what place does my object exist? Where in history, geography, and cultural memory is it located? How does the arrangement of space affect the object’s meaning within culture? Has that space changed over time? What might be the significance of that change for culture at large?

2.   How do the particular social groups I am studying come to an understanding of their private and the public space? Theirc ommercial and ‘free’ space? Their sacred and the secular space?

Questions of AFFECT and MEMORY


1. What sorts of experiences does my object elicit for its viewers/participants/bystanders/participants? How does experiential knowledge change what an object ‘means’ for different populations?

2. What is the relationship between an experience of a moment, and the re-telling of it via memory?


1. How have issues of gender, class, nationality, religion, race, age, ability, or language use functioned in the past for the group of people I’m interested in studying? Have there been changes worth noting? What might those changes signify regarding culture at large?

2. How was legitimate and illegitimate behaviour determined in the past for those in the group I am studying? Have their been changes worth noting? How might those changes tell us something about the changing nature of the group, or about culture at large?

Questions of SOCIAL CAPITAL:

1.    How are issues of trust negotiated in this environment?

2.    How is social power accrued in this environment?

3.    How is risk managed in this environment?



1. Who has owned the means to produce this practice/product/tool in the past? Do different people own it now? If so, have changes in ownership affected what this practice/product/tool signifies culturally?

2. Who has used this practice/product/tool in the past? Do different people use it now? If so, have changes in consumption affected the cultural meanings of this practice/product/tool?

Questions of AFFECT and EFFECTS. Some examples include:


1. What does it mean to speak of certain activities as “addictive”?

2. What does it mean to speak of being in “flow” with regard to an environment or practice?

3. To what extent does this object/phenomenon influence activities with regard to “real world” violence, activism, sexuality, anti-social behavior, etc.?

Questions of AESTHETICS. Some examples include:


1. How does this environment/creation/phenomenon fit with our established ideas about art?

2. What parameters do we use for determining whether something is of high quality in this field, and what value judgments do we display when we use existing terminology for the field (e.g. ‘elegant code’)

Questions of NETWORKS and MACHINES. Some examples include:


1. What are the degrees of separation between major players in this system (“players”should include both humans, software, hardware, and so forth)?

2. How are the feedback loops structured in this environment between producers,distributors, consumers, and interfaces?

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