Who Is Your Research Question Good For?

When you’re trying to choose a good research topic, there’s no silver bullet.1 But a fruitful search begins with your working to “see what is questionable.”2

Your research question can be one of two types: known or unknown. And at this point, the first-who principle raises its head yet again.

That is, your question is known or unknown according to whether it’s known or unknown by your audience.

Questions for Whom?

If your audience doesn’t know of your question as a question, they might think it’s already been resolved. Or they might consider it a non-issue.

In any case, if a question isn’t known by your audience, it falls into the category of unknown questions. Unknown questions can be some of the most exciting to ask and seek to answer.

But they do come with the added burden of clearly showing why they’re worth asking. If your research is answering a question that’s unknown by your audience, it’s up to you to demonstrate why your question is askable.

Why is it something that requires an answer for your audience? (And no, because you need to choose a topic isn’t a sufficient reason. 🙂 )

Helping Questions Arise

Once you answer that question for your audience, you’ll have created the room you need to show them the answer to the question they now know. You’ll have created what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “rhetorical exigence”:

Prior to the creation and presentation of discourse, there are three constituents of any rhetorical situation: the first is the exigence…. An exigence is an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something wanting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.… An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse.3

An exigence is a key ingredient of any rhetorical situation that exists among you, your audience, and the constraints in which you make your argument.4

It’s a question that demands an answer. And it demands that answer not only to give you an opportunity to present an argument but also to satisfy your audience’s concern for the exigence’s resolution.

What this means is that—to whatever degree your question is unknown by your audience—you need to help your audience have the problem your question expresses.

Otherwise, they aren’t going to know your question as a question, as an exigence that demands a solution. And if your audience doesn’t see your research as addressing an exigence, you’ll have a hard time keeping their attention—let alone persuading them of your answer to a question they don’t think needs to be asked.


Once you settle on a research question, the first-who principle still applies. If your audience recognizes that you’re answering an exigent question, you’re good to go.

But if they don’t, you may need to do some preliminary groundwork to show why your audience should find your new question pressing.

  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 13. 

  3. Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 6–7; italics original. 

  4. Bitzer, “Rhetorical Situation,” 6; see also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 370–87.