How Do You Choose a Good Research Topic?

Everyone’s been there.1 Maybe you’re looking at a class assignment. Or maybe it’s the next conference paper or journal article. Or maybe it’s a larger-scale thesis, dissertation, or book project.

You have a sense of who you want your work to address. But you’re having trouble coming up with exactly what you want to discuss.

There isn’t a magic formula for invention. But a good approach begins with imagination and the hermeneutic priority of questions.

The Hermeneutic Priority of Questions

H.-G. Gadamer reflects,

Imagination … is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutical function and serves the sense for what is questionable. It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions….

As a student of Plato, I particularly love scenes in which Socrates gets into a dispute with the Sophist virtuosi and drives them to despair by his questions. Eventually they can endure his questions no longer and claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner. And what happens? They can think of nothing at all to ask. Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.

I draw the following inference from this observation. The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable.2

The ability to “see what is questionable” helps us to “break the spell of our own fore-meanings.”3 That is, it puts us in a state of openness to understand the realities we encounter in different ways than we do at first blush.

Good research answers a question. And the first step toward answering a question is “seeing what is questionable” so that you can ask the question.

You might not ask the question as such in your project. But the question you’re answering needs to undergird the whole project so that it has coherence as an answer.

Two Kinds of Questions

The questions you can ask are as infinite as the possible combinations of material involved in biblical studies. For all that breadth, though, the questions basically fall into two types.

Good research projects can try to answer questions that are

  1. known as such or based on known themes.
  2. unknown or unknown as such.4

Questions Known as Such or Based on Known Themes

An example of a known question would be “What is the nature of verbal aspect in Koine Greek?”

Similarly, once someone tried to answer the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in Romans?” the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in 1–2 Corinthians?” became a known permutation of the same theme.

Questions Unknown or Unknown as Such

Basing research on a question that’s unknown or unknown as such requires you to interrogate the basic assumptions undergirding a topic. It’s the kind of question that often gets formed through “a willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals.”5

To take a concrete example from biblical studies, by the late 1970s, the discipline of “Old Testament introduction” was well established, and writers of introductions to the Old Testament followed predictable patterns.

One of those frequent patterns was treating the topic of an Old Testament canon only at the end of the introduction or not at all. Canon wasn’t something central to the discipline. And that sense was the accepted status quo.

But in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Brevard Childs argued that this assumption wasn’t well founded.6 Canon wasn’t a subsidiary crater in the wider topic of Old Testament introduction—much less one outside it. The question of canon was actually part and parcel to the whole field.

Questioning the assumption of the irrelevance of canon opened a new line of subsequently known questioning. And scholars began asking, in varying ways, “What might it do for Old Testament interpretation if these texts were approached precisely as canon?”

When Will a Question Lead Somewhere Interesting?

Of course, not all questions that can be asked are good to ask. Simply because you have a “willingness to try [or ask] anything” doesn’t mean the question will lead anywhere interesting.

Gadamer’s description of Socrates’s interaction with the Sophists is again pertinent. Socrates’s interrogation ends in the Sophists’ exasperation—their “expression of explicit discontent.”7 They then “claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner.”8

But inevitably, the Sophists’ lines either don’t materialize or, if they do, they go nowhere: “Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.”9

This situation shows how not all questions, when formed, prove productive. Perhaps no question is “bad” in itself. But that doesn’t mean that all questions are necessarily “good” for the specific purpose of driving a research project. Good research must have a point. It must go somewhere. But—as in the case of the Sophists—not all questions one might ask are “worth while going into and trying to answer.”10

All of this then raises the question of how you can identify a research question that will lead somewhere interesting. Sometimes, you might come across a question that clearly will lead somewhere. When you do, that’s great.

But if you’re more ambivalent about whether your question will go somewhere or not, there are basically two answers. Namely, you can expect to find a research question that will lead somewhere interesting if you can show why your question addresses a problem and if you can keep asking questions.

Show Why Your Question Addresses a Problem

In this first case, the issue is essentially that of the “questions unknown or unknown as such” discussed above. If your question falls here, it’s your job to show your audience why they should share your question.

Initially, helping your audience share your question might mean you get to say nothing, or only very little, about where you think the question leads. If your question needs to unseat something “everyone knows,” it might take quite a lot just to show why your question is worth asking.

What problems are there inside what “everyone knows” that get glossed over? On the basis of what “everyone knows,” what next steps is it difficult to take, or what other questions is it hard to answer?11

Keep Asking Questions

Of course, any specific research question might actually not go anywhere. Like the Sophists, you might see only a dead end. Or you might only find that the end of a given question isn’t terribly interesting and isn’t something you can help your audience share.

In this case, the only thing to do is to keep asking questions. A sentiment like that often attributed to Thomas Edison is appropriate here. When asked about his string of “failures” in trying to invent the electric light, Edison is reported to have said something like, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”12

Similarly, Seth Godin observes how one often has to do a lot of bad writing to get that out of the way before better writing starts to flow.13

And so it is with research questions. Sometimes, you have to ask bad questions in order to see how they lead nowhere and get to better ones. And if you’re ever at a loss for how to continue asking questions, asking “How do I know x?” can often be a good place to begin.

Conclusion

To choose a good research topic, you have to start with a question. That question can be either known or unknown. But it needs to be there to unify your project.

That ability to “see what is questionable” and to ask questions accordingly is the first step in choosing a good research topic.


  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), 12–13; italics added. 

  3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 281. 

  4. In distinguishing types of questions in this way, I’m indebted to the descriptions of “normal” and “extraordinary” science in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). 

  5. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50th anniversary ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 91; see also J. David Stark, “Reading (in) Biblical Studies: Thomas Kuhn’s Significance for Contextualizing the Discipline,” Journal of Faith and the Academy 5.1 (2012): 40–54. 

  6. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 1st American ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). 

  7. Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 91. 

  8. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  9. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  10. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  11. For these general angles of approaching problems with paradigms or what “everyone knows,” see Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions

  12. The actual number of attempts cited in Edison’s sentiment seems to be the subject of some disagreement and variation. 

  13. Seth Godin, Leap First: Creating Work That Matters, Audible ed. (Louisville, CO: Sounds True, 2015). 

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 for your audience.

Questions for Whom?

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

In any case, if a question isn’t known to 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 you need to ask.

Conclusion

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. 

The Fusion of Rhetoric and Hermeneutics

At first glance, rhetoric and hermeneutics are quite different things.1 Rhetoric deals with argument and persuasion, hermeneutics with examination and understanding. But, if we look more closely, they comingle in a way that makes them inseparable.

To begin, both rhetorical and hermeneutical reflection take the form of considering existing practice (21).2 Already in the earliest surviving rhetorical theory from Plato and Aristotle, the theoretical discussion takes the form of reflection on rhetorical practice (21–22). Similarly, the Sophists and Socrates both manifest a concern for an “art of understanding,” even if this is not a full-fledged hermeneutical theory in its own right (22).

In addition, “the theoretical tools of the art of interpretation (hermeneutics) have been to a large extent borrowed from rhetoric” (24). Characteristically, rhetoric “defends the probable” and refuses to admit for acceptance only what can be fully proven empirically (24). And such too is the nature of interpretation.

Rhetoric is everywhere and even directs empiricism, as when science finds in “usefulness” a reason for taking up a particular line of research (24).3 And “no less universal is the function of hermeneutics” because “everything … is included in the realm of ‘understandings’ and understandability in which we move” (24–25).

In this way,

the rhetorical and hermeneutical aspects of human linguisticality completely interpenetrate each other. There would be no speaker and no art of speaking if understanding and consent were not in question, were not underlying elements; there would be no hermeneutical task if there were no understanding that has been disturbed and that those involved in a conversation must search for and find again together. (25)

Understanding comes about by dialog, even if it is only a dialog among oneself, a text, and the tradition that mediates between these two. Even here, as we seek to move past disruptions in this dialog and explain well what we observe, we expose a fundamentally rhetorical character of that dialog.


  1. Header image provided by Vanessa Ives. 

  2. Page numbers by themselves indicate citations from H.-G. Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 18–43. 

  3. See also Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

Theology’s Hermeneutic Interest

Photograph of H. G. GadamerH.-G. Gadamer concludes his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem” by commenting on the importance of language, with an interestingly theological turn. Gadamer suggests,

The … building up of our own world in language persists whenever we want to say something to each other. The result is the actual relationship of men to each other…. Genuine speaking, which has something to say and hence does not give prearranged signals, but rather seeks words through which one reaches the other person, is the universal human task – but it is a special task for the theologian, to whom is commissioned the saying-further (Weitersagen) of a message that stands written. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 17)

To be sure, Christian Scripture and the broader Christian tradition can and do speak for themselves. But, it is doubtless specially incumbent upon those with vocations in theology, biblical studies, preaching, and other Christian education areas to see to the passing on of this testimony and to its interpretation in various contemporary milieux.

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

The Hermeneutic Productivity of the Familiar

Photograph of H. G. GadamerIn his essay on “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” H.-G. Gadamer draws upon Aristotle’s analogy between an army halting its retreat and the experience of coming to understanding. The halt may be so gradual that an observer can say when individuals within the army stop fleeing, but it’s more difficulty to say when the army as a whole has stopped its flight (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

This situation Gadamer likens to the acquisition of language by children and comments,

In the utilization of the linguistic interpretation of the world that finally comes about [for adults], something of the productivity of our beginnings remains alive. We are all acquainted with this, for instance, in the attempt to translate … that is, we are familiar with the strange, uncomfortable, and tortuous feeling we have so long as we do not have the right word. When we have found the right expression … when we are certain that we have it … then something has come to a “stand” [as the army in Aristotle’s analogy]. Once again we have a halt in the midst of the rush of the foreign language…. What I am describing is the mode of the whole human experience of the world…. There is always a world already interpreted, already organized in its basic relations, into which experience steps as something new, upsetting what has led our expectations and undergoing reorganization itself in the upheaval. Misunderstanding and strangeness are not the first factors, so that avoiding misunderstanding can be regarded as the specific task of hermeneutics. Just the reverse is the case. Only the support of familiar and common understanding makes possible the venture into the alien, the lifting up of something out of the alien, and thus the broadening and enriching of our own experience in the world. (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 15)

From the morass of the unfamiliar and strange, humans seem to acquire language or other forms of understanding—to the extent that we do—by means of what are or come to be known quantities, whether as a parent or caregiver, or based on other accumulated prior experience. Our efforts to cope with a “surging sea of stimuli” halt their flight, they come to a stand, once that sea finds its own place—and itself comes to stand—within our understanding of the world, which has quite possibly been broadened for the experience (Philosophical Hermeneutics, 14).

For other reflections by and on Gadamer, see also previous posts on his thought.

Rhetorical “small change”

In his 1963 essay on the “Phenomenological Movement.” H.-G. Gadamer discusses at length Edmund Husserl’s influence in founding the school. In so doing, he recounts an interesting habit of Husserl’s that

In his teaching, whenever he encountered the grand assertions and arguments typical of beginning philosophers, he used to say, “Not always the big bills, gentlemen; small change, small change!” (133)

Gadamer does not wholly underwrite Husserl’s program, but he does helpfully observe that—perhaps as much for theology as for philosophy:

This kind of work produced a peculiar fascination. It had the effect of a purgation, a return to honesty, a liberation from the opaqueness of the opinions, slogans, and battle cries that circulated. (133)

For the balance of Gadamer’s reflections in this essay, see its printing in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 130–81.