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 differently than we do at first blush.

Two Kinds of Questions

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.

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.

For instance, 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 that was endemic 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.5 Canon wasn’t a subsidiary crater in the wider topic of Old Testament introduction. It was part and parcel to the whole.

Questioning the assumption of the irrelevance of canon opened a new line of subsequently known questioning. What might it for Old Testament interpretation if it were approached precisely as canon?

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

Bartholomew on “What the World Needs from Christian Academics”

Faithlife Today has posted a clip that mostly contains an interview with Craig Bartholomew about “what the world needs from Christian academics.” The post is dated 11 October 2017, but interview seems to have been recorded some time ago, before Bartholomew’s move to the Kirby Lang Institute and seemingly also before the publication of his introduction to hermeneutics. Even so, the content of the interview remains quite a poignant challenge.

Scholarship as Meritocracy

Larry Hurtado reflects on ill-supported views that sometimes get bandied about, not least on the Internet. In contrast, Hurtado comments:

In the world of scholarship, your opinion gets as much respect and attention as it deserves, based on your having demonstrated your knowledge of the data and ability to analyze and construct cogent inferences and interpretations–“demonstrated” in the judgment of other scholars competent to judge.  Scholarship isn’t a townhall meeting.  It’s a meritocracy in which opinions suffer informed critique, and those views that get accepted are the ones that are seen to be worthwhile by those competent to judge, who have themselves had to develop and demonstrate the “goods.”

Whether scholarship “is” or “should be” a meritocracy could perhaps be discussed, as well as what meritocracy might practically entail. But, even if and when scholarship falls short of meritocratic interaction, it would still seem beneficial to act as though it is a meritocracy and to remember that no one scholar has the ability to define where scholarship finds merit.

That is, if one’s views do not find a careful hearing, there remains work to be done to demonstrate why that hearing should be given. To play up the instances in which scholarship falls short of even-handed interaction with various positions would appear to allow space for an academic “victim mentality” to set in (Woe is me! Why are my arguments not heard?). George Ladd is perhaps a good example of what can happen as a result of one or the other view taking hold (though with excesses even on the better side; see John D’Elia, A Place at the Table).

In another light, to call scholarship, or the academy, a “meritocracy” highlights its status (although under another name) as a marketplace for ideas. Even in capitalist markets, some goods may be over- or under-valued, but the responsibility for showing the value of those goods still lies with the merchants, even when the market environment might be less than fully favorable toward them.

For the balance of Hurtado’s reflections, see his original blog post.