1. What's my question? - He aha tāku pātai?

Many years ago Professor Bob Morgan, an Aboriginal educator, talked to us about research being mostly about searching well-trodden pathways again while maybe having different people accompany us, asking new questions, or looking at things from a different angle. Re-search is therefore about taking things that we’re curious about and asking about them in a formalised way.

Step 1 is about deciding on your research question. This includes carrying out a background check on your initial question(s) and perhaps formulating a hypothesis once you've decided what your final question is.

The first step in beginning a research project is deciding on your research question. Your research question may be something you’ve been thinking about, something you’re interested in, or something you’ve always wondered about. It could even be a combination of all three. For example,

  • You may be watching some children play and wonder why the boys mostly play with boys’ toys and the girls mostly play with what you think of as girls’ toys.
  • You may be in a marae kitchen and wonder about why the meal preparation is done in certain way.
  • You may be standing at a pedestian crossing you cross each morning and wonder what the difference is between the people who see you and stop and those who don’t seem to notice you at all and drive right on by.
  • You may be wondering why most of the young men you know left school with few qualifications even though they seem quite bright.

The most useful thing you bring to the task of identifying your research question is your understanding of the world, as this will influence the things you notice and the questions you ask. You may ask a question that everyone wonders about, or you may ask one about an issue or event that only a few people have thought to question. For Māori researchers this questioning is often about a desire to explore the cultural knowledge and values that underpin how the world is understood. Research is also a search for decolonisation, healing, and re-centering. For this reason we might be responding to a question that's been posed to us by a kaumatua (elder) or a community, and applying our skills to finding an answer.


Deciding on a research question may be something you want to consult about in a reasonably formal way if you are going to be doing your research with a particular group or community of people (e.g., an organisation, a Māori community or tribal group). It's far better to develop a question in collaboration with people than to show up afterwards to ask if you can do research with them, with your question already decided.

Seek advice from those you know or have contact with about who you can approach to talk to about your research project. It's important that these people know how much experience you have and how big your research project might be so that they don't develop unrealistic expectations. I'd suggest you tell them that you're starting out in research and looking for a question to answer, and that it's for a small research project so that you can gain research experience.

Be prepared for questions about what makes you a good person to be doing research with them. Think about what your response might be to this type of question before you approach people (e.g., you have whakapapa (genealogy) links to the area, you worked for the organisation for 10 years). Often this type of question is a query about whether you'll 'get' the people you'll be researching with; whether you'll understand their lives, their habits, their relationships, and not jump to inaccurate conclusions based on your own world view rather than theirs.

Those you consult with may also want to know about the methods you're going to use, how long it's going to take, and who'll be involved. If you're asked these questions you should say that you're talking with them about the very first step on your research journey, finding a question, and that you're happy to come back and talk with them more about the next steps to get their feedback. If they're offering advice about your project at your first visit with them, be open to hearing their ideas as this is valuable information for the next steps in developing your research project.

We've also involved our research communities in helping us chose a name for our research project, and sought the input from kaumatua (elders) about both the name and any particular whakataukī (traditional saying) that might guide and be used alongside a research project.

Background checking

Let me pose a research question here to illustrate where you might go to develop your research project further. I remember opening the newspaper about 10 years ago and seeing the smiley faces of a Pacific Island family. I stared at the picture for a while, and then I figured out I was staring because it was an unusual picture. Here was a mother, father and their three children looking very happy so the news couldn’t possibly be sad (and it wasn’t). My question began as ‘why do I find this picture so surprising?’ My thought was that I was surprised by the picture because it wasn’t very often that good news stories about Pacific Island familes were covered by daily newspapers. My question then changed to ‘how often do newspapers have good news stories about Pacific Island peoples and, particularly, Pacific Island families?’ In order to answer this question I would have to re-search newspapers.

Once you have a research question you should do a bit of reading about it to see if anyone else has asked a similar question and, if they have, how they went about answering it and what sort of answers they came up with. The easiest place to go for a quick search about this is the internet, where you can put your question into an internet search engine like Google.

When you search for your question you may have to change it in order to find information that looks like what you’re after. Here’s how my search question changed:

1.     How often do newspapers have good news stories about Pacific Island people? This gave me links to Pacific media and good news, but separately and this wasn’t quite what I was after.

2.     Positive newspaper stories about Pacific Island people. This gave me some media reports about Pacific Island stories, and some Wikipedia links to different definitions (e.g., ‘Pacific Islander’) that could be useful.

3.     Positive Pacific Islander media stories – this produced a research report along the lines I was looking for, ‘Pacific health in a media saturated society’, about research being carried out by Robert Loto that found that Pacific Islanders are often portrayed in the media as unhealthy.

4.     Pacific Island stories in the media – this led me to Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, and its webpage on the Pacific Islands and New Zealand media page.

I found some interesting leads that included some media websites that were about really positive things that were happening for Pacific Island peoples. From these I got some ideas about how I could define ‘positive stories’. Reading about Robert Loto’s research gave me some ideas about how I might go about re-searching my question. There are also people I could go and talk to about the question to see if it made sense to them and whether they had noticed the same thing about the media. All the while I would be thinking about my research question and how I might ask it in a better way.

If you have access to a library, either in your town or on-line, then break your question down into keywords so you can use their search tools to find other resources and people who’ve been asking similar questions to yours. A librarian should be able to help you do this, as well as showing you how to use their search tools. The keywords for my question would include ‘Pacific Island’, ‘media’, and then I might add ‘representation’ to inquire about how Pacific Island people are being represented in the media.

An important part of research is asking a question that fills a gap in our knowledge. You need to ask what’s new about your question, and how answering it will tell us something different from the information that you’ve been finding out about on the internet and in the library. If you pursue your research question you should be adding to our knowledge and understanding, even in a small way.

This first part of coming up with an initial question, doing some searching, talking to some people, and refining your question takes time. Along the way you’ll find some websites, some interesting people, some resources, and some good information that’ll help you understand your question more and give you some ideas about how you might go about researching it. Keep track of these things – bookmark webpages, download useful documents, check good books out of your library. You may also want to keep track of any information you find about research ethics; that is, how people and information is cared for and respected during the research process. We'll look at this more in Step 2

Keep track of your own journey as well by recording where you’ve looked for information, what search terms you’ve used and what they turned up, and who you spoke to and what help they were able to provide.

Finalising your question

You have fresh eyes and curiousity to bring to this initial exploration. This is a time when you follow your curiousity to find out whether the question you’re asking holds your attention and interest. Reading about what other people have said and found out will help you think about your own question. This isn’t a linear process where you come up with a question and then simply go and look for information about it. This is a time when you follow up on leads and explore what might seem like dead-ends. As you look for, find and read information your research question will contract, expand or simply change. Then you’ll have to refine your searching to reflect these changes to your question, and so on, over and over until you have a moment when you know you have your question and the background knowledge that informs your ability to ask it.

My initial question about Pacific Island peoples in the media might end up to be something like:

'Over the past 5 years, has the representation of Pacific Island people in mainstream media become more positive?',

'What proportion of stories about Pacific Island people in mainstream media are positive?', or

'How do people react to positive and negative media stories about Pacific Island people?'

From my one small reaction to a media story some years ago, I now have many questions I'm curious about.

Developing a hypothesis

From these questions I could form a hypothesis that I'll then test in my research. A hypothesis is a statement or proposition that my research can test to see if there's evidence to support it. A research question can change into a hypothesis when your background search for information leads you beyond a question and into an explanation of why something might be happening.

For example, my background reading and talking to people about the first research question above might have led me to think that the increase in more positive media stories is because the Pacific Island population has grown. This might influence me to compare mainstream media in places where the Pacific Island population has grown, with mainstream media in places where the population has remained the same. If I do this then my hypothesis is that

'Over the past five years the representation of Pacific Island people in the media has become more positive in towns and cities where the Pacific Island population has grown'.

If your background check didn't provide you with enough information to develop a hypothesis, then think about how the research you'll do will allow you to understand more about why and how things happen. In other words, researching your question may put you in a better position to formulate hypotheses.

Answering someone else's question

There are times when you may not be coming up with your own research question but responding to a research question that's being asked by a teacher or a funding agency. When this happens you can still consult with the people who'll be involved in the research. Be sure to tell them that the question wasn't developed by you and that you're wanting their feedback on it to help you carry out good and potentially useful research.

You should also still do a background check to help ensure that you have a clear understanding of the question being asked. You may even be able to bring fresh insight to the question that will inform the understanding of those who first asked it.

Read an example

Next step

Once you have a research question or hypothesis, the next steps in developing a research project are deciding who's going to be involved, and how you're going to involve them. The information you've collected in this step is the start of the background or introductory section of your research proposal or report.

Questions about Step 1

1.     What question did you first come up with?

2.   Did you consult with anyone about your research question? If you did, what was their feedback?

3.     Did you search the internet to see if others had asked, and answered, similar questions? If you did, what did you search for and what did you find? 

4.     Where else did you look for background information about your question? Did you try your local library? Did you talk to other people? What did you find out?

5.     How did your question change when you found out new information? What was your question when you finished doing your background check?

6.     Did you come up with a research hypothesis as well as a question?

Writing your research report

Even at this early stage of developing your research project it's not too soon to be thinking about writing your research report. Here are some of the things from Step 1 you can write about that will then be part of your research report.

  • Introduction - Background. Information from your background check will be useful to write about so that someone reading your research report can understand for themselves the background to your research project. This can be about what you read as well as what you found out from talking with people.
  • Introduction - Research question. This is where you tell people how you decided on your research question and how your question fills a knowledge gap.

Remember that writing takes practice so this part won't necessarily be easy for you the first time you try it. The Writer's Toolkit contains some useful hints and tools to help you get your writing underway.

Writing is like verbally explaining what you're doing to others - both can help clarify your ideas as you have to put what you've been thinking about in to words. I really encourage you to do this type of explaining and to share what you've written with those who are supporting you. Feedback from 'critical friends' can be very important in improving how you write, especially in helping you write down things that you might take for granted, or don't think that others will be interested in or need to know. Remember that one point of a research report is that others will be able to follow your thoughts and your journey, and possibly even replicate it themselves.

If you are unsure about writing for your report, think about other ways in which you might record the journey you're on. Will an audio or a video diary, a scrapbook, or a series of photographs with captions work for you? If the aim is to allow others to follow your thoughts and your journey then use the medium of communication that works best for you.

Helpful links

If you're thinking about research questions and beginning a research project, Professor Donna Mertens offers good advice. Professor Mertens is a leading expert on transformative research and evaluation and mixed methods research.

A challenge for researchers is to consider how culture and research intersect, and for what purpose. Here are some links that may help you think about this: Professor Timoti Karetu talks about Indigenous culture regrowth, and Roger Thomas talks about the importance of learning from Aboriginal culture.

Val Wallace has written about her experiences as an Aboriginal woman cautiously entering into the research field.

Check out the Media Centre at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga for their library of keynote conference presentations and seminar speakers.

Media representation

There has been some interesting research done on the representation of Māori in the media.

Kupu Taea - Media and Te Tiriti Project. A checklist for news media consumers to assess news stories.

Nairn, R., Moewaka Barnes, A., Borell, B., Rankine, J., Gregory, A. & McCreanor, T. (2012). "Māori news is bad news" That's certainly so on television. MAI Journal, 1, 1.

Poihipi, V. (2007). The impact of Māori television on being Māori: A geographical approach. MAI Review, 1, Intern Report 6.

Rankine, J., Moewaka Barnes, A., Borell, B., McCreanor, T., Nairn, R. & Gregory, A. (2011). Suburban newspapers' reporting of Māori news. Pacific Journalism Review, 17(2), 50-71.


From: Cram, F. (2013). He Rangahau Kaupapa Māori: A guide to undertaking a Kaupapa Māori research project. Auckland: Katoa Ltd. Available from www.katoa.net.nz.