Rachel Wexelbaum & Gesina A. Phillips
Constructing Research Questions and Generating Keywords
To begin, write down the research question(s) that you may have about your topic. Writing research questions also helps you to generate keywords for searching. When constructing research questions, please pay attention to the following:
Yes / No questions
Often, the first attempt to write down a research question results in a yes / no question, like this:
Can lesbians become parents?
The main keywords in this question are “lesbians” and “parents,” which could potentially retrieve a broad range of information resources about lesbian parents, or lesbians and how they raise children, or parents of lesbian children. The fact that resources exist about lesbian parents at all implies a positive response to this question, so the question answers itself. Here are some questions that one would need to answer with evidence from research, however:
How do lesbians become parents?
How do lesbians parent their children?
What laws impact the ability of lesbians to have children or become parents?
Appropriate use of LGBTQ terminology
In LGBTQ research, language is everything. Whether searching for information about a historical or current topic, familiarize yourself with the terminology used for (or by) LGBTQ people in that time, culture, and place, in addition to current LGBTQ terminology. This will help you locate resources and artifacts from that time period, perhaps produced by that culture, in addition to contemporary resources written by modern researchers. There is also LGBTQ terminology that is out of date, or that is now considered “clinical” language used by medical researchers or biologists to describe non-human animals and their behavior. Please review the chapters and mediagraphies in this book for the most up to date LGBTQ terminology used in different disciplines.
Value-laden or comparative language
It may seem intuitive to include terms like “good,” “bad,” “positive,” “negative,” “problem,” “challenge,” and so on in research questions. Here is an example:
Are there negative impacts of lesbian parenting on children?
If we include the term “negative” in our keyword search, it will lead to biased results that keep us from retrieving information that will allow us to interpret the range of complexities on a topic for ourselves. To remove this bias, one can revise the question to read more neutrally:
What is the impact of lesbian parenting on children?
Questions that are too specific or too broad
Scale your topic to the size of the project that you are undertaking. A research paper of ten pages or less, for example, should cover a narrow, focused topic. It sounds tricky to scope your question so that it’s broad enough to be included in multiple resources but narrow enough not to be overwhelming, but you will be able to do it with some planning and initial research.
Let’s start with a broad topic and try to narrow it appropriately:
What support systems exist for LGBT* people?
“LGBT*” (the asterisk is used for truncation) is an acronym containing many diverse individuals with their own experiences. The term “support systems” is also vague. It might refer to personal support systems, governmental programs, non-profit and/or community organizations, or online resources and communities. Entire handbooks and encyclopedias answer such a broad question. For a smaller project, narrow the question to focus on a particular population, location, or type of service.
It is also possible to narrow down the topic too much:
What community organizations exist to support lesbian Somali refugee youth in Minnesota?
While this is a fantastic question, there may not be enough information about this specific population in a particular location. It is worth a try, but may retrieve too few search results (or none at all). One might have to broaden the search terms in order to retrieve any results that may answer the question, or remove some search terms, like so:
What organizations exist to support lesbian Somali refugee youth?
Removing the location-specific aspect may help the researcher locate more general information which would still apply to their population of interest in Minnesota. Removing “community” but including “organizations” might also generalize your search, and reduce the number of results about specific community organizations outside of your area of interest. If this search still retrieved too few results, you might alter it to be slightly broader:
What organizations exist to support lesbian Somali youth?
Removing “refugee” as a keyword in this search will increase the possibility of locating information about Somali youth and their coming out process in general, which has the potential to include the coming out process for Somali refugee youth, immigrant youth, or Somali youth who were born in the country where they currently reside.
After doing some research, you may need to revisit the scope of your topic because it is still too broad or too narrow. Don’t be discouraged–this is part of the research process!
Once you have your keywords, you will want to test them out. Now you need to decide where you want to search. Researching a historical event will likely involve sources such as books, journal articles, or primary sources from online or physical archives. Writing about a current event, however, may require locating recent developments in the news or social media in addition to materials that inform the historical context. Thinking about the types of sources that you expect to find and consult will help you decide whether you need to search in a database, a library catalog, a search engine, or all of these sources.
It is also important to consider what sources might not be available. You might not be able to find explicitly LGBTQ sources created in a repressive context. LGBTQ people in the 17th century English colonies living in the time of strict sodomy law enforcement and witch trials probably did not write openly about themselves, if they could write at all. People would not have used the terminology that we might use today to describe their sexual orientation or gender identity. Secondary sources such as books and articles present research about the lives of LGBTQ people in such contexts based on the authors’ research using primary documents. Sometimes these sources can guide you to the primary documents, which you might be able to consult for yourself! See the section From the Archives: Historical LGBTQ Primary Source Material for more information about archival sources.
Once you’ve thought about what kind of information you expect to find, start using the keywords that you generated when creating your research question. For tips on translating research questions into language that databases can understand, please consult Walden University Library’s guide on keyword searching and connecting keywords.
Safety First: Online Spaces and Privacy
Not all people enjoy the same level of freedom or privacy in online searching. Public computer terminals may have Internet filters on them to prevent people from searching for LGBTQ content. Corporations may collect personal data from researchers in the attempt to sell products or promote content. If someone lives in a country where LGBTQ identities are criminalized, online research on LGBTQ topics may put them at risk, even if they use their own mobile device. Active United States military may also have their online activities monitored. In cases such as these, it is important to take precautions before searching for LGBTQ information or connecting with LGBTQ communities online. Before we discuss online search strategies, we want to make sure that people do so in the safest environments possible, and that their privacy and security are preserved. Please review The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse “Online Privacy: Using the Internet Safely” guide prior to doing online research.