The Green Bucket: Responding to the Research Question

Dr Brainerd Prince

We began this story about the philosophy and practice of research with three buckets, similar to the colours of the traffic lights: red, green and yellow. All we have said until now has had to do with the red bucket – about finding our central research question. We begin with developing an ontological posture of searching or questioning, then a problem in the world that captivates us, a theme that arises out of it, which becomes the thematic within the world of texts, and we then quickly identify the discipline within which our inquiry lies, trace the historical discourse on the thematic within the discipline and arrive at the contemporary unresolved debate on it. It is this gap, this unresolved debate that gives us our central research question, which is contemporary, and on the thematic that we are truly interested in.

With this, we move to the green bucket, which symbolises ‘go’ in traffic vocabulary and ‘growth’ in the plant kingdom. In the world of research, the green bucket has to do with solutions. It has to do with data collection, primary sources, experimentation and lab work. If it is social sciences research, then green has to do with the community or the ground reality one is researching. If it is scientific work, then it consists of lab experiments and the collection of data. If it is textual work, then it refers to the study of the primary texts. It is assumed that this is the field from which the new findings and new knowledge will emerge and therefore, particularly in India, right from day one, the supervisory team directs the research scholar onto this field, the green bucket. However, the problems with this hurry are manifold: firstly, within the young research scholar, the enquiry is not completely formed. Secondly, they do this work in a pre-existing project that mostly belongs to the supervising professor; therefore, they are building upon what has already been done and the project works under a set of assumptions that have not been tested by the research scholar. While I do not downplay the importance of the green bucket as our findings will come here, I still would want to encourage the scholars to begin with the red bucket and get clarity on the research question and familiarity with the discourse to which they will be eventually contributing.

Let us assume that as good scholars we have filled our red bucket and got our provisional research question and now we are beginning our work on the green bucket. There is a fundamental change of posture and perspective. While we retain the sense of search and questioning, we are also solutioning. I want to make a strategic claim here: all that the green bucket provides is the evidence for our claim and solution. Often, we confuse evidence with the entirety of the argument. An argument has a claim or assertion, evidence, internal reasoning and a warrant that connects the premises. Evidence or supporting data is one of the many components of the argument, however, there is an obsession with it. Perhaps, because, without evidence, no argument would hold or withstand the tests. However, without articulating the precise claim that is a response to the research question, if we rush into producing evidence, we might end up in the unfortunate circumstance where all our pieces of evidence are without relevance and value to our research. If we try to retrofit the research project in light of the evidence gathered, then the thrust of our research is greatly reduced as the entire direction would have fundamentally altered.

Therefore, there needs to be precise synergy between the red and the green buckets – between the question raised, the answering claim and the evidence collected. In order to establish this synergy at a deep level, we will revisit some of the key terms that we established in the process of the red bucket, in the journey of crafting the research question and looking at them from the perspective of the green bucket.

Let us begin with the very first term that we introduced: the ‘problem’ in the world that captures our attention. The term ‘problem’ in its etymological history does possess all the senses of ‘a difficulty’, ‘a difficult question’, ‘a riddle’, and ‘a topic for investigation’. But the etymology also gives another sense which is not just useful for us but gives us a richer harvest for this study. From the Greek problēma we get the sense that a problem is ‘a task, a question’ and also that it is ‘that which is proposed’. It also means ‘anything projecting, headland, promontory’. Finally, from proballein it literally means ‘thing put or thrown forward’ [pro meaning ‘forward’ and ballein meaning ‘to throw’]

The insight I want to tease out here is that the way the phenomenon of the world appears to a seer, in the way we see it as a problem within that very conception there is a proposal or something that can be taken forward. The distance between the red and green buckets is not as great as sometimes we make them out to be. Perhaps, that is why it is said that half the research is done in the framing of the question itself. In the very conception of the problem, there is a solution or at least a hint of the direction one can go forward with a proposal to overcome the difficulty.

We then said that from the problem in the world, we need to find a theme that best captures our interest. This term ‘theme’ is directly from the Latin thema which means ‘a subject, thesis’ which in turn is from the Greek thema meaning ‘a proposition, subject’ or ‘something set down or laid down’. If in the way we narrated the problem there was an implicit proposal, in articulating the theme we are putting forward or setting down a hypothesis. You are proposing ‘something about something to someone’. Thus, in the observations and reflections we do in the real world, even in them there is a kernel of hypothesizing that is going on.

When we move from the world of phenomena to the world of texts, and hunt for the perfect thematic within a discipline of study that best represents our theme, we are looking for a precise technical representation of our theme. The thematic is the focus of our research. From the Greek thematikos, it means ‘pertaining to the topic or matter of a writing or discourse’. There are two insights here about what constitutes a thematic. On the one hand, it is an academic discoursal term, in other words, a technical term from the discipline’s literature. On the other hand, it is a term that pertains to the topic or theme that we discovered in the problem. I would like to argue that it is a further refinement of the theme and more precisely captures the hypothesis the researcher is proposing.

Let us see if this solutioning that we are talking about is visible in the example we took about the children under the bridge. Let us look at how we stated the problem, the theme and the thematic and at each level let us examine if there is a hidden hypothesis that is getting refined as we move up the levels. The problem was that poor homeless children were living under the bridge. From this phenomenon in the real world, we could abstract several themes, depending on the perspective of the researcher. For one, it could be ‘economic welfare’ and for another, it could be ‘social well-being’ and for another, it could be ‘holistic education’ of these homeless children. If we notice, each of these themes possesses within them in the language of ‘welfare’, ‘wellbeing’ or ‘holistic’ a solution to the problem of homeless children. Thus, the theme becomes the starting place for the conception of a hypothesis. In the next few articles, I will explore how we can construct a full-blown hypothesis, identify a primary source for a research project, and collect and analyse data, to solve the problematic one has identified, and the research question one has raised.

Dr Brainerd Prince is a Founding Associate Professor, and Director, Centre for Thinking, Language and Communication, at Plaksha University.