Skip to Main Content

HIST 124: History of Western Medicine

Formulating Historical Questions

Click here to complete a brief survey on today's library instruction session.

Good research questions help to define the focus, scope, and motivation for your research. But formulating a good question can be challenging. 

It's not a linear process; it's iterative and recursive. That simply means "questions will define your directions of inquiry and, in turn, the results of your inquiries will refine your question" (Hung and Popp). The following figure illustrates this process. An item of interest (a potential topic) raises questions, which requires you to look for potential answers. What you find changes your understanding of the original item of interest. Continuously engaging with these steps helps you decide where to go next.

Four circles with lines leading from one to the next, the first being "item of interest" the second "questions raised" the third "next steps" and the fourth "result"

So, how do you know when you have a good research question? Generally, good questions:

  • Address causes or effects (explore some historical relationship)
  • Are open-ended (cannot be answered simply)
  • Are argumentative (can be supported by evidence)
  • Are specific (address who, what, when, where)

Keeping those characteristics in mind, it might be helpful to write out your questions in the following format (suggested in the Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams):

  1. Name your topic: I am learning about/working on/studying ________, 
  2. Suggest a question: because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how ______
  3. Provide a rationale: in order to understand how/why/what __________.

Understanding the Historical Context

Before you begin searching for evidence, it is helpful to understand the historical context you will be researching. To illustrate this point, consider the song, Ya Got Trouble, from The Music Man. Professor Harold Hill, a con man, presents the song as an argument for why the town of Rock Island, Illinois, should be concerned about the presence of pool table in their community. While that may sound dumb, let's remember that the musical is set in 1912. In that time, every part of his argument made sense. 

How much of his argument accept largely depends on how much you know about the context in which it's made.

From UMBC's History Lab project:

"For students to think deeply about historical questions, they must first have a sufficient grasp of the time period and event they are investigating. They need to know the key concepts, personalities, and the chronology of their topic in order to investigate the overarching question, analyze evidence, and develop an evidence-based response."

Before you begin the process of looking for sources, building background knowledge on a topic helps to:

  1. Basic Facts (who, what, when, where)
  2. Reveal Historical Context (the social, intellectual, cultural, political, economic, and/or emotional settings that shape peoples's lives)
  3. Narrow broad topic into manageable subtopics (the specific elements of the topic you wish to know more about)

Finding Background Information

  • Class readings
  • Books 
  • Dr. Giguere
  • Credible websites (sources from organizations/authors that have an established reputation and backed by evidence that can be corroborated)

The following library resource might also be helpful:

Learning about your topic, so you can develop a focused questions, is different than finding evidence that directly addresses that question. Though vital to any research project, the information found at this stage fo the process is rarely cited as evidence in the final work.

Conducting Source Work

So, what counts as historical evidence?

Again, from the UMBC's History Lab project:

"Selected from the surviving traces of the past, sources lie at the heart of historians’ efforts to reconstruct that past. Historical evidence can be in the form of written materials, such as newspaper articles, death certificates, love letters, and political speeches. Artistic or visual artifacts, like paintings and other works of art, photographs or political cartoons can also be historical evidence."

Below are links to help you find these kinds of material.

To search for books, e-books, and more, click here.

To search for other library resources, try any (or all) of the following Subject Guides. Maintained by the History librarians at University Park, they are a great place to find historical evidence relevant to your question.