Skip to content

Refining the research question

The following material references a talk by George Petelin in 2013 entitled Refining the research question, .

At the moment my research question is not a question at all, but a topic: Sequential art narrative’s effectiveness in the communication of autobiography and mature themes.  This is, unfortunately, just not good enough!  It is too imprecise and ambitious to be achievable, but it is a starting point.

The thing I need to ask is “how do I know it can be answered?”  I need to articulate something specific that I can deliver.  In order to achieve this I must delimit a number of phenomena, for example, artists, time and place, within the question.  Am I speaking about sequential art and autobiography only in western culture?  Am I delimiting the time to the last century, or even the last thirty years?

By making the question more specific I can have more hope to answer it adequately.  According to George Petelin, Doctoral study is “an opportunity to show that you can thoroughly investigate a discrete portion of a larger question in which you have already immersed yourself”; namely, portrayal of the self through narrative art.

A structure for an ideal question:

What kind of, or how, or why, a thing (or a precisely specified number of things) occur/s in a particular time and place?

There is a semanticist named Alfred Korzybski who wrote a text titled Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933, 1947).  In this text he argued that representations and descriptions are not the thing they stand for, that the more abstract these representations are the less they correspond to any real experience.  As a semanticist he considered words to stand for objects, and that descriptions must therefore be rigorous and precise.  As a result, it may then be safer to research discourse on a topic than the actual topic itself.  In my case this is inevitable; existing texts are the only way I can access the narratives of those who have chosen to dictate their life-stories to sequential art.



1. Uses concrete terms with clear referents

What does this mean exactly?  To be precise in my terminology, to be clear in what it is I am speaking about?

2. Uses terms that have one clear meaning or explains them precisely

What about a term that has multiple meanings?  Can sequential art narrative not be interpreted in multiple ways?

3. Expresses one clear purpose

Seeking one answer to one question.

4. Requires a complex answer – why, how, to what extent, etc

There is a lot of dialogue in the field, and many key texts that address the genre in a multitude of ways.

5. Is controversial or contrary to first impression

This is a tough one.  It is obvious that sequential art can convey mature themes and autobiography.  What is something new, that no one has thought of yet, or something that contravenes conventional ideology in the medium?

6. Requires material evidence that can be examined by others

As with commandment 4, there is not only abundant reference material, but also a great deal of academic discussion.

7. Requires evidence that you can acquire and analyse in the allocated time and with the resources available

8. Specifies a discrete period of time from which the evidence or object of study will be drawn

9. Specifies a discrete location or set of examples to which it will apply

10. Can be expressed in a clear single sentence


Some forms the question could take:

“What, or how, or why does some thing (or a precisely specified number of things) occur in a particular time and place?”

For example; “How is autobiography represented within the sequential art narrative in key texts within western culture since 1972?”

Some things to ask myself:

  • What do I want to know?  What possibilities lie within sequential art narrative?  What is the history, what else has been written on the medium, what has been done within the medium?
  • About what phenomenon?  Autobiography, memoir, diary.  Then what is autobiography?  What has been written on this genre?
  • Where?  Western culture.  In order to keep this within a reasonable scope and delimit the time required to complete, I choose to investigate something that I am already familiar with.
  • When, or over what period of time?  The first comic regarded as autobiographical in nature was ‘Blinky Brown meets the holy virgin Mary’, produced in 1972. I will start with this text, moving in to the current offerings in the field.

Other forms for the question to take are:

‘What would be an appropriate strategy, (or form of practice) for … (you as a specific individual with a particular history and social membership), in order to … (produce some effect), in relation to … (certain circumstances in a given time and place).’ 


‘How can (a certain form of practice) respond to, (comment on, or discover) (a particular phenomenon), given that … (certain circumstances which may constitute a difficulty or contradiction in a specific context)’.


For example:

‘What would be an appropriate strategy within sequential art narratives for me as a white middle-class western male to take in order to resonate with readers in relation to experiences relating to growing up in a similar environment?’ 


‘How can sequential art narrative comment on autobiography, given that there exists a contradiction in the objective “truth” within autobiography and the subjectivity of representation within cartooning?’