Let’s say you want to address environmental issues in a scholarly manner. In essence, scholarly approaches are just structured ways of asking and answering questions. This may sound puzzling at first–aren’t scholars into finding solutions to environmental problems we already know about?
Think of it this way: the better you get at asking questions, the more creative, useful, informed, and inspiring your answers to environmental questions will be. So it’s worth focusing on the questions you are asking.
There are four types of questions you’ll generally be asking related to environmental issues:
- Descriptive (“what is going on?”)
- Explanatory (“why is it happening?”)
- Evaluative (“for whom is it a good or bad thing?”)
- Instrumental (“what can be done about it?”)
All four are important to help understand and address environmental issues, but it’s impossible to answer the bigger evaluative and instrumental questions until we’ve thoroughly researched the more basic descriptive and explanatory questions. In fact, you should see that there’s a logical progression through the four questions. Let’s say you are interested in biodiversity loss in a particular part of the world:
- You would start by measuring the general status of biodiversity in that context (descriptive)
- Then you’d want to understand the drivers responsible for this status (explanatory)
- Knowing the status and its causes would help you assess goods and bads, and for whom, e.g., species under greatest threat of extinction (evaluative)
- Knowing what is good or bad and for whom helps you prioritize what to do about this biodiversity condition (instrumental)
It’s easy to jump right to the instrumental questions (“What can we do to save species?”); just remember that richer information (descriptive), a deeper understanding (explanation), and a more careful assessment (evaluation) will help you answer your instrumental questions in a more scholarly way.
Sometimes we bundle these four questions into the two major dimensions of environmental scholarship, variably called description vs. prescription, is vs. ought, or facts vs. values. Here, descriptive and explanatory questions help you understand what is, whereas evaluative and instrumental questions help you understand what ought to be. As you can see, these two major dimensions relate to each other—though not in a simple, linear way, as the famous is-ought problem reminds us.
Another way to bundle these four questions, parallel to the above, involves curiosity vs. judgment. Curiosity questions are the is questions (descriptive/explanatory) above, whereas judgment questions are the ought (evaluative/instrumental) questions. It’s important to build any ultimate judgment questions on deep curiosity!—otherwise, if your What and Why understanding is shallow or incorrect, your judgment questions will in all likelihood suffer from wrong answers.
For all four types of questions, here are some things to avoid, with examples of problematic questions:
- Questions with Big Words: “How can we make cities more sustainable?” The good scholar will ask: would we make all cities sustainable in the same way? and would sustainable look the same in all cities? A better question may focus on particular kinds of cities (e.g., those of a certain size in a certain part of the world), and particular desirable qualities (e.g., reduction of transportation energy, or more equitable living conditions).
- Questions that aren’t questions: “How do bioswales play a major role in mitigating urban runoff?” These sorts of questions presume a correct answer that is already known!…and are surprisingly common in environmental literature. Better questions are open to discovery—and, often, debate. They open up rather than close down inquiry.
- “Trojan horse” questions, with a question inside another question: “What are the main benefits of eating locally?”—ostensibly a descriptive question, asking for a simple list of benefits, but with an important evaluative question inside it: “Is eating locally a good or a bad thing?” Better questions are more explicit. This is especially true when asking explanatory questions of cause and effect, but implying an evaluative intent; sample words may be “effect,” “impact,” etc., as in “What are the impacts of industrial agriculture?” If the intent underlying this question to evaluate industrial agriculture as good or bad depending on its impacts, then say this! If, however, it truly is to understand the varied consequences of industrial agriculture, make sure this is clear.
See also the situated research page for clarification of framing and focus questions.