I wrote this because one of the most persistent and grief inducing questions I ask in supervisions is ‘what is your research question’, the slightly more honed version of ‘what’s your PhD about?’ It is unfair to ask it since I run many research projects where the ‘research question’ is the last thing on our minds. If as a team we explain to anyone else why we are are doing the work we say ‘it’s because this is a really unusual, insightful, baffling, worrying or productive thing to study’. It falls more naturally to explain why we are engaged in the work than what answer it is going to produce at the end of the day. The research questions are elaborations on that primary purpose rather than queries which somehow exist independently of it. We are driven by what it is about the issue that matters to us and what might matter to others.
For example: Just now I am studying the distribution of counterfeit currency through a cryptomarket. I am studying it because how distributors and buyers of counterfeit currency use the fake notes shows what elements of crime commission are incidental and which are necessary to the process. I am also doing it because I often characterise the cryptomarkets as ultimately benign when used for illicit drug distribution and I want to challenge that view with some trickier test cases where it hard to argue that the distribution mode reduces harm. Counterfeit currency involves immediate risks to those handling the notes and longer term potential harms in damaging the cash economy. The cash economy is now often the domain of less affluent groups who are excluded from the digital economy or have their own reasons for operating outside it. Counterfeit currency is presented by its users as harmless or as ultimately sticking it to The Man, in this The Man being the Federal Reserve. It is true that large scale money laundering is vastly more harmful and takes place through corrupted institutions or players.
In contrast to cartel scale money laundering, the kind of counterfeit currency use I study is small beans. However distributing counterfeit currency still puts the more marginal in society at greater risk. Cashiers or waiting staff who unwittingly handle fake notes might have their wages docked or be prosecuted. Smaller businesses which handle more cash will likewise be more at risk and unable to easily absorb losses. There are direct harms stemming from the practice itself and as society becomes more digitised these will increase. The process of deciding on a research question involves backtracking through what I just wrote so I can come up with a research question which encapsulates all that.
As I framed it in the title, the question is ‘why am I doing this PhD’ not ‘why am I doing a PhD’. The latter question is more existential and is often asked during the lonely hours of the night. The first question might answer the second to some extent. There is a purpose there.