Staying in Shape:  Writing, Questions, Method

by | 25 Jan 2023

The way one asks a question affects the way one is able to respond. This seems to be a truism. It also means that the way one shapes a question to turn it into the magical scholarly formula – a research question – is something that both enables and constrains scholarly work.


Let’s backtrack a little. In order to have a research question, one needs to have a topic. And, moving ahead a little, one also needs to have begun to make a case, have an inkling of an argument. Reading Lauren Berlant’s approach to the case, one learns that ‘the case reveals itself not fundamentally as a form but as an event that takes shape.’ Perhaps this is what putting together a research question also turns out to be: a way of pinning down a topic in motion, a way of making a topic, like an event, ‘take shape’. Read this way, having a research question means we now have something definite, something formed – a topic now turns into a formulation – but also that it now takes on a shape, it is ‘shaped’, it has an enclosure where ideas are now able to roam.


The topic of my recent doctoral research was restitution in Germany after the Holocaust and WWII. The case I make concerns the genres of law and aesthetics and their practices of restitution. And, in a meta-move, my underlying research question became how one asks the question of restitution.


Recently, I read Menachem Kaiser’s memoir Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Stolen Nazi Treasure (Scribe, 2021). Kaiser is at pains to avoid sentimentality. His tone is questioning; the mood of the book is, at turns, confiding, humorous, reflective, unsure; the epilogue is astonishing. I read his book as a mediation on the way we shape our questions in the aftermath. Not to necessarily find the answers or have a resolution – case in point, his property restitution claim is still ongoing within the Polish legal system – but as literal method of reflective circling around, of noticing and crafting, of enacting the impossibility of an end. Kaiser uses questions and reflection as a method to craft a story that places a person (his own writerly persona) in a place within a time. It is a way to open himself up to resonances from the past, whilst always writing from a position in the present, caught on the threshold.


Kaiser’s method could also be named jurisprudence. By this I mean the way we write about law is always a crafted relation between a persona with a place within a time. At least this is how I approached it in my doctorate. I was also at pains to avoid the sense of an ending or a sense of equilibrium, any hint of justice. I wanted the work to remain fragmentary, shapeless. My reluctance came from a deep unease about my persona and my relation to the topic; my determination to place my scholarly self within the frame meant I was trying to take responsibility for the way I wrote my questions – and therefore knowingly had shaped the way my work had framed the response. 


To be ‘out of the question’ is to fall outside the scope, go beyond the frame. It is also to be beyond possibility – it is inconceivable – and means something is beyond consideration. This is not my aim. I don’t want to be without questions – I am a writer and researcher, after all – and generally I have too many questions that jostle for prominence and emphasis. But I am apprehensive about presupposing I am able to ask; I am aware of the arrogance and the power wielded by those who feel they have a right to examine or to interrogate.  


What are we doing when we shape our research questions? Obviously they are a direction, rather than a destination; obviously they are a starting point that is meant to be trampled over in the heady run of researching and writing. But even so, I struggle with the forced designation of forward articulation when my thinking and writing process is so iterative and circular and laboured. I am wary of the way the questions I ask myself necessarily create the paths that mark out the ground and field where my ‘work’ then takes place. And so, even though it may be a truism, I worry that the way I ask a question shapes how I can respond. How can I be a responsible scholar – not only towards others, now, but to those in other places and in other times? 


This piece has to be short, the brief was to stay limited. This suits my purpose. I deliberately cut it short. Again, I want my work to remain fragmentary, shapeless – I want to make a statement through absence as well as presence. And so, please mind the gaps. Notice the way I am implying – through the shape of my piece – that going down a particular research path may mean you leave (literal and metaphorical) holes in your work. Notice how I conflate justice with resolution, even in a formal sense of writing without an end, and how I try not to end nicely, all wrapped up. Notice my tone, notice my play, notice my resistance.

-Laura Petersen is a postdoctoral research fellow on the new research project “Imagining Justice: Law, Politics and Popular Visual Culture in Weimar Germany” at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,406 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


Fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4000 subscribers.