Formulating the Research Question1

Introduction

In the previous section we talked about ways to define your topic, but there is a difference between a topic and a question. You may have found your topic, but within that topic you must find a question, which identifies what you hope to learn. Finding a question sounds serendipitous, but research questions need to be shaped and crafted. This section examines the factors that go into creating a good research question, dividing this X factor into six categories.

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This video clip contains comments from the following academics:

Download Case Study 4 - Formulating the research question: youth justice policy and intervention

 

What is a good research question?

It is important to start your thinking about the dissertation with a question rather than simply a topic heading. The question sets out what you hope to learn about the topic. This question, together with your approach, will guide and structure the choice of data to be collected and analysed.
Some research questions focus your attention onto the relationship of particular theories and concepts: 'how does gender relate to career choices of members of different religions?' Some research questions aim to open an area to let possible new theories emerge: 'what is going on here?' is the most basic research question in exploratory research. For an undergraduate dissertation, your question needs to be more targeted than either of these.
Creating a research question is a task. Good research questions are formed and worked on, and are rarely simply found. You start with what interests you, and you refine it until it is workable.
There is no recipe for the perfect research question, but there are bad research questions. The following guidelines highlight some of the features of good questions.
Top Tips:

Relevant

The question will be of academic and intellectual interest to people in the field you have chosen to study. The question arises from issues raised in the literature or in practice.
You should be able to establish a clear purpose for your research in relation to the chosen field. For example, are you filling a gap in knowledge, analysing academic assumptions or professional practice, monitoring a development in practice, comparing different approaches or testing theories within a specific population?

Manageable

You need to be realistic about the scope and scale of the project. The question you ask must be within your ability to tackle. For example, are you able to access people, statistics, or documents from which to collect the data you need to address the question fully? Are you able to relate the concepts of your research question to the observations, phenomena, indicators or variables you can access? Can this data be accessed within the limited time and resources you have available to you?
Sometimes a research question appears feasible, but when you start your fieldwork or library study, it proves otherwise. In this situation, it is important to write up the problems honestly and to reflect on what has been learnt. It may be possible, with your supervisor, to develop a contingency plan to anticipate possible problems of access.

Substantial and (within reason) original

The question should not simply copy questions asked in other final year modules, or modules previously undertaken. It shows your own imagination and your ability to construct and develop research issues. And it needs to give sufficient scope to develop into a dissertation.

Consistent with the requirements of the assessment

The question must allow you the scope to satisfy the learning outcomes of the course.
For example, you can choose to conduct a theoretical study, one that does not contain analysis of empirical data. In this case, it will be necessary for you to think carefully before making such a choice. You would be required to give an account of your methodology, to explain why theoretical analysis was the most appropriate way of addressing the question and how you have gone about using theoretical models to produce new insights about the subject.

Clear and simple

The complexity of a question can frequently hide unclear thoughts and lead to a confused research process. A very elaborate research question, or a question which is not differentiated into different parts, may hide concepts that are contradictory or not relevant. This needs to be clear and thought-through, but it is one of the hardest parts of your work.
Equally, you may want to begin with your literature review and data collection and you may feel tempted to 'make do' with a broad and vague research question for the moment. However, a muddled question is likely to generate muddled data and equally muddled analysis.
If you create a clear and simple research question, you may find that it becomes more complex as you think about the situation you are studying and undertake the literature review. Having one key question with several sub-components will guide your research here.

Interesting

This is essential. The question needs to intrigue you and maintain your interest throughout the project. There are two traps to avoid.

Make sure that you have a real, grounded interest in your research question, and that you can explore this and back it up by academic and intellectual debate. It is your interest that will motivate you to keep working and to produce a good dissertation.

Student voice

It’s not an easy task formulating a research question. Here one student talks about the difficulties she had:

I knew what I wanted to write about but I couldn’t get a question to match. My original question was too vague and unanswerable. In terms of tightening it up, I knew I wanted to link disability to employment. I tried to get a question from that but it was a descriptive question that I ended up scrapping on the advice of the supervisor, he told me it wasn’t any good as a question.

(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p340)

This student did eventually come up with a workable question and went on to complete her dissertation. She was not afraid to call on the support of her supervisor and was willing to listen to his advice as to what would and wouldn’t work.

Download Case Study 5 Devising research questions from a real geographical and social situation (.docx)

Moving into action

So far, we have considered a number of issues relevant to developing an appropriate research methodology for your dissertation. The chart below should help you to synthesise your thinking to date. Work through each of the boxes but be prepared to revisit this at different stages of the dissertation.


Look at the template below and consider each of the sections.

Research Question

Data Sources and Methods

Justification

Practicalities (e.g. resources and skills)

Ethical Issues

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Download this template (.docx)

 

Summary

Good research questions are:

Key Questions

Further Reading

BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 2
CRESSWELL, J. W. (2003). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Method Approaches. London, Sage, chapter 6
PUNCH, K. F. (1998). Introduction to Social Research – Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches. London, Sage, chapter 4

Footnote

1. © Sue Hemmings (The Open University) and Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)

 

Author biographies

Acknowledgements