What is a good research question? Formulating the Research Question1 Introduction In the previous section qualitative dissertations 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.
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? 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. Manageable in terms of research and in terms of your own academic abilities. Consistent with the requirements of the assessment.
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? 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. 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. The question needs to intrigue you and maintain your interest throughout the project. There are two traps to avoid. Some questions are fads — they arise out of a particular set of personal circumstances, for example a job application. Once the circumstances change you can lose enthusiasm for the topic and it becomes very tedious. 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.