Establishing your research question

Any piece of research, whether qualitative or quantitative, is driven by a main research question. Hopefully, your research question represents something you are genuinely interested in knowing, and it is this desire to answer this research question that motivates your whole research. Your research question will serve as the guiding compass for your entire study, from figuring out which methodology is suited to helping you answer that question to deciding which data you should collect and how you should analyze it. Since the research question is so centrally important to any research you want to do, we dedicate this article to sharing advice on establishing a research question.

How do I establish a “good” research question?

As a first step, it is important to pose and explore research questions that you do genuinely find interesting. Your desire to answer this research question will be the energising force throughout your research! On the other hand, you will also need to demonstrate how your research is contributing something novel and interesting to the academic conversation around that topic, so your familiarity with the relevant literature is also key.

In a previous blog article, we talked about the value of establishing two theoretical keywords to guide your research. Once you have chosen and defined your two theoretical keywords of interest and a relationship between them, you can use these to construct your research question. We center our advice our three key criteria that any good research question should meet:

1. The research question should be clear

Anyone who reads your research question should be able to immediately understand what your main topic of study is. The research question should explicitly state what exactly is being investigated. This is also why we recommend choosing two theoretical keywords: You can now construct your research question so that it reflects both of these main theoretical keywords that are being studied.

2. The research question should be focused

It can be all too tempting to pose grand questions that are certainly interesting but that simply cannot be answered in any single study. While it is important that the research questions generates interest from your readers, it is also crucial that your study actually ends up answering that research question. Having a focused research question is so important because it will help make the research more feasible. Moreover, while in the midst of collecting and analyzing the literature and your data, it can be rather easy to get pulled off track and start exploring other aspects or phenomena that have emerged but that are not directly related to your own research. Once again, this is why the research question can be the central guiding compass during your research: Your research question can keep you focused on considering information that is indeed relevant and can help you answer your research question. By choosing a specific relationships between your two theoretical keywords, you can build a more focused research question, as you are explaining exactly what about these two theoretical keywords you are investigating.

3. The research question should be complex

A good research question does not have to be lengthy, poetic, nor full of impressive vocabulary. Rather, what we mean by “complex” is simply that you make sure your research question cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”. This research question will inform your entire study after all, and if the question is relatively simple or straightforward, you may have a harder time demonstrating why this research is novel and important. Moreover, readers (or journal reviewers) may already guess the answer to your research question just by reading it, and this typically does not make for very interesting research. Instead, you want to establish a research question that is deserving of the great effort you will put into the study and that will make readers wonder what the answer is. You can try writing several different versions of your research question to help you decide which one you want to dig into. For example, you may ask a question beginning with what? (to identify a phenomenon), who? (to identify relevant actors), where? (to identify relevant contexts), how? (to describe the phenomenon), why? (to explain the phenomenon), when? (to predict the phenomenon) or how much? (to control the phenomenon).

As a final piece of advice, we reiterate the great advice of Braun and Clarke (2013) who remind us to always ask ourselves: So what? As we design our research and decide which research question we want to explore, we need to ask ourselves “so what?” to probe the deeper significance of this research question. In other words, why should people care about this study now? What kinds of broader implications might these findings hold? By practicing this amiable skepticism, we can push ourselves to conduct research that is not only personally interesting but that can also provide meaningful insights and help expand our understanding of this topic.



February 23, 2021 Qualitative research, Writing & publishing
Ivana Radivojevic
About NkQualitas

Thank you for visiting NkQualitas, we appreciate your interest! After more than a decade of teaching and assisting qualitative researchers and leaders, we are embarking on a new adventure. I am excited and honored to take on a new role as Director of Training and Collaboration at ATLAS.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH. This new position brings with it a great deal of responsibility, and I am glad that my team and I can continue to support qualitative researchers around the world.