A research question is the question your research seeks to answer. You may have multiple research questions. These are guideposts for your research project — everything you do relates to your research questions, from your literature review searches, to your data gathering sites, to your methods.
Developing a clear and focused research question or set of questions is a crucial part of the research process. Writing and refining your research question is just as important as gathering data or writing about your findings. A research question helps you clarify what it is that you actually want to know, and forces you to narrow your focus to a question that you can answer. A clear and focused research question will provide you with a clear direction for the research that follows.
Developing a clear and focused research question requires moving from a general, broad set of interests to a narrow question. Often as researchers we begin with a set of interests that compel us to do research, but our research interests are not the same as our research questions. For example, among other interests, Dr. Okeke-Ihejirika has a research interest in gender and global migration. This interest is informed by her own knowledge and experiences. Yet, Dr. Phil cannot know everything about gender and global migration — this is simply too big a research area.
Researchers must develop focused research questions, which are relevant to the fields or disciplines in which they study, have yet to be answered definitively, and can be answered by examining evidence. In social research, research questions must also have social relevance. This means that our research should matter to people in local, national, or international communities. As a researcher, it is important that you have a deep interest in or passion for the topic you’re studying, but it is not enough just to determine a question that satisfies you. You must think about whether your question has social relevance. Finally, you must also determine if your question is possible to answer. For a question to be possible to answer, it must be focused and narrow. Your job is to contribute to filling a gap in literature, as opposed to solve the entire problem.
A research question must:
- Address a social problem
- Be possible to answer
- Relevant to a field(s) or discipline(s)
- Relevant to a community
Based on these criteria, a focused research question is: What stressors do African men face within the family in the post-migration context? This question is relevant to those who are interested in studying gender and experiences of migrants, but also to those who are interested in belonging and inclusion in Canada. It is narrow enough, because the question asks about a particular group (African men) in a particular place (Alberta), as opposed to all migrants in Canada. It is possible to answer this question, because migrants themselves can provide insights into the barriers they experience. This question is relevant to many groups (community leaders, service providers, policymakers), including migrants themselves, because by sharing their experiences they can help identify possible barriers to inclusion and integration, and help propose solutions.
This is an important question, because, as Dr. Phil and her co-authors write, there is not a lot of research on the particular experiences of African migrants in the Canadian context. This research not only helps present solutions to the barriers African migrants face in Alberta, but also contributes to a body of literature. Academics are expected to contribute to their fields by adding to important bodies of research in the field. It is important, however, that in responding to academic debates, we do not lose sight of people and communities who are impacted by our research.
Amina’s Research on Women in Nigerian politics: A Hypothetical Example
Now that we have clarified what a research question is, let’s consider an example of the process of developing a research question through a hypothetical example of a student we will call Amina. Amina is studying History and International Studies at UNIZIK, and she is passionate about the topic of women’s participation in politics, because she notices that it is men who seem to hold political power.
This is a topic that is not just important to Amina, however, but relevant to field such as Political Science, Sociology, and Gender Studies, in which there is an important area of interdisciplinary research focused on questions such as:
- Why are women underrepresented in politics?
- Why does women’s political participation matter for democracy?
- Do women make a difference in politics?
- How can women increase their representation in politics?
These questions are also relevant to a broader community, outside of academia.
People all around the world are interested in the question of gender equality, and the unique struggles for gender equality in different locations. Amina has identified a topic that she is passionate about, that is relevant to the academic field, and has social relevance. Yet, Amina does not yet have a research question.
The questions above are too broad, and the answers depend on the context. For example, the answer to the question: “Why are women underrepresented in politics?” is different depending on where you look. In Canada, where 26.9% of Members of Parliament are women, the reasons for this underrepresentation are different than in Afghanistan, where 23.6% of parliamentarians are women. Amina is from Nigeria, and wants to find out why it is that men have more political power than women. There are only 20 women in the Nigerian House of Representatives out of 359 seats. Amina is concerned with drawing upon local knowledge. Therefore, she might ask the following questions:
- Did colonization change women’s political roles in Nigeria?
- Is women’s equal representation important to democracy in Nigeria? If so, why?
- What barriers prevent women from entering politics in the Nigerian context?
Amina started with a topic: women and politics, and developed a more focused research question that responds to present issues and debates in her field of study, and in her local context.
Types of research questions
Research questions can be quantitative or qualitative.
Quantitative questions seek to determine how much something happens. For example, a quantitative approach might seek to answer the question: “How often do African men in Alberta access services for mental health?”
Qualitative question seeks to answer questions through rich descriptions as opposed to numbers. Qualitative questions focus on describing peoples’ experiences, different understandings, or distinct meanings. For example, “How do African men in Canada feel about accessing mental health supports?” and “What factors deter them or encourage them to access mental health supports?”
Quantitative questions seek to determine how much something happens.
Qualitative questions seek to answer questions through rich descriptions of peoples’ experiences, understandings, or meanings.
These questions are empirical questions. This means that they seek to answer a question about how things are. To ask an empirical question is to ask “what is?” Empirical questions ask about issues we can explain or describe through observations. Normative questions seek to prove, or persuade through evidence that this is the way things ought to be. A normative question asks “how should things be?” A normative question might ask, “Why should Canada provide better services for migrants?” or “Why do women deserve equal political representation?” Normative questions are theory-building — they offer an account of how things should be.
Empirical questions ask about issues we can explain or describe through observations
Normative questions seek to prove, or persuade through evidence that this is the way things ought to be.
Developing a research question happens at the beginning of your research, but identifying a clear, focused, and precise question can be a long process. You must be prepared to invest significant time in the process of developing a research question, moving from a general topic to a precise question that you can answer. You must think about your question’s relevance to other researchers and the communities involved. You should be prepared to share your research question with others for their review and input. Your supervisors, mentors, and peers can all help you refine your research question.
The communities impacted by your question may also be able to provide input on what is relevant to them — we will come back to this when we discuss community-engaged research. Developing a research question can be very frustrating — you may think you have a strong question only to learn that it’s too broad, or that it has already been answered. Once you find a clear, focused, and relevant question your research project will be much stronger because of it.