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It all begins with a question

After years of teaching research and research methods and conducting my own research using archival, social survey, content analysis, and phenomenological methods, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a clearly formulated research question. All research begins with a question, be it, “I wonder if there is a bread I can make that does not contain yeast?” to “How well is the implementation of the new employee appraisal system working?” and “To what extent are adverse vaccine reactions related to a person’s blood-type?”

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Ultimately, the research question not only provides a focus, but also a direction: It has an impact both on what you read and how you choose to answer your research question.

To construct your research question, you first need to be clear about the problem you are wanting to solve. The problem may be theoretical and/or practical. For example, one might notice that the principles of servant and transformational leadership conflict and wonder how the best principles of each might be applied in a leadership role. Or, having had many people in the world shift into remote work, the problem might be more practical, for example, how does one ensure productivity among remote workers or which set of leadership skills work best in remote work. The former requires discussing the principles of servant and transformational leadership and reconciling them at a theoretical level and then “testing” if that reconciliation works in practice. The latter requires identifying the range of leadership styles that might work for remote workers and then, through your research, figuring out which of those work best for productivity. So, the research question arises from a theoretical or practical problem you have identified and which you want to answer with your research.   

As you move through the research process, your research question will be revisited many times to be refined. That does not mean you are stuck in a rut or even a circle. You are riding an ever-deepening spiral of understanding about your research topic. For example, you might discover when reading the literature that your research question has already been answered. If that is the case, you might look for a refinement you can contribute or even replicate the study in a different context. For example, after Bass (1985) identified and defined transformational leadership, its merits have been measured and explored in many different business and cultural contexts. So, your initial research question is not set in stone; it is something you will revisit in the course of reading about your topic and making sense of what you are reading.

There are a couple of other criteria you need to bear in mind when posing your research questions.

One is to develop a question that is researchable. Research means collecting information to answer a question. For example, “Does God exist” is not researchable; it is a matter of belief and faith. However, “Why do people believe in God? How do people imagine God? And who believes in God?” are researchable questions.

Two is to develop a question that is relevant. Bear in mind that the idea is to contribute to the knowledge base in your field and to humanity in general. For example, you might want to confirm a relationship, but if there are already hundreds of papers published confirming that relationship, your question lacks relevance. That might mean rather refining a proposed model by adding variables that can be tested. For example, if the relationship between job satisfaction and intrinsic motivation is well-established, you might consider that relationship in relationship to retention, or the intention to remain employed in a company.

Three, and perhaps most important, is to choose a topic and research question about which you are passionate. You are going to be spending a great deal of energy and several months, at the very least, on this project. You do not want be focusing on a topic that bores you to tears or that takes longer than the institution allows for meeting the written and defended requirement.

Finally, make sure you ask the right kind of question because the way you ask the question will determine what kind of literature you access as well as the methods you employ to answer your question. Some kinds of questions are more appropriate for some fields of research. In general, questions that start with “do” or “is” work for the life sciences and market research because they require a yes or no answer; for example, “Do people prefer fried onion on a hamburger?” or “Are adverse vaccine reactions related to blood type?” However, “Do leaders practice transformational leadership?” leaves little to discuss other than to state, for example, that most leaders practice transformational leadership at one time or another. In the social and business sciences, research questions generally begin with what, how, and to what extent. For example, “What do leaders understand by transformational leadership?” opens the door to deep description, as does “How do leaders apply transformational leadership principles,” while “To what extent do leaders in education practice transformational leadership?” opens up the door to survey research and mixed methods research. 

So, when developing your research question, make sure it is

  • A researchable question,
  • a relevant question,
  • an engaging question, and
  • the right kind of question.

For example, the question, “Does the world go round” is easy to answer through observation from space, but “What makes the world go round?” and “How does the world go round?” demand more thought and explanation. 

So, what is the question motivating your research efforts?

(© Michelle L. Crowley 28/01/2022)

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