Why develop research questions?

Prior to starting your research it is essential that you go through a process of developing a clear and useful research question. This process may take some considerable time and effort on your part, however it is well worth it, as without a clearly defined research question you can waste a great deal of time carrying out research that you ultimately find is not particularly useful. The central research question or purpose statement is the foundation of the research, and if the research is built on a strong foundation i.e. a well thought out research question, the quality of the research that follows is also likely to be effective. The wording used in the central research question or purpose statement needs to be carefully thought out as the way it is worded impacts on the research design that follows and will determine the research approach.

Developing a central research question or purpose statement requires engagement with and clearer identification of the beliefs and types of knowledge underpinning your research. The central research question or purpose statement is the key to directing the progress of your research will help you to identify the information you will need to collect and the approaches that could be used to achieve this.

A useful overview of the purpose of central research questions is provided by O’Leary (2010):

  • Define an investigation – The wording of research questions indicates the nature of the research in terms of how it will be designed to find out about a phenomenon or process i.e. whether it is to explore, describe, explain or evaluate.

  • Establish boundaries for the research – As your research progresses you will come across views or data that could take your research in a different direction. By referring back to your research question you will be able to evaluate whether this is a relevant and useful tangent or merely a diversion. Often research questions will change and develop during the research process in response to your findings, particularly in qualitative research.

  • Provide direction – The research question enables you to identify what theories are relevant to your research and directs your literature search. Also it directs the methodological design and choice of methods.

  • Facilitates evaluation – The impact of your decisions as the research progresses can be evaluated using the research questions as a frame of reference as to whether the data you are collecting is useful in enabling you to find answers to your research questions.

Therefore it is important to constantly refer back to the central research question or purpose statement throughout the research process to ensure that:

  • the methods you select are appropriate for type of question being asked

  • the design of the research tools (the questions asked) provide relevant information to help you answer the research question – it is very easy to go off at a tangent and design tools that do not address the issues identified in the research question.

More specific research questions (sub questions) can then be developed from this central research question or purpose statement, going from general to more specific and concrete. It is important to note that not all types of research can fit into this model. However it is a useful way of viewing the research process for many research projects as it enables the researcher to see how the different stages are linked together in terms of levels of abstraction in the questions, developing into their most concrete form at the data collection stage. Having this overview will help you to develop useful questions at different stages of the process and facilitate revisiting the more abstract and general starting points during reformulation of questions as the research process develops.

The structure of research questions, purpose statements or hypotheses is based on exploring the way in which different factors interact and influence one another within the particular context that you want to research. Thinking explicitly about the variables or factors that might be having an effect within your area of research will help in the design of research tools by ensuring that the tools explore the factors that are relevant to your research questions. This stage of developing your research design is the process of deconstructing the research focus to identify these factors. These factors will inform the development of your sub-questions and ultimately direct the design of your research tools.