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The research question


Explanations > Social Research > Initiation > The research question

Brainstorm possibilities | Initial research | A good question | Reflect on it | The buzz test | The reality test | See also


All pieces of social research have the objective of answering (at least to some degree) a carefully-crafted question.

Brainstorm possibilities

A helpful step in getting to a workable question is a lot of them! Brainstorm out all the ideas you have, including minor variants. Write them down on Post-It Notes and stick them up on a wall. You can add possible questions over a number of days as you muse about possibilities.

Another way is to use a mind-map to explore structures and themes. Start with general topics and break it down into sub-areas. Explore interesting branches as seems appropriate.

Then start whittling them down. A simple way of doing this is to brainstorm onto Post-It Notes and then move them around into piles, for example 'possible', 'interesting', 'too hard', 'too expensive', etc.

It can also helpful to start with broad and vague questions and refining these down to more specific detail.

Initial research

When you have what seems to be a good question, do some initial research. Find out more about what has been researched already. Is there space for further study in this area? Look at possible ways of doing the research. Is it feasible?

When doing this, beware of disappearing down rabbit-warrens. The goal is to find out if your question is worth researching, not to do the research itself.

A good question

Just asking an off-the-cuff question about something that interests you is of course not good enough. When looking for a question, you want to ensure that it:

  • Is something about which you are very interested.
  • Is not a question that has already been answered.
  • Is something that is possible to answer with the time and resources at your disposal.
  • Is balanced and without bias.
  • Is grounded in one or more existing fields or disciplines.
  • Points towards clear and focused argument and action.
  • Is something that others will also find interesting.

So what?

A simple test is to always ask 'So what?' to any question. What will change as a result as answering the question? How will you feel? What will others say? What might they do?

Reflect on it

Once you have selected your research question it will consume you for a long time, so it is worth going slow at this stage to ensure you get it right. Even after you have identified what seems to be an ideal question, it is worth musing about it over a period of time.

Bounce it off others too, seeing what they say. Other people will have a fresh perspective and may spot things that you have not thought about.

The buzz test

A good test of a research question is whether it gives you a buzz of excitement. When you read it, are you bored or stimulated? Do you look forward to researching it? Is your interest piqued?

Make it evocative. Phrase it in words that stimulate you. One way of doing this is to phrase it as a paradox, for example highlighting a puzzling conflict. Or you can phrase it as a mystery, something like in a detective story.

Take a new angle. If you are researching into a known topic, phrase the question that slews into the area in a novel and surprising way.

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