Chapter 1: Getting started with research

1.6 Developing a research question

Sometimes your instructor may give you a very specific topic or research question to answer for your project. Other times, you may be allowed to decide what topic you’re researching. Whether you have been assigned a topic or not, developing a simple concept into a well-defined research question is an essential part of the research process. Your research question should inform the structure and contents of your project and everything you cite should be related to your research question in some way. Eventually, your research question will develop into your thesis, which is the central idea on which your project is based.

Turning your topic into a research question

There is no single approach to developing a research question that will work for every person and topic. You may start with a broad topic and think about different smaller topics that fall under it, or you may start by doing background research on your topic to see what questions it leads you to ask yourself. A good research question cannot be answered with a yes or no. Creating a research question is not as simple as taking a topic you are interested in and making it into a question. Your research question should be clear, focused, manageable, and defensible (i.e. able to be supported by evidence). Let’s examine an example of this in more depth.

You are assigned to write a paper about the United States during the prohibition era. As you do some background research into the time period, you find that the illegal consumption of alcohol was prominent, especially among those with money. You come up with the following topic for your research: “illegal activity during prohibition in the United States.” How can we translate this into a clear, focused, manageable, and defensible research question?

Is it clear?

A research question should be stated clearly. Knowing what you want to research will help keep you from getting distracted by ideas that may be interesting, but are only loosely related to your topic. “Illegal activity during prohibition” could refer to a lot of things. Are you interested in mob activity, the prevalence of speakeasies, or another illegal activity at that time? Let’s say you’re specifically interested in the purchase and sale of alcohol. Your research question would be better phrased as: “How did the illegal use of alcohol persist when prohibition was in place?”

Is it focused?

Your new research question is fairly clear, but broad. There are a lot of resources about this topic and you may be overwhelmed with what you find. To make it more focused, you could refine your question by limiting it to a specific place (the American South) or timeframe (from 1920 to 1925). Revising your question for focus, it could read as: “How did the illegal use of alcohol persist in the American South when prohibition was in place?”

Is it manageable?

Perhaps even after narrowing your research topic you still find an overwhelming amount of resources. Or maybe you narrowed your topic too much, and you aren’t able to find enough information for your project. Based on what you learn along the way while searching, you may need to modify your research question or search strategy. You have to find balance between asking a really good, innovative research question and not overwhelming yourself by making it too big to conquer within the guidelines of your assignment, or too simple where it can be answered with a quick Google search. Looking at the research question posed above, “How did the illegal use of alcohol persist in the American South when prohibition was in place?” you wouldn’t need to make any revisions because this example is broad enough that you could find information about it easily, but it’s unlikely that you could find everything about your topic in a single search.

Is it defensible?

Whenever you do research, you bring your own biases and perspectives into your work, and these can influence the entire structure of your project. Avoid questions that have a moral stance “___ is not okay,” or an absolute stance “___ always results in ___.” Open-ended questions such as ones starting with “how,” “why,” or “what” make a great foundation for a research question. Be willing to change your research question if you can’t find resources that address your topic in a useful way. It could be that your topic is too new to have anything published about it, or it may be a topic that has been disproven by research over time. As you develop a research question, you should always think about whether your question can be supported by evidence. Our example, “How did the illegal use of alcohol persist in the American South when prohibition was in place?” is a good example of a defensible research question. You can find plenty of sources with relevant, reputable evidence about the economics, politics, and legal aspects of the illegal use of alcohol in this time and region to support your argument.

The next step is to begin searching for sources to support your research question. Take some time to think about your assignment requirements and the outcomes you want to see from your project. Based on what you know about information sources and formats, what resources are most likely to have the information you need to answer your research question? For class projects, you’ll often search in specialized databases such as Academic Search in EBSCO or Compendex to find information. To efficiently search within these tools, you need to think carefully about the terms you’ll be using.

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Library 160: Introduction to College-Level Research by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.