How to ask a research question?

Following a 3-step protocol and applying five strategies is the most efficient way to formulate research questions and avoid being lost and aimless during the writing of the research project and the field work.

The research question is the first step to start an investigation and it is a challenge for all those who start a thesis or work.

We can not begin to write or prepare a research project if we do not have an identified research question. We can not choose techniques, theories or data if we do not have a research question. If we do not have a research question identified, we will digress and lose a lot of time and energy.

The research question is the goal that we will seek to answer and will be our guide throughout the research process. It is better to waste days, weeks or months looking for a research question than to start an investigation without having a question.

If the research question changes once the investigation has begun, we must restart the investigation and review the problem, the theories and the bibliographic review. Therefore, let’s see what a research question should have and how to ask research questions.

Conditions of a research question:
The research question has to fulfill 3 indispensable conditions:

  • Concise: simple and clear language. Anyone, even without training in our field must understand the question. Short and direct phrases, no pompous and pretentious language.
  • Achievable: the question must have a possible answer and the data collection to answer it must be viable,
  • Relevant: the importance of dedicating an investigation to answering this question must be defended, arguing the benefits and impacts of answering it: on a theoretical, empirical and social level.
  • If you do not meet any of these conditions, it is not a worthy question that deserves a serious and professional investigation.

3 steps to formulate a research question


There is a protocol to follow to devise research questions. The 3 steps are:

  • 1o. Define a problem or research issue. I refer also to issue to refer to that not only must study problems in the negative sense of the term. Happiness, peace or economic bonanza are also key issues to investigate. To know problems or issues worth investigating, we must observe and read. The knowledge of reality goes through observation, reading and interpretation of the environment. You have to talk to experts and involved, read the press, scientific articles, watch television, check the internet, look at statistics, read blogs and everything that gives us knowledge of the problem or issue. For example: there are places in Latin America with many social problems and inequality but their population feels very satisfied and claims to be happy. Data from the World Values Survey or Happy Planet Index indicate that Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Honduras are countries with a very high level of happiness compared to the regions of Europe and North America. This is the problem or issue that I am giving birth to, the next step is to delimit it.
  • 2nd. Delimit the problem or research issue. It must be specified and clearly specify what we will study. The delimitation of the problem involves specifying the action that takes place and the actors involved (they can be organizations, people, organizations, ecosystems, countries). It is also recommended to specify the place and / or time of the problem. A phrase should summarize the problem or issue to be studied. E.g. The level of happiness is high in Latin America. This the problem delimited.

3o. Apply five strategies to the delimited problem so that several research questions arise:

  • Ask about one or several causes of the problem or issue.
  • Ask about the consequences of the problem or issue in some area.
  • Think of a solution to the problem or issue.
  • Ask yourself if the problem or issue happens elsewhere and ask why or what consequences it has. In this way we formulate research questions for a comparative investigation.
  • Ask yourself if the problem or current issue happened before, or if the problem or past issue happens today.

The ideal is to formulate all the possible research questions applying the five strategies always taking into account that the three conditions that the research questions should have are met. Once the different questions have been written, submit them to validation, chatting with experts, teachers and reviewing whether they have already been widely studied.

If they have been excessively studied and our research questions do not imply any innovation, it is better to discard them and continue looking for others. Of all the questions asked, we can select one or several as long as they are interconnected.

That is, we can ask about the causes and consequences of a problem or issue, and compare it between places and in time. For example: Why does the population claim to be happier in Latin America than in Asia?

The main errors in the formulation of the research question come from skipping the steps. We can not think of solutions or consequences if we do not have a well-defined problem. We must follow each of the steps in order.

The research question is the first and most important stage to be successful in the writing of the research project. Without a question, there is no research project. The research question is written in infinitive the objective of the research, for example, “Objective: Identify the causes of the high level of happiness in the countries of Latin America.”

You can find more examples and details on how to ask a research question and other topics in my Quantitative Research manual, download it for free.

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