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Project Planning for the Beginner: Developing a Researchable Question

This Sage Research Methods tool is designed for the first time researcher to guide you through your research project.

How Do I Develop a Research Question?

Here are four possible approaches to developing your research question(s). These are not mutually exclusive.

You may hope to work on a general description of a social context. Often, descriptive ethnography takes this form. However, you need to focus on particular aspects of that context which are especially interesting and which result in an understanding which can be generalized beyond the particular context of your research.

You may wish to test a hypothesis. This means you have constructed a specifically formulated statement which can be falsified. This is the dominant approach in experimental research. Usually you will employ statistical methods to test a null hypothesis, which asserts the opposite of the proposition you are testing.

If, for example, your hypothesis is that there is a difference in political attitudes among the people of different ethnic backgrounds in a specific country, you might look at a sample of survey data to test this. In this case, the null hypothesis is that no difference in political attitudes can be found.

You may have some developed ideas about what you wish to engage with, but not a formal testable hypothesis.

Alternatively, your methodological approach may be based on grounded theory. You do not have a hypothesis that you wish to test, but rather you will work in context and the important questions will emerge as you interact systematically with the data you generate from your research. 

Crafting Your Research Questions

Types of Research Questions: Why? When? Who? How? Where?

When developing and answering your research questions, you should be aware of the specific usage of these words in a social science context. “Why” questions seek causal explanations. If you ask “why?” the answer begins with “because.”

When questions locate:

• Events in relation to the time at which they happened

• Processes in relation to when they happened and their duration

• The setting of things in temporal order, or sequencing

• Boundaries of the context of your research.

These last two types of “when” questions have implications for causality and for the generalizations you may be able to make from your research.

Who questions address agency. They seek to identify the persons, institutions, or collective bodies responsible for the things you are researching. You may use who questions simply to identify an informant: “Who told me this?” But you may also use them to indicate specific agency as the cause of an event.

How questions are about mechanisms. The answers describe ways in which things are done, which together result in a given outcome. These questions might cover:

• How you carry out your own research.

• The accounts you generate from your research to indicate how something happened.

Note that there is overlap between how and why questions when dealing with events or system states. Both are addressing cause. Where questions (like when questions) set your research in context. It is important to understand the social world in terms of contextual spaces and circumstances. Both where and when questions should generate answers which help you define the extent to which you can generalize the results of your research. 

What Kinds of Change Can My Research Identify?

Much of social research is concerned with change. In experiments and action research we try to create change. In observational studies we try to see what change has happened. Sometimes, of course, we are interested in why things stay the same.

Here are some examples of the types of change you might identify:

Changes of kind: Most social science disciplines are concerned with changes of kind. We are interested in the way things become different in terms of the kind of things they are.

Changes of degree: Some social science is concerned with changes of degree. For example, we may do research on changes in educational achievement.

Identifying change always involves some sort of measurement, even if that measurement is implicit.

Taxonomies: Social scientists—and other scientists—use classifications to describe different systems. We would do this to identify changes in kind. This process involves the construction of taxonomies, which are systematic sets of types of entities.

Continuous scales of measurement: To assess changes of degree, we use continuous scales of measurement. For example, we would use a scoring system to measure changes in educational achievement. 

What Makes a Researchable Question?

Here are seven questions to ask yourself. Remember, it’s possible that not all will apply to you. 

  • Do I know enough about the area I’m working in to formulate one or more interesting questions which relate to current issues or debates? 
  • Do I know which methods I am going to use in my research? If not, see Sage Research Methods "Which Methods Should I Use?"
  • Do I have the necessary competence in these methods? If not, can I acquire it in time to do this research?
  • Do I have the resources I need: equipment, office space, materials, support?
  • Can I get access to the research field?
  • Do I have the time needed to complete the work using the methods I’ve identified?
  • Do I have time to analyze my research findings, write them up coherently, and draw the project to a conclusion?

Developing a Research Question