Developing a Research Question

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In order to develop a research question, one useful method is to develop “working questions” of all shapes and sizes pertinent to your topic. As you can see below, you can start with a handful of simple working questions that will eventually lead to a viable research question. (Note that these examples also are precursors to the three-tiered, strongest type of thesis, as shown in the revised research questions.)

Developing a Working Question into a Research Question
Working Question Working Research Question
Revised Research Question
Too easy to answer; low stakes; not specific enough. Higher stakes; more specific More complex question; higher stakes; very specific
What do people eat in Vietnam? What does Vietnamese food reflect about Vietnamese culture? How does Vietnamese cuisine reflect a history of colonialism?
Are people in the U.S. more obese than they used to be? Have obesity rates in the U.S. increased over the last 100 years? Is there a correlation between obesity rates and economic instability in the U.S. over the last 100 years?
What is the role of religion in the Middle East? How has religion influenced politics in the Middle East in the last 50 years? How has religion’s influence on government impacted the day-to-day lives of Qatari citizens?

As you hone your path of inquiry, you may need to zoom in or out in terms of scope. Often, a narrower scope is easier to work with than a broader scope. You will be able to write more and write better if your question calls for more complex thinking.

inverted triangle with 5 bands: Top/widest band labeled "Topic", descending to "Working Knowledge," "Working Questions," "Research Question(s)" and "Working Thesis (Hypothesis)." Text running along side triangle lists activities in sequence, moving from Topic stage to Working Thesis stage. Re: Topic - Idea generation exercises, preliminary research, free-writing. RE: Working Knowledge - Talking to peers, instructor, and Writing Center, ongoing research. RE: Working Questions and Research Question(s) - Narrowing scope: finding connections, drawing boundaries in time/space, complicating questions, ongoing research. RE: Research Question(s) and Working Thesis (Hypothesis) - Drafting and Revising, ongoing research

Consider the diagram above.  As you build a working knowledge of your topic (e.g., as you get a feel for the conversation that began before you arrived at the party), you might complicate or narrow your working questions. Remember to be flexible as you research; you might need to pivot, adjust, re-focus, or replace your research question as you learn more. Consider this imaginary case study as an example of this process:

Jacob began his project by identifying the following areas of interest: racism in the U.S., technology in medicine and health care, and independent film-making. After doing some prewriting and preliminary research on each, he decided he wanted to learn more about racially motivated police violence. He developed working questions:

  • Are police officers likely to make judgments about citizens based on their race?
  • Have police forces instituted policies to avoid racism?
  • Who is most vulnerable to police violence?
  • Who is responsible for overseeing the police?

He realized that he needed to narrow his focus to develop a more viable path of inquiry, eventually ending up with the research question:

  • Over the last 30 years, what populations are most likely to experience police violence in the U.S.?

However, after completing more research, Jacob discovered that his answers came quite readily and consistently: young black men are significantly more vulnerable to become victims of police violence. He realized that he’s not really saying anything new, so he had to tweak his path of inquiry.

Jacob did more freewriting and research to find sources that disagreed with this conclusion or added new layers to his answers. He discovered eventually that there are a handful of police organizations that have made genuine efforts to confront racism in their practices. These groups were working actively against racial violence. He reoriented his research question as follows:

  • Have anti-racist police trainings and strategies been effective in reducing individual or institutional racism over the last 30 years?

Learn more about focusing a research question from the following videos.

Now, try the practice exercise on research questions and working thesis statements.

Practice: Research Questions and Working Thesis Statements

1. Which of the following is the better research question?

    1. How does trash pollute the environment?
    2. What is the environmental impact of plastic water bottles?
    3. What is the impact of bottled water on the environment?

2. Decide whether or not the following working thesis statements are good or bad:

      1. Man has had a major impact on the environment.
      2. Marijuana use in Mishawaka, Indiana, has been a problem for law enforcement since the 1970s.
      3. Miley Cyrus is a horrible singer.
      4. Profilers have played a necessary role in catching serial killers.