All research starts with a question. We define “research question” and provide examples of research questions in the social sciences.
What is a research question?
A research question is a clear and concise goal that is derived from the knowledge gap. Researchers ask questions to obtain valuable knowledge about the relationships between concepts.
When phrased as a question, it is the guiding inquiry that drives your research design. In an empirical article in the social sciences, the research question guides the research procedure, i.e. the data collection, the methods selection, and the analyses of the data.
A Guide to Research Questions
Types of questions, or “inquiry,” influence the direction of the research.
|Question (I ask …)||Answer (I get …)|
|Do…? (or Can…?)||Yes/no|
|When and where||“under what conditions”|
|Why||explanations, i.e. theory|
- If you ask “What is…”, you will look for a typology of the phenomenon.
- If you ask “Do(es)…”, you will look for a yes or a no.
- If you ask “when…” or “where…”, you will look for the conditions in which that phenomena exists (or emerges).
- If you ask “Why…” or “How…”, you are asking for a mechanism or a theory.
What is a mechanism?
A “mechanism” is the process that produces the effect. It describes how (“under what conditions”) something leads to the outcome. You know the mechanism when you know the process of how you got from one point to another (a sequence of actions or events). In sociology, a mechanism might describe how social norms influence individual behavior.
Mechanisms are a series of steps. Each step involves certain actions, reactions, or decisions that lead to the next step. The end result is the observed social effect.
What are the types of questions researchers ask?
Descriptive research questions identify and classify characteristics of the subject. For example, “What are the types of mental health issues among graduate students?”
These are about the relationships between concepts. For instance, “Is there a relationship between socioeconomic status and the prevalence of certain mental health disorders?”
These are about cause-effect relationships. For example, “Does family SES background lead to certain types of mental health coping strategies?”
Comparative research questions are about the similarities and differences between groups or phenomena. For example, “How do socioeconomic status groups differ in coping with mental health issues?”
These questions aim to understand underlying mechanisms or reasons. For example, “Why do some individuals develop self-medication, e.g. alcohol abuse, as a coping strategy while others do not?” or “How do some individuals develop self-medication, e.g. alcohol abuse, as a coping strategy?”
Nota bene! A well-phrased research question is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
How should we write research questions in the article?
It is true that a “research question” is crucial for the article – but the name is a misnomer.
Often, articles do not phrase the “research question” as a question. Rather, it is simply a statement of what the article is about.
But, the point of “research question” is not how the authors write it in the article, but rather whether the article is focused on some goal, and what that goal is.
It is more of the question that the researchers use in guiding their work; but it is not necessary to write in the form of the question.
Examples of research questions
Questions not in the form of a question
Let’s take a look at an example of an introduction, but this time paying attention to the phrasing of the research question:
Newman, D. B., Nezlek, J. B., & Thrash, T. M. (2023). The dynamics of prayer in daily life and implications for well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Even though participation in organized religion has declined in recent years, a substantial number of people who do not affiliate with any religion still pray on occasion…
Yet, little is known about the types of daily events and experiences that may influence prayer content and how prayer may influence fluctuating states of well-being. This is particularly surprising given that prayers may reflect current events of daily life (Lambert et al., 2011). The goal of the present research was to examine, using naturalistic daily diary methods, the dynamic processes that link prayer to daily events, affective states, and well-being” (1299).
Here, the authors frame the knowledge gap in a classic problem/solution format: Although organized religion is declining in the US, people still pray. Yet, we don’t know what they pray about or whether it improves their well-being.
But, the research question is not in the form of a question. Its simply a statement about what the article is about, i.e. “The goal of the present research…” is to solve the puzzle.
Questions used simplistically as a writing device
O’Keefe, P. A., Horberg, E. J., Lee, F., & Dweck, C. S. (2022). Implicit theories of opportunity: When opportunity fails to knock, keep waiting, or start cultivating? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“The world is changing rapidly and dramatically. A report from McKinsey & Company (Manyika et al., 2017) suggested that the rise of automation and artificial intelligence could reduce the global paid workforce by half, greatly decreasing or eliminating many common occupations like freight trucker (Taddonio, 2019), cook (Dean, 2020), bookkeeper (Monga, 2015), construction worker (Murphy, 2017), and even knowledge-based occupations like market research analyst (Molla, 2019). Employment opportunities have changed even more in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (International Labor Organization, 2020) to further affect the livelihood of people across the globe. Such changes have left people understandably concerned about their job prospects (Lund et al., 2021; Pew Research Center, 2017). We acknowledge that opportunities are not distributed equally among people; some groups have more doors open to them than others due to societal inequalities—a structural injustice that must be rectified. Nonetheless, a tendency to actively cultivate new opportunities may be more critical than ever. That is, when opportunities could exist for someone, do they believe that those opportunities can be cultivated?”
Here, the authors frame the knowledge gap in a classic problem/solution format: There are many troubles and from trouble comes opportunities. But, not everyone believes that they can access those opportunities.
The research question is asked rhetorically, in a “yes/no” format. It is not a proper research question. Actually, their proper research question is only expressed in their abstract: “can beliefs about the nature and workings of opportunities help people see the door to their goals as more open than closed, and can these beliefs influence the likelihood of goal attainment?”
Questions phrased in the title
Kurdi, B., Morehouse, K. N., & Dunham, Y. (2022). How do explicit and implicit evaluations shift? A preregistered meta-analysis of the effects of co-occurrence and relational information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Here, the question is in the title.
In this post, we defined the term, “research question” and provides examples of research questions.
In the social sciences, a research question defines the scope of inquiry and the type of question influences the research direction. It’s a goal arising from a knowledge gap and aims to understand relationships between concepts. The research question, while not necessarily phrased as a question, guides the article’s focus.
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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