Research Question

Second step after determining the topic.

Your research question is the most critical part of your research -- it defines the whole process, it guides your arguments and inquiry, and it provokes the interests of the reviewer. If your question does not work well, no matter how strong the rest of the research, the endeavor is unlikely to be successful.

To write a strong research question you will need time. Step away from your computer; consider what drew you to your topic. What about it animates and matters to you? Listen to yourself and start formulating your question by following your own interests. Remember, you will spend a lot of time researching and writing about the proposed project: if it does not interest you in the beginning, it will certainly become very difficult to write about in the end.

Next, extensively research your topic. What have people said about it? How have they framed their research? What gaps, contradictions, or concerns arise for you as you read, talk to people, and visit places?

After you have done this you can go back to your computer or note pad and start crafting the question itself. When you do, consider that a strong research question should be problematic/evocative, relevant, clear, and researchable.


1- The research question should be problematic and evocative.

Evocative questions are ones that catch the interest of the reviewer and draw her/him into the proposal. Equally important, they easily adhere in the reviewers' memory after reading the proposal. Questions tend to be evocative because of the ways they engage with challenging topics: they pose innovative approaches to the exploration of problems, and because of this the answers found are far from obvious. There is no single way to form a conceptually innovative question. However, some of the following qualities are common to successful proposals.

Make it timely. Evocative and problematic questions are often distilled from very contemporary social or theoretical concerns. For example, questions regarding the energy crisis, international tribunals, nationalism, or the rise of anti-globalization protests are likely to peak the interests of others because they are questions whose relevance will be clearly discernable for reviewer.

Think about this one: Why should we attend to a comparative study between Plato's and Aristotle's attitudes toward women's rights unless we link it to the contemporary debates in the West regarding gender issues?

Frame it as a paradox. Frame your question around a provocative paradox. For example, why have indigenous organizations in Bolivia markedly declined while the number and quantity of funding sources has increased? Or why have violent conflicts over forest resources increased in the last ten years while the very people involved in these conflicts have become less and less dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods? There are many potential answers to these questions, and your research may ultimately challenge your own expected explanation -- but this in itself is a relevant discovery. These types of paradoxes pull the reader into the proposal and set up a situation whereby the research will fill in a provocative piece of the puzzle and make clear a much-needed broader understanding.

Take a distinctive approach. Finally, a question that approaches an old problem in a refreshingly new way, or proposes a surprising angle of analysis on a difficult dilemma, is likely to prove evocative for reviewers. This could involve a new methodology, a new conceptual approach, or the linking of two previously disparate fields of knowledge. These innovative approaches both develop confidence in the intellect of the researcher and hold promise for new understandings and insights to old and difficult questions.

2- The research question should be relevant.

Questions that clearly demonstrate their relevance to society, a social group, or scholarly literature and debates are likely to be given more weight by reviewers. Of course the relevance of a research question, not to mention the question of who finds it relevant, will vary widely according to the funding source. As a general rule, research is more likely to be interesting if it is seen as part of a larger intellectual project or line of inquiry, not just a way for the researcher to get a degree. Below are two common ways to demonstrate this in your proposal.

Fill in the missing piece. If your proposal can lay out a given field or dilemma and then point to a specific portion that is missing in that field or dilemma -- a gap which will be filled by the answer to your research question -- your research is likely to garner a great deal of support. Reviewers will note its importance and recognize its relevance to a larger community of researchers.

Make connections. Even if you are working on a narrow topic or in a specific place, ask questions that help relate the research to broader trends, patterns, and contexts. Doing this will help show how funding a seemingly distinct research project helps fuel larger debates. For example, show how someone working in a small town in Outer Mongolia will help understand the broader process of post-Soviet economic transformations.

3- The research question should be clear.

Clear questions tend to be short, conceptually straightforward, and jargon-free. This does not mean they have to be overly simplistic; but save your theoretical gymnastics and abstract disciplinary language for the analysis. Work to keep your questions as lucid and simple as possible. This may be easier in some cases than in others, but some of the strongest and most theoretically sophisticated proposals we reviewed were framed by some of the simplest, most straightforward research questions. In contrast, the most complicated questions tended to appear in proposals where the researcher seemed more interested in demonstrating his/her theoretical knowledge than in engaging the research itself. Below are simple ways to keep your question clear.

Ground the questions. Keep your questions close to the topic or place you are researching. Questions that are too abstract or obtuse make it difficult for the reader to determine your question's relevance and intent. You must still link your question to a larger context, but ground that connection in temporal and spatial specifics.

Parsimony or Limit variables. If a question is burdened with too many variables or too many clauses it becomes both difficult to read and difficult to research. Here are two contrasting examples from the SSRC web site: a question like "Was the decline of population growth in Brazil the result of government policies?" is much easier to understand than "Was the decline in population growth in Brazil related more to sex education, the distribution of birth control, or resource depletion?" You may talk about all these factors in your proposal, but the first question allows the reader to focus on the central aspect of your research rather than the variables surrounding it.

Think about this one: If a piece or research gives you 180 reasons why a person becomes a terrorist, what is the use of the research? What are the policy recommendations we might have?

However, do not be too parsimonious or you will fall in the trap of reductionism.

4- The research question should be researchable.

Research questions need to be clearly "doable." One of the most common rationales for rejecting proposals is that the question is simply too expansive (or expensive) to be carried out by the applicant. There are many questions that you will need to ask yourself to avoid this pitfall. Above all else, consider your limitations. Many very practical questions need to be considered when choosing your research question. First among them is: How long will the research take to carry out? Next, do you have the appropriate background to carry out the research? Are there ethical constraints? Is the project likely to be approved by your advisor and your university's committee for the protection of human subjects? Can you obtain the cooperation from all the necessary individuals, communities and institutions you need to answer the question you have asked? Are the costs of conducting the research more than you will be likely to raise? If I can't complete this project well, can I break it down and address the most important component?

Practical Advice on how to formulate your research question:

.. everywhere
.. must ask important questions
.. create new knowledge

.. heart of the research project is the problem
.. must articulate an acceptable problem
.. formulate a problem that is carefully phrased and that represents the single goal of the research effort

.. define the purpose
1.  do not use a problem in research as a ruse for achieving self-enlightenment
2.  a problem whose sole purpose is to compare two sets of data is not a suitable research problem
3.  finding a coefficient of correlation between two sets of data to show a relationship between those data sets is not acceptable as a problem for research
4.  problems that result in a yes or no answer are not suitable for research

..  "Always state the problem in a complete grammatical sentence in as few words as possible."
..  be specific
..  limit areas studied so that the study is of manageable size

..  be sure of the feasibility of your study

..  say precisely what you mean in your research problem
..  problem is stated in the very first words

..  choose your words carefully
..  clarify your writing
..  rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
..  express thought fully with as few words as possible
..  use a thesaurus
..  keep your sentences short
..  look at each thought as it stands on the paper
..  be alert to modification

..  important features of word processing
1.  editing features
2.  formatting features
3.  special assisting features
4.  document storage and retrieval features

..  eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding
..  give full disclosure of what you intend to do and not do
..  give the meanings of all terms used
..  state the assumptions
..  state the hypotheses and/or research question



How To Do A Literature Review?

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a summary of previous research on a topic.  Literature reviews can be either a part of a larger report of a research project,  a thesis or a bibliographic essay that is published separately in a scholarly journal. Some questions to think about as you develop your literature review:

1.      What is known about the subject?

2.      Are there any gaps in the knowledge of the subject?

3.      Have areas of further study been identified by other researchers that you may want to consider?

4.      Who are the significant research personalities in this area?

5.      Is there consensus about the topic?

6.      What aspects have generated significant debate on the topic?

7.      What methods or problems were identified by others studying in the field and how might they impact your research?

8.      What is the most productive methodology for your research based on the literature you have reviewed?

9.      What is the current status of research in this area?

10.  What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?

If the literature review is part of a Ph.D. dissertation, this review will be comprehensive covering all research on the topic.  As part of your research report, you need to cover the major work that has been done on the topic recently, but it is not necessary to try to identify all research on the subject.

What is the purpose of a Literature Review?

The purpose of a literature review is to convey to the reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic and what are the strengths and weaknesses.  The literature review allows the reader to be brought up to date regarding the state of research in the field and familiarizes the reader with any contrasting perspectives and viewpoints on the topic.  There are good reasons for beginning a literature review before starting a research paper.  These reasons include:

1.      To see what has and has not been investigated.

2.      To develop general explanation for observed variations in a behavior or phenomenon.

3.      To identify potential relationships between concepts and to identify researchable hypotheses.

4.      To learn how others have defined and measured key concepts.

5.      To identify data sources that other researches have used.

6.      To develop alternative research projects.

7.      To discover how a research project is related to the work of others.


How to do a literature search?

Defining the topic - In order to begin your literature review you must first define your research question.  What is the purpose?  What does it mean?  What are the key words?  Are there other words which could be used, such as synonyms, variations in spelling?  What do you already know about the topic?  What is the scope?  Do you need everything ever written in English on this topic, or just the last ten years?

Compiling a list of keywords - Before beginning a search for information, it is important to develop a search strategy that will most effectively locate useful, relevant information.  This will often involve breaking down an essay or research question into:

keywords or phrases; entering your search; and evaluating your results to determine whether you need to employ  various strategies to broaden, narrow or otherwise modify your research. 

           Analyzing the topic of an essay question or research topic usually involves making a list of keywords or phrases.  You will need to include all the key concepts or ideas contained  within the essay or research question.  It might be useful to include alternative ways of phrasing and expressing concepts and ideas.  Think about both general terms and very specific terms for broadening and narrowing your search. The keyword or phrase is the basic unit of any search.  You may find it helpful to consult subject dictionaries and encyclopedias, or a textbook glossary for the common terminology of the subject area.  The use of an index and/or thesaurus is also advisable to establish the useful terms.                       

Identifying Resources - Information is available in a number of formats.  It is important for you to understand the significance of various formats so that you know what will best suit your information requirements.


Reference Materials


Conference Papers



Indexes/Abstracts Printed

Electronic Databases

Government publications



Exercise of Literature Review Using JSTOR:

Let us assume that our research topic is related to exploring what variables account for the differences among US citizens toward abortion.


1- Go to JSTOR ( >>> Libraries >>> JSTOR).

2- Go to "Advanced Search"

3- In "Full Text" Fields write: "American Gender vote"

4- Lots of articles, let us narrow them down.... We want only articles, from the fields of Political Science and Sociology.

4- Keep searching until you find this one:

Gender Stereotypes and Vote Choice by Kira Sanbonmatsu, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jan., 2002).

5- Let us download it.

6- Let us figure out the research topic, the case studies, the data, the analysis technique and the major results.

The big question: Can we do a paper like this one in our class?

You want to know the answer, scroll down...







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Yes for sure. That is why we are here...

Good luck!