The main research question is the question that your dissertation is intended to answer. It is derived from the problem statement that you have formulated.
Main questions are generally broken down into sub-questions and/or hypotheses that enable you to tackle your research in a more step-by-step manner.
Your findings for these components will together provide an answer to the main question.
What does a main research question look like?
The main question can often be categorized in different ways. For example, it may include both descriptive and explanatory components, so that you can determine what is currently going on before identifying how this situation has developed.
Examples of main research questions
According to current government arguments, how should a European bank tax be implemented?
What factors lead individuals who visit online shops to ultimately make their purchases in a traditional store?
What practical teaching techniques can teachers use to better identify and guide gifted children?
What characterizes a good main question?
As it’s easy to get off track when formulating a main research question, it’s important that you adhere to the following criteria.
1. The main question is a single question.
Always limit yourself to one question. If you find this difficult to do, you need to better define what you are going to research.
2. The main question logically follows from the problem statement.
The main research question is based on the problem statement. As such, it’s important that you have formulated this statement with care.
3. The main question is neutral (as opposed to ethical).
Ethical questions determine what is right or wrong, which is not a goal of research. They may also be referred to as normative or benchmarking questions.
Example of an ethical question
Is Denmark’s decision to close its borders correct?
It is difficult to answer such questions while maintaining your objectivity as a researcher. Using a more neutral question is therefore preferable.
Example of a neutral question
What reasons may lead Denmark to close its borders?
4. The main question isn’t designed to lead to an ultimate solution.
The goal is not that your research is going to fully answer any question or solve any problem – although it should provide information that will contribute to doing so. The actors involved in the problem will ultimately decide how to resolve it.
Example of a solution question
How can the HR department at the Rabobank Netherlands reduce absenteeism due to illness?
This could be converted to a more appropriate question as follows.
Example of a less solution-oriented question
What are the causes for the increased absenteeism due to illness at Rabobank Netherlands?
5. The main question doesn’t aim at identifying policies or advice.
Your researching findings may lead to policies and advice being implemented, but formulating such things is generally not the goal of research. As above, those involved in the particular situation will decide how to act on your findings.
If you have a client who specifically wants advice, it’s best to include a separate set of recommendations (either after your conclusions or in a separate document). You could also include a sub-question that focuses on advice.
Example of a policy question
How can the 2014 Housing Act be used to make inexpensive homes accessible to the target group?
Example of a request for advice question
What steps should the HR department of Rabobank Netherlands take to become more efficient?
6. The main question isn’t a “why” question.
These questions are often too open to serve as a good starting point for an investigation; they simply present too many possibilities.
Example of a “why” question
Why does the Rabobank Netherlands have a high rate of absenteeism due to illness?
This question is not specific enough. More research should be undertaken to identify a more focused question.
Example more specific
What practical tools can be used to reduce repeated illness-related absenteeism in service-oriented companies?
7. The main question isn’t a “yes/no” question.
These types of questions are limited and often do not require much research to answer.
If you are conducting testing research, it is possible to use evaluative “yes/no” questions. These questions can also be converted into hypotheses.
Example of a “yes/no” question
Is there an increase in illness-related absenteeism at Rabobank Netherlands?
View the research question checklist or see examples
Types of research questions
The type of research question you use will help to determine the kind of research you undertake. This in turns affects your choice of research methods, as some questions require quantitative research whereas some call for qualitative research.
For instance, a descriptive may be answered through the literature whereas an inferential question may require an experiment.
Keep in mind that using one research method does not preclude the use of another. For example, you could undertake both quantitative and qualitative research. As a result, you should let yourself get too preoccupied with selecting a particular type of research question; instead focus on choosing the one that seems most logical.
Once you have formulated your main research question, you should focus on identifying the sub-questions that will enable you to answer it.
Formulating the Research Question1
In the previous section we talked about ways to define your topic, but there is a difference between a topic and a question. You may have found your topic, but within that topic you must find a question, which identifies what you hope to learn. Finding a question sounds serendipitous, but research questions need to be shaped and crafted. This section examines the factors that go into creating a good research question, dividing this X factor into six categories.
Watch video on formulating a good research question (.wmv)
This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Malcolm Todd
- Shawna McCoy
- Christopher Crowther-Dowey
- Iain Garner
- Kevin Bonnett
Download Case Study 4 - Formulating the research question: youth justice policy and intervention
What is a good research question?
It is important to start your thinking about the dissertation with a question rather than simply a topic heading. The question sets out what you hope to learn about the topic. This question, together with your approach, will guide and structure the choice of data to be collected and analysed.
Some research questions focus your attention onto the relationship of particular theories and concepts: 'how does gender relate to career choices of members of different religions?' Some research questions aim to open an area to let possible new theories emerge: 'what is going on here?' is the most basic research question in exploratory research. For an undergraduate dissertation, your question needs to be more targeted than either of these.
Creating a research question is a task. Good research questions are formed and worked on, and are rarely simply found. You start with what interests you, and you refine it until it is workable.
There is no recipe for the perfect research question, but there are bad research questions. The following guidelines highlight some of the features of good questions.
- Manageable in terms of research and in terms of your own academic abilities.
- Substantial and with original dimensions.
- Consistent with the requirements of the assessment.
- Clear and simple.
The question will be of academic and intellectual interest to people in the field you have chosen to study. The question arises from issues raised in the literature or in practice.
You should be able to establish a clear purpose for your research in relation to the chosen field. For example, are you filling a gap in knowledge, analysing academic assumptions or professional practice, monitoring a development in practice, comparing different approaches or testing theories within a specific population?
You need to be realistic about the scope and scale of the project. The question you ask must be within your ability to tackle. For example, are you able to access people, statistics, or documents from which to collect the data you need to address the question fully? Are you able to relate the concepts of your research question to the observations, phenomena, indicators or variables you can access? Can this data be accessed within the limited time and resources you have available to you?
Sometimes a research question appears feasible, but when you start your fieldwork or library study, it proves otherwise. In this situation, it is important to write up the problems honestly and to reflect on what has been learnt. It may be possible, with your supervisor, to develop a contingency plan to anticipate possible problems of access.
Substantial and (within reason) original
The question should not simply copy questions asked in other final year modules, or modules previously undertaken. It shows your own imagination and your ability to construct and develop research issues. And it needs to give sufficient scope to develop into a dissertation.
Consistent with the requirements of the assessment
The question must allow you the scope to satisfy the learning outcomes of the course.
For example, you can choose to conduct a theoretical study, one that does not contain analysis of empirical data. In this case, it will be necessary for you to think carefully before making such a choice. You would be required to give an account of your methodology, to explain why theoretical analysis was the most appropriate way of addressing the question and how you have gone about using theoretical models to produce new insights about the subject.
Clear and simple
The complexity of a question can frequently hide unclear thoughts and lead to a confused research process. A very elaborate research question, or a question which is not differentiated into different parts, may hide concepts that are contradictory or not relevant. This needs to be clear and thought-through, but it is one of the hardest parts of your work.
Equally, you may want to begin with your literature review and data collection and you may feel tempted to 'make do' with a broad and vague research question for the moment. However, a muddled question is likely to generate muddled data and equally muddled analysis.
If you create a clear and simple research question, you may find that it becomes more complex as you think about the situation you are studying and undertake the literature review. Having one key question with several sub-components will guide your research here.
This is essential. The question needs to intrigue you and maintain your interest throughout the project. There are two traps to avoid.
- Some questions are convenient - the best you can come up with when you are asked to state a question on a form, maybe – or perhaps the question fits in with your units so you decide it will suffice.
- Some questions are fads - they arise out of a particular set of personal circumstances, for example a job application. Once the circumstances change you can lose enthusiasm for the topic and it becomes very tedious.
Make sure that you have a real, grounded interest in your research question, and that you can explore this and back it up by academic and intellectual debate. It is your interest that will motivate you to keep working and to produce a good dissertation.
It’s not an easy task formulating a research question. Here one student talks about the difficulties she had:
I knew what I wanted to write about but I couldn’t get a question to match. My original question was too vague and unanswerable. In terms of tightening it up, I knew I wanted to link disability to employment. I tried to get a question from that but it was a descriptive question that I ended up scrapping on the advice of the supervisor, he told me it wasn’t any good as a question.
(Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p340)
This student did eventually come up with a workable question and went on to complete her dissertation. She was not afraid to call on the support of her supervisor and was willing to listen to his advice as to what would and wouldn’t work.
Download Case Study 5 Devising research questions from a real geographical and social situation (.docx)
Moving into action
- By now you should be doing lots of reading in the area. Make sure you note, either on computer or on index cards, anything you read that is relevant to your study. Can you map out the contemporary debates and critiques in the area? Are there any recent legal or policy changes of significance? What are the main practice issues to consider?
- Where (i.e. in what settings) does the work you are interested in take place? What access do you have to it? Will there be ethical issues? How might you be able to negotiate access? What obstacles are there? While it is early days to be specific about you data collection, it is important to know that you are on a course which will yield data, rather than a series of negative responses.
- What sort of time scales are you going to need to do the sort of research you are planning? How much time have you got? Are your plans unrealistic?
- Having thought about these things, try narrowing down your ideas again to the sort of research you can do.
- Make a list of the skills and knowledge you bring to the research task. Do you like interviewing? Will you be able to have the interviews transcribed? Are you keen to do surveys? Remember that you will need to have a reasonable sample to undertaken meaningful quantitative analysis.
- Are there sources of secondary data that you could access?
- Are there possibilities for documentary analysis?
So far, we have considered a number of issues relevant to developing an appropriate research methodology for your dissertation. The chart below should help you to synthesise your thinking to date. Work through each of the boxes but be prepared to revisit this at different stages of the dissertation.
Look at the template below and consider each of the sections.
Data Sources and Methods
Practicalities (e.g. resources and skills)
Download this template (.docx)
Good research questions are:
- Relevant: Arising from issues raised in literature and/or practice, the question will be of academic and intellectual interest.
- Manageable: You must be able to access your sources of data (be they documents or people), and to give a full and nuanced answer to your question.
- Substantial and original: The question should showcase your imaginative abilities, however far it may be couched in existing literature.
- Fit for assessment: Remember, you must satisfy the learning outcomes of your course. Your question must be open to assessment, as well as interesting.
- Clear and simple: A clear and simple research question will become more complex as your research progresses. Start with an uncluttered question then unpeel the layers in your reading and writing.
- Interesting: Make your question interesting, but try to avoid questions which are convenient or flashy. Remember, you will be thinking about this question for an entire year.
- What aspect do you find the most interesting about your chosen field or topic?
- Is there 'room' for investigation in this sub-topic area?
- Have you tried formulating questions in different ways?
- Are you happy with your questions? (You will be the one working on them!)
- Have you discussed your topic with your supervisor?
BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 2
CRESSWELL, J. W. (2003). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Method Approaches. London, Sage, chapter 6
PUNCH, K. F. (1998). Introduction to Social Research – Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches. London, Sage, chapter 4
1. © Sue Hemmings (The Open University) and Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)