Chapter 3: Developing a Research Question

3.3 Developing a Researchable Research Question

After thinking about what topics interest you, identifying a topic that is both empirical and sociological, and deciding whether your research will be exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory, the next step is to form a research question about your topic. For many researchers, forming hypotheses comes after developing one’s research question. However, for now, we will just think about research questions.

So then, what makes a good research question? Let us first consider some practical aspects. A good research question is one that:

  1. you are interested in;
  2. you have resources (money, technology, assistance, etc.) to answer;
  3. offers you access to the data you need (human, animal or numerical/ file data);
  4. is operationalized appropriately; and
  5. has a specific objective (anything from explaining something to describing something).

A good research question also has some specific characteristics:

  1. It is generally written in the form of a question.
  2. It is well-focused.
  3. It cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
  4. It should have more than one plausible answer.
  5. It considers relationships amongst multiple concepts.

Generally speaking, your research question will guide whether your research project is best approached with quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods, or other1 approaches. Table 3.2 provides some examples of problematic research questions and suggestions for how to improve each research question.

Table 3.2.  Problematic and improved research question

Problematic Research Questions Improved Research Question
Too narrow: How many paramedics were registered in the province of British Columbia in 2017? Less narrow: What factors lead individuals to choose paramedics as professions in British Columbia?
This topic is too narrow because it can be answered with a simple statistic. This question demonstrates that the correct amount of specificity and the results would provide the opportunity for an argument to be formed.
Unfocused and too broad: What are the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on firefighters in Ontario? More focused: What are the social effects of PTSD on families of firefighters in Ontario?
This question is so broad that the research methodology would be very difficult. It is also too broad to be discussed in a typical research paper. The question has a very clear focus for which data can be collected, analyzed, and discussed
Too objective: How much money does the average downtown Vancouver store spend on security guards? More subjective: What is the relationship between security spending and product loss through theft at downtown Vancouver stores?
This question may allow the researcher to collect data but does not lend itself to collecting data that can be used to create a valid argument because the data is just factual information.
This is a more subjective question that may lead to the formation of an argument based on the results and analysis of the data.
Too simple: What are municipal governments doing to address the problem of sexism in policing? More complex: What is the relationship between the 2017-2018 publicized incidents of sexism in the RCMP and the number of females applying for entry to police departments in St. John´s, Newfoundland?
This information can be obtained without the need to collect unique data.  The question could probably be answered with an online search and does not provide an opportunity for analysis.  Also, the use of the word “problem” is leading … it assumes there is a problem with sexism.
The question is more complex and requires both investigation and evaluation of sexism and females applying to police departments in St. John´s. This will lead the researcher to produce more valuable and specific research.

In Chapter 8, we look at designing survey questions, which are not to be confused with research questions.