4 Finding the Right Question

Having considered your positionality and your motivation for wanting to do research, it is time to focus on identifying your topic and research question. This process will be highly dependent on your own sensibility and will evolve over time. We will therefore not attempt to do the impossible and proselytize originality. There are still, however, generally helpful tips/resources that we will provide. Just remember that what matters is the eventual creation of a meaningful and effective question, not that a formal process led you there.

Investigating the Problematic

In her book, The Everyday World as Problematic, Dorothy Smith (2005/2016) elaborates on the question which underpins social inquiry: how is it that something comes to be socially normal or problematic? For Smith, this requires the recognition that seemingly necessary conditions for social life are not necessary, but constituted. In more overt contradictions, this possibility (or ambiguity) reveals itself more clearly. Incongruity can arise when you hear about a spendthrift with a love for canned food, a soccer game without kicks or a police officer disobeying laws. Our recognition of a comes from: (a) an indication of a conflict in our presupposition of the situation (in how the world is supposed or expected to work, for example, such that a police officer is expected to obey laws), and (b) our experience of it: a reminder that our worldview (and our correspondent social order) is evolving and incomplete. If we take the world for granted, none of this irony appears. But as soon as we wonder at the divide between how we think things should be and what we experience, topics lacking explanation or proper justification surface. A good exercise to help you develop your research question is to intentionally identify problematics. Here are three steps to get you going:

  • Thinking about a general topic of interest e.g., immigration.
  • Examine your beliefs about how this issue should be (e.g., immigrants should have access to services to help them integrate and adjust to Canadian life).
  • How is it in reality? [You might draw on your own experience and observations, or conduct research].

By following those steps, you are a little closer to developing a question that is worthy of sociological inquiry. This “practical reasoning” about what constitutes the ‘social order’ and, therefore, our sense of disorder, is what directs the inquiring outlook of the researcher (Smith, 2005/2016, p. 636).

In observing experience near to yourself, either informally through your own interpersonal relations, or formally through examinations and readings of a scholarly discourse, little noticeable moments of concern may arise which can be taken up and thematized alongside other concerns. Try it for yourself, think about your lived experience, examine social media, read a blog, journal, book or scholarly article. Did any social concern arise? If it did, it is likely that what you identified affects you personally. Often, that which affects you most will not be unique to you, and for this reason is sociological (Reid, Greaves, & Kirby, 2017). Take a researcher whose major concern is climate change. For evident reasons, he/she/they believe that climate change could be the end of existence as we know it, and that social action upon the issue is imperative. Clearly climate change is both a personal and collective problem for them, yet the capacity to solve the problem does not exist in them individually nor are the consequences limited to them. In this regard, how they define climate change (its causes in emissions, in consumption or production, in all of the above, etc.) will set the stage for what is thematized and directed towards resolving this problem and expanding their knowledge of it.

Identifying your interests, therefore, corresponds to what you view as problematic: something unsettled either with regard to your knowledge or social life. This problem could surface through something you intimately care about; through the experiences of your community (e.g., your workplace, peers, activist groups etc.); or through the social-political context of our entire society (Reid, Greaves, & Kirby, 2017). In social research, this indefiniteness is then engaged through observation techniques that seek to raise awareness of the issue either in tabulating occurrences (quantitative-empirical), describing occurrences (qualitative-empirical), explaining occurrences (theoretical or methodological) or some combination of these goals. Taking stock of the origin of your personal interests thus allows you to identify which unsettled aspects of our knowledge and our society are most pertinent to you.

Where research begins is when you take these problems and find a way to apply yourself to understanding them. If your initial emotions and reactions to a situation are subjective, it is in considering how your subjective interests link to others, the that your own emotions and interests can be aligned to the feelings/cognition of others. As undergrad researchers, this audience will likely be peers, your professor or other professors within the field. Building from what has interested you, it is time to ask whether your professor will be interested in the question as well. What determines this will be a combination of the originality and relevance of your question. Simply put: has your research idea been conducted before and why is it worth conducting? Both will correspond to what has been studied/experienced by your audience. If the topic has been studied in another domain but not applied to your discipline, then your research could appropriate this concept and relate its use to your field. Likewise, if there is an unforeseen utility of the answer, say in the discovery that rural homelessness is primarily due to a housing shortage, then you can focus upon researching solutions to housing shortages in rural areas. The relevance of the research question will involve thinking carefully about what has been done in the discipline and what are the implications of these findings, constantly begging the question: what still needs to be done? In Chapter 2, we discuss how you can make a contribution to scholarly dialogue, and in Chapter 3, you will learn how to identify and occupy your niche.

The practice of examining our personal lives and identifying broader patterns in society is central to Sociology. C. Wright Mills famously advocates for sociology as the study of the public issues that derive from the private troubles of people. Mills (2000/1959) notes that public issues are important sociologically because they impact ordinary people’s biography, and reflect the historical, political and social structural milieux in which people live. For Mills, a social researcher’s task is to seek information “in order to know what can and what must be structurally changed” (2000[1959]: 174). He advances the concept of the to denote both the practice of locating individuals’ private troubles and their intersection with the social structural, political and historical context that shapes their experiences. It is in making our private troubles into public issues that they can be better understood and responded to politically. Hence, social research links personal biography and society, history and the social structure and the public–private relationship. How can you make your personal troubles public issues? Consider your personal biography (your life experiences) and your positionality statement. Is there anything that you thought was unique to you that could be of relevance more generally. That is a sociological issue, and it is worth studying.

Other Sources of Research Topics

In addition to our personal interests, positionality, and biography, research inspiration can come from many places. Below are a few:

Theoretical Influence

As undergraduate students, you have undoubtedly been exposed to many theories. You might be interested in testing one or more of these theories in relation to a specific phenomena or topic e.g., how far does Feminism go in explaining students’ subject choices at university? Alternatively, you might love a theory and want to use it to explore or explore a phenomenon e.g., Can postcolonialism explain immigrants’ lived experiences in Vancouver? These are legitimate sources of research questions and if this describes you, you should do it. On the other hand, you might be interested in comparing two theories or the application of a theory(ies) to a social phenomena. This might be useful for both theoretical (essays) theses or empirical theses. For example, you might be interested in applying Marxism to understanding the Squid Games or you might compare explanations/application of Marxism versus Critical Theory.

Available Opportunities

Sometimes, there are ongoing research projects in your department or a professor that is working on a project that you are interested in. This might present the opportunity to volunteer yourself to write a thesis on a similar research project. The onus is on you to find out what your professors are working on and investigate if they have the appetite to bring you on to their project.

A Professor’s Influence/Existing Research Projects

Think back to your favourite professors or courses. Maybe they discussed a topic that inspired you to research it further. Sometimes, something as simple as reflecting on the courses you have taken or a past research paper or project that you have worked on can be that magic trick to help you identify your research topic.

Subject Area of Interest or Aptitude

Nothing inspires more than an area in which you have a track record of excellence. Think back to the courses that you did the best in or the topic of a term paper that you wrote. There might be something worthy of further exploration there.


You could discover an interest by pure chance. As Robinson (2015) explains below, keeping a critical mind on everyday realities could lead you to discover a topic for research that you had not previously considered.

Gary Marx’s Sources of Research Questions and Examples

Below is an outline of potential inspirations for research questions written by sociologist Gary Marx.

Table 1.1 - Gary Marx's Sources of Research Questions and Examples
Sources of Research Questions Examples
Intellectual Puzzles Phenomena that one wishes to explain or explore e.g., contradictions in the social world
Existing Literature Trying to fill a gap in the literature; general reading of the literature could stimulate interest to learn more about a topic
Replication Checking the reliability of existing findings or studying whether or not the findings are consistent in different settings
Structures and Functions Why are institutions structured the way they are? Why are there different types of the same institutions? What functions do structures serve? E.g., what functions does patriarchy serve in religious institutions?
Opposition A belief that existing work(s) is/are misguided or incomplete E.g., aiming to disconfirm previous research
A social problem Issues of concern/public problems e.g., poverty, inequality etc.,
The counter intuitive phenomena Gaps between official reality and facts at ground level or when common sense and social scientific truths conflict
Deviant cases and atypical events Events or phenomena that go against the norm e.g., How is a particular inner-city school able to produce the top results in a state?
New methods and theories Applying a newly developed theory or method to a new setting e.g., applying transnationalism to explain 1950s migration wave to Canada.
Sponsors and Teachers When inspiration come from from our mentors, reachers, funding source or other sponsors
Adapted from Marx, Gary T. "Of methods and manners for aspiring sociologists: 37 moral imperatives." The American Sociologist 28.1 (1997): 102-125.

Choosing One Question from Many

This chapter has so far offered many suggestions on where to find inspiration for your research. At this point, you may already have a list of a dozen questions that you could possibly research, so you might now be asking: “how do I choose one?” Here are some factors to consider:

  • Commonalities: Are there overlaps between the questions chosen? Could the questions be related to each other? Is there a common theme? Do some of the questions point to a general problem? If yes, map your questions to general themes to narrow down the list.
  • Practical: Given your constraints (time, resource, capability etc.), which topic is most manageable? What support is available? Which topic would be easiest to complete?
  • Strategic: What is your long term goal? Could your research provide an entrance to a job, to work with a particular professor, is a good match for a grad school of your interest, and will provide an opportunity to volunteer at an organization of your choice?
  • Impact: Which research question could have the greatest impact on the people affected?
  • Passion: Do you have partiality to one topic over the others? Are you just passionate about one over the other?

If you are still unable to choose, consult with people, then just choose one (even if you have to pick it out of the hat). Your undergrad research is not life or death so do not spend an excessive amount of time deciding. Pick one and commit to it.



Kirby, S. L., Greaves, L., & Reid, C. (2017). Experience research social change: Methods beyond the mainstream. University of Toronto Press.

Marx, Gary T. “Of methods and manners for aspiring sociologists: 37 moral imperatives.” The American Sociologist 28.1 (1997): 102-125.

Wright Mills, C. (1959/2000). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Robinson, O. (2015). Negotiating identities in CARICOM: How CARICOM nationals experience intra-regional migration and regionalism. (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Saskatchewan)

Smith, D. (2005/2016). From The Everyday World As Problematic. In Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles (eds.), Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory (3rd edition) (pp. 635-638). SAGE Pine Forge Press.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Practicing and Presenting Social Research by Oral Robinson and Alexander Wilson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book