The Research Question

One of the most important stages in the research process is formulating a research question.

It is usually a good idea to discuss your ideas for research questions with your research advisor or class instructor.

Why it is a good idea to ask questions.

Formulating your topic as a research question, rather than merely a statement can be a very useful step towards focusing the research project in general. It is common to begin with a broad topic, for instance:

“The international community’s response to piracy off the coast of Somalia.”

You could rephrase this as a descriptive question (This discussion is partly influenced by Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy of educational objectives.):

“What has been the international community’s response to piracy off the coast of Somalia?”

However, while descriptive questions are important, they are limited in how much they help us understand social phenomena. More interesting questions might include:

“Why is the international community responding to piracy off the coast of Somalia? What are some of the factors impacting their choice of response?”

These are examples of analytical questions, which requires you to identify causes, reasons, and motives for action. Other interesting questions could be questions that require a creative solution to the problem. A policy question would prescribe a response to a particular situation.  For instance:

“How should the international community respond to piracy off the coast of Somalia?”

Yet other questions may require you to evaluate or make a judgment about a situation based on a set of criteria. For instance:

“Has the international community’s response to Somali piracy been effective?”

Focusing the research question

You can easily see how selecting a research question can be useful in determining the direction and scope of a project. Stating a research question can help us clarfiy exactly what will be researched.  We know that we are interested in piracy near Somalia in the questions mentioned above. We also know that we are interested in understanding the role of the international community. One decision we might make is to narrow the focus even further.  After all, the “international community” can be quite broad, consisting of international organizations, such as the United Nations, various country governments, major shipping companies that ship goods through the region, and insurance companies that insure those goods. So we might want to clarify our question even further.  The last question could be:

“Has the United States’ response to Somali piracy been effective?”

This is a clear, focused question that could form the basis of a student research paper. Which is not to say that it will be an easy question to answer. For one thing, this type of question requires us to define “effective”. Defining and measuring such core concepts is a the topic of a later section in this website. See “Concepts and Measurement”.

Making a Contribution

If your goal is to write something that will achieve honors as a senior thesis or that will eventually get published, then one of the things you should consider is what type of contribution your research project will make to the existing academic literature. The types of questions that might be valuable have been the subject of some debate and discussion amongst political scientists.  King, Keohane and Verba’s 1994 book, cited below, suggests possible criteria to use in deciding on a topic and question. ((See especially their discussion that begins on page 14)) That criteria includes two general approaches: choosing a question that is important in the real world and choosing a question that is important to the scholarly literature (and these are not mutually exclusive categories; a great question can do both).

If you are looking for inspiration, you may want to examine what scholars had to say at a recent conference at Harvard University on the “Hard Problems in Social Science”. Of course, addressing some of those big questions is outside the scope of a typical term paper (or even many graduate-level dissertations), but it may prove a source of inspiration.

The Quick Guide

STEP 1: What type of question are you asking?
Examples
Resource
Explanatory Why did Obama win the Presidency in 2008? Why is Ghana a successful democracy? Most of the website is geared towards helping students answer precisely these questions. Some good places to start:Formulating and Extracting Hypotheses, Causality [will be added soon]
Descriptive What is the nature of nationalism in Russia? One of your main tasks will be to Collect Data.
Policy What should be the United States’ Middle East policy? Should the United States support the creation of a World Environmental Organization? Policy Papers
Political Theory Is equality or freedom more important to democracy? What difference does it make in reading ancient political theory for contemporary purposes that it was written in the context of Greek city states or the Roman Empire rather than a system of large sovereign states? Political Theory

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Contributor: Nicholas Quah

Updated July 12, 2017