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Research Fundamentals: Develop a Research Question

Turn a Topic Into a Research Question

Why do we conduct research?

Apart from being assigned the task by an instructor, we research in order to find the answers to questions. Even the most simple Google search is a kind of research. We might type "Birds of Prey" but we are asking "Where can I watch Birds of Prey?" A search for Pad Thai might provide recipes and restaurants, but the results will certainly answer an implied question.

If you had all the time in the world, you could research a topic - learn everything there is about sharks, for example, and then write a lengthy book or produce a comprehensive documentary. For most research assignments, however, we recommend that you research a question.

Learning everything there is to learn about sharks could take a lifetime and will be a frustrating undertaking if your paper is due in 3 weeks. Finding the answer to the question "What impact did the movie Jaws have on our perception of white sharks?" is a much more reasonable project.

So, as you begin your research process, ask yourself: What question do you hope to answer with your research?

Using a Topic to Generate Questions

Research requires a question for which no ready answer is available. What do you want to know about a topic? Asking a topic as a question (or series of related questions) has several advantages:

  1. Questions require answers.
    A topic is hard to cover completely because it typically encompasses too many related issues; but a question has an answer, even if it is ambiguous or controversial.
    Drugs and crime Could the liberalization of drug laws reduce crime in the U.S.?
  2. Questions give you a way of evaluating answers.
    A clearly stated question helps you decide which information will be useful. A broad topic may tempt you to stash away information that may be helpful, but you're not sure how. A question also makes it easier to know when you have enough information to stop your research.
  3. A clear open-ended question calls for real research and thinking.
    Asking a question with no direct answer makes research and writing more meaningful. Assuming that your research may solve significant problems or expand the knowledge base of a discipline involves you in more meaningful activity of community and scholarship.

Research questions are open-ended and require a variety of accumulated data to develop an answer. ("Could liberalization of drug laws reduce crime in the U.S.?") Review or report questions are typically answered with what is generally known about a fairly narrow topic. ("What is the rationale for California's "3 strikes" sentencing policy?") Reference questions are typically answered with single known facts or statistics. ("What percentage of drug-related crime in 1999 was committed by dealers, not users?")

Broadening a Research Question

A question that is too narrow or specific may not retrieve enough information. If this happens, broaden the question. Most questions have multiple contexts and varying levels of specificity.

The underlined terms below represent broader ways of asking without changing the basic meaning. If you find sources that treat a subject broadly, use the index or table of contents to locate useful sections or chapters. 

Or ask yourself, "How might the arguments made here support my argument?"

INSTEAD OF: Should Makah whaling rituals be permitted despite endangered species laws?
TRY THIS: Should Native Americans practice religious and social customs that violate local and Federal laws?


INSTEAD OF: What are the economic impacts of sweatshops on development in South Asia?
TRY THIS: What are the impacts of U.S. labor practices on developing countries?

Narrowing a Research Question

A question that is too broad may retrieve too much information. Here are some strategies for narrowing the scope of a question.
You can use these limiters individually or in combinations.

Limit Explanation Topic
Time Since 1990? This year? In the future? Current internet security initiatives.
Place Local social norms & values, economic & political systems, or languages. Internet security initiatives in the U.S
Population Gender, age, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, educational attainment, species, etc. Filtering software and children's access to internet pornography
Viewpoint Social, legal, medical, ethical, biological, psychological, economic, political, philosophical? A viewpoint allows you to focus on a single aspect. The constitutionality of internet filtering technology
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