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A Refresher on Research Questions

We recently conducted a scholars' retreat at a university in Texas, and although all of the participants had excellent skills and were very bright students, many of them had research questions that were causing them problems in completing their dissertations. We thought we'd use today's blog to do a quick refresher of what you undoubtedly learned in graduate school about research questions.�� As you know, developing a good research question is key to getting your dissertation done efficiently and to making an original contribution to your discipline.

What are you aiming for as you create a question for your dissertation? You want it to meet six criteria.

The first criterion for a good research question is that it clearly identifies the theoretical construct you are studying. For example, if you are interested in figuring out the processes by which parents transmit their political perspectives to their children, the theoretical construct you are studying is "transmission of political perspectives." If you are interested in how television networks attract and retain viewers through branding, your theoretical concept is "branding." Notice that the theoretical construct is the phenomenon, event, or experience you want to learn more about.

A second criterion that a research question should meet is that it should contain some suggestion of recognizability of the theoretical construct. This means that the research question articulates the theoretical construct in a specific enough way so that you'll know it when you see it when you are coding for it in your data. In other words, it supplies a clear unit of analysis that allows you to tell the difference between that construct and other constructs relatively easily. To accomplish recognizability, word the construct in a way that is concrete and specific.

Perhaps an example will help clarify this idea of recognizability. Celeste started her dissertation planning with a theoretical construct of "the experience of nontraditional women in college." While certainly a construct that would be important to explore, it is too large because Celeste would have a difficult time recognizing the construct when she sees it in her data. It involves a potentially large number of different constructs, including women's experiences of raising children while going to school, degree of support from family members, responses of other students, educational accomplishments, emotions the women experience, and on and on and on. There is virtually nothing having to do with nontraditional women college students that would not count as part of the construct of "the experience of nontraditional women in college."

A more specific theoretical construct for Celeste would be "nontraditional women's experiences of discrimination in the classroom" or "nontraditional women's use of support services on campus." The recognizability here is that the theoretical construct is focused on one aspect of nontraditional women's experiences and allows Celeste to discriminate between it and other constructs that are a part of nontraditional women's experiences in college. As you formulate your research question, then, think about how you will code data with that question, looking for examples of the theoretical construct you are considering featuring in your research question. Will you be able to locate it and distinguish it easily from other constructs that appear in your data?

There's another criterion you want your research question to meet, and that is transcendence of data. Except in a few instances, your research question should not include mention of the specific data you are using to investigate your question. Many different kinds of data can be used to answer your research question, so don't confine your question to the one type of data you plan to study. You want your question to be more abstract than those specific data.

For example, if you want to study resistance strategies used by marginalized groups to challenge institutions, you can use as your data a social movement, works of art by politically motivated artists, the songs sung by union organizers, or the strategies used by Mexican immigrants to improve their status in the United States, to name a few. You want your study to contribute to a significant theoretical conversation in your field, and it can do that more easily if your question is not tied to one particular kind of data. A research question on the topic of resistance that transcends the data, then, might be, "What is the nature of the resistance strategies used by subordinate groups in their efforts to challenge hegemonic institutions?"

Let's look at an example where the criterion of transcendence of data was violated in a research question. Larry initially proposed as part of his research question a theoretical construct of "accounting practices used in children's theatres in Detroit." Here, his theoretical construct is the same as his data���he is conflating the construct in the research question with the data he will use to answer the question. As a result, Larry's story has limited interest to other readers. Larry certainly could collect data for his study concerning accounting practices in children's theatre groups in Detroit, but the construct he wants to understand in his study is larger than that���perhaps something like "accounting practices in nonprofit arts organizations."

There are a few kinds of dissertation where the criterion of transcendence of data in the research question does not apply. These are dissertations in which researchers want to find out about a particular phenomenon, so the research is specifically about that phenomenon. For example, someone who is interested in the strategies used by Alcoholics Anonymous to attract members would want to include Alcoholics Anonymous in the research question. In this case, the researcher sees something unique and significant about that particular organization, in contrast to other treatment approaches, and sets out to understand it specifically.

There are some fields, too, where the data are typically included in the research question in dissertations. History is one. Dissertations in this field are about a particular place and time, and their purpose is to explore that place and time. Thus, those particulars are included in the theoretical construct of the research question. For example, a research question for a history dissertation might be, "How was a counter-culture identity sustained in Humboldt County, California, in the 1980s and 1990s?" The discipline of English is another one where research questions may include mention of data. Scholars in English are often interested in a writer or group of writers or a particular type of literature, and those would be included in the research question. An example is: "How do troll images function in the narratives of Scandinavian writers between 1960 and 1990?"

Your research question also should meet the criterion of identifying your study's contribution to an understanding of the theoretical construct. Your research question should name what happens to the theoretical construct in your study���what you are doing with it in your study or what interests you about it. This contribution should be developed from the theoretical conversations in your discipline and should reflect a specialized knowledge of your discipline. For example, the new contribution you might be making is to begin to suggest the communication processes by which political beliefs are transmitted within families. You know that such beliefs (the theoretical construct) get transmitted. Your new contribution will be to explain some of the processes by which the transmission happens. Meeting this criterion in your research question forecasts the contributions to the discipline you'll discuss in your conclusion.

A fifth criterion your research question should meet is capacity to surprise. You should not already know the answer to the research question you're asking. You want to be surprised by what you find out. If you already know the answer to your question, you don't need to do the study. Moreover, if you know the answer, you aren't really doing research. Instead, you are selecting and coding data to report on and advocate for a position you already hold. Zaila, for example, had selected as her data immigrant narratives, and her research question was, "How do traumatic events produce long-term negative effects on individuals?" She was already assuming that immigration inevitably traumatizes individuals and that there are no possibilities other than to experience immigration negatively. She was not likely to be surprised by her findings because her question articulated what she was expecting to discover. If she continued in this direction, she certainly could have found examples of negative effects, but her contribution to her discipline (and her future ability to publish) would have been greatly diminished.

A final criterion for judging a research question is robustness, the capacity to generate complex results. Your question should have the capacity to produce multiple insights about various aspects of the theoretical construct you are exploring. It should not be a question to which the answer is "yes" or "no" because such an answer is not a complex result. Research questions that typically produce robust findings often begin with:

  • What is the nature of

  • What are the functions of

  • What are the mechanisms by which

  • How do . . . perceive

  • What factors affect

  • What strategies are used

  • How do . . . respond

  • ��How do . . . affect

  • What are the effects of

  • What is the relationship between

  • How are . . . defined

  • How do . . . differ

  • Under what conditions do

You undoubtedly have seen dissertations or journal articles in which there is more than one research question. Should you have more than one question in your study? Maybe, but we discourage it, and here's why: In some cases, studies contain more than one question because researchers have not thought carefully enough about what they want to find out. As a result, they take a scattershot approach and try to get close to the question they want to answer by asking about many things. A better approach is to aim for one research question and to think carefully about what it is. Refine it sufficiently so that it really gets at the key thing you want to find out.

Another reason studies sometimes include many research questions is because students confuse research questions with the questions they will use as prompts for coding their data. The many research questions are really just guides for coding data. In her study about online chat rooms and whether they have the capacity for deep culture, Frankie had such a list of research questions:

  • What artifacts do chat rooms use as the basis for developing culture?
  • What norms characterize chat rooms?
  • What processes are used to socialize new members into chat rooms?
  • What mechanisms are used in chat rooms to repair breaches of organizational norms?

These questions are not separate research questions as much as they are questions that Frankie will use to guide her analysis of her data. They are methodological guidelines that will help her know what to look for as she codes her data. Remember that a research question is what the dissertation is about���it produces the title of the dissertation. None of these questions is major enough to assume that role in Frankie's study, so they aren't really her research questions.

There are some cases when more than one research question is warranted. When a study has more than one research question, it tends to be when basic information about a theoretical construct does not exist, and you need to know basic information before you can investigate a process that characterizes the construct. Frankie, for example, knew from the literature she had read that online interaction is not supposed to have the capacity to develop a deep culture the way that organizations typically do, but she had been observing and participating in a chat room that she thought had such a culture. One question she wanted to ask, then, was, "Can chat rooms develop deep culture?" She did not know whether or not chat rooms can have this kind of culture, and she wanted to find out. The answer to this question alone, though, does not meet the criterion of robustness for a research question because it would produce an answer of "yes, chat rooms can have deep culture" or "no, they can't." That finding is not complex enough for a dissertation.

Frankie needed another question in addition to the question about whether chat rooms can develop deep culture���something that would produce more complex findings. Frankie also wanted to find out how participants in chat rooms create deep culture if, in fact, they do. So she had a second research question for her study: "What mechanisms do participants in chat rooms use to create deep culture?" Because she needed to validate that these kinds of interactions have a viable culture before she could ask how this culture is created, her study has two research questions.

Ah, yes, this is all coming back to you, right?�� Just don't forget, then, to spend time making sure your research question is a good one before you get too far along in your study.��

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