A research question is an explicit query about a problem or issue that can be challenged, examined and analysed and that will yield useful new information”.
(Wood & Ross-Kerr, 2010, p. 2).

Social science research in the field of mental health involves asking questions about human interactions and behaviours to provide a rich and detailed description. Researchers seek to uncover the perspectives of an individual, group or different groups (Agee, 2009). A well-developed research question is essential for this as it serves to narrow and clarify the purpose of the study and guides the choice of method and analysis.

Types of Research Questions

Research studies should have one (or two) main question(s) to answer – this is called the ‘central question’ – and they can have additional questions, called ‘sub-questions’.

  • The central question is the most general question you could ask. It is a broad question that asks for an exploration of the central phenomenon or concept, the researcher is studying (Creswell, 2008).
  • Sub-questions are a limited number of questions that subdivide the central question into more specific topical questions. You can ask one or two central questions followed by no more than five to seven sub-questions.

The following is an example from a study conducted by Borra (2011). This study was designed to explore the expressions of distress of Turkish Anatolian women in the Netherlands. The author presented the following research questions:

Central question:

  • How do Turkish Anatolian women, whose depressive disorder has been disputed by Dutch mental health workers, describe their somatic and depressive complaints in their own language?

Sub-questions:

  • What are their complaints, physical or otherwise?
  • How do they present their complaints?
  • What Turkish words do they use to describe them?

How to Write a Research Question

Begin the research questions with the words whatwhy or how to convey an open and emerging design. Your question should focus on a single phenomenon or concept. Additional criteria for a good research question are:

  • Focused: addressing a single problem or issue
  • Researchable: using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible: can be answered within the timeframe, resources and practical constraints
  • Specific and Concise: with a clear, precise purpose to answer thoroughly
  • Complex: complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant: needs to fit your field of study and/or society more broadly. The question arises from issues raised in the literature or in practice
  • Ethical: by being reflective about how the questions will affect participants’ lives and how the questions will position the researcher in relation to participants
  • Answerable: must be answerable in the real world, by observing or interviewing real people in real time or having access to the available data.

(Agee, 2009, p. 431)

(Author: Nancy Tamimi)

*A longer version of this text forms part of the FutureLearn course ‘Qualitative Research Methods for Mental Health in War and Conflict’)

What is it?

Videos:

Fundamentals of qualitative research methods: Developing a qualitative research question by Leslie Curry (2015)

This short module explains why research questions are important, what they look like and how they are conceptualised. Examples are provided that illustrate questions and the process of developing them. While the focus is on the medical field, the information is relevant for other types of research in the social sciences as well.

(Academic reference: Curry, L. (2015, June 24). Fundamentals of qualitative research methods: developing a qualitative research question [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0HxMpJsm0I)

Websites:

How to write a research question: Types, steps, and examples by Imed Bouchrika (2023) 

 This website features an easy-to-follow guide for developing research questions. It outlines the different types of research questions used in qualitative, quantitative and mixed-methods studies. A step-by-step guide, with illustrative examples, explains how to construct and assess research questions. The website also provides a writing framework and checklist for helping develop good research questions. 

(Academic reference: Bouchrika, I. (2023, May 12). How to write a research question: types, steps and examples. Research.com. https://research.com/research/how-to-write-a-research-question) 

Articles:

Asking questions in the qualitative research context by Francislê Neri de Souza and colleagues (2016)

This article introduces you to what a research question is, where researchers find ‘inspiration’ to create a research question, and how to formulate a research question. It then goes into greater depth of exploring where else in the research process we need to ask questions as we collect data and then code and analyse them.

(Academic reference: de Souza, F., Neri, D. C., & Costa, A. P. (2016). Asking questions in the qualitative research context. The Qualitative Report, 21(13), 6-18.)

Books:

Research questions (Chapter 3) by Donileen Loseke (2017) 

Chapter 3 of this book offers a comprehensive introduction to research questions. It explains the valuable skill of identifying research questions within published research studies. It then offers a step-by-step guide that demonstrates how to develop a research question and how to assess its appropriateness. The PDF of the chapter can be accessed also here: https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/46968_CH_3.pdf)

(Academic reference: Loseke, D. R. (2017). Research questions (Chapter 3). In Methodological thinking: Basic principles of social research design (2nd ed., pp.32-47). Sage Publications. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781071802700) 

How is it done?

Podcasts:

Finding and writing your research question! by Arun Ulahannan and Julia Gauly

While this podcast is directed at PhD students, don’t worry! It is introductory and explains what it takes to get from research topic to formulating a research question. Arun and Julia explain accessibly their approaches to formulating research questions. They also show that there is not one way to do this. Good tips are provided.

(Academic reference: Ulahannan, A. & Gauly, J. (2021). Finding and writing your research question! [Audio podcast]. https://www.boomplay.com/episode/484453)

Articles:

Developing qualitative research questions: A reflective process by Jane Agee (2009)

This article explains what research questions are and how we discern whether they are appropriate. It guides the reader step-by-step through the development process from developing main questions to formulating sub-questions. Further, it explores ethical consideration when formulating research questions and explains where to situate them in a publication.

(Agee, J. (2009). Developing qualitative research questions: A reflective process. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(4), 431-447.)

Books:

Qualitative data collection: Asking the right questions by Hannah Frith and Kate Gleeson (2011)

This chapter explains what a research question is and helps readers to develop their own. While the book focuses on mental health field, it contains useful information for anyone interested in qualitative research methods.

(Academic reference: Frith, H., & Gleeson, K. (2011). Qualitative data collection: asking the right questions. In D. Harper & A.R. Thomson (Eds.), Qualitative research methods in mental health and psychotherapy: A guide for students and practitioners. John Wiley & Sons.)

From topics to questions by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Williams (2003)

This chapter gives you a step-by-step guide to how to develop your research question. The entire book is worth checking out to help you with the development of your qualitative research project.

(Academic reference: Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2003). From topics to questions. In W. C. Booth, G. G., Colomb & J. M., Williams, The craft of research (2nd ed). (pp. 40-53).  University of Chicago Press.)

Method in action

Articles:

Depressive disorder among Turkish women in the Netherlands: a qualitative study of idioms of distress by Ria Borra (2011)

This article reports on a qualitative research study with a clear main research question and several sub-questions. It is an illustration of how a research is carried out if driven by good research questions.

(Academic reference: Borra, R. (2011). Depressive disorder among Turkish women in the Netherlands: a qualitative study of idioms of distress. Transcultural Psychiatry, 48(5), 660-674.)

Mapping young people’s journeys through mental health services: A prospective longitudinal qualitative study protocol by Caitlin Pilbeam, Erin Walsh, Katelyn Barnes, Brett Scholz, Anna Olsen and Louise Stone (2023) 

This study protocol seeks to investigate the barriers and enablers to effective and accessible mental health care for young people in Australia. It outlines five research questions developed from the initial research aim. The protocol also showcases how the research questions inform the overall study design.   

(Academic reference: Pilbeam, C., Walsh, E., Barnes, K., Scholz, B., Olsen, A., & Stone, L. (2023). Mapping young people’s journeys through mental health services: A prospective longitudinal qualitative study protocol. PLoS One 18(6). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0287098) 

The association between uncertainty and mental health: a scoping review of the quantitative literature by Alessandro Massazza, Hanna Kienzler, Suzan Al-Mitwalli, Nancy Tamimi and Rita Giacaman (2022) 

This article illustrates a more complex research study. It is a scoping review that focuses on the relationship between uncertainty and mental health. Six explicitly stated research questions shape the study’s design, data analysis, and interpretation of the findings.  

(Academic reference: Massazza, A., Kienzler, H., Al-Mitwalli, S., Tamimi, N., & Giacaman, R. (2022). The association between uncertainty and mental health: a scoping review of the quantitative literature. Journal of Mental Health, 32(2), 480-491. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09638237.2021.2022620)