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:

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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: