A research question is a clear, focused, concise, complex and arguable question around which you center your research. You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious about.
Why is a research question essential to the research process?
Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process. The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.
Steps to developing a research question:
Choose an interesting general topic. Even directed academic research should focus on a topic in which the writer is at least somewhat personally invested. Writers should choose a broad topic about which they genuinely would like to know more. An example of a general topic might be “Slavery in the American South” or “Films of the 1930s.”
Do some preliminary research on your general topic. Do a few quick searches in current periodicals and journals on your topic to see what’s already been done and to help you narrow your focus. What questions does this early research raise?
Consider your audience. For most college papers, your audience will be academic, but always keep your audience in mind when narrowing your topic and developing your question. Would that particular audience be interested in this question?
Start asking questions. Taking into consideration all of the above, start asking yourself open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic. For example, “How did the slave trade evolve in the 1850s in the American South?” or “Why were slave narratives effective tools in working toward the abolishment of slavery?”
Evaluate your question.
Is your research question clear? With so much research available on
any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in
order to be effective in helping the writer direct his or her research.
Is your research question focused? Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available. (See flip side for examples of focused vs. unfocused research questions.)
Is your research question complex? Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” or by easily-found facts. They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part of the writer.
Hypothesize. After you’ve come up with a question, think about what the path you think the answer will take. Where do you think your research will take you? What kind of argument are you hoping to make/support? What will it mean if your research disputes your planned argument?
Sample Research Questions
Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?
Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook? The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites are causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies sites (MySpace and Facebook), the type of harm (privacy issues), and who the issue is harming (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation. Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in the Arctic Circle?
The unfocused research question is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length piece, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific cause (glacial melting), a specific place (the Arctic Circle), and a specific group that is affected (penguins). When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible. Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately Complex: What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?
The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective. Retrieved online from the George Mason University Writing Centre
A good research question defines the focus of your research project. Your research question helps readers to know the specific subject matter you will be addressing within the broad topic of environmental history. For instance, suppose you are interested in market development and its environmental effects. If you asked, "What is the relationship between market development and environmental degradation?” your question would be too broad. This question does not clearly define the problems you are interested in, nor does it put boundaries on your research project. Instead, you could ask, “How did large-scale agriculture contribute to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s?” This is a more specific question. A well-articulated research question provides you and your readers with critical information about your project by defining the focus of your research, its scope, and your motivation.
A research question can set boundaries to help you figure out where to go next. A research question defines which data you need to collect and which methods you will use to access and analyze your documents. Again, take the Dust Bowl question in the previous paragraph as an example. By narrowing your question to the relationship between large-scale agriculture and the Dust Bowl, you also narrow the scope of data collection and analysis. You may start archival research focusing on agriculture and settlement history, or decide to conduct oral histories concerning farmers' memories of the Dust Bowl.
However, as you collect data, your question is likely to change and grow. Defining questions within your project is not a linear process. Rather, questions will define your directions of inquiry and, in turn, the results of your inquiries will refine your question. Developing research questions is an iterative process evolving with your project. We have made a figure below to illustrate the process. You will start with something you are interested in. You will then create questions about this thing, and figure out what your next steps will be to investigate those questions further. As a result, you will (hopefully) learn something new, which will lead to a whole new “item of interest.”
Finding a Research Topic
Consider research you’ve already done. Picking a topic from projects you have done before could help you find ideas that you are already interested in. Collect your previous term papers or reports and list the topics you have researched for those projects. Choose one or two that seem promising and relevant to environmental history. However, you shouldn’t just recycle topics from previously written papers. Instead, you should develop a new topic from the old research.
Your own interests are a great source to find a topic. List your interests (as many as you can!), and then rank them to come up with one or two which are the most compelling to you. One of the best ways to generate a topic from a general interest is to look up encyclopedia articles. They usually contain an overview outlining facts on a subject with a concise list of suggested readings. If you go to the library to find encyclopedia articles, you will have a good chance of finding a topic from them.
Current events or timely issues can be a good place to find a promising research question. For example, Hurricane Katrina brought ideas about poverty and environment into the mainstream press, as well as ideas about land-use patterns and natural disasters. Any of these topics would make a good starting place for an environmental history project. You may read newspapers and magazines, use Wikipedia, or even use Google.
Excerpt from “Learning historical research” at http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/questions.htm