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Specifying the research question is the methodological point of departure of scholarly research in both the natural and social sciences. The research will answer the question posed. At an undergraduate level, the answer to the research question is the thesis statement. The answer to a research question will help address a "research problem" which is a problem "readers think is worth solving".
Choosing a research question is the central element of both quantitative and qualitative research and in some cases it may precede construction of the conceptual framework of study. In all cases, it makes the theoretical assumptions in the framework more explicit, most of all it indicates what the researcher wants to know most and first.
The student or researcher then carries out the research necessary to answer the research question, whether this involves reading secondary sources over a few days for an undergraduate term paper or carrying out primary research over years for a major project.
When the research is complete and the researcher knows the (probable) answer to the research question, writing up can begin (as distinct from writing notes, which is a process that goes on through a research project). In term papers, the answer to the question is normally given in summary in the introduction in the form of a thesis statement.
Types and purpose
The research question serves two purposes:
- It determines where and what kind of research the writer will be looking for.
- It identifies the specific objectives the study or paper will address.
Therefore, the writer must first identify the type of study (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed) before the research question is developed.
A qualitative study seeks to learn why or how, so the writer’s research must be directed at determining the what, why and how of the research topic. Therefore, when crafting a research question for a qualitative study, the writer will need to ask a why or how question about the topic. For example: How did the company successfully market its new product? The sources needed for qualitative research typically include print and internet texts (written words), audio and visual media.
Here is Creswell's (2009) example of a script for a qualitative research central question:
- _________ (How or what) is the _________ ("story for" for narrative research; "meaning of" the phenomenon for phenomenology; "theory that explains the process of" for grounded theory; "culture-sharing pattern" for ethnography; "issue" in the "case" for case study) of _________ (central phenomenon) for _________ (participants) at _________ (research site).
A quantitative study seeks to learn where, or when, so the writer’s research must be directed at determining the where, or when of the research topic. Therefore, when crafting a research question for a quantitative study, the writer will need to ask a where, or when question about the topic. For example: Where should the company market its new product? Unlike a qualitative study, a quantitative study is mathematical analysis of the research topic, so the writer’s research will consist of numbers and statistics.
Here is Creswell's (2009) example of a script for a quantitative research question:
- Does _________ (name the theory) explain the relationship between _________ (independent variable) and _________ (dependent variable), controlling for the effects of _________ (control variable)?
Alternatively, a script for a quantitative null hypothesis might be as follows:
- There is no significant difference between _________ (the control and experimental groups on the independent variable) on _________ (dependent variable).
Quantitative studies also fall into two categories:
- Correlational studies: A correlational study is non-experimental, requiring the writer to research relationships without manipulating or randomly selecting the subjects of the research. The research question for a correlational study may look like this: What is the relationship between long distance commuters and eating disorders?
- Experimental studies: An experimental study is experimental in that it requires the writer to manipulate and randomly select the subjects of the research. The research question for an experimental study may look like this: Does the consumption of fast food lead to eating disorders?
A mixed study integrates both qualitative and quantitative studies, so the writer's research must be directed at determining the why or how and the what, where, or when of the research topic. Therefore, the writer will need to craft a research question for each study required for the assignment. A typical study may be expected to have between 1 and 6 research questions.
Once the writer has determined the type of study to be used and the specific objectives the paper will address, the writer must also consider whether the research question passes the "so what" test. The "so what" test means that the writer must construct evidence to convince the audience why the research is expected to add new or useful knowledge to the literature.
"Problematique" is a term that functions analogously to the research problem or question used typically when addressing global systemic problems. The term achieved prominence in 1970 when Hasan Özbekhan, Erich Jantsch and Alexander Christakis conceptualized the original prospectus of the Club of Rome titled "The Predicament of Mankind". In this prospectus the authors designated 49 Continuous Critical Problems facing humankind, saying "We find it virtually impossible to view them as problems that exist in isolation - or as problems capable of being solved in their own terms... It is this generalized meta system of problems, which we call the 'problematique' that inheres in our situation."
Situations similar to the global problematique in their complexity are also called problematiques. These situations receive different designations from other authors. C. West Churchman, Rittell and Weber, and Argyris  call these situations wicked problems. Russell Ackoff simply called them "messes.'"
- Booth, Wayne C.; Colomb, Gregory G.; Williams, Joseph M.; Bizup, Joseph; Fitzgerald, William T. (1995). The Craft of Research. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-2260-6565-0.
- Creswell, John W. (2014). Research design : qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-4522-2609-5.
- "Wayback Machine" (PDF). 3 February 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 February 2014.
- Argyris, C. (1968) "Some Unintended Consequences of Rigorous Research". Psychological Bulletin, pp. 185–197.
- The Little, Brown Guide to Writing Research Papers
- Creswell, John W. (2014). Research design : qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. pp. 131–133. ISBN 978-1-4522-2609-5.
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