Research Question

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What is the significance of the research question?
Doctoral Seminar: Research Methodology I November 3rd, 2011

Stefan Bischoff, HSG (11-618-303) Tanja Rädler, ETH (04-1820-02)

1.

Introduction

In a research project the researcher is either provided with a research idea by an organization/university or he/she has to generate it by himself/herself. In both cases defining the research question is of major importance for the success of the research project. In this short overview we focus on the significance of research questions when one has to generate the idea and topic of a research project individually. The goal of this short paper is to show, why a clear research question is important for successful research and for a rigorous paper or thesis. In addition it outlines how a research question can be formalized in a sound form. Therefore the first chapter of this paper describes the different kinds of research questions and their characteristic. Chapter three focuses on the development process of a research question and chapter four concentrates on the research questions task and its impact on a research project. We conclude by summarizing how it impacts our thesis.

2.

What is a research question?

Generally a research question can be defined as a statement that identifies the phenomenon to be studied (Campbell et. al., 1982). The research question usually consists of one or two sentences that state precisely what will be confirmed, refuted or generally answered. There are several ways to draw a research question. One possibility is to start from a broad idea and then narrow it down. Another approach is to begin with a specific question and generalize it in order to identify the overall research area. In either case it is important to distinguish the research question from the broader research area or the overall topic. Any topic will be difficult to research if it is too broad or too narrow. Thus for a proper paper or thesis a suitable and balanced research gap has to be identified and then defined through the research question. Furthermore, it sometimes is not quite clear at the beginning, which research question should be answered and what the corresponding research area is. Punch (1998) made an ostensive example: “When asked the key question ‘What are you trying to find out?’, students will often respond by identifying an area.” The research area is a broader topic within which many different research questions can be defined. The overall topic of hedge funds for example is a research area. Many different questions could be raised in this area. An example for a specific research question within the topic of hedge funds could be: „Has hedge fund performance decreased in recent years?“ 2.1. General and specific research questions

We have discussed the difference between research area and research question and are now aware, that a research area in general is a broad field whereas a research question focuses on a specific topic within that field. Furthermore it is important to distinguish general research questions and specific research questions. General research questions give an idea what the topic is about and guide our thinking (Punch, 1998). Furthermore they are of great value at the beginning of a thesis and when the first literature analysis is done. But general research questions are not specific enough to be answered and could lead into confusion when not specified more precisely. Creswell (2009) suggests that a research question should fulfill the following requirements:    It should start with words such as “how” or “what”. It should contain exploratory verbs, such as “explore” or “describe”. Its focus should initially be on one central phenomenon of interest.

Compared to Punch (1998) Creswell (2009) does not differentiate between specific and general research questions.

2

2.2.

Relation between research question and hypothesis

A well-thought-out and focused research...
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