Part 2: Conceptualizing your research project

9. Writing your research question

Chapter outline

  1. Empirical vs. ethical questions (4 minute read time)
  2. Characteristics of a good research question (4 minute read time)
  3. Quantitative research questions (7 minute read time)
  4. Qualitative research questions (3 minute read time)
  5. Evaluating and updating your research questions (4 minute read time)

Content warning: examples in this chapter include references to sexual violence, sexism, substance use disorders, homelessness, domestic violence, the child welfare system, cissexism and heterosexism, and truancy and school discipline.

9.1  Empirical vs. ethical questions

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Define empirical questions and provide an example
  • Define ethical questions and provide an example

Writing a good research question is an art and a science. It is a science because you have to make sure it is clear, concise, and well-developed. It is an art because often your language needs “wordsmithing” to perfect and clarify the meaning. This is an exciting part of the research process; however, it can also be one of the most stressful.

Creating a good research question begins by identifying a topic you are interested in studying. At this point, you already have a working question. You’ve been applying it to the exercises in each chapter, and after reading more about your topic in the scholarly literature, you’ve probably gone back and revised your working question a few times. We’re going to continue that process in more detail in this chapter. Keep in mind that writing research questions is an iterative process, with revisions happening week after week until you are ready to start your project.

Empirical vs. ethical questions

When it comes to research questions, social science is best equipped to answer —those that can be answered by real experience in the real world—as opposed to —questions about which people have moral opinions and that may not be answerable in reference to the real world. While social workers have explicit ethical obligations (e.g., service, social justice), research projects ask empirical questions to help actualize and support the work of upholding those ethical principles.

In order to help you better understand the difference between ethical and empirical questions, let’s consider a topic about which people have moral opinions. How about SpongeBob SquarePants?[1] In early 2005, members of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family (2005)[2] denounced this seemingly innocuous cartoon character as “morally offensive” because they perceived his character to be one that promotes a “pro-gay agenda.” Focus on the Family supported their claim that SpongeBob is immoral by citing his appearance in a children’s video designed to promote tolerance of all family forms (BBC News, 2005).[3] They also cited SpongeBob’s regular hand-holding with his male sidekick Patrick as further evidence of his immorality.

So, can we now conclude that SpongeBob SquarePants is immoral? Not so fast. While your mother or a newspaper or television reporter may provide an answer, a social science researcher cannot. Questions of morality are ethical, not empirical. Of course, this doesn’t mean that social science researchers cannot study opinions about or social meanings surrounding SpongeBob SquarePants (Carter, 2010).[4] We study humans after all, and as you will discover in the following chapters of this textbook, we are trained to utilize a variety of scientific data-collection techniques to understand patterns of human beliefs and behaviors. Using these techniques, we could find out how many people in the United States find SpongeBob morally reprehensible, but we could never learn, empirically, whether SpongeBob is in fact morally reprehensible.

Let’s consider an example from a recent MSW research class I taught. A student group wanted to research the penalties for sexual assault. Their original research question was: “How can prison sentences for sexual assault be so much lower than the penalty for drug possession?” Outside of the research context, that is a darn good question! It speaks to how the War on Drugs and the patriarchy have distorted the criminal justice system towards policing of drug crimes over gender-based violence.

Unfortunately, it is an ethical question, not an empirical one. To answer that question, you would have to draw on philosophy and morality, answering what it is about human nature and society that allows such unjust outcomes. However, you could not answer that question by gathering data about people in the real world. If I asked people that question, they would likely give me their opinions about drugs, gender-based violence, and the criminal justice system. But I wouldn’t get the real answer about why our society tolerates such an imbalance in punishment.

As the students worked on the project through the semester, they continued to focus on the topic of sexual assault in the criminal justice system. Their research question became more empirical because they read more empirical articles about their topic. One option that they considered was to evaluate intervention programs for perpetrators of sexual assault to see if they reduced the likelihood of committing sexual assault again. Another option they considered was seeing if counties or states with higher than average jail sentences for sexual assault perpetrators had lower rates of re-offense for sexual assault. These projects addressed the ethical question of punishing perpetrators of sexual violence but did so in a way that gathered and analyzed empirical real-world data. Our job as social work researchers is to gather social facts about social work issues, not to judge or determine morality.

Key Takeaways

  • Empirical questions are distinct from ethical questions.
  • There are usually a number of ethical questions and a number of empirical questions that could be asked about any single topic.
  • While social workers may research topics about which people have moral opinions, a researcher’s job is to gather and analyze empirical data.

Exercises

  • Take a look at your working question. Make sure you have an empirical question, not an ethical one. To perform this check, describe how you could find an answer to your question by conducting a study, like a survey or focus group, with real people.

9.2 Characteristics of a good research question

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Identify and explain the key features of a good research question
  • Explain why it is important for social workers to be focused and clear with the language they use in their research questions

Now that you’ve made sure your working question is empirical, you need to revise that working question into a formal research question. So, what makes a good research question? First, it is generally written in the form of a question. To say that your research question is “the opioid epidemic” or “animal assisted therapy” or “oppression” would not be correct. You need to frame your topic as a question, not a statement. A good research question is also one that is well-focused. A well-focused question helps you tune out irrelevant information and not try to answer everything about the world all at once. You could be the most eloquent writer in your class, or even in the world, but if the research question about which you are writing is unclear, your work will ultimately lack direction.

In addition to being written in the form of a question and being well-focused, a good research question is one that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. For example, if your interest is in gender norms, you could ask, “Does gender affect a person’s performance of household tasks?” but you will have nothing left to say once you discover your yes or no answer. Instead, why not ask, about the relationship between gender and household tasks. Alternatively, maybe we are interested in how or to what extent gender affects a person’s contributions to housework in a marriage? By tweaking your question in this small way, you suddenly have a much more fascinating question and more to say as you attempt to answer it.

A good research question should also have more than one plausible answer. In the example above, the student who studied the relationship between gender and household tasks had a specific interest in the impact of gender, but she also knew that preferences might be impacted by other factors. For example, she knew from her own experience that her more traditional and socially conservative friends were more likely to see household tasks as part of the female domain, and were less likely to expect their male partners to contribute to those tasks. Thinking through the possible relationships between gender, culture, and household tasks led that student to realize that there were many plausible answers to her questions about how gender affects a person’s contribution to household tasks. Because gender doesn’t exist in a vacuum, she wisely felt that she needed to consider other characteristics that work together with gender to shape people’s behaviors, likes, and dislikes. By doing this, the student considered the third feature of a good research question–she thought about relationships between several concepts. While she began with an interest in a single concept—household tasks—by asking herself what other concepts (such as gender or political orientation) might be related to her original interest, she was able to form a question that considered the relationships among those concepts.

This student had one final component to consider. Social work research questions must contain a target population. Her study would be very different if she were to conduct it on older adults or immigrants who just arrived in a new country. The is the group of people whose needs your study addresses. Maybe the student noticed issues with household tasks as part of her social work practice with first-generation immigrants, and so she made it her target population. Maybe she wants to address the needs of another community. Whatever the case, the target population should be chosen while keeping in mind social work’s responsibility to work on behalf of marginalized and oppressed groups.

In sum, a good research question generally has the following features:

  • It is written in the form of a question
  • It is clearly written
  • It cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”
  • It has more than one plausible answer
  • It considers relationships among multiple variables
  • It is specific and clear about the concepts it addresses
  • It includes a target population

Key Takeaways

  • A poorly focused research question can lead to the demise of an otherwise well-executed study.
  • Research questions should be clearly worded, consider relationships between multiple variables, have more than one plausible answer, and address the needs of a target population.

Exercises

  • Okay, it’s time to write out your first draft of a research question. Once you’ve done so, take a look at the checklist in this chapter and see if your research question meets the criteria to be a good one.
  • Brainstorm whether your research question might be better suited to quantitative or qualitative methods.
    • Describe why your question fits better with quantitative or qualitative methods.
    • Provide an alternative research question that fits with the other type of research method.

9.3 Quantitative research questions

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Describe how research questions for exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory quantitative questions differ and how to phrase them
  • Identify the differences between and provide examples of strong and weak explanatory research questions

Quantitative descriptive questions

The type of research you are conducting will impact the research question that you ask. Probably the easiest questions to think of are quantitative descriptive questions. For example, “What is the average student debt load of MSW students?” is a descriptive question—and an important one. We aren’t trying to build a causal relationship here. We’re simply trying to describe how much debt MSW students carry. Quantitative descriptive questions like this one are helpful in social work practice as part of community scans, in which human service agencies survey the various needs of the community they serve. If the scan reveals that the community requires more services related to housing, child care, or day treatment for people with disabilities, a nonprofit office can use the community scan to create new programs that meet a defined community need.

Quantitative descriptive questions will often ask for percentage, count the number of instances of a phenomenon, or determine an average. Descriptive questions may only include one variable, such as ours about student debt load, or they may include multiple variables. Because these are descriptive questions, our purpose is not to investigate causal relationships between variables. To do that, we need to use a quantitative explanatory question.

Quantitative explanatory questions

Most studies you read in the academic literature will be quantitative and explanatory. Why is that? If you recall from Chapter 6, explanatory research tries to build nomothetic causal relationships. They are generalizable across space and time, so they are applicable to a wide audience. The editorial board of a journal wants to make sure their content will be useful to as many people as possible, so it’s not surprising that quantitative research dominates the academic literature.

Structurally, quantitative explanatory questions must contain an independent variable and dependent variable. Questions should ask about the relationship between these variables. The standard format I was taught in graduate school for an explanatory quantitative research question is: “What is the relationship between [independent variable] and [dependent variable] for [target population]?” You should play with the wording for your research question, revising that standard format to match what you really want to know about your topic.

Let’s take a look at a few more examples of possible research questions and consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. Table 9.1 does just that. While reading the table, keep in mind that I have only noted what I view to be the most relevant strengths and weaknesses of each question. Certainly each question may have additional strengths and weaknesses not noted in the table. Each of these questions is drawn from student projects in my research methods classes and reflects the work of many students on their research question over many weeks.

Table 9.1 Sample research questions: Strengths and weaknesses
Sample question Question’s strengths Question’s weaknesses Proposed alternative
What are the internal and external effects/problems associated with children witnessing domestic violence? Written as a question Not clearly focused How does witnessing domestic violence impact a child’s romantic relationships in adulthood?
Considers relationships among multiple concepts Not specific and clear about the concepts it addresses
Contains a population
What causes foster children who are transitioning to adulthood to become homeless, jobless, pregnant, unhealthy, etc.? Considers relationships among multiple concepts Concepts are not specific and clear What is the relationship between sexual orientation or gender identity and homelessness for late adolescents in foster care?
Contains a population
Not written as a yes/no question
How does income inequality predict ambivalence in the Stereo Content Model using major U.S. cities as target populations? Written as a question Unclear wording How does income inequality affect ambivalence in high-density urban areas?
Considers relationships among multiple concepts Population is unclear
Why are mental health rates higher in white foster children than African Americans and other races? Written as a question Concepts are not clear How does race impact rates of mental health diagnosis for children in foster care?
Not written as a yes/no question Does not contain a target population

Making it more specific

A good research question should also be specific and clear about the concepts it addresses. A student investigating gender and household tasks knows what they mean by “household tasks.” You likely also have an impression of what “household tasks” means. But are your definition and the student’s definition the same? A participant in their study may think that managing finances and performing home maintenance are household tasks, but the researcher may be interested in other tasks like childcare or cleaning. The only way to ensure your study stays focused and clear is to be specific about what you mean by a concept. The student in our example could pick a specific household task that was interesting to them or that the literature indicated was important—for example, childcare. Or, the student could have a broader view of household tasks, one that encompasses childcare, food preparation, financial management, home repair, and care for relatives. Any option is probably okay, as long as the researcher is clear on what they mean by “household tasks.” Clarifying these distinctions is important as we look ahead to specifying how your variables will be measured in Chapter 11.

Table 9.2 contains some “watch words” that indicate you may need to be more specific about the concepts in your research question.

Table 9.2 “Watch words” in explanatory research questions
Watch words How to get more specific
Factors, Causes, Effects, Outcomes What causes or effects are you interested in? What causes and effects are important, based on the literature in your topic area? Try to choose one or a handful you consider to be the most important.
Effective, Effectiveness, Useful, Efficient Effective at doing what? Effectiveness is meaningless on its own. What outcome should the program or intervention have? Reduced symptoms of a mental health issue? Better socialization?
Etc., and so forth Don’t assume that your reader understands what you mean by “and so forth.” Remember that focusing on two or a small handful concepts is necessary. Your study cannot address everything about a social problem, though the results will likely have implications on other aspects of the social world.

It can be challenging to be this specific in social work research, particularly when you are just starting out your project and still reading the literature. If you’ve only read one or two articles on your topic, it can be hard to know what you are interested in studying. Broad questions like “What are the causes of chronic homelessness, and what can be done to prevent it?” are common at the beginning stages of a research project as working questions. However, moving from working questions to research questions in your research proposal requires that you examine the literature on the topic and refine your question over time to be more specific and clear. Perhaps you want to study the effect of a specific anti-homelessness program that you found in the literature. Maybe there is a particular model to fighting homelessness, like Housing First or transitional housing, that you want to investigate further. You may want to focus on a potential cause of homelessness such as LGBTQ discrimination that you find interesting or relevant to your practice. As you can see, the possibilities for making your question more specific are almost infinite.

Quantitative exploratory questions

In exploratory research, the researcher doesn’t quite know the lay of the land yet. If someone is proposing to conduct an exploratory quantitative project, the watch words highlighted in Table 9.2 are not problematic at all. In fact, questions such as “What factors influence the removal of children in child welfare cases?” are good because they will explore a variety of factors or causes. In this question, the independent variable is less clearly written, but the dependent variable, family preservation outcomes, is quite clearly written. The inverse can also be true. If we were to ask, “What outcomes are associated with family preservation services in child welfare?”, we would have a clear independent variable, family preservation services, but an unclear dependent variable, outcomes. Because we are only conducting exploratory research on a topic, we may not have an idea of what concepts may comprise our “outcomes” or “factors.” Only after interacting with our participants will we be able to understand which concepts are important.

Remember that exploratory research is appropriate only when the researcher does not know much about topic because there is very little scholarly research. In our examples above, there is extensive literature on the outcomes in family reunification programs and risk factors for child removal in child welfare. Make sure you’ve done a thorough literature review to ensure there is little relevant research to guide you towards a more explanatory question.

Key Takeaways

  • Descriptive quantitative research questions are helpful for community scans but cannot investigate causal relationships between variables.
  • Explanatory quantitative research questions must include an independent and dependent variable.
  • Exploratory quantitative research questions should only be considered when there is very little previous research on your topic.

Exercises

  • Identify the type of research you are engaged in (descriptive, explanatory, or exploratory).
  • Create a quantitative research question for your project that matches with the type of research you are engaged in.
    • Preferably, you should be creating an explanatory research question for quantitative research.

9.4 Qualitative research questions

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • List the key terms associated with qualitative research questions
  • Distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research questions

Qualitative research questions differ from quantitative research questions. Because qualitative research questions seek to explore or describe phenomena, not provide a neat nomothetic explanation, they are often more general and openly worded. They may include only one concept, though many include more than one. Instead of asking how one variable causes changes in another, we are instead trying to understand the experiencesunderstandings, and meanings that people have about the concepts in our research question. These keywords often make an appearance in qualitative research questions.

Let’s work through an example from our last section. In Table 9.1, a student asked, “What is the relationship between sexual orientation or gender identity and homelessness for late adolescents in foster care?” In this question, it is pretty clear that the student believes that adolescents in foster care who identify as LGBTQ may be at greater risk for homelessness. This is a nomothetic causal relationship—LGBTQ status causes changes in homelessness.

However, what if the student were less interested in predicting homelessness based on LGBTQ status and more interested in understanding the stories of foster care youth who identify as LGBTQ and may be at risk for homelessness? In that case, the researcher would be building an . The youths whom the researcher interviews may share stories of how their foster families, caseworkers, and others treated them. They may share stories about how they thought of their own sexuality or gender identity and how it changed over time. They may have different ideas about what it means to transition out of foster care.

Because qualitative questions usually center on idiographic causal relationships, they look different than quantitative questions. Table 9.3 below takes the final research questions from Table 9.1 and adapts them for qualitative research. The guidelines for research questions previously described in this chapter still apply, but there are some new elements to qualitative research questions that are not present in quantitative questions.

  1. Qualitative research questions often ask about lived experience, personal experience, understanding, meaning, and stories.
  2. Qualitative research questions may be more general and less specific.
  3. Qualitative research questions may also contain only one variable, rather than asking about relationships between multiple variables.
Table 9.3 Quantitative vs. qualitative research questions
Quantitative Research Questions Qualitative Research Questions
How does witnessing domestic violence impact a child’s romantic relationships in adulthood? How do people who witness domestic violence understand its effects on their current relationships?
What is the relationship between sexual orientation or gender identity and homelessness for late adolescents in foster care? What is the experience of identifying as LGBTQ in the foster care system?
How does income inequality affect ambivalence in high-density urban areas? What does racial ambivalence mean to residents of an urban neighborhood with high income inequality?
How does race impact rates of mental health diagnosis for children in foster care? How do African-Americans experience seeking help for mental health concerns?

Qualitative research questions have one final feature that distinguishes them from quantitative research questions: they can change over the course of a study. Qualitative research is a reflexive process, one in which the researcher adapts their approach based on what participants say and do. The researcher must constantly evaluate whether their question is important and relevant to the participants. As the researcher gains information from participants, it is normal for the focus of the inquiry to shift.

For example, a qualitative researcher may want to study how a new truancy rule impacts youth at risk of expulsion. However, after interviewing some of the youth in their community, a researcher might find that the rule is actually irrelevant to their behavior and thoughts. Instead, their participants will direct the discussion to their frustration with the school administrators or the lack of job opportunities in the area. This is a natural part of qualitative research, and it is normal for research questions and hypothesis to evolve based on information gleaned from participants.

However, this reflexivity and openness unacceptable in quantitative research for good reasons. Researchers using quantitative methods are testing a hypothesis, and if they could revise that hypothesis to match what they found, they could never be wrong!  Indeed, an important component of open science and reproducability is the preregistration of a researcher’s hypotheses and data analysis plan in a central repository that can be verified and replicated by reviewers and other researchers. This interactive graphic from 538 shows how an unscrupulous research could come up with a hypothesis and theoretical explanation after collecting data by hunting for a combination of factors that results in a relationship. This is an excellent example of how the positivist assumptions behind quantitative research and intepretivist assumptions behind qualitative research result in different approaches to social science.

Key Takeaways

  • Qualitative research questions often contain words or phrases like “lived experience,” “personal experience,” “understanding,” “meaning,” and “stories.”
  • Qualitative research questions can change and evolve over the course of the study.

Exercises

  • Using the guidance in this chapter, write a qualitative research question. You may want to use some of the keywords mentioned above.

9.5 Evaluating and updating your research questions

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Evaluate the feasibility and importance of your research questions
  • Begin to match your research questions to specific designs that determine what the participants in your study will do

Feasibility and importance

As you are getting ready to finalize your research question and move into designing your research study, it is important to check whether your research question is feasible for you to answer and what importance your results will have in the community, among your participants, and in the scientific literature

Key questions to consider when evaluating your question’s include:

  • Do you have access to the data you need?
  • Will you be able to get consent from stakeholders, gatekeepers, and others?
  • Does your project pose risk to individuals through direct harm, dual relationships, or breaches in confidentiality? (see Chapter 6 for more ethical considerations)
  • Are you competent enough to complete the study?
  • Do you have the resources and time needed to carry out the project?

Key questions to consider when evaluating the of your question include:

  • Can we answer your research question simply by looking at the literature on your topic?
  • How does your question add something new to the scholarly literature? (raises a new issue, addresses a controversy, studies a new population, etc.)
  • How will your target population benefit, once you answer your research question?
  • How will the community, social work practice, and the broader social world benefit, once you answer your research question?

 

Exercises

  • Using the questions above, check whether you think your project is feasible for you to complete, given the constrains that student projects face.
  • Realistically, explore the potential impact of your project on the community and in the scientific literature. Make sure your question cannot be answered by simply reading more about your topic.

 

Matching your research question and study design

This chapter described how to create a good quantitative and qualitative research question. In Parts 3 and 4 of this textbook, we will detail some of the basic designs like surveys and interviews that social scientists use to answer their research questions. But which design should you choose?

As with most things, it all depends on your research question. If your research question involves, for example, testing a new intervention, you will likely want to use an experimental design. On the other hand, if you want to know the lived experience of people in a public housing building, you probably want to use an interview or focus group design.

We will learn more about each one of these designs in the remainder of this textbook. We will also learn about using data that already exists, studying an individual client inside clinical practice, and evaluating programs, which are other examples of designs. Below is a list of designs we will cover in this textbook:

  • Surveys: online, phone, mail, in-person
  • Experiments: classic, pre-experiments, quasi-experiments
  • Interviews: in-person or via phone or videoconference
  • Focus groups: in-person or via videoconference
  • Content analysis of existing data
  • Secondary data analysis of another researcher’s data
  • Program evaluation

The design of your research study determines what you and your participants will do. In an experiment, for example, the researcher will introduce a stimulus or treatment to participants and measure their responses. In contrast, a content analysis may not have participants at all, and the researcher may simply read the marketing materials for a corporation or look at a politician’s speeches to conduct the data analysis for the study.

I imagine that a content analysis probably seems easier to accomplish than an experiment. However, as a researcher, you have to choose a research design that makes sense for your question and that is feasible to complete with the resources you have. All research projects require some resources to accomplish. Make sure your design is one you can carry out with the resources (time, money, staff, etc.) that you have.

There are so many different designs that exist in the social science literature that it would be impossible to include them all in this textbook. The purpose of the subsequent chapters is to help you understand the basic designs upon which these more advanced designs are built. As you learn more about research design, you will likely find yourself revising your research question to make sure it fits with the design. At the same time, your research question as it exists now should influence the design you end up choosing. There is no set order in which these should happen. Instead, your research project should be guided by whether you can feasibly carry it out and contribute new and important knowledge to the world.

Key Takeaways

  • Research questions must be feasible and important.
  • Research questions must match study design.

Exercises

  • Based on what you know about designs like surveys, experiments, and interviews, describe how you might use one of them to answer your research question.
    • You may want to refer back to Section 2.4 which discusses how to get raw data about your topic and the common designs used in student research projects.

  1. Not familiar with SpongeBob SquarePants? You can learn more about him on Nickelodeon’s site dedicated to all things SpongeBob: http://www.nick.com/spongebob-squarepants/
  2. Focus on the Family. (2005, January 26). Focus on SpongeBob. Christianity Today. Retrieved from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/januaryweb-only/34.0c.html
  3. BBC News. (2005, January 20). US right attacks SpongeBob video. Retrieved from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4190699.stm
  4. In fact, an MA thesis examines representations of gender and relationships in the cartoon: Carter, A. C. (2010). Constructing gender and relationships in “SpongeBob SquarePants”: Who lives in a pineapple under the sea. MA thesis, Department of Communication, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL.

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Graduate research methods in social work by Matthew DeCarlo, Cory Cummings, Kate Agnelli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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