Research question

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In the context of scientific work, a research question is the formulation of the goal of a research project or plan. In science research and methodology , the term is particularly widespread in the humanities and humanities . The research question puts the research goal in relation to the current state of science , the chosen methodology and the current paradigm . Depending on what is known, ascertainable or (within the given framework) inexplicable, the research question can be answered in whole or in part by a project. Under certain circumstances it even has to be rejected as unanswerable, turns out to be a pseudo problem or can only be specified more precisely by the project.

Often times, research questions test a particular hypothesis within a paradigm. In some scientific subjects, a distinction is made between the more general concept of a research question and the more specific concept of a research question.

General aspects

Research question

By answering a research question, new knowledge should be generated. It must therefore be formulated in a concrete, answerable and exhaustive manner and take into account the state of the art in which it affects. In the course of the research process, the research question can change - through more precise delimitation, subdivision, etc. if the creation of the research design or the material analysis make it necessary.

A topic will be narrowed down with the help of a research question so that it can be investigated in the allotted time. Only in this way can it be developed in a plannable manner. In doing so, it is often necessary to expressly postpone other problem aspects that cannot be adequately answered in the present project.

Dependence on the scientific discipline

The importance of the research question as part of scientific work varies depending on the subject area or scientific discipline. In some areas of science research questions are sufficient, in others not. In other areas one speaks more of a question and in still other areas a distinction between different types or aspects may not even be the subject of reflection on professional activity.

Some disciplines are better suited to the project form than others. If the complexity of a discipline is very high, this does not necessarily make project planning easier, even if research problems can be more easily identified in those areas in which theories, methods and terms exist in a consolidated form.

In the context of the respective discipline and its possibilities, it can also be relevant to a research question to clarify which understanding of science one leans towards and how the rough direction of the motivation behind the research question can be described. With regard to the understanding of science, a distinction can be made between whether it is more an attempt to take a supposedly neutral, objective position or whether the research question is to be used in an evaluative way so that a subjective position is scientifically founded. When it comes to motivations behind a research question, there is a spectrum in the humanities and social sciences between an analysis of the current situation (description of phenomena) and a normative target analysis (the criticism with the demand for change). When working out a research question, it is advisable to try to strictly separate these two aspects.

Research question between theory and empiricism

A good research question relates to "the world" on the one hand and to "the subject" on the other. It determines which material from the "world" is to be used and which analytical tool of a "subject" is chosen. Theoretical concepts that structure the view of reality are constitutive for a research question . Only with conceptual pre-structures can data be considered relevant or not relevant for a specific question. If the results are directed too much towards the reproduction of the theory-based assumptions, the balance between theory and empiricism is no longer balanced, however, and there must be a possibility that empiricism refutes a hypothesis . A research question cannot be developed independently of the concepts of the area or areas within which the solution to a problem is to be worked out.

Individual subject areas

Cultural studies

The development of a research question in cultural studies , which are historically and geographically very diverse as a subject, often begins with observations in a local context. Special phenomena are selected for analysis and, in relation to these, situated knowledge is generated, the perspective of which is continuously reflected. The personal relationship to a research object is seen as an important factor when working out a research question. Accordingly, in cultural studies, the self-reflection of the researcher is generally regarded as an essential resource in the research process, which also plays an important role in the process of finding a suitable question. The critical examination of disability and discrimination through elements of conventional culture, with "marginalization and the corresponding self-images ... is an essential topos of cultural studies and determines its actual, political credo". Cultural studies are not only defined by their research questions; they also provide themselves as an element of an emancipation movement.

Communication science

In the field of communication science, a research question always includes a reason why the question is relevant . In communication science, a distinction is made between larger and smaller research questions. The smaller questions are questions that arise when one's own observations do not match the results reported in the previous research literature. Sometimes contradictions between positions in the existing research literature also raise relevant questions that can be worked with on a smaller scale. Behind the larger questions are mostly the problems of communication science, classified as central, namely how media offers affect individual perceptions, attitudes and behavioral patterns and how social change and media development are related. What can be processed with so-called smaller research questions is often part of a research project in which larger questions are worked on.

There are four ideal sources for research questions in communication studies:

  1. The previous or old reality no longer coincides with the current reality, which is consequently perceived as new. You check against the new reality what you thought you knew so far.
  2. State of research and reality contradict each other. One is working on an update of the state of research.
  3. Positions in the research literature contradict one another. One could try to find out whether the difference is a result of different methods being used. A certain norm in the field of public communication seems to contradict reality. Here, for example, research is carried out into how media criticism as a research result can lead to existing norms appearing in a new light.

A model for developing a larger research question in communication science might be to do it in three steps. In a first step, everyday observations and vague assumptions are used to define so-called material objects. Material objects are examples that can be used to examine a research object. You usually have a few of these at hand when it comes to choosing a topic for a thesis. In a second step, this material object becomes a so-called formal object, which means that a larger context is sought in the existing material that points beyond the concrete material object by drawing attention to an underlying problem. This second step is the most difficult, partly because not every new phenomenon warrants a study. The particularity of the selected subject must therefore be worked out in order to be able to formulate the research question in step three.

A suitable research question should firstly make it possible to explore the concrete object, the material object, in more detail, and secondly, based on the interest in knowledge in a more general research context, this material object should be recognizable in its relevance for a research project, i.e. as a suitable formal object. The research question serves to outline a research problem; so the problem and the question belong together.

Literary studies

In literary studies one usually speaks of "questioning" when the research question is meant. A question is considered fruitful if it promises to bring out new perspectives on an object. On the basis of the selected question, a separate position should be developed, which builds on the current state of research. Ideally, the question is suitable for a scientific contribution that goes beyond the current state of research.


In sociology , a research question is viewed as a special kind of research question .

With the help of a research question, information about (social) issues is usually obtained, e.g. B. in opinion polls . The information obtained is already the aim of the investigation. In contrast, a research question aims to contribute to the formation of theories. Accordingly, only those questions are research questions "which identify a knowledge gap in the theoretical structure and guide the closing of this knowledge gap".

According to some authors, a research question should have the following structure:

1. A sociological research question should relate to an existing theory and use its terminology. A research question is based on the concentrated results of other studies. Aspects of these results that have not yet been answered can then form the starting point for a new research question. By referring to existing knowledge of this kind, a research question also indicates which scope the answer is or could be about.
2. By answering a research question, something can be added to existing knowledge of this kind.
3. A research question asks about a connection that can then be formulated in theoretical form. Theory in this sense is "knowledge of the relationship between conditions, course and effects of processes in nature or society".
4. A research question is characterized by the fact that it is asked about a general connection. In the case that it is about processes, the research question does not only refer to the course of an individual process in its concreteness, but statements about a type of process are developed on the basis of selected phenomena.

Only when all four of these points are formulated in one question is it a sociological research question. The answer to a research question must be so general that it touches on at least some aspects of other research subjects.

The following question can be asked for verification: Which aspects and conclusions of the answer would be relevant in the context of other projects in which there is no interest in the selected specific cases? Only then will it be a genuine research question in the sense of Gläser / Laudel.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Waldemar Bauer, Jörn Bleck-Neuhaus, Rainer Dombois, Ingo S. Wehrtmann: Developing Research Projects - From Idea to Publication , UTB / Nomos, Baden-Baden 2013, ISBN 978-3-8252-4019-6 , p. 30 -33.
  2. ^ Roy Sommer: Research Design: How to Design a Doctoral Thesis . In: Ansgar Nünning and Roy Sommer (eds.): Handbook Doctorate: Research - Funding - Financing. Table of contents , Metzler, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-476-02011-6 , pp. 254-267, p. 259.
  3. ^ Judith Wolfsberger: The freedom to work on just one detail of the topic. Focus everything on one question. In: Freely written. Courage, freedom and strategy for academic theses. 3. Edition. Böhlau / UTB, Stuttgart 2010, ISBN 978-3-8252-3218-4 , ISBN 978-3-8252-2424-0 , pp. 77-85.
  4. Reference for the second part of this statement: Stephen Toulmin. Human Understanding, Vol. I, General Introduction and Part I, The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts . Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 211-212; See Cristina Besio: Research Projects . On organizational change in science . Transcript, Bielefeld 2009, ISBN 978-3-8376-1097-0 , p. 354.
  5. Stefan Weber: Paradigmatic Orientations to Basic Theories. In: Stefan Weber (Ed.), Theories of the Media. From cultural criticism to constructivism . 2., revised. Edition. Konstanz, UVK-Verlags-Gesellschaft, 2010, ISBN 978-3-8252-2424-0 , pp. 296–303, p. 297.
  6. ^ Judith Wolfsberger: The freedom to work on just one detail of the topic. Focus everything on one question. In: Freely written. Courage, freedom and strategy for academic theses. 3. Edition. Böhlau / UTB, Stuttgart 2010, ISBN 978-3-8252-3218-4 , ISBN 978-3-205-78654-2 , pp. 84-85.
  7. ^ Claudia Dürr: Knowing how to do contemporary literature? Knowledge theory, literary practice and the limits of what can be said . In: Maik Bierwirth, Anja Johannsen , Mirna Zeman (eds.): Doing Contemporary Literature. Practices, valuations, automatisms. Fink, Munich 2012, pp. 53–67, p. 65.
  8. ^ Rainer Winter: Cultural Studies . In: Ruth Ayaß, Jörg Bergmann (Hrsg.): Qualitative methods of media research. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg, 2006, ISBN 3-499-55665-0 , pp. 423-434.
  9. Lutz Musner: Cultural Studies and Cultural Studies: Two unequal siblings? In: KulturPoetik 1.2 (2001), p. 263.
  10. Michael Meyen , Maria Löblich, Senta Pfaff-Rüdiger, Claudia Riesmeyer: In the beginning there is astonishment: from everyday observation to research . In: dies .: Qualitative research in communication science. A practice-oriented introduction. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2011, ISBN 978-3-531-17380-1 , pp. 55–59.
  11. ^ Carlos Spoerhase : The literary housework. (PDF; 174 kB), uploaded 2008, section 1, §3, §4.
  12. Jochen glasses, Grit Laudel: research questions and explanatory strategies. In: Expert interviews and qualitative content analysis as instruments for reconstructive investigations. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2004, ISBN 3-8100-3522-X , ISBN 3-8252-2348-5 , pp. 60–73, pp. 63–65. (This is the source of the entire first version of December 27, 2005) (Review by Andrea D. Bührmann)
  13. Jochen glasses, Grit Laudel: research questions and explanatory strategies. In: Expert interviews and qualitative content analysis as instruments for reconstructive investigations. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbad. Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, 2004, ISBN 3-8100-3522-X , ISBN 3-8252-2348-5 , p. 63.
  14. Jochen glasses, Grit Laudel: research questions and explanatory strategies. In: Expert interviews and qualitative content analysis as instruments for reconstructive investigations. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2004, ISBN 3-8100-3522-X , ISBN 3-8252-2348-5 , pp. 63–65.


J. Bortz / N. Döring, Research Methods and Evaluation for Human and Social Scientists. Heidelberg; Springer 2006

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