From An Idea to A Research Question

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In: Designing Qualitative Research

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Chapter objectives

After reading this chapter, you should

  • see how personal or scientific interests and experiences are the background to developing a research interest in many cases;
  • know more about the process from such an interest to a research question; and
  • see the relevance of taking a perspective and of using theory in qualitative research.

In this chapter, we will change the focus from more general considerations about qualitative research. Here, we will address issues of planning and preparing a study as a preliminary to the actual research acts in the field. For this purpose, we will discuss general issues and problems of planning by using concrete examples of my own research. Very generally speaking, these projects focus on professionals’ concepts of health and ageing (Flick et al., 2002, 2003) and on homeless adolescents’ health (Flick and Röhnsch, 2007).

Interest and ideas for research: examples

In the history of qualitative research, we find several examples of how ideas for research came up and developed into research questions. For example, Glaser and Strauss (1965) developed the idea of studying ‘awareness of dying’ after they had had special experiences when their mothers died in hospitals. The authors (pp. 286-7) describe in some detail how these experiences turned their own interest and awareness to processes in communicating with and about dying persons, which they later described as awareness contexts. In this example, the background for developing a research idea, interest and question was a personal one – the recent personal experiences of the researchers.

Hochschild (1983, p. ix) describes early experiences as a child in her family's home and social life as the source and starting point for her later ‘interest in how people manage emotions’. Her parents, being part of the US Foreign Service, gave her the chance to see – and interpret – the different forms of smiles (and their meanings) produced by diplomats from different cultural backgrounds. Hochschild learned from these experiences that emotional expressions like smiles and handshakes conveyed messages on several levels – from person to person as well as from the country the person represented as an emissary to the country the other person represented. This led to the specific research interest (much later of course):

wanted to discover what it is that we act upon. And so I decided to explore the idea that emotion functions as a messenger from the self, an agent that gives us an instant report on the connection between what we are seeing and what we had expected to see and tells us what we feel ready to do about it. (1983, p. x)

From that interest she developed a study (The Managed Heart) of two sorts of public-contact workers (flight attendants and bill collectors) in order to show how emotion work functions to induce or suppress emotions when doing their jobs in contact with their clients.

Marie Jahoda (1995; see also Fleck, 2004, p. 59) describes how the impulse for her study with Paul Lazarsfeld and Hans Zeisel on Marienthal: The Sociology of an Unemployed Community (Jahoda et al., 1933/1971) came from the Austrian Marxist theoretician Otto Bauer, leader of the Social Democrat party in Austria. Backgrounds were the Great Depression of 1929 and also the political interest and orientation of the researchers, which made them pick up the idea of studying how a community changes when the majority of its members become unemployed. From this general impulse, they developed as a research question what the attitude of the population towards unemployment and what the social consequences of unemployment were like.

If we compare these examples, they show the different sources for developing research interests, ideas and subsequently research questions. They range from very personal experiences (Glaser and Strauss) to social experiences and circumstances (Hochschild) and societal problems and political commissioning (Jahoda et al.). In each case, a general curiosity arose, which then was pursued and put into concrete terms. Of course, there are other sources for research interests, which are located more inside the scientific system than in our examples. A lot of research results from previous research, questions that remained unanswered, new questions resulting from previous findings and the like. Sometimes researchers have a special methodological interest, which makes them look for a good case to explore a method's potential or limits.

In the case of our own study on professionals’ health concepts, the backgrounds of our research interest had two sources. First, the research team shared a longer engagement in the development of public health (see Schwartz, 2003) and new public health (Flick, 2002) as a perspective for research and for professional training and, second, an interest in subjective understandings of health (see Flick 1998a, 1998b). From this, we developed an interest in how the ideas of health, health promotion and prevention (as some of the core concepts of public health) had an impact on the day-to-day practices in health institutions. In this example, the idea for research was rooted in a scientific interest as well as in a political concern (how to use public health concepts for transforming and improving the existing health system).

Taking a research perspective

For developing a research project from such an idea and for elaborating a research question from it, the second step (after having such an idea) is to take a research perspective. In the case of Glaser and Strauss, this perspective was to develop a theory for an area in which theoretical knowledge or explanations were missing. For this purpose, they collected and analysed all sorts of data by comparing and systematizing the bits and pieces of observation they made. The aim of their research was to identify a basic – core – concept, which allowed them to relate, systematize and understand these bits and pieces and to explain how the social phenomenon worked which they were interested in. Thus, their research perspective was focused on theory development, on reducing variety – by finding one core concept – and finding structure – in their case four forms of the core concept. For explaining how communication about death and dying in the hospital worked, why people often did not talk about the situation and near death of a patient, Glaser and Strauss (1965) developed a theory, which was organized around the core concept of ‘awareness context’ and four versions of it. The research perspective they took was to develop theory from data, which has since become one of the basic perspectives in qualitative research.

A second perspective, which can be taken to analyse social processes, is to focus on personal experiences of people who have had certain experiences. Such a biographical perspective can start from a specific event and analyze examples of living with the consequences of these events or of dealing with it in general. The event can be a personal one – like the beginning or diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness (see Frank, 1995) – or a more general one like a political change. For understanding how people concerned with this event experience it, deal with it, arrange themselves with the consequences and perhaps reorganize their lives for coping with the event, a biographical perspective is taken in research. This perspective aims at giving individuals with this experience the space to recount their lives in an interview. The analysis then focuses on comparing these experiences for developing, for example, a typology of the different ways of living with this experience. The next step then can again be to develop a theory of coping with the event under study, but this step is not necessarily taken in every study (see Rosenthal and Fischer-Rosenthal, 2004).

In our own research project on professionals’ health concepts, we started from a theoretical perspective in order to follow how this was transferred into everyday knowledge in professional practice. Here, we were not so much interested in finding a central concept or in developing a theory. Thus, our interest was not so much to reduce the variety in the data to one core concept or theoretical model. Rather we were interested to see how the theoretical knowledge under study -concepts from new public health – were adopted by professional groups, and how they differ in this sort of adoption. Therefore we took up social representations (see Moscovici, 1973, 1998; Flick, 1998a; Flick and Foster, 2007, for more details) as a theoretical perspective for our study. A social representation traditionally is understood as

a system of values, ideas and practices with a twofold function; first to establish an order which will enable individuals to orientate themselves in their material and social world and to master it; and secondly to enable communication to take place among the members of a community by providing them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their individual and group history. (Moscovici, 1973, p. xvii)

Our interest was in how far two professional groups used concepts, approaches and goals coming from new public health in their day-to-day practice. Social representation theory describes how concepts and ideas from a scientific theory are taken up in everyday life, how these are objectified and anchored in routines and practices (see Fig. 2-1).

These three examples show how different research perspectives can be taken in qualitative research for studies in very similar areas. Grounded theory research is an example of a bottom-up perspective (from phenomena and practices to theory and explanation). Social representation theory is an example of a top-down perspective (from theoretical concepts and scientific models to everyday practices). Biographical research is an example of a perspective starting from a mid-level (events and coping strategies). It could go either way: to develop a theory from analyzing biographical experiences and accounts or to look into which kinds of knowledge people use for coping with an event and how they differ in this utilization. Other ones could complement these three examples. An ethnomethodological research perspective would be interested in analyzing everyday routines of talk and action from a more formal perspective. Ethnography would be more interested in close descriptions of such practices without such a formal perspective.

FIGURE 2.1 Social representations of health and illness

The important thing at this point is that qualitative researchers also need to take a research perspective in approaching their issues and that there is more than one research perspective available and frequently used in qualitative research. Researchers not only need to decide on one perspective for their research but also to choose it from the range of available alternatives. Our examples here should show how research perspectives are chosen in approaching an issue and for formulating a research question in the widest sense (see below).

Using theory in qualitative research

That qualitative research does not build on existing theory has been a myth, which was produced by some writings of Glaser and Strauss (1967). That myth and these formulations have been revised a long time ago, for several reasons. One reason is that areas that have not been studied empirically or subject to theoretical analysis are more and more difficult to find compared to the period when Glaser and Strauss set up their research program of developing grounded theories. A second reason is that ‘theory’ has become much more differentiated since then – there are a lot of middle-range or even small-range theories (sometimes resulting from qualitative research) available. Also in qualitative research we have to build on existing theories and results from empirical research, unless we want to risk being naïve when starting our research.

Following what was said before, we have different sorts of theories that we are confronted with while planning a research project.

First, there are background theories that inform our research, beginning with the epistemological fundamentals of our research (for example, do we build on some sort of constructivism or on some sort of realist epistemology?)

Second, the theoretical perspective of our research program informs how we plan our concrete research. If we take a biographical perspective, this comes with a lot of assumptions about biography, about the individual as narrator, about human ability to reflect about what is happening to the individual, and so on. If we take the perspective of social representations, we assume that people (lay people and professionals) are informed by scientific or public discourses, process the knowledge coming from them in a specific way, and that social contexts influence how they do that. For example, it is implied that doctors anchor new developments in relevant sciences in their practice differently from how nurses do. These assumptions are not yet specific for the substantial issue of the current project but are essential for the research perspective taken.

Third, they are complemented by theoretical knowledge about the issue of research – for example, what it generally means for patients to be confronted with a terminal illness or that health promotion goes beyond or starts earlier than curing existing diseases. This theoretical knowledge comes from the literature and the existing body of research.

Fourth, we use theoretical assumptions linked to the concrete methods we use in the project – a narrative interview comes along with assumptions about what happens when people talk about a crucial experience in the form of a life story and so on.

Thus, we have four forms of theoretical knowledge coming from epistemology, from the research perspective, from the issue of research and from the methods we intend to use. All these forms of knowledge play an implicit or (better) explicit role in how we do our research and before that, how we plan it.

Developing a research question

Before we can address an issue empirically, we should clarify for ourselves (and for later readers) what it is exactly that we want to study. A research interest and a research perspective are necessary steps. In most cases, however, both are not focused enough for developing a research instrument (like an interview guide) or a research design (whom to interview) or for having a clear and relevant set of data in the end (see Flick, 2006, chap. 9 for details). Experience from my own research and even more from supervising and consulting other people in their research has shown how decisive it is for the success of a project to have a clear and explicitly formulated research question. It decides about what is important (to collect as data, to analyse in it, etc.) and even more about what is less important and should be left out (for the current project). However, there are different ways leading to such a research question: One way is to start with defining and formulating your research and then to pursue it through your empirical work in order to find an answer to it. The other way is to start with a general observation and to make the research question more focused under way, as in the case of Glaser and Strauss's study (1965) on dying and death in the hospital. In the conceptualization of grounded theory, the term ‘research question’ does not play a major role (1967; see also Charmaz, 2006). However, for beginners in qualitative or grounded theory research, it seems more than helpful to have a clear research question to answer with their research as a guideline. Finally, even when we start with a more or less general research question, it will be refined and reformulated, sometimes refocused in the course of the project (see Flick, 2006, chap. 9, for more details).

In a biographical research project, the formulation of a research question includes the event that the project is referring to, the idea of a group of persons or a specific context of experiencing this event, and a period in the life history, which will be focused in the empirical approach. In the case of illness experiences, it is often the time since the outbreak or diagnosis of the illness, but frequently the focus is also on the period before that event.

In our project on professionals’ health concepts mentioned above (Flick et al., 2002), we were interested generally in whether and how far a public health orientation had arrived at some of the key institutions of home-care services in the health field. This is of course not yet a research question that you can use for starting an empirical study. So we had to develop this general interest into a more focused perspective. Therefore, we first focused on health concepts held by home-care nurses and general practitioners. Then we focused on the attitude towards prevention and health promotion as parts of their work and more concretely with a special part of their clientele – the elderly. Against this background, we developed a set of questions we wanted to pursue in a study using interviews:

  • What are the concepts of health held by doctors and nurses?
  • Which dimensions of health representations are relevant for professional work with the elderly?
  • What is the attitude of professionals towards prevention and health promotion for the elderly?
  • What are the concepts of ageing held by general practitioners and home-care nurses? What is the relation of these concepts with those of health?
  • What relevance do professionals ascribe to their own concepts of health for their own professional practice?
  • Are there any relations between the concepts of health and professional training and experience?

We took these research questions as a starting point for developing an instrument for episodic interviews (see Flick 2006, 2007) with doctors and nurses. Looking back on this project, we thought critically about the number of different research questions included in the above list. Especially for novices to qualitative research, it is suggested to concentrate on one or two such questions in planning a similar project to the one we did.


These steps in planning and preparing a study are important to make a design and a study work in the concrete case. The times when we could ‘just do it’ (as Glaser, 1992, still or again suggests) are over for qualitative research as well. Researchers who start a study using qualitative methods today for addressing a problem they are interested in, are confronted with enormous background knowledge they could use for making their research more successful. Therefore, it seems necessary to clarify the research question and to get acquainted with the existing literature about the research. You should also carefully plan and decide for a research perspective and do your homework in the planning phase of your project. This includes preparing your access to the field, clarifying your relations to the field and the members and institutions in it, and becoming an expert in the methods you and your research team want to use.

Key points

For preparing and planning a qualitative study that is up-to-date, it seems necessary:

  • to develop a general idea and interest into a more or less focused research question;
  • to take a research perspective (and to know why); and
  • to get updated with theory and literature on several levels (epistemological, theoretical, methodical, about the issue itself, etc.)
Further reading

In these texts, the examples used here for clarifying the relation of ideas, research perspectives and research questions are unfolded in a little more detail:

Charmaz, K. (2006) Constructing Grounded Theory – A Practical Guide Through
Qualitative Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Fleck, C. (2004) ‘Marie Jahoda’, in U. Flick, E. von Kardorff and I. Steinke (eds), A Companion to Qualitative Research. London: Sage, pp. 58-62. Flick, U. (2006) An Introduction to Qualitative Research (3rd ed.), Part 7. London: Sage.
Flick, U. and Foster, J. (2007). ‘Social representations’, in C. Willig, and W. Stainton-Rogers (eds), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology. London: Sage (in press).

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