Research Question Formulation

The goal of communication research is to ask important questions that allow scholars to get useful answers to advance the knowledge of some aspect of communication. These questions are known as research questions. Research questions explore tentative relationships between variables and represent the basic research interests. One purpose of research questions is to narrow the topic of study. Another purpose of research questions is to help guide the research project. Ultimately, research questions are a statement of what the researcher wants to know about or understand upon the completion of the study. This entry discusses the use of research questions in quantitative and qualitative research. It also discusses how to formulate effective quantitative and qualitative research questions.

Research Questions in Quantitative Research

The aim of quantitative research is to find relationships among variables. As the name implies, quantitative data is numerical in nature. The goal of quantitative researchers is to be able to generalize results across like cases. Quantitative researchers make predictions about variables based on past research. If research exists on the topic a researcher can pose a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess about the relationship between variables of interest or a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. The hypothesis predicts what will happen to the dependent variable based upon changes in the independent variable. Hypotheses are generally statements such as, “If x occurs, y will happen,” or “As x decreases, so will y.” Hypotheses can be nondirectional, in which a researcher predicts that there is a relationship between variables, or directional, in which the researcher predicts a positive or negative relationship between variables.

Ultimately, a useful hypothesis reflects current research about the topic under investigation. For example, if a researcher was interested in understanding the relationship between teacher immediacy behaviors and student learning, he or she would first need to research the topic to find out what is already known about teacher immediacy and student learning. To extend the example, imagine that the researcher discovered that many teacher immediacy behaviors had been studied (e.g., smiling, eye contact, vocal variety, animated gestures) and found that there is a relationship between these immediacy strategies and learning, but little if any research investigated the use of humor as a teacher immediacy strategy. The researcher would use the available research to make a prediction about the relationship between the use of humor in the classroom and student learning. After conducting extensive research, the researcher ultimately discovered that there appears to be a positive relationship between teacher immediacy behaviors and student learning, leading the researcher to predict the following hypothesis:

H1: The use of humor in the classroom will have a positive impact on student learning.

Researchers can pose hypotheses when research exists to help the researcher predict relationships between variables. However, in the case of a new concept or phenomenon, the researcher may not have a body of research to draw upon to make these predictions, rendering it necessary to pose research questions in addition to or in lieu of hypotheses.

Research questions in quantitative research are more exploratory in nature than hypotheses but still need to be carefully articulated. If posing research questions rather than a hypothesis, the researcher needs to make an argument for why he or she is posing a research question instead of a hypothesis. Generally, if a researcher is using a research question in quantitative research it is because there is not enough evidence to make an educated guess about the relationship between two or more variables. Therefore the researcher needs to make an argument about the lack of research available to develop an informed hypothesis, making it necessary instead to develop research questions. Just like hypotheses, research questions in quantitative research can be nondirectional or directional. Nondirectional research questions explore if there is a difference in the relationship between two or more variables. Directional research questions focus on exploring differences or positive or negative relationships between variables. What follows is an example to illustrate the use of research questions in quantitative research.

A researcher is interested in exploring the relationship between the level of self-disclosure on social media and perceptions of trustworthiness; however, very little research exists on the topic. The researcher can still explore this topic, but it is necessary to pose research questions rather than hypotheses. Instead of predicting what will happen, the researcher might pose the following research question: “What is the nature of the relationship between the level of self-disclosure on social media and perceptions of trustworthiness?” This would be an example of a nondirectional research question. The researcher could also ask, “Are individuals who self-disclose more on social media perceived to be more trustworthy than those who disclose less?” This would be an example of a directional research question.

Research Questions in Qualitative Research

The goal of qualitative researchers it to understand how human beings make sense of their social worlds. Qualitative researchers do not aim to generalize their results across cases but to get a rich understanding of people in context. The data in qualitative research take the form of words and language rather than numbers. Hypotheses are not typically used in qualitative research because qualitative researchers believe that communication and the world in general are too complex to make predictions about. Instead, qualitative researchers believe the best they can do is explore the social world to bring about greater understanding and awareness. Instead, research questions are used to focus the research study and to guide the researcher through the research process. There are many different approaches to qualitative research such as ethnography, focus groups, interviews, and narrative to name a few. It is important to understand how qualitative researchers develop research questions.

Not all qualitative researchers develop research questions at the same point in the research process. Some qualitative researchers believe research questions should be developed in the field during the course of the research study. Others develop their research questions early on in the process. However, all qualitative research begins with a plan, regardless of whether the research questions are developed early or later in the processor. For the purpose of this entry the focus will be on research questions formulated in the early stages of the research process.

Qualitative researchers typically embark upon a research topic as the result of noticing an interesting phenomenon that they want to know more about. The researcher next proceeds by examining the available research on the subject of inquiry. It is essential for scholars to be aware of current research in the field to remain part of the ongoing conversation about communication. Scholars can do so by regularly browsing scholarly academic journals in the field of communication. Once researchers are well-versed in the research surrounding their topic of inquiry they formulate research questions.

As was mentioned earlier, the goal of qualitative research is not to force the researcher’s interpretations on participants but to understand how participants understand or make sense of the world. Qualitative research questions should be broad enough to reflect the interpretive nature of qualitative research but provide enough detail to clearly convey what the researcher is investigating. Questions should not be too broad. For example, “How do people talk?” is an example of a research question that is much too broad. The question should also include information about what group of people are being studied and in what context. A better research question would be, “How do Sudanese refugees in the United States talk about the American dream?” The second question specifically includes the group of people being studied (Sudanese refuges), the context (the United States), and the type of talk being explored (the American dream narrative).

Formulating Research Questions

Researchers should take great care when formulating their research questions. If solid research questions are not developed, the quality of the entire study could be compromised. Simply taking the topic and putting it into question form does not make for an effective research question. Research questions should be interesting, engaging, and at the very least thought-provoking. They should also clearly convey the communication phenomenon the researcher is investigating. What follows is a discussion of considerations to be made when formulating quantitative and qualitative research questions.

Formulating Quantitative Research Questions

There are several factors a researcher should consider when formulating quantitative research questions. First, quantitative research questions should clearly identify the independent and dependent variables. Second, they should generally begin with “What,” “How,” or “Does.” Third, the researcher should focus on the structure of the research question to enhance the clarity of the question.

Formulating Qualitative Research Questions

There are also several factors a researcher should consider when formulating qualitative research questions. After identifying an important area of inquiry and conducting research, the researcher should spend time thinking about what he or she wants to know about that specific topic along with why he or she wants to know about it. Researchers can start by writing a broad central question. Next, they can create a list of questions they want to know beyond that central idea. They then narrow and refine the list, paying attention to overlapping ideas along with ideas that seem unrelated. Next, researchers determine the question or questions that seem most important and useful. Qualitative researchers generally examine three to five research questions in a particular study; however, there are cases in which only one or two research questions are utilized. The more research questions that are explored in the study, the more complicated the study will be. As was mentioned earlier, the research questions should not be too narrow or too broad. “Why are women rude to other women?” is too narrow and leading because it carries with it the assumption that women are generally rude to other women and that participants will have the same experience. This assumption is problematic in qualitative research because the researcher wants to understand communication practices from the perspectives of those being studied. A more appropriate question would be, “How do women communicate with other women?”

Research questions are not easy to formulate. It takes practice and a great deal of revision and refinement. Ultimately, good qualitative questions bring about a process of discovery and exploration.

Stacy Tye-Williams

See also Ethnography; Focus Groups; Hypothesis Formulation; Interviews for Data Gathering; Narrative Interviewing; Qualitative Data; Quantitative Research, Steps for

Further Readings

Baxter, L. A., & Babbie, E. (2004). The basics of communication research. Toronto, ON: Wadsworth.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods approaches (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Frey, L. R., Botan, C. H., Kreps, G. L. (2000). Investigating communication: An introduction to research methods (2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Keyton, J. (2000). Communication research: Asking questions, finding answers. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Mitchell, M. L., & Jolley, J. M. (2010). Research design explained (7th ed.). Belmont: CA: Wadsworth.

Treadwell, D. (2014). Introducing communication research: Paths of inquiry (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Wrench, J. S., Thomas-Maddox, C., Richmond, V. P., & McCroskey, J. C. (2013). Quantitative research methods for communication: A hands-on approach (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford.

Stacy Tye-Williams
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