Qualitative Research Questions

One typically finds research questions, not objectives or hypotheses, written into qualitative studies. These research questions assume two forms: a grand tour question or a guiding hypothesis followed by sub-questions.

The grand tour question is a statement of the question being examined in the study in its most general form. This question , consistent with the emerging methodology of qualitative designs, is posed as a general issue so as not to limit the inquiry. One might ask, what is the broadest question that can be asked in the study? Beginning researchers trained in the quantitative paradigm might struggle with this approach because they are accustomed to the reverse logic: to identify specific questions or hypotheses.

  • I recommend that a researcher ask one or two grand tour questions followed by no more than five to seven subquestions. This general grand tour questions is followed by several subquestions that narrow the focus of the study but that do not constrain the qualitative researcher. These questions, in turn, become topics specifically explored in interviews, observations, and documents and archival material. For example, they might be used as key questions the researcher will ask him or herself in the observational procedure or during an open-ended interview.

  • The question format might be related to specific qualitative design types. For example, the specificity of the questions in the ethnography at this stage of the design differs from that of other qualitative designs. Similarly, in critical ethnography the research questions may build on the body of existing literature. Theses questions become "working guidelines" rather than "truths" to be proven. Alternatively, in phenomenology the question might be started broadly without specific reference to the existing literature or a typology or questions.

On assumption that the researcher will write a grand tour and several subquestions, the following ideas for qualitative study may prove helpful:

Begin the research question with the words what or how. Tell the reader that the study will do one of the following:

  • discover (e.g., ground theory)
  • explain or seek to understand (e.g., ethnography)
  • explore a process (e.g.,case study)
  • describe the experience (e.g., phenomenology)

These words convey the language of an emerging design of research.

  1. Pose question that use nondirectional wording. These questions describe, rather than relate variables or compare groups. Delete words that suggest or infer a quantitative study, words with a directional orientation, such as affect, influence, impact, determine, cause and relate.

  2. Expect the research questions to evolve and change during the study, a though also consistent with the assumption of an emerging design. Often in qualitative studies the questions are under continual review and reformulation ( as in grounded theory ). This approach may be problematic for individuals accustomed to quantitative designs, in which the research questions remain fixed throughout the study.

  3. Use open-ended questions without reference to the literature or theory unless otherwise dictated by a qualitative design type.

  4. Use a single focus and specify the research site in the research questions.

The following are examples of qualitative research questions drawing on several types of designs.

Example 1. An Ethnography

But how are conceptions of social studies played out- or not played out- in classroom practice? ( A grand tour question).... How is each setting organized? (The beginning of the subquestions)...What kind of interpersonal dynamics exist?.... How do the students, cooperating teachers, faculty members, and pupils act?.. What activities occur in each setting? What topics are discussed, and what information, opinions, and beliefs are exchanged among the participants?

Example 2. A Grounded Theory Study

(Two grand tour questions are presented.)
What are the major sources of academic change? What are the major processes through which academic change occurs?