Ideas for developing a research topic and deciding on a theoretical home

Sometimes newcomers to research struggle to define a specific research topic that might be examined.  I am doubtful that there is one “right” approach to use in developing a topic of inquiry. However, below are some tips that could help.

Deciding on and developing research topics

The development of research topics is frequently informed by one’s personal experiences – these quite often lead to a passion for a topic that drives the need for a researcher to engage in a journey to understand the topic further. Research journeys are quite often life-long, as researchers pursue questions that relate to similar topics over multiple projects.

Specific issues identified by prior research in a field can be used to develop new research studies. To find out what has been examined in an area, researchers need to locate the top peer-reviewed journals in a field of study and examine what has already been published that relates to a research problem or topic. Researchers typically address the question of “future research” in the conclusions of an article that reports findings from a study. Thus, it is possible to locate topics of interest simply by looking at others’ recommendations for research.

If you have a lot of research interests, it can be difficult to select a topic. Here it is useful to slow down and narrow one’s interests. This entails learning about:

  • What topics other researchers have examined related to this topic;
  • What is known based on findings from prior research; and
  • The methods used to study topics.

These questions are answered by conducting a literature review.

Sometimes topics can be narrowed simply by thinking through the variety of alternatives that one might explore with respect to site and participant selection. Here, the issue is “doability” and practicality. Put simply – what is possible for a particular researcher to do at a specific point in time? Where might be a good place to start? We might want to examine topics in multiple sites across a country, but this may not be feasible without receiving significant funding. Thus, identifying potential sites for research and the population from which a sampling might be selected can help narrow down a topic of interest. Sampling refers to the idea of defining all potential participants in a given study, then working on a plan to selectively sample a sub-set from the larger population.

For those beginning to decide on a research topic, and thinking about what to do next, the following resources provide useful introductions to the design and conduct of qualitative studies (Agee, 2009; Barbour, 2014; Mason, 2017; Maxwell, 2013). There are many other texts to explore in learning how to do qualitative inquiry, and I have always found the multiple editions of Yvonna Lincoln and Norman Denzin’s Handbook of Qualitative Research useful for locating further sources on any particular approach to research.

Findings a theoretical home

When there are so many potential approaches to qualitative inquiry to choose from, decision making about “theoretical homes” and paradigms can be daunting for newcomers to qualitative research. Typically, researchers are unlikely to begin with theory as a starting point for their research. More often they begin with a research problem that they wish to learn more about. Joseph Maxwell’s idea of “thought experiments” (Maxwell, 2013, pp. 68-72) might be useful to begin. Here, the purpose is to speculate, and consider what would prove or disprove one’s emerging ideas.

Some students feel constricted by selecting a single approach to research. Rather than view the use of theoretical frameworks in the conduct of research as an all or nothing enterprise, it may be useful to think about the “anti-fundamentalist” approach proposed by Jennifer Wolgemuth (2016). Wolgemuth (2016, p. 523) asserts that her “ideal qualitative classroom is an “anti-fundamentalist” space for students to seriously consider even previously discarded epistemologies – to resurrect them and see whether, how, and in what ways they might be (re)imagined in qualitative research.” Wolgemuth encourages students to explore different approaches to research through multiple and messy engagements in an effort to interrupt what she calls “paradigm idolization” (p. 523).

Some questions that might be asked of an approach to research include:

  • What does this approach allow us to see?
  • What does it prevent us from seeing?
  • What would happen if we combined approaches?
  • What are the points of agreement? What the points of disagreement?
  • What does data look like when analyzed and represented using different approaches (e.g., Wertz et al., 2011)?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of a particular approach to research?
  • How has this approach been used in my discipline?
  • How do researchers assess the quality of a study that uses this approach?

Further engagement with the literature will be helpful to explore specific theoretical perspectives that are of interest. Introductory texts provide general outlines of perspectives and define key concepts. Introductory texts that may help include the following resources (Crotty, 1998; Given, 2008; Prasad, 2018), as well as various handbooks published by Sage Publishers and Oxford Press. At some point, one must leave these introductory texts behind and study the original writings of the scholars associated with a particular approach. Reading the original texts that outline a particular approach to research will be richly rewarded.

All the best with your research journey.

Kathy Roulston 



Agee, J. (2009). Developing qualitative research questions: a reflective process. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), 22(4), 431-447. doi:10.1080/09518390902736512

Barbour, R. (2014). Introducing qualitative research: A student’s guide (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Given, L. M. (Ed.) (2008). The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. SAGE Publications: Los Angeles and Thousand Oaks, CA.

Mason, J. (2017). Qualitative researching (3rd ed.). London: SAGE.

Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Prasad, P. (2018). Crafting qualitative research: Beyond positivist traditions (2nd ed.). New York & London: Routledge.

Wertz, F. J., Charmaz, K., McMullen, L. M., Josselson, R., Anderson, R., & McSpadden, E. (2011). Five ways of doing qualitative analysis: Phenomenological psychology, grounded theory, discourse analysis, narrative research, and intuitive inquiry New York & London: The Guilford Press.

Wolgemuth, J. R. (2016). Driving the paradigm: (Failing to teach) Methodological ambiguity, fluidity, and resistance in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 22(6), 518-525. doi:doi:10.1177/1077800415615621

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