Tips for developing research questions for qualitative research studies

There is no easy path to formulating research questions for a qualitative study. This is because the development of research questions is interconnected with many other issues – including:

  • The theoretical and conceptual framework used;
  • The research design and methods that are planned;
  • Findings from prior research, as well as
  • Practical issues, concerning how long a researcher can spend on completing a study, and the contexts in which a study will be conducted.

Here are a few tips to consider along the way.

Start with 2 or 3 questions. If too many questions are posed, a study may be simply too large to manage. That is why I generally suggest starting with 2-3 research questions; although some studies may have more.

For studies that will employ interviews as a data generation method, research questions are NOT the same as interview questions; and quite often, when people write interview guides they might formulate 3-4 questions for each research question.

Focusing on a topic. For novice researchers, there is a temptation to ask broad research questions that may literally take a lifetime to explore. Consider how a topic might be focused further. Joe Maxwell’s (2013) research diagrams might help here since he relates the development of research questions to goals, potential audiences, theoretical and conceptual frameworks, and “validity” (i.e., how the quality of a study will be assessed.). For those wanting to consider how to narrow a large topic, here are a few suggestions. Consider:

  • What have other researchers recommended as topics for further research in your field of interest?
  • What is little understood about your topic of interest in the literature you have examined?
  • How might a much-researched topic be explored using different theoretical and methodological approaches?

For those researchers who have many ideas, sometimes it is useful to think about practicalities in order to narrow down what might be “possible” to do for a study. Consider:

  • What do you have access to in terms of where you might conduct a study?
  • How might you generate data?
  • Where might you start in your examination to develop a pilot study on this topic?

And of course, there are numerous texts that will assist (e.g., Agee, 2009; Alvesson & Sandberg, 2013; Barrett, 2007; Brown, 2010) with developing topics and research questions.

Take an alternative approach. Another plausible way to develop research questions is to follow the ethnomethodological principle of “unmotivated looking” (eg., Morriss, 2015). What this means is to become immersed in a setting or exploration of data for which one does not have pre-constructed research questions. In this way, researchers gain a sense of what phenomena are apparent in a data set that may be worthwhile exploring further. This might initially be perplexing since to gain access to a setting, one must gain approval from ethical review boards. Yet, one can also enter a setting to examine it (e.g., one could have an interest in examining some aspect of classroom interaction, or organizational conduct), and develop a project around that broader topic. Yet, once one has collected data (e.g., audio and video-recordings), then it is possible to explore what is in the data to locate the phenomena of interest.

Kathy Roulston


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

Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2013). Constructing research questions: Doing interesting research. London: Sage.

Barrett, J. R. (2007). The researcher as instrument: Learning to conduct qualitative research through analyzing and interpreting a choral rehearsal. Music Education Research, 9(3), 417-433. Retrieved from

Brown, A. (2010). Research questions: What’s worth asking and why? In P. Thomson & M. Walker (Eds.), The Routledge doctoral student’s companion: Getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences (pp. 172-182). London & New York: Routledge.

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

Morriss, L. (2015). Dirty secrets and being ‘strange’: using ethnomethodology to move beyond familiarity. Qualitative Research, 16(5), 526-540. Retrieved from doi:10.1177/1468794115598194


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