How to Craft a Research Question
Every research project starts with a question. Your question will allow you to select, evaluate and interpret your sources systematically. The question you start with isn’t set in stone: you’re likely to revise or tweak it several times as you read more primary and secondary sources. Every discipline allows for certain kinds of questions to be asked. History is a pretty permissive discipline in this sense, but some kinds of questions can cause problems down the road or can only be answered by appealing to explanatory schemes that fall outside of the purview of academic history (e.g., psychology or physics).
A good question requires research (not just reflection or opinion) and is narrow enough to allow for an answer. The biggest problem a researcher could have is never figuring out a research question. Moving from a general topic to a research question makes it much easier to come up with a thesis – it will simply be the answer to your question. But without a question, it’s hard to imagine how one would come up with an argument.
Is this a good research question? A Self-Test
- Does my question allow for several possible answers?
- Is the question clear and precise? Do I use vocabulary that is vague or needs definition?
- Is it testable? Do I know what kind of evidence would allow an answer?
- Can I break big “why” questions into empirically answerable pieces?
- Have I made the premises explicit?
- Is it of a scale suitable to the length of the assignment?
- Can I explain why the answer matters?
Here are some kinds of questions to avoid:
- The Deceptively Simple Question, or a question that demands a simple answer to a complex question. Ex: When did women achieve equality?
- The Fictional Question or The Counterfactual Question. Ex: If Hitler had been accepted to art school, would World War II have happened?
- The Stacked Question, or, The Embedded Assumption. Ex: Why did the Carter presidency fail?
- The Semantic Question, or a question that hinges on the definition of terms. Ex: Are all radical revolutions violent?
- The Impossible-to-Answer Question. Ex: Was World War I inevitable?
- The Opinion or Ethical Question. Ex: Was Truman wrong to authorize the use of the atomic bomb?
- The Anachronistic Question. Ex: How good was ancient Athens’ record on civil rights?
- The Yes/No Question. Ex: Did Akhenaten force monotheism as the official religion in Egypt during his reign?