Research Question Examples for Qualitative Studies
Every research paper begins with a question, and the kind of question that you can ask depends upon the conventions of your academic field. If you’re a STEM student or eager to develop a quantitative research question, read our previous blog on “Research Question Examples for Quantitative Studies.” On the other hand, if you’re a humanities student, a social sciences student, or interested in qualitative research projects, keep reading. In the humanities, social sciences, and theoretical fields, research questions often start out as broad areas of curiosity that narrow throughout the research process. Sometimes, qualitative researchers never discover singular or absolute answers to our questions—we often uncover more complicated, richer versions of our inquiries and plausible hypotheses.
This blog will offer an example of an entry-level research question that grows narrower (more specific) as its student author learns more and more about their primary source material. The hypothetical student is focusing on a literary/historical primary source (the Iliad), but the practice that they demonstrate—of starting out with an area of curiosity, then zooming in on a question that you can attempt to answer—is common to most humanities and social science fields. For the questions below, assume that the student is a freshman or first-time reader of the Iliad, encountering the text in translation, in their first college-level writing course. If you’ve never read or heard of the Iliad, pause now to skim a summary. To understand any strong research question, you’ll need to know a bit about its source material.
Question 1. What is the difference between love and lust in Homer’s Iliad?
Analysis: This question is massive. A classicist could easily write a full book on either love or lust in the Iliad, only to have other scholars disagree with their definitions and interpretations—and they have. However, if an undergraduate approached me with this research question, I would be proud of them for considering two of the motivating forces behind the conflict in the Iliad, and I would encourage them to focus on the distinction between “love” and “lust” that their question implies. I’d ask my student to get out their copy of the text and then offer them a series of questions. Where do you see “love” in the text? What about “lust”? Do these words appear anywhere in the translation that we’re using? What characters spring to mind when you say “love”? What about “lust”?
Eventually, through these questions, I would guide the student to find one or two scenes (or characters) in the Iliad that make them curious about “love” or “lust.” Then, I would ask the student to go off on their own, analyze those scenes, and come back to me with a revised question focusing on the specific content of one both. For question 1b, imagine that the student took an interest in Book 3 (when the Aphrodite aggressively encourages Helen to be intimate with Paris) and Book 6 (when Andromache pleads with her husband, Hector, to leave the war and live) and Book.
Question 2. In Homer’s Iliad, how can Helen’s speech in reply to Aphrodite (Book 3) and Andromache’s speech to Hector (Book 6) help readers understand the difference between lust and love?
Analysis: The student clearly followed my instructions to focus on one or two scenes in the text. This question identifies two specific passages of text for the student to analyze. It is, however, still too big, in terms of its source material. I could imagine a whole essay simply dedicated to Andromache’s speech—especially if the student cared to compare translations of the Iliad to get a more accurate read on the content of that speech.
Paradoxically, this question is also too narrow, in terms of its intellectual scope. That is, it attempts to predict the student’s interpretation of these two passages by circumscribing Andromache’s and Helen’s emotions in the terms “lust” and “love.” A strong reading of either of their speeches would encompass more emotions / motivations than “lust” or “love.”
Last, this question sounds a bit arbitrary, from a scholarly perspective. Why is the student comparing Helen and Andromache to learn about love and/or lust? Why not Achilles or Patroclus (the famous queer lovers of the Iliad)? And why not Priam (who loves his son, Hector, enough to risk his life to retrieve his corpse)? In their revision of this question, the student will need to demonstrate some self-awareness of the stakes of their research project. That is, their question will need a clear motivation. Why look at these scenes? What do they have in common? Why is the student interested in them, in particular? What will they tell us about a larger yet well-defined aspect of the Iliad? This student needs to find the balance between specificity and room for exploration in their research question—and this is a skill that the student will need to practice and hone by writing many research papers.
Question 3. What can Helen’s speech in reply to Aphrodite (book 3) and Andromache’s speech to Hector (book 6) tell us about the psychology and rhetoric of female resistance within the context of the Iliad’s amorous relationships?
Analysis. This student has clearly been hard at work, thinking about the larger stakes of their interest in these two scenes. They’ve identified a common thread between these two speeches: both feature women, and both women are attempting to resist their interlocutor’s preferences and/or actions. The student has probably also realized that these commonalities make the scenes stand out, since the Iliad depicts a patriarchal society full of male warriors. As a teacher, I would be proud of the student for picking up on scenes that feature an unusual kind of interaction and for asking what it can teach us about a specific larger phenomenon (female resistance in amorous relationships) in the Iliad.
This student has further improved their question by opening it up to broader interpretations of Helen’s and Andromache’s emotions. Instead of implying that these women must only feel “love” or “lust” (or that we can only learn about amorous emotions from them), the student has asked about their psychology and rhetoric within the context of resistance. As a result, the student’s essay will include far more nuanced considerations of the complexity of these characters and their speeches. As a result, this revised question has the potential to put the student’s analysis in dialogue with existing scholarship on the Iliad. I could imagine a version of this paper engaging with feminist scholarship, papers on resistance in the classical world, and theories about the psychologies of characters in the Iliad, among many other areas of study. No matter where the student takes their response to this question, they will find scholarly interlocutors.
If you take one lesson away from this fictional example of a student refining their research question, let it be this: your research question will change (widen, narrow, and shift) a few times before you settle on a semi-final version. That version should direct you to a manageable, clearly identified dataset (e.g., two speeches from a specific text), a clear area of interest (e.g. female resistance), and the potential to answer your question in unexpected ways (e.g., by engaging with emotions and rhetorical devices other than “love” or “lust,” which were the student’s original helpful yet arbitrary interests). While narrowing in on your research question, it can help to talk with a teacher who is familiar with your primary text and prepared to ask questions that will guide you to discover a specific scholarly interest. CRI’s Research Mentors would be happy to meet you and discuss your research paper ideas. Sign up for a session with us, and we’ll guide your curiosity towards a promising research question!