• Dr Carolina Smith

Why are research questions so important?

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

by Dr. Carolina Smith Published on September 15, 2020

Qualitative research methods specialist for Cappuccino Research, Dr Carolina Smith is a sociologist and Director of Cappuccino Research Ltd.

I always like to question the questions posed in any given research project. Often, the questions you begin with are not the right ones.

In my most recent experience researching British migrants in Colombia I quickly realised that the level of complexity surrounding their journey was a key dimension, and this forced me to revisit the initial research questions over and over again.


That’s when I came across the book Constructing Research Questions by Alvesson and Sanberg. It is a 2013 publication that tackles the challenge of formulating appropriate questions for qualitative research.

They perceive the process as cyclical in that questions have to be formulated and reexamined at various stages throughout a research process depending on the direction of the data and the course of the study.

Throughout the academic discovery process a very important part of the equation is the starting point that is, the initial strategic or policy based research questions.

These questions become the fuel that ignites the drive to know and feeds into the investigative engine along the life course of the research, from beginning to end, which in academic research can be a very long process indeed; months sometimes stretching into years.

Alvesson and Sanberg suggest that good questions will lead to more questions, allowing you to continually dig deeper into the complexity of the field you are attempting to understand.

Well formulated questions allow you to challenge and turn conventional ideas on their head.

I recently conducted ethnographic research on British migrants in Colombia. I expected the pilot to refine the scope of the research and the questions. I believed the pilot would provide answers as to how the data could be extracted in innovative ways. This was certainly the case, but it became clear that the process required imagination and creativity right from the start.

For instance, respondents defined themselves in such diverse ways to the extent that even the title of my project became an issue to resolve. It began as ‘British Expats in Colombia’. But some respondents refused to be called expats because they felt this was not the right terminology.

Some felt that this was inappropriate as they were not working for multinational corporations and therefore they felt that ‘migrants’ was a clearer definition.

I then changed the title to British People in Colombia and provided respondents with the option to define themselves as either expats or migrants. However, other respondents mentioned that they would much rather be called travelers than migrants or expats. They felt that travelers encapsulated the itinerant aspect of their lives in Colombia. And just when I thought I had three solid options, there was a subsection of the population that preferred to be called backpackers because they had a specific style of travel and adventure in mind.

Finally, there were also those who preferred to be called visitors regardless of the number of visits paid to the country over the previous 5-10 years as well as those who preferred to think of themselves as residents. This made me realise the importance of labels. It was critical to avoid labels when using framing questions; but on the other hand it was also critical to understand the impact of labels on self perception.

Innovative framing questions do not just pop into our heads. The process of formulating questions needs to be carefully planned out and given a great deal of thought. The reason, simply put, is that questions determine the direction of the study. Innovative challenging questions may constitute the difference between outstanding, creative, innovative research and dull, ‘me too’, predictable research.

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