Refining Your Research Question

Your instructor may provide you with a research question or may require that you develop one of your own. A good research question provides an entry to a scholarly discourse community–the group of scholars concerned about a particular area of knowledge. Your question should relate to the work of other scholars and should be one they find relevant and significant. Framing a good research question requires asking lots of other questions.

This chapter will focus on strategies to help you develop, refine, and evaluate a good research question. You will watch Jada discuss how she used an invention process that consisted of “built in” questions, frames, and methodologies that caused her to view James Baldwin’s work in an unexpectedly personal way.

Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers, in turn, develop additional questions or lines of inquiry in any field.[1]


Key Concepts

You should start developing your research question as you embark on your literature review. We introduced this idea in chapter three when we discussed the notion of research as inquiry and emphasized the importance of asking questions early in the research process. The idea is that, by asking questions and engaging with theory, you will develop a clear, concise question that will guide your research.

This is an inventive process that involves asking critical open-ended questions such as Who? What? When? Where? and Why? While these may seem simple at first, they all perform very specific functions. For example, you may start by asking why something happened (why a literary work was produced at a particular moment in history), but your question will become increasingly complex as you dig deeper.

Let’s watch Jada discuss how this process worked for her:

The Invention Process

Jada’s perspective on Baldwin, which includes Critical Race Theory, comes with “built-in” questions, frames, and methodologies that she will refine through her research. These built-in questions, frames, and methodologies come with the territory of studying Baldwin and his writing. They are questions, frames, and methodologies that have been used by other scholars. For instance, Critical Race Theory may use a variety of methodologies, interest convergence, intersectional theory, radical critique of the law, social constructivism, standpoint epistemology, and structural determinism. We start with existing questions, frames, and methodologies, but then ask what Baldwin has to teach us that we don’t already know.

For example, “Sonny’s Blues” provides a fictional lens through which we can analyze real events such as drug busts of jazz musicians in New York City, but fictionalized events–such as Sonny’s arrest–offer unique insights we don’t get from studying statistics or other types of analyses. Jada noted that even though the sociology paper she found provided a unique insight into Baldwin’s work, it wasn’t as visceral as the experience of reading the story itself, especially its depiction of live jazz performance and other events she could relate to on a more personal level.

These two perspectives work in tandem: “Sonny’s Blues” dramatized something that felt very real to Jada, which prompted her to ask the types of questions that will drive her research about Baldwin and “Sonny’s Blues.”

Asking Critical Questions

Jada began with an overly broad idea about the intersection of race and class, which is common at this stage. Then she began narrowing her topic into a more refined research question by asking critical questions about how Baldwin dealt with these issues in the story. Her focus moved more specifically to questions about urbanization, addiction, and jazz: issues that are as relevant today as they were then, which is why Baldwin remains such a touchstone for scholars in literature and related fields, such as sociology.

Is this topic still too broad for one research project? Jada’s next step is to evaluate her question to see if it can be further refined.

Refining Your Research Question Refresher

  1. Association of College and Research Libraries. "Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education." 2016.


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