Refining Your Research Question

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

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]

We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following activity:

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. Think of the research question as the engine driving your project. If the engine is too simple, it may not work at all. If it’s too complicated, it may not work efficiently or effectively. The goal is to have your research question take you a long way towards producing new understanding to add to the scholarly discourse.

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.


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? How? 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. Sometimes it is good to ask questions about things people take for granted and therefore to open them up to new insights. A professor once noted that a really interesting research question was “why are there three little pigs?”

Don’t be satisfied too easily with your first question. Often the answer to your first question raises another one, and the answer to the second questions raises a third one. For example, “Sonny’s Blues” contrasts different kinds of music: the jazz that Sonny plays, the gospel music the narrator hears in the street (“The Old Ship of Zion”), and the dance (juke) music that their uncle played at parties. What roles did these different kinds of music have in black communities? We could easily find out that Gospel music is sacred, and that jazz and juke music are secular. Jazz music was considered sophisticated (requiring lots of study and practice), while juke music was mostly played by amateurs. But having this answer isn’t enough to build a paper around. So, let’s ask the next question: what is Baldwin’s purpose in showing us this variety of black music? Keep going until you get to something really good.

The research question should be related to your purpose. In Chapter 2, we discussed the kinds of purpose that a research project can have, which include historical, theoretical, pedagogical, social, and experimental, among others. Your purpose is divided into two parts: what you want to learn about literature, and what you want to teach your audience. Once you have learned something relevant and significant about the literature, you then teach it to your audience. You should be able to clearly state the learning objectives for your audience; “by reading this research you will learn [x, y, and z].” These objectives may include words such as: identify, distinguish, evaluate, understand, make, conclude, etc.

Narrowing Your Research Question

It’s ok to start with a broad research question and then narrow it by applying the following criteria:

  1. The more generative the question is, the better. We want questions that will require more thought and more research to answer.
  2. The more relevant the question is, the better. We want questions that will be relevant to a community of scholars.
  3. The more original the question is, the better. We want questions that haven’t been asked before – or, if they have been asked before, we want a different answer from what we already have.
  4. The less obvious the answer to the question is, the better. We want questions that will shift our assumptions and help us learn something new.

Let’s try applying these criteria to some possible research questions about “Sonny’s Blues” and see what happens.

First attempt: Does Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues,” criticize racism?

It’s fine to start the process of invention with a question as broad as this, but we should not be satisfied with our first attempt before checking it against the criteria. Is the question generative? Not really because it can be answered with a simple yes or no. Is it relevant? Sure (though most scholars would already agree that the answer is yes). Is it original? No. Many scholars have written about Baldwin’s anti-racism. Is it obvious? Yes, it criticizes racism. So, we can only meet one out of four criteria here and even then, it doesn’t promise to add much knowledge to what’s already written. Let’s try again by narrowing the question.

Second attempt: Is Baldwin’s critique of racism in “Sonny’s Blues” different or more effective than critiques of racism in works by other African-American authors?

Notice that this question assumes that Baldwin’s work does criticize racism, but asks a more narrow question: how does he critique it and is his critique different or more effective than others? Is it generative? Yes, it requires lots of additional thought and research since the answer would have to include comparison/contrast with works by other African-American authors. Is it relevant to a community of scholars? Yes. Is it original? Maybe. We would have to do some research into the scholarly conversation to get a sense of how original this question is. For instance, there may already be critical work comparing Baldwin to other African-American authors such as Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and others. Is the answer obvious? No (and that’s a good thing). We would need to do some work to get to an answer.

Should we be satisfied with this second attempt? It depends. To answer the question about how effective Baldwin is at critiquing racism, we need to follow up with additional questions. First, we might ask what we mean by “different.” If we mean that Baldwin applied different critical tools to understand racism, we would need to be able to define what those critical tools are. If we mean he applied a different moral standard, we would need to explain what it is. If we mean that Baldwin suggested different reforms, we need to be able to describe them. Another question to address is about the effectiveness of his critique; was it more effective for some audiences than it was for others? We could focus on black and white audiences to start, but we could also ask about audiences in Baldwin’s time and audiences today. Did the story help change attitudes or policies? We would need to do historical research to answer that question.

Let’s assume, for now, that we can go with the second attempt. However, given that other scholars may have already addressed these questions, we will agree to modify them if we find more information that pushes us to do so. Notice the way that one question leads to others. Here our question prompts additional questions that must be answered before we can address the main question. The structure of questions and their relationships looks like this:

  • Primary question: Is Baldwin’s critique of racism in “Sonny’s Blues” different or more effective than critiques of racism in works by other African-American authors?
    • Secondary question: what do we mean by “different”?
      • Tertiary question: Baldwin’s use of critical tools?
      • Tertiary question: Baldwin’s application of moral standards?
      • Tertiary question: Baldwin’s suggested reforms?
    • Secondary question: what do we mean by “effective”?
      • Tertiary question: Do we need to examine different audiences to determine whether the story is more effective with some than it is with others?
      • Tertiary question: Did the story help change attitudes or policies?

We can begin a research project with a primary question such as this one, accepting that we will need to answer secondary and tertiary questions to properly answer the primary one. We should also be prepared to change our questions should our research point us in a more productive direction.

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

Literature Research Strategies – Part 4 [4 min 2 sec]

Key Quotes from the Video:

The Invention Process:

“James Baldwin’s story dramatized something that felt very real to me. And it’s one of the most beautiful stories written about music and family and brotherhood and living urban life … And that prompted a little more of my research as well, because I started to think a lot about music and race. I started to think about addiction and race.”

Asking Critical Questions:

“In James Baldwin’s story I ended up coming to the conclusion and the thesis statement of race and class being inseparable. And the way that I got there was not just from reading his story, but also asking critical questions about my thesis statement … once I kept asking questions, then I got to the general thesis of race and class are in fact, inseparable, and James Baldwin’s story does show this through urbanization and music and addiction.”

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 throughout her research. These built-in questions, frames, and methodologies come with the territory of studying Baldwin and his writing, and may come from scholarship in related disciplines. For instance, Critical Race Theory originated in legal studies and is still used within that discipline.

Critical Race Theory uses a variety of methodologies, such as interest convergence, intersectional theory, radical critique of the law, social constructivism, standpoint epistemology, and structural determinism. Let’s look at a methodology – interest convergence – taken from the work of Derrick Bell. Bell argued that the rights of black people don’t advance unless they converge with the interests of white people. With that methodology in mind, we might ask whether the rights of black people in the story have advanced. Sonny’s uncle was killed decades earlier by a group of whites, and they got away with the killing. The story doesn’t provide enough information to say whether such a thing also occurred in the “present day” setting of the story. But we could look at the history of the time (1957) to see how often white people were held accountable for the killing of black people and how that compared to earlier periods (such as the 1930s and 1940s). If we find that there was an improvement over time, we might ask whether there are signs of interest convergence. The story doesn’t give us much to go on as there are no significant white characters. But at least we now have a framework for asking more questions. and we can study the historical record to get more information.

What does our literary work and our theory have to teach us that we don’t already know? Another 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. 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]

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


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