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SSI2-156: Justice, Arts, and Incarceration

What is a Research Question?

While your research topic is the general overarching subject you are interested in, your research question should be focused and specific. It should be:

  • clear: it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation.
  • focused: it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows.
  • complex: it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer.
  • arguable: its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts.

Research questions help writers focus their research by providing a path through the research and writing process. The specificity of a well-developed research question helps writers avoid the “all-about” paper and work toward supporting a specific, arguable thesis.

Sample Research Questions

Unclear: How should social networking sites address the harm they cause?
Clear: What action should social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook take to protect users’ personal information and privacy?

The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites might be causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies sites (Twitter and Facebook), the type of potential harm (privacy issues), and who may be experiencing that harm (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation.

Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused: What is the most significant effect of glacial melting on the lives of penguins in Antarctica?

The unfocused research question is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length piece, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific effect of global warming (glacial melting), a specific place (Antarctica), and a specific animal that is affected (penguins). It also requires the writer to take a stance on which effect has the greatest impact on the affected animal. When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.


Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately Complex:  What main environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors predict whether Americans will develop diabetes, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective.