Formulating a Research Question

The start of any research project lies with whatever it is you are interested in. It could be a specific topic, an event, a piece of legislation or any collection of facts and phenomena that puzzles you and triggers questions. The key is then to determine the research question that will guide your research. As with many parts of the research process, the research question can change and develop as you engage with the relevant literature and data. You don’t have to form a fixed research question at the very beginning of the research process. Nonetheless, it is essential to never lose sight of your research question. Your research question has implications for which methods will be used during the analysis and which central goals the study is set up to accomplish.

There are three main reasons why the formulation of the research question is essential for the research process and has to be done with great care:

  1. Condensing the topic, you are interested in into a single question forces you to really get to what exactly it is you want to know and which key variables are involved.
  2. Every research question requires a justification as to why it is being posed. Has this question not yet been answered definitively? Why is this question significant for the field?
  3. The research question has to fit what you are actually doing in your work. A question that is too broad will make it impossible for you to sufficiently answer it. If your question is too specific, the answer might be uninteresting.

Research questions are often sorted into different categories. As with most categorizations, these types of questions differ depending on the field of study. The biggest fault lines when it comes to the different types of research questions lie (1) between normative and descriptive research, (2) within the latter between theoretical and empirical research, and (3) within empirical research between descriptive and explanatory questions. Toshkov (2016) differentiates descriptive, predictive, and explanatory research while Chui (2017) categorizes them as descriptive, exploratory, and explanatory. No matter which exact typology of research question you are working with, it is always helpful to reflect on these key fault lines. Is the goal of your research to determine what ought to be or study the world as it is? Will you be doing theoretical or empirical work? If you are working with empirics, are you focusing on the collection of facts surrounding a phenomenon (What is happening? What has happened?) or are you trying to determine causal mechanisms and structures (Why is this happening? How has this happened?)?

If your research topic constitutes a lack of information on a phenomenon, a type of legal proceeding or a specific event for example, a descriptive research question underlines the objective of your research of collecting facts that would be necessary to set-up further analyses or theory building. Descriptive research can utilize a number of methodologies ranging from archival work, ethnographic participant observation to conducting large-N surveys examining one or multiple cases.

If you want to determine the how or why of a phenomenon or event, then you are aiming to uncover causal mechanisms or structures and hence require an explanatory research question. For a more detailed outline of the set-up of explanatory legal research, please refer to Jaroslaw Kantorowicz’s entry on “Causality in Research Design”.

Finally, a few guiding questions to keep in mind when (re)formulating your research question:

  1. Is the question concise and grammatically as well as structurally formulated in a way that is easily understood?
  2. Is the question open-ended?
  3. Does the question reflect your research goal?
  4. Is the question making use of normative language (and should it)?
  5. Is the question researchable and can be feasibly answered within the scope of the study?
  6. Does your research address everything mentioned in your research question?


  • Chui, W. H., & McConville, Michael. (2017). Research methods for law (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. P.

  • Dunleavy, P. (2015). Authoring a PhD: how to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan education.

  • Halperin, S., & Heath, O. (2020). Political research: methods and practical skills (Third edition.).

  • Toshkov, D. (2016). Research design in political science.

  • Wellington, J., Bathmaker, A.-M., Hunt, C., McCulloch, G., & Sikes, P. (2005). Succeeding with Your Doctorate. In Succeeding with Your Doctorate. London: SAGE Publications.