Selecting your research topic and crafting a qualitative research question from it is the first, and possibly the hardest, step of qualitative research. You will likely start with a topic, and as you start reading and do exploratory research, hone that topic into a research question that can be answered using qualitative methods.
I suggest that students start big and then narrow their topics. As you review the literature and current events around your larger topic, you will likely discover what questions academics and policymakers are asking about that topic. You should identify your topic’s puzzles, those questions that have yet to be answered. Then you should choose one of these puzzles to meld into your research question.
Throughout this process, you should constantly remind yourself of the purpose of qualitative inquiry. As researchers, we use qualitative data collection techniques to gather rich, emic data around a topic. That data highlights experiences and perceptions that help to provide explanation. As you explore your larger topic, focus on those puzzles that need qualitative explanation. As you hone your topic into possible research questions, ask yourself why qualitative data collection techniques would be the best way to provide insight into your topic and answer your research question. This is actually harder than you might think, as many of us tend towards the quantitative. Usually, crafting a qualitative research question means asking a why or a what explains question, NOT a how or a descriptive question.
The best qualitative research questions are:
- Interesting to you. Depending on the purpose of your research and your research output, you will likely spend a lot of time on your topic. Pick a topic that you find interesting, so that you will be engaged throughout the research process.
- Original. When we conduct primary research, we are not summarizing the research of others. We are coming up with our own research question and qualitative design to answer it. Your qualitative research could identify a brand new topic, or it could take a new spin on an old topic, or look at a new topic in a different light.
- Answerable. Your research question should be answerable using qualitative methods. Not every research question can and should be answered using qualitative data collection techniques. You should craft a question that is best answered using qualitative research.
- Manageable. Your research question should be manageable within your time, space, and budget constraints. Craft a question that fits within the purpose and scope of your research. Some qualitative questions might take an article length paper to answer, and some may take a book! Some questions might require a longer time to answer, travel that you are not able to do, or a larger budget than you have to support your research. Craft your question with these constraints and parameters in mind.
Once you have a research question, you will need to draft your qualitative research design. Your design will need to provide specifics on the qualitative data collection techniques you intend to use to answer your research question. You should think in advance about what kinds of data you will need, and what qualitative data collection techniques would be most useful to gather it. You have a number of tools available in your qualitative data collection toolkit, and you need to figure out which is most appropriate for your data collection need. You might use observation, participant observation, interviews, focus groups, or participatory tools, for example. You also need to think through how you will address missing or incomplete data, and how you will manage and analyze the data that you collect.
Qualitative Questions and Evaluation
When we conduct an evaluation, we usually start by crafting a logic model or Logical Framework (LogFrame). As evaluators, we usually ask qualitative questions that help us to understand an organization’s logic model or to populate its LogFrame. We might ask a broad question such as: What explains this organization’s theory of change? Such a broad question would also have support questions such as: What does this organization do? Why does it do it that way? What are some examples of projects? How are those projects managed? Who are the beneficiaries? What are this organization’s challenges? What are this organization’s risks and assumptions?
Good qualitative research questions that help us to craft an evaluation might include questions around program need, and program conceptualization and design (Rossi, Lipsey, and Freeman, 2004). Depending on the purpose of the evaluation and your evaluation design, you might ask process-focused questions such as who, what, when, where, why, and how; or you might ask outcome focused questions around changes, effects, and impacts.
Your qualitative research and the answers to all of these questions could help you to develop a LogFrame that you could use to guide a future evaluation that asks questions around program operations and service delivery, program outcomes, or program cost efficiency. Your evaluation design would include evaluation questions that likely have a mixed method element that uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative data and methods to help measure progress or change. Our evaluation questions are not necessarily qualitative in nature; they are often questions that require mixed methods or quantitative tools and analyses to answer. However, we often use qualitative research questions and data collection techniques to help us craft our evaluation questions, LogFrame, and evaluation design.
Rossi, Peter, Mark Lipsey, and Howard Freeman. Evaluation: A Systematic Approach. 7th edition. Thousand Oaks, SAGE, 2004.
About The Author
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.
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