[Social Science Research 101] Types of research questions and finding research gap

If you’re an undergraduate or master’s student who isn’t familiar with research, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed when asked to write a research proposal or thesis. One of the most important tasks when starting a research project is identifying the research question you want to explore.

Types of Research Questions You Can Ask

In the field of social science, there are several types of research questions you can use. Here are some “types” research questions (the type is copied from the typeset, but I added the example).

Research Question TypeQuestion
Descriptive What are the properties of A?
Example: Allen, J. D., Shelton, R. C., Kephart, L., Jandorf, L., Folta, S. C., & Knott, C. L. (2020). Organizational characteristics conducive to the implementation of health programs among Latino churchesImplementation Science Communications1(1), 1-9.
Comparative What are the similarities and distinctions between A and B?
Example: Valentine, S. E., Marques, L., Wang, Y., Ahles, E. M., De Silva, L. D., & Alegría, M. (2019). Gender differences in exposure to potentially traumatic events and diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by racial and ethnic groupGeneral hospital psychiatry61, 60-68.
CorrelationalWhat can you do to correlate variables A and B?
Example: Bahrami, M. A., Bahrami, D., & Chaman-Ara, K. (2019). The correlations of mental health literacy with psychological aspects of general health among Iranian female studentsInternational journal of mental health systems13(1), 1-7.
ExploratoryWhat factors affect the prevalence of C? Are A and B influencing C?
Example: Okonji, A. I., Inungu, J. N., Akinmoladun, T. M., Kushion, M. L., & Aduse-Poku, L. (2021). Factors associated with depression among immigrants in the USJournal of Immigrant and Minority Health23(3), 415-424.
ExplanatoryWhat are the causes for C? What does A do to B? What’s causing D?
Nagasu, M., & Yamamoto, I. (2020). Impact of socioeconomic-and lifestyle-related risk factors on poor mental health conditions: A nationwide longitudinal 5-wave panel study in JapanPLoS one15(10), e0240240.
EvaluationWhat is the impact of C? What role does B have? What are the benefits and drawbacks of A?
Example: Hwang, W. C., Myers, H. F., Chiu, E., Mak, E., Butner, J. E., Fujimoto, K., … & Miranda, J. (2015). Culturally adapted cognitive-behavioral therapy for Chinese Americans with depression: A randomized controlled trialPsychiatric Services66(10), 1035-1042.
Action-BasedWhat can you do to improve X?
Example: Ataöv, A., Brøgger, B., & Hildrum, J. M. (2010). An action research approach to the inclusion of immigrants in work life and local community life: preparation of a participatory realmAction Research8(3), 237-265.

The uses of exploratory and explanatory research can be confused. One crucial difference here is that we are not able to say A is the “cause” of B unless longitudinal data are used. The reason is that temporal precedence must be confirmed for causation, which means that it cannot be proven through cross-sectional data (collected only once). Cross-sectional data allows you to explore only associations rather than causes.

You can also formulate research questions based on problems you care about. Here is an example (from the typeset). Many recommend starting with the idea of a research question in the form of a problem statement. Once written, it is relatively easy to transform it into the form of research questions.

Where can I find the problem/question? Please refer to the guide provided at the following link for details.

The Research Problem/Question – Organizing Academic Research Papers

  • Deductions from Theory
  • Interdisciplinary Perspectives
  • Interviewing Practitioners
  • Personal Experience (I firmly believe that lived experiences are one of the great sources of research questions, especially in social work research )
  • Relevant Literature

Find the Gap in the Literature

Another way to build the research questions is to immerse yourself in the world of previous research and find the gap in the literature. Here are the types of gaps that exist in the literature. You can use this type of gap to build your research question and write them in the introduction and limitations of your thesis or article. For example, the study’s rationale could be the methodological gap (mentioned in the introduction section). However, your study still could have a population gap (mentioned in the limitation section).

Please find the document for more details on the types of research gaps. “Research Methods and Strategies Workshop: A Taxonomy of Research Gaps: Identifying and Defining the Seven Research Gaps” (researchgate.net)

  1. Evidence Gap (Contradictory Evidence Gap): This occurs when results from different studies on a topic allow for their own conclusions, but are contradictory when examined together from a broader view.
    • Example: Some studies find that diversity training improves workplace relations, while other studies find no significant effect.
  2. Knowledge Gap (Knowledge Void Gap): This is where desired research findings do not exist in a particular field.
    • Example: The impact of a new social media platform on teen mental health has not yet been studied.
  3. Practical-Knowledge Gap (Action-Knowledge Conflict Gap): This occurs when the actual practices and behaviors of professionals deviate from what research suggests is best.
    • Example: Many teachers still rely heavily on lecturing, despite research showing active learning approaches are more effective.
  4. Methodological Gap (Method and Research Design Gap): This suggests a need to vary research methods on a topic, especially if a singular method has dominated the research.
    • Example: There may be a methodology gap in capturing the lived experiences of individuals experiencing homelessness. Traditional survey methods may not be effective in reaching or engaging this population, and alternative methodologies, such as participatory action research or ethnographic approaches, may be needed.
  5. Empirical Gap (Evaluation Void Gap): This happens when certain propositions or findings need to be further empirically tested and verified.
    • Example: A theory on the causes of poverty lacks sufficient supporting empirical data.
  6. Theoretical Gap (Theory Application Void Gap): This indicates an opportunity to apply different theories to a research topic to generate new insights.
    • Example: There may be a theory gap in understanding the specific factors that contribute to the resilience of children in foster care. While general theories of resilience exist, they may not fully capture the unique experiences and challenges faced by this specific population.
  7. Population Gap: This refers to when a certain population has been understudied relative to others.
    • Example: There may be a population gap in studying the experiences of LGBTQ+ older adults in accessing healthcare services. While research on older adults’ healthcare experiences exists, the specific challenges and barriers faced by LGBTQ+ older adults may not have been adequately explored.

    I also recommend this document from Yale Graduate Writing Center: How to Write Your First Research Paper

    Find the Relevant Theories for Your Research Questions

    I also recommend finding the relevant theories to build the research questions. In Social Science Research, the theory is like the lighthouse that guides you and prevents you from losing the path. So, what is the theory? Here is a typology of theory types. You can use the theory for explaining, comprehending, ordering, enacting, or provoking.

    Meanings of Theory: Clarifying Theory through Typification – Sandberg – 2021 – Journal of Management Studies – Wiley Online Library

    Expand Your Methodological Toolbox

    Last but not least, learning various research methods can help you transform from problem statements to research questions and expand your researcher’s toolbox to come up with more research questions! Please see the following guide for information on learning research methodology to broaden your toolbox as a researcher.

    ▶️Beginner’s guide on Quantitative Methods in Social Work Research

    • March 15, 2022