What Research Question? A short exercise that will help you get your ideas flowing


Towards the end of your undergraduate and postgraduate studies, and possibly even earlier, it is likely that you will be asked to design your own small research project. In such situations some of you may feel, yes, finally I can do what I am interested in, however, they may not yet be sure how to link their interest to key theoretical issues in their respective discipline. Others again may not even have discovered yet what really interests them due to which they have major issues coming up with any idea of what to research in the first place. In both cases, the following exercise may be useful, which I have designed and successfully applied in my own teaching (for undergraduate sociology students) very recently, with good feedback from my students.

Please note that the theoretical concepts and examples I am using in the following illustration are based on sociology and the specific setting (i.e. the city of London) that I used in this exercise, but I believe that this exercise can prove useful beyond sociology and London as a research site.

  1. Where?

The first step is fairly easy. As an undergraduate and in most cases also as a postgraduate, you will have limited resources and mobility, due to which you should probably choose a research site which is easily accessible to you. In most cases this will be your immediate surroundings. In the case of my students it was the city of London, as I used this exercise at the London School of Economics. However, don’t forget, it can also be online!

  1. What about your setting?

In the next step, you need to ask yourself, what issues do you really hate / love / care about in this setting? Make a list of all of these issues. Again in my example, I asked students what they loved / hated in and about London, leading us to the following list:

  1. Transport issues (rush hour, tube, strikes, long commutes, etc.)
  2. Housing (housing crisis, poor living conditions, huge costs)
  3. Cultural diversity (London as melting pot of different cultures, different foods / religions / ethnicities / traditions, immigration)
  4. Money issues (banking, generally high costs of living, shopping)
  5. Crime (robbery, rape, youth crime, immigration)


  1. What about your discipline?

Once you have such a list, ask yourself, what issues / debates / topics do you find interesting in your studied discipline? Again, make a list of all of these issues. When I asked my students about their interests we came up with the following list in class:

  • Gender / Feminism / Family
  • Class & Inequalities
  • Exploitation
  • Crime
  • Religion
  1. Now, connect the two!

In the next step I wanted students to connect their discipline specific interest with one of the themes they had come up with in step 2. This allowed them to discover an area of interest, which could be researched in their chosen setting, while being relevant for their academic discipline. So for instance, one student paired gender with transport, as he was interested in how women change their perception of means of transport at night in different circumstances (e.g. alone or with others). Another obvious example was that of linking the housing issue to class and inequalities, a very current topic in the city of London of today. Finally, another connection was that of youth crime, with a particular focus on gangs, and inequalities and class.

  1. Formulate your question

In this last step you now only have to connect your area of research with a certain type of question. Do you want to explore processes? Then ask a how question. Do you want to investigate trends and factual events? Then it may be better to ask a what question. You want to find out why something happens? Then ask a why question (please not the list of types of questions here is not exhaustive, there are other questions you could ask!).

That’s it, if you try this out for yourself, substituting the examples I have given above with your own settings, interests and discipline depending theoretical constructs and you will hopefully be able to generate some good ideas of what you might want to research. I think this is really exciting! Good luck!


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