Introduction to asking research questions in social work research

During your undergraduate or master’s program, you might have been asked to write a research proposal or a thesis. The problem is that sometimes we have no idea what research questions we could ask. In social work research, what kinds of questions can be asked? Identifying the types of research questions is the first step. 

Here are some “types” research questions (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?
📄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?
📄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?
📄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?
📄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?
📄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

Now, let’s see the gap in the literature. Here are the types of gaps that exist in the literature. You can use this type of gap in writing 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)


Last but not least, learning a variety of research methods can not only help you transform from problem statements to research questions but can also 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

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