Formulating a Research Question

Whether for a Proseminar paper, a doctoral dissertation or a large-scale research project, the task of formulating a research question stands at the beginning of every academic assignment. A research question must be developed in relation to the existing research and the available source material and should be modified throughout the research and writing process.


A historical research question is formulated on the basis of the existing research and an appropriate academic approach and is answered by consulting a range of relevant sources. Developing a pertinent research question along these lines is a demanding task which must be constantly practiced over the course of your degree. Finding appropriate sources represents a particular challenge; the most interesting of research questions is of little value when you can find no relevant sources to answer it. You should thus make an effort to find pertinent sources from as early a stage as possible; one option is to look for references to stimulating sources among your seminar notes or reading lists. A research question can also be developed by testing arguments or research methods from your secondary reading on source material which has seldom been examined before or which you can easily access. This will mean that you will not have to formulate a new research question from scratch.

Bear in mind the following key factors when formulating a research question:

The Existing Research and Appropriate Academic Approaches

A research question is developed on the basis of the available research literature. For example, ask yourself: “Which findings have been made and which debates have taken place in relation to my research topic? Which aspects and viewpoints have been overlooked in the process? In relation to which points, if at all, are existing arguments unconvincing?” Historical research can be understood as an ongoing debate: by deciding on a research question, historians select the debates in which they would like to participate and the kind of contributions which they would like to make to these.    

Available Sources

Sources lay the foundations for every historical insight. They make the investigation of concrete questions possible, but they also set the limits of what can be researched: a topic for which no relevant sources exist cannot be pursued. On the other hand, very large or overly complex source collections can also complicate research.

A Model Research Question

The following template illustrates how a research question can be formulated on the basis of the existing research, the available sources and an appropriate academic approach:

In research on phenomenon AB, CD’s views have long been regarded as definitive. Recently, however, CD’s argument has come under increasing criticism, especially from EF, who places more emphasis on GH. By examining source material IJ and by following approach KL, I would like to investigate whether more recently devised methods can lead to a more conclusive explanation than that offered by CD. In doing so, I rely primarily on the following literature: MN

A research question is generally developed in a circular process. An initial idea or the selection of a topic or object of research steers your investigation in a particular direction. After working your way through the introductory literature (typically in the form of encyclopaedia and handbook articles) and assessing potential sources, you will then be in a position to formulate a preliminary research question. This will shape your subsequent research and help you to evaluate which literature is and is not relevant.

You should refine your research question as your research progresses. As such, your literature research, literature analysis, source research and source analysis will all be engaged in a constant exchange with your research question. While the latter steers your research in a particular direction, it will also be influenced by the results of your research. For example, it can often be the case that key aspects relating to your topic only become apparent after you have already formulated your research question. It can also become clear during your research that a lack of relevant sources may leave certain questions unanswerable.

This back-and-forth between formulating a research question and conducting research can continue indefinitely, since each new answer to one aspect of your research question throws up new questions of its own. It is therefore important that you draw boundaries around every piece of research which you conduct and that these are made clear to your readers, for example in your introduction. These boundaries can relate to your topic itself (which aspects can be investigated, which must be overlooked?), the time period under investigation, and/or the secondary literature to be consulted. Important to consider here is how much time you have to complete your study.

A useful technique when working on a research question can be to maintain a written list of important themes which emerge from your literature and source research. These can take the form of findings, suppositions and/or open questions recorded as a series of claims to be subjected to more stringent subsequent analysis. This intermediate step can help to ease the transition from research to writing.

Narrowing down your research question marks a crucial step towards writing a successful academic paper; a research question which is too broad can cause you to become lost in a sea of literature and sources. A (Pro)Seminar paper is always focused on a narrow research question. A handbook article, in contrast, primarily seeks to provide broad background knowledge (e.g. “England in the Late Middle Ages”). In practice, a research question can never actually be too narrowly defined and should, as a rule, be spatially, temporally and thematically circumscribed. This means that a research question should focus on a particular topic as it relates to a specific time period and/or geographical area, as is often indicated in a study’s (sub-)title.


-       “The wave of strikes in the Basel chemical industry in the immediate post-war period.”

-       “Which similarities and differences were there between communist movements in Switzerland and those in other countries at the end of the Second World War?”

“How does the conception of an 'Industrial Revolution’ change in relation to sources from rural parts of the German-speaking world?”

A good research question fulfils several of the following criteria:

  • It awakes the author’s interest.
  • It is relevant to the topic under investigation.
  • It aims to distinguish itself from or refute the results of previous research (e.g. “previous studies argue that…, in contrast this study posits that…”). Alternatively, it seeks to establish a link between topics or debates which have hitherto been seen in isolation from one another, or it attempts to fill a gap in the existing research.
  • It includes a claim which can be debated or discussed.
  • It allows a conclusion to be drawn.
  • It is written in the form of a question or an assertion.
  • It comprises a main question (and related sub-questions)
  • It is precisely formulated.
  • It is stated succinctly (in approximately 10 lines or fewer).
  • It connects with related topics and contexts and opens up further points of discussion.