Maxwell Qualitative Research Design The Research Questions

Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Chapter 4: Research Questions: What Do You Want to Understand?

  • Research questions = heart of research design. Sometimes research questions emerge from the data. They evolve. Qualitative research begins with preliminary questions, allowing the researchers to keep an open mind during the research process.
  • "These early, provisional questions frame the study in important ways, guide decisions about methods, and influence (and are influence by) the conceptual framework, preliminary results, and potential validity concerns (pp. 65-66)."
  • "...well-constructed, focused questions are generally the result of an interactive design process, rather than being the starting point for developing a design (p. 66)."
  • The Functions of Research Questions

    • Pay attention to your assumptions and be sure to not include them in the questions. Research questions must find the balance between generality and specificity.
    • "Your research questions need to take account of why you want to do the study (your goals), your connections to a (or several) research paradigms(s), and what is already known about the things you want to study and your tentative theories about these phenomena (your conceptual framework) (p. 68)."
  • Research Questions and Other Kinds of Questions

    • "A common problem in developing research questions is confusion between intellectual issues - what you want to understand by doing the study - and practical issues - what you want to accomplish (p. 68)."
    • "These practical goals should inform your research questions, but normally shouldn't be directly incorporated into these questions. Instead, you should frame your research questions so that they point you to the information and understanding that will help you to accomplish your practical goals or develop the practical implications of what you learn (pp. 68-69)."
  • Research Hypotheses in Qualitative Designs

    • "Research questions are not the same as research hypotheses. Research questions state what you want to learn. Research hypotheses, in contrast, are a statement of your tentative answers to these questions, what you think is going on; these answers are normally implications of your theory or experience (p. 69)."
    • "'Fishing' for possible answers to your questions is perfectly appropriate in qualitative research, as long as these answers are then tested against new evidence and possible validity threats (p. 69)."
    • Hypotheses can act as blinders. Be aware of this possibility.
  • Generic Questions and Particularistic Questions

    • "A case study, on the other hand, justifies the selection of a particulcar case in terms of the goals of the study and existing theory and research, and needs a different kind of argument to support the generalizability of its conclusions (p. 71)."
    • "...the primary concern of the study is not with generalization, but with developing an adequate description, interpretation, and explanation of this case (p. 71)."
    • Particularistic questions tend to be more appropriate for qualitative research because they recognize the situatedness of the study, framing it as a case located in a particular context.
  • Instrumentalist Questions and Realist Questions

    • "Instrumentalists formulate their questions in terms of observable or measurable data. They worry about the validity threats (such as self-report bias) that the research risks in making inferences to unobservable phenomena, and prefer to stick with what they can directly verify (p. 72)."
    • "Realists, in contrast, do not assume that research questions and conclusions about feelings, beliefs, intentions, prior behavior, effects, and so on, need to be reduced to, or reframed as, questions and conclusions about the actual data that one collects. Instead, they treat these unobserved phenomena as rea, and their data as evidence about these, to be used critically to develop and test ideas about the existence and nature of the phenomena (Campbell, 1988; Cook & Campbell, 1979; Maxwell, 1992, 2004a) (pp. 72-73)."
    • "The main risk of instrumentalist questions is that you will lose sight of what you're really interested in, and narrow your study in ways that exclued the actual phenomena you want to investigate, ending up with a rigorous but uninteresting conclusion (p. 73)." Maxwell relates this concept to a story about a man looking for his lost keys under the spotlight because that is where the light is shining. The man excludes all dark areas and therefore never finds his keys.
    • "The main risk with realist questions, on the other hand, is that your increased reliance on inference may lead you to draw unwarranted conclusions, or to allow your assumptions or hopes to influence your results (p. 73)."
    • "Thus, in my view, the risk of trivializing your study by restricting your questions to what can be directly observed is usually more serious than the risk of drawing invalid conclusions (p. 73)."
    • "...from a realist perspective, perceptions and beliefs are real phenomena, and neither is something that can be inferred with certainty from interview data (p. 74)."
  • Variance Questions and Process Questions

    • "Variance questions focus on difference and correlation; they often begin with 'Does,' 'How much,' 'To what extent,' and 'Is there a relationship (p. 74).'"
    • "Process questions, in contrast, focus on how things happen, rather than whether there is a particular relationship or how much it is explained by other variables (p. 75)."
    • "...the real strength of a qualitative approach, which is in understanding the processes by which things take place (p. 75)."
    • "Qualitative researchers thus tend to focus on three kinds of questions that are much better suited to process theory than to variance theory; (a) questions about the meaning of events and activities to the people involved in these, (b) questions about the influence of the physical and social context on these events and activities, and (c) questions about the process by which these events and activities and their outcomes occurred (p. 75)."
  • Developing Research Questions


  • Campbell, D. T. (1988). Methodology and epistemology for social science: Selected papers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D.T. (1979). Quasi-experimentation: Design and analysis issues for field settings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Maxwell, J. A. (1992). Understanding and validity in qualitative research. Harvard Educational Review, 62, 279-300.
  • Maxwell, J. A. (2004). Causal explanation, qualitative research, and scientific inquiry in education. Educational Researcher, 33(2), 3-11.