Developing Qualitative Research Questions: A Reflective Process


A good research question helps to avoid possible problems in the subsequent stages of the study. In the end, the quality of the initial questions set by the author determines whether the paper will be approved, funded, or published. Agee (2009) addressed the development of the initial research questions and the critical significance of question generation and refining for shaping the phases of a qualitative study. This paper contains several important notions, helpful in preparing successful research.

First of all, one should not underestimate the influence of passion and enthusiasm. As Agee (2009) points out, most of her doctoral students based their studies on a topic they have already been exploring. That interest serves as a valuable source of rough drafts, which can potentially turn into a research question. In addition, those fundamental, generative questions can provide a ground for a series of more specific ones necessary for the data collection.

Secondly, a broad starting research question prepares the ground for the development of sub-questions. At this point, the researchers start using reflection to evaluate whether it is necessary to add extra questions. For instance, this necessity may arise in ethnographic studies, which might take months or years (Agee, 2009). Additional questions might be added during data collection, making the scope of the study more complex.

Lastly, research questions in qualitative studies might develop in the context of theory or ethical considerations. For example, the questions might offer explicit or implicit links to theory (Agee, 2009). It is necessary to remember that qualitative research questions should embrace theory and also have a focus and a possible answer (Agee, 2009). In addition, a researcher has to consider the potential implications of their questions for the participants (Agee, 2009). Overall, a good research question for the qualitative study should be focused, ethical, theory-related, and answerable.

A Framework for Rigorously Identifying Research Gaps in Qualitative Literature Reviews

Reviewing relevant literature on the subject is crucial for writing an academic paper since this procedure lets identify existing research gaps. However, Müller-Bloch and Kranz (2015) criticized a widespread literature review framework proposed by Webster and Watson. According to Müller-Bloch and Kranz (2015), that framework “does not provide a sufficient modus operandi for ensuring rigor and replicability in identifying research gaps” (p. 2). The paper in question provides an improved algorithm for revealing the gaps through a literature review.

The first component is the localization of possible research gaps through the synthesis of the literature. MĂĽller-Bloch and Kranz (2015) claim that localization begins during synthesis because researchers reveal potential gaps through scrutiny. Literature synthesis can be conducted with a chart method, and blank fields in that chart may point at the existing gaps (MĂĽller-Bloch & Kranz, 2015). Overall localization is informed through the characterization process described in the next section.

Characterization ties localized research gaps to the reasons for their existence. Müller-Bloch and Kranz (2015) listed the following gap types: “methodological conflicts, contradictory evidence, knowledge void, action-knowledge conflict, evaluation void, and theory application void” (p. 8). Characterization helps scholars understand what research should be conducted to close a particular gap. Therefore, this concept is valuable for improving the gap localization process since scholars can constantly refer to characterization.

The step of verification begins after the research gaps have been characterized and localized. MĂĽller-Bloch and Kranz (2015) suggested conducting a “forward search based on the articles from which a specific gap emerged” (p. 12). Verification makes it possible to prove a particular research gap’s previous existence or reveal its novelty. Overall, this step is essential for preventing situations in which other scholars might have already addressed a research gap.

Finally, the framework offers a choice between two approaches for a research gap presentation. A parallel presentation introduces gaps during the discussion of synthesis, revealing them more naturally, while a sequential presentation vividly describes gaps after the synthesis (MĂĽller-Bloch & Kranz, 2015). In the end, both approaches can complement each other since parallel presentation allows for tracing the gap’s origin, while a sequential presentation facilitates finding them in the paper.

Guidance on Conducting a Systematic Literature Review

Reviewing relevant scholarly sources allows to realize the boundaries of knowledge and identify research gaps. Xiao and Watson (2019) created general guidance on which types of literature review exist and how a researcher should organize the working process to prepare a valid and reliable review. Their paper provides especially useful insights and tips for less experienced scholars who might be unsure about the type and structure of the literature review section.

A beginning of a successful literature review lies in the correct choice of its type. Regarding the review typology, Xiao and Watson (2019) listed five categories: descriptive, testing, extending, critiquing, and hybrid. Descriptive reviews contain an account of literature, testing reviews answer questions, extended reviews serve to build theories, critiquing reviews compare literature against certain criteria, and hybrid reviews combine various traits (Xiao & Watson, 2019). In addition, each of these larger categories also includes several particular review styles.

Regardless of the selected review type, a researcher should follow a certain writing algorithm. Xiao and Watson (2019) identified eight common steps of review writing:

  • research protocol formulation;
  • review protocol development and validation;
  • literature search;
  • inclusion screening;
  • literature quality assessment;
  • data extraction;
  • data analysis and synthesis;
  • report on findings

Overall, this paper emphasized the importance of rigorous procedure in literature review preparation. A valid and reliable review is a necessary preliminary condition for any serious piece of academic writing. Therefore, a scholar should pay attention to their research question, tailor literature selection to answer it, and choose a review type best suited for the goal. It is important to exercise a rigorous yet flexible and open-minded approach.


Agee, J. (2009). Developing qualitative research questions: A reflective process. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(4), 431-447. Web.

MĂĽller-Bloch, C., & Kranz, J. (2015). A framework for rigorously identifying research gaps in qualitative literature reviews. Thirty Sixth International Conference on Information Systems, Fort Worth.

Xiao, Y., & Watson, M. (2019). Guidance on conducting a systematic literature review. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 39(1), 93-112. Web.

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ChalkyPapers. "Developing Qualitative Research Questions: A Reflective Process." October 26, 2022.