Formulating Research Questions

Research questions typically flow from research priorities (see Rethinking Research Priorities and Outcomes) and from the theories and concepts that frame research (see Rethinking Concepts and Theories). Research priorities—along with concepts and theories—directly influence how research is designed. They function to

  1. delimit questions asked—and, by implication, questions not asked (see, for example, Case Study: Genetics of Sex Determination).
  2. frame the research design and choice of methods.

As with other stages of the research and development processes, the choice of a research question is often underpinned by assumptions—both implicit and explicit—about sex and gender (see Method: Analyzing Gender). As in other stages of research and development, potential for creative innovation lies in critically examining existing practices in light of available evidence about sex and gender (Bührer et al., 2006; Schraudner et al., 2006; Schiebinger, 2008; Wylie, et al., Klinge, 2010; IOM, 2010; Wajcman, 2010).

Critical questions for analyzing the significance (if any) of sex and gender in formulating research questions:

  1. What is the current state of knowledge of sex and gender (norms, identities, or relations) in a given area of research or development?
  2. What do we not know as a result of not analyzing sex and gender?
  3. How have sex and gender functioned to limit the research questions posed in this field? For example, coronary angiography is a powerful diagnostic tool for assessing coronary artery disease, but it can cause bleeding complications, especially in women. Researchers asked how angiography could be made safer and designed and patented new catheters and procedures to allow angiography from the radial artery rather than the groin. This shift reduces bleeding in both women and men (see Case Study: Heart Disease).
  4. Have assumptions been made about sex and gender? Are these justified in light of available evidence? Are assumptions underpinning these research questions invalid when subjected to critical analysis? For example, cultural assumptions about gender difference can lead companies to market “gender-specific” products—in one case a sex-specific knee prosthesis—that may not be the best choice for consumers (see Case Study: De-Gendering the Knee).
  5. Have any potentially relevant groups of research subjects been left out (e.g., female animals in animal research, men in osteoporosis research, pregnant women in automotive engineering)? (See Case Studies: Animal Research, Osteoporosis Research in Men, and Pregnant Crash Test Dummies.)
  6. What research questions would lead to more robust research designs and methods? For example, in studies of sexual differentiation, geneticists have revealed the shortcomings of scientific models that portrayed the female developmental pathway as “passive.” By challenging assumptions of passivity, researchers formulated new questions about the ovarian developmental pathway. New findings now suggest that both female and male development are active, gene-mediated processes (see Case Study: Genetics of Sex Determination).

Related Case Studies 

Genetics of Sex Determination
Stem Cells
Heart Disease in Women
HIV Microbicides
Human Thorax Model

Works Cited

  • Bührer, S., Gruber, E., Hüsing, B., Kimpeler, S., Rainfurth, C., Schlomann, B., Schraudner, M., & Wehking, S. (2006). Wie Können Gender-Aspekte in Forschungsvorhaben Erkannt und Bewertet Werden? München: Fraunhofer.
  • Klinge, I., & Wiesemann, C. (Eds.) (2010). Sex and Gender in Biomedicine: Theories, Methodologies, and Results. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag.
  • Institute of Medicine (IOM). (2010). Women’s Health Research: Progress, Pitfalls, and Promise. Washington, D.C.: United States National Academies Press.
  • Schiebinger, L. (Ed.) (2008). Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Schraudner, M., & Lukoschat, H. (Eds.) (2006). Gender als Innovationspotenzial in Forschung and Entwicklung. Karlsruhe: Fraunhofer Institut.
  • Wajcman, J. (2010). Feminist Theories of Technology. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34 (1), 143-152.
  • Wylie, A., & Conkey, M. (2007). Doing Archaeology as a Feminist. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 14 (3), 209-216.