The Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) student’s no-nonsense guide to developing your research question (RQ)

Aka: How do I come up with my Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) and/or qualitative research question?

Updated February 2022

I am frequently asked for advice on how to come up with a suitable research question (RQ) for a qualitative study, and more specifically, an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). This aspect of research design will have detailed coverage in my new workshop on planning and designing your IPA study which will be available in the Winter of 2022. As a frequently posed question, I thought some (hopefully) helpful guidance might assist you.

Truth bomb: your research question may change as you conduct your research

One point that is important to make here is that while RQs are important as they guide the design and the execution of a qualitative research study, they do tend to evolve, and may change or be updated as you progress through your research. They could therefore be described as provisional.

With this in mind, try not to get too hung up on producing the perfect RQ for your IPA study, and be mindful to hold it lightly as it could alter (or even transform!) before you get to the end of the research process (mine certainly did for my professional doctorate).

How to start formulating your IPA research question

Firstly, it’s a no-brainer, but worth mentioning that your topic area and RQ are obviously going to be intimately connected, with the topic area being much broader than the RQ you develop.

My first suggestion in the process of developing your RQ is therefore to start broad and map out your topic area to the best of your ability. See your free IPA Study Survival Guide with its Road Map and Checklist for handy tips and guidance on how to go about this process.

Once you have an idea of the ‘terrain’ of your topic area and have mapped out what has already been done, what we already know in the field in question, and where any gaps may be, you can start to narrow down. Your goal is to develop some broader aims and objectives for your research project (i.e., what are you looking to achieve with this research study?) From these, you will be able to pin down your RQ itself.

Narrowing down to develop your IPA research question

Asking yourself the following series of questions may help with this:

Question one:

What do you want to know?

Purpose: to identify your point of interest. For example, women and coaching practices.

Start to narrow down or curtail the scope:

Question two:

Which/what features are you interested in knowing about?

E.g., are you interested in the process of coaching women or what it feels like/the experience of being coached or doing the coaching? The language used in the process of coaching?

TIP: look at the extant literature from your mapping exercise.What is already out there and what has already been done? Where are the gaps? This will inform your approach/aims and objectives and therefore RQ. Check the suggestions for further research in the papers you have reviewed. You are looking to build upon, extend, add to, or challenge what has already been done. 

Narrow down further:

Question three:

What do you want to be able to say at the end of your research? Do you want to be able to say something about a single group or phenomenon? Do you want to identify a process in a dyad or another small group such as a family/team?  Do you want to identify and/or understand the features of different experiences?

Returning to our coaching example, perhaps you want to say something about the experience of different coaching approaches or contexts (e.g., career coaching or other coaching)? Understanding more about this will help you outline your aims and objectives and from these, pin down your RQ.

Question four:

What do you want to do with the findings? For example, do you want to inform policy, create a model, generate a theory, develop a tool, or simply provide a rich and thick description of something as a starting point if the topic area has little previous investigation? You may want to continue beyond this particular study to start building a corpus of research, in which case, this study may be the first step or building block in that endeavour. What do your stakeholders require? For example, they may want larger-scale findings to support some element of transferability of the knowledge created.

Question five:

How are RQs employing your methodology usually posed? What is the language and tone that is typically utilised? Scour the extant literature for examples from relevant research that employs your chosen methodology to guide you.

TIP: qualitative RQs are exploratory in nature and in IPA they tend to focus on the meaning of experiences/phenomena and how people make meaning of those experiences/phenomena. Thus, qualitative RQs tend to ask HOW (and/or WHAT) rather than WHY and you are likely to find that the term ‘experience’ may well show up in your IPA RQ!

Final thoughts

It can be a struggle to come up with your RQ (it most definitely was for me!) However, don’t give up, and remember that research is basically a series of compromises – there is no such thing as the perfect RQ or perfect research project!  

If you work down from your map of the topic area to the broader aims and objectives of your research study, your RQ should emerge from that process.

However, remember to consider feasibility:

Be aware that you are likely to be overambitious at the beginning: usually, students come with too big of a question that could be more than one study or even a PhD. They often have to scale back for the purposes of their project and choose what is really interesting to them and feasible/do-able.

If you suspect that your RQ is too big, ask yourself what you could do now that you are most excited about, and that could provide a stepping stone for the next move forward in answering your big question.  

Summary of top tips for coming up with a research question

  • Read relevant research in the topic area and check suggestions for further research and how the study’s aims, objectives and RQs have been posed
  • Start broad and narrow down using the questions ideas and suggestions in this article
  • If you have come up with too big of a question, consult with your supervisor and/or peers to break it down into smaller, more manageable, and do-able project ideas and RQs
  • Remember that your RQ (and therefore study itself) does need to ignite and excite you if it is to sustain your interest over what could be quite a lengthy research journey

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Planning and designing qualitative research. In V. Braun & V. Clarke, Successful qualitative research (pp. 42-74). London: Sage.

Kinmond, K. (2012). Coming up with a research question. In C. Sullivan, S. Gibson, & S. Riley (Eds.), Doing your qualitative psychology project (pp. 23-36). London: Sage

NOTE: While this is an undergraduate text, this chapter is freely available on the internet and is a very well-constructed introduction to writing qualitative RQs – just Google Scholar it

Larkin, M. (2015). Choosing your approach. In J.A. Smith (Ed.) Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods (pp. 249-256). London: Sage

Smith, J.A., Larkin, M., & Flowers, P. (2009). Planning an IPA research study. In J.A. Smith, M. Larkin, & P. Flowers, Interpretative phenomenological analysis: Theory, method and research (pp.40-55). London: Sage

And of course, in the 2022 Second Edition, head immediately to pages 41 to 43 in Chapter Three ‘Planning an IPA Research Study’

Willig, C. (2013). Qualitative research design and data collection. In C. Willig, Introducing qualitative research in psychology, (pp. 23-38). Berks, UK: OU Press  

Recommended journal article:

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

NOTE: relevant journal articles were quite thin on the ground (interesting, huh?), but this one is of good quality and presents useful examples, although more from social sciences disciplines than specifically psychology. Plus it is open access from Google Scholar – bonus!

Finishing up – please do reach out!

This topic for this article was bought to you at the request of a mailing list member who is approaching this step of their research journey.

I would love to be as responsive as I can to your real-time research dilemmas, so please do join the mailing list and reply to your welcome email or use the contact form to send me a message to let me know of any specific areas you would like me to cover, and I will do my best to help out!

Until next time!

To your research success, Elena

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