Asking the Right Questions

When constructing a survey instrument or interview guide, asking the right question is paramount. Is the question worded correctly? Does it tap the concepts you’re actually interested in? How is it asked? What order is it asked in? What goes unaddressed?

As part of the requirements for the ICPSR class on Methodological Issues in Quantitative Research on Race and Ethnicity, we had to write a methods statement. This could be a theoretical piece or a proposal for an actual methodological approach. Although ultimately I’d like to write a theoretical piece on racial/ethnic identity, since it was a class on methodology it made much more sense for me to go ahead and tackle the measurement part. Whew! There was some real brainpower expended on constructing a survey instrument to tap into racial identification of transracial adoptees beyond the typical Asian-White categorization, not to mention the analytic strategy to test the validity of the measure. All the quantitative jargon had my head spinning!

You’d think asking the “right” question wouldn’t be so difficult since, presumably, we have a lot of practice with question asking. Not just as scientists who are trained in survey development or who use existing survey data often noting the strengths and weaknesses of those measures, but as people. You know, people who actually interact with other people on a daily basis, some of which are friends, loved ones, or generally people to whom it’s important to ask the right questions.

For example, I was talking to a friend the other day and going over the situations that are causing me stress, and he asked me, “What do you think is the best thing for you to do?” And then, because comps are one of the things that’s stressing me out, he asked, “How are you studying for comps?” Two very simple, basic questions but they were the right questions to ask. The first made me think logically about a particular situation. The second allowed me to hear the plan that I’ve been working out loud which made me realize that I need to calm down because I am working the plan.

So how does this relate to research based question asking?

  • Know your subject(s) and subject matter – otherwise known as a deep understanding of the literature and population of interest.


  • Don’t forget to ask the basic questions. In other words, ask what you want to know. Yes, there is a place for asking various other questions that underlie the main question, but don’t forget to actually ask THE question.


  • Practice your questions and vet them out with more advanced colleagues that are familiar with the particular field/subfield.
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