3.3 Refining your question

Learning Objectives

  • Develop and revise questions that focus your inquiry
  • Create a concept map that demonstrates the relationships between concepts


Once you have selected your topic area and reviewed literature related to it, you may need to narrow it down to something that can be realistically researched and answered. In the last section, we learned about asking who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. As you read more about your topic area, the focus of your inquiry should become more specific and clearer. As a result, you might begin to ask questions that describe a phenomenon, compare one phenomenon with another, or probe the relationship between two concepts.

You might begin by asking a series of PICO questions. Although the PICO method is used primarily in the health sciences, it can also be useful for narrowing/refining a research question in the social sciences.  A way to formulate an answerable question using the PICO model could look something like this:

  • Patient, population or problem: What are the characteristics of the patient or population? (e.g., gender, age, other demographics) What is the social problem or diagnosis you are interested in? (e.g., poverty or substance use disorder)
  • Intervention or exposure: What do you want to do with the patient, person, or population (e.g., treat, diagnose, observe)? For example, you may want to observe a client’s behavior or a reaction to a specific type of treatment.
  • Comparison: What is the alternative to the intervention? (e.g., other therapeutic interventions, programs, or policies) For example, how does a sample group that is assigned to mandatory rehabilitation compare to a sample group assigned to an intervention that builds motivation to enter treatment voluntarily?
  • Outcome: What are the relevant outcomes? (e.g., academic achievement, healthy relationships, shame) For example, how does recognizing triggers for trauma flashbacks impact the target population?

Some examples of how the PICO method is used to refine a research question include:

  • “Can music therapy improve communication skills in students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder?”
    • Population (autistic students)
    • Intervention (music therapy)
  • “How effective are antidepressant medications in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression?”
    • Population (clients with anxiety and depression)
    • Intervention (antidepressants)
  • “How does race impact help-seeking behaviors for students with mental health diagnoses?
    • Population (students with mental health diagnoses, students of minority races)
    • Comparison (students of different races)
    • Outcome (seeking help for mental health issues)

Another mnemonic technique used in the social sciences for narrowing a topic is SPICE. An example of how SPICE factors can be used to develop a research question is given below:

Setting – for example, a college campus
Perspective – for example, college students
Intervention – for example, text message reminders
Comparisons – for example, telephone message re minders
Evaluation – for example, number of cigarettes used after text message reminder compared to the number of cigarettes used after a telephone reminder

Developing a concept map

Likewise, developing a concept map or mind map around your topic may help you analyze your question and determine more precisely what you want to research. Using this technique, start with the broad topic, issue, or problem, and begin writing down all the words, phrases and ideas related to that topic that come to mind and then ‘map’ them to the original idea. This technique is illustrated in Figure 3.2.


concept map linking storytelling to media character and other concepts. the main block is storytelling, which branches, to narrative structure, which itself branches to open world. Multiple connections between concept boxes are possible and the directionality of the relationship is indicated by arrows.
Figure 3.2 Basic concept map


Concept mapping aims to improve the “description of the breadth and depth of literature in a domain of inquiry. It also facilitates identification of the number and nature of studies underpinning mapped relationships among concepts, thus laying the groundwork for systematic research reviews and meta-analyses” (Lesley, Floyd, & Oermann, 2002, p. 229). [2] Its purpose, like the other methods of question refining, is to help you organize, prioritize, and integrate material into a workable research area; one that is interesting, answerable, feasible, objective, scholarly, original, and clear.

The process of concept mapping is beneficial when you begin your own literature review, as it will help you to come up with keywords and concepts related to your topic. Concept mapping can also be helpful when creating a topical outline or drafting your literature review, as it demonstrates the important of each concept and sub-concepts as well as the relationships between each concept.

For example, perhaps your initial idea or interest is how to prevent obesity. After an initial search of the relevant literature, you realize the topic of obesity is too broad to adequately cover in the time you have to do your literature review. You decide to narrow your focus to causes of childhood obesity. Using PICO factors, you further narrow your search to the influence of family factors on overweight children. A potential research question might then be “What maternal factors are associated with toddler obesity in the United States?” You’re now ready to begin searching the literature for studies, reports, cases, and other information sources that relate to this question.

Similarly, for a broad topic like school performance or grades, and after an initial literature search that provides some variables, examples of a narrow research question might be:

  • “To what extent does parental involvement in children’s education relate to school performance over the course of the early grades?”
  • “Do parental involvement levels differ by family, social, demographic, and contextual characteristics?”
  • “What forms of parent involvement are most highly correlated with children’s outcomes? What factors might influence the extent of parental involvement?” (Early Childhood Longitudinal Program, 2011). [3]

In either case, your literature search, working question, and understanding of the topic are constantly changing as your knowledge of the topic deepens. Conducting a literature review is an iterative process, as it stops, starts, and loops back on itself multiple times before completion. As research is a practice behavior of social workers, you should apply the same type of critical reflection to your inquiry as you would to your clinical or macro practice.


Key Takeaways

  • As you read more articles, you should revise your original question to make it more focused and clear.
  • You can further develop the important concepts and relationships for your project by using concept maps and the PICO/SPICE frameworks.


  1. Figure 3.2 image “gaming and narrative discussion” created by Bryan Alexander (2012). Shared under a CC-BY 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/) and retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bryanalexander/6737919649
  2. Leslie, M., Floyd, J., & Oermann, M. (2002). Use of MindMapper software for research domain mapping. Computers, informatics, nursing, 20(6), 229-235.
  3. Early Childhood Longitudinal Program. (2011). Example research questionshttps://nces.ed.gov/ecls/researchquestions2011.asp


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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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