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From topic to research question

There are several ways to get your writing started, but it is important to formulate a preliminary research question reasonably early. Some students are fortunate enough to know exactly what they want to investigate already before they start. Most, however, need to do a great deal of thinking, literature searching and reading before they specify their research question, and many adjust it as they go along.

One approach is to start with a field or a topic of interest, and gradually develop a more specific research question. If you choose this option, brainstorming is a good way to start. Write down all the questions you can think of – you can be critical and selective at a later stage. Get an overview of interesting literature. As you get to know the topic better, your questions will become more precise. Perhaps you will see new problems and approaches you did not initially think about. Consider: what interests you? What do you care about the most? Listen to professor Anders Johansen explain why it’s important to find something you care about.


Let us say you are interested in green marketing. Your initial questions might be:

Does it pay for companies to market themselves as green? What does it take for customers to think of companies/commodities/services as green? Does including a  green product in the portfolio lead customers to think of the company’s other products as green as well? What are the effects of being certified as green or eco-friendly? What do companies do to appear eco-friendly? What does it mean that a company is sustainable? Is green marketing accompanied by any particular ethical obligation? Does such marketing appeal to particular groups? What characterizes environmentally conscious customers? Are such customers more or less critical compared to other customers? Do the actual choices consumers make agree with their attitudes? How can the environmentally harmful habits of consumers be changed?  How do the personal and social identities of consumers affect their choices regarding environmentally friendly products?

Perform wide and general literature searches to get familiar with the field and its literature. Examples of search terms may be:

  • branding
  • consumer behaviour
  • satisfaction
  • credibility
  • trust
  • attitudes
  • habits
  • sustainable
  • green
  • organic, ecological
  • eco-labelling, environmental labelling
  • certificate, certification
  • social identity
  • segmentation
  • corporate social responsibility

Combine your search terms in relevant databases.

When you know more and have skimmed the literature, you should narrow your topic, and find what to focus on.

Consider: What are you most interested in working on / learning more about? What questions are possible to answer? Which methods can you use? How much time do you have available? What has been done before?  Does necessary data exist, for instance in market surveys, or do you have to find it yourself? Are you going to take one or more specific cases as your starting point – and if so, should they be good or bad examples? Are you going to stick to one particular market or perhaps one product?

Perform more refined and focussed literature searches in different databases provided by your library.

  • Look at the reference lists of relevant articles and books
  • Look at other master’s theses
  • Talk to others: friends, other students, lecturers, your supervisor – they will often have useful (though perhaps disquieting) questions and objections, which can help you think things through one more time

Formulate your research question or hypothesis. Examples of research questions could be:

  • Does it pay for companies to market themselves as eco-friendly or green?
  • What characterizes good/succesful green marketing?
  • What characterizes environmentally conscious consumers?
  • How can the behaviour of customers be altered to achieve more eco-friendly consumption?

You often have to specify exactly what it is you want to investigate in one or more sub-questions, such as one of these:

  • Is the profitability and share price performance better in green companies than in others?
  • How does appealing to social norms in the marketing of eco-friendly products affect customer behaviour?
  • How is the consumption of green products affected by customers’ habits and attitudes?
  • What characterizes the customer profile of groups to which green marketing seems to appeal the most?
  • Why is company A considered to be more trustworthy than company B in environmental questions?
  • How does eco-labelling affect customers’ attitudes and behaviour?

Last updated: August 27, 2014

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