The research problem or the research questions should be formulated in a sequential manner. This will reduce the chances of ambiguities to a minimum. There is no hard and fast rule for formulating the research problem. One can adopt a logical manner to reach the desired research problem, objectives and research questions.
Before deciding about the research area or the research problem in specific the researcher should ask two questions for him/herself: does he have the desired knowledge in the particular research area or not and does he have interest in conducting research on that particular area. Knowledge is necessary in order to deal with the research justly and clearly. On the other hand interest enables the researcher to give proper concern, time and energy in the accomplishment of the research.
Distinguish the subject area of interest:
The first step in the formulation of the research problem is to decide on a broad subject area on which you have thorough knowledge. Your knowledge in that particular subject area will enable you to decide about the research problem. It will also help you to carry out the overall research. The subject area can be selected with the help of your adviser if you are a student. When you are doing an independent research you can consult some senior researchers in your particular field. Distinguishing or selecting the subject area is the first step in the research problem formulation.
For example you have to select the research problem for your university thesis. You should first consider your major and the subject areas that you are studying in your university. You can select one subject area among all of them and that will be of your interest. Your major is a Nutrition and you want to select childhood nutrition as the particular subject area for your thesis.
Dissect the subject area into sub-areas:
The subject area of your interest will be broad and you need to dissect it into small areas. In this way you will be able to select one of your interest and convenience. You can get help of an experienced person in this regard.
Childhood nutrition is still a broad subject area and you need to dissect it more. You can dissect it into childhood development series, malnutrition in children, child immunization, childhood diseases, childhood mortality and childhood vaccines. There can be many other categories and you can select a category or sub area among all of them. The research problem will revolve around that subject area. For example you have selected malnutrition in children as your sub-area of the research problem. This process will help you in becoming more directional. It will lead you to the formulation of the research problem.
Decide about an area:
Select an area among all the sub-areas, one that interests you most. This will help you in creating the research problems among which you have to choose one. During all these steps you need to constantly look at the possibilities of further narrowing down the subject area in order to become more specific.
You have already selected childhood malnutrition as your sub-area to formulate the research problem.
Generate research questions:
Generate as many research questions as possible, from these questions you have to choose those questions that you want to answer through your research. You should take as much time as possible to generate many questions so that you have plenty of choices. Research questions should be such that can be answered using scientific techniques and research procedures. Suppose does God exists is a question that you want to be answered but this question cannot be answered using current scientific techniques therefore such questions should be avoided.
The research questions or the research problems can be generated easily as you have your subject area selected. Suppose you have generated the following research questions. What factors influence childhood malnutrition? Is there a correlation between childhood mortality and malnutrition? What is the prevalence of childhood malnutrition around the world? Why childhood malnutrition is increasing worldwide? Now you can select those questions that you can answer from your research. There can be several factors that affect your selection of questions: availability of time, money and other resources, knowledge, skills and your abilities. You can select more than one question but your research will become longer. You can even select more than one related question.
Decide about the objectives:
Objectives are the possible answers to the research question or the research problem that you have formulated. They should be formulated in a clear manner. Objectives make you specific, as you conduct your study around the objectives that you have decided. The objectives need to be specific in nature but you can also generate general objectives. General objectives and specific objectives both will have their own importance in the research.
In the last step you need to analyze your research questions and objectives again so as to minimize any confusion. Take as much time as you have to create the research problem and objectives, you should become fully satisfied before starting your research. You can get assistance from someone who has experience in conducting research. You can also get help from a statistician to know whether the research problem and hypothesis is one that can be statistically analyzed or not.
I. Types and Content
There are four general conceptualizations of a research problem in the social sciences:
- Casuist Research Problem -- this type of problem relates to the determination of right and wrong in questions of conduct or conscience by analyzing moral dilemmas through the application of general rules and the careful distinction of special cases.
- Difference Research Problem -- typically asks the question, “Is there a difference between two or more groups or treatments?” This type of problem statement is used when the researcher compares or contrasts two or more phenomena. This a common approach to defining a problem in the clinical social sciences or behavioral sciences.
- Descriptive Research Problem -- typically asks the question, "what is...?" with the underlying purpose to describe the significance of a situation, state, or existence of a specific phenomenon. This problem is often associated with revealing hidden or understudied issues.
- Relational Research Problem -- suggests a relationship of some sort between two or more variables to be investigated. The underlying purpose is to investigate specific qualities or characteristics that may be connected in some way.
A problem statement in the social sciences should contain:
- A lead-in that helps ensure the reader will maintain interest over the study,
- A declaration of originality [e.g., mentioning a knowledge void or a lack of clarity about a topic that will be revealed in the literature review],
- An indication of the central focus of the study [establishing the boundaries of analysis], and
- An explanation of the study's significance or the benefits to be derived from investigating the research problem.
II. Sources of Problems for Investigation
The identification of a problem to study can be challenging, not because there's a lack of issues that could be investigated, but due to the challenge of formulating an academically relevant and researchable problem which is unique and does not simply duplicate the work of others. To facilitate how you might select a problem from which to build a research study, consider these sources of inspiration:
Deductions from Theory
This relates to deductions made from social philosophy or generalizations embodied in life and in society that the researcher is familiar with. These deductions from human behavior are then placed within an empirical frame of reference through research. From a theory, the researcher can formulate a research problem or hypothesis stating the expected findings in certain empirical situations. The research asks the question: “What relationship between variables will be observed if theory aptly summarizes the state of affairs?” One can then design and carry out a systematic investigation to assess whether empirical data confirm or reject the hypothesis, and hence, the theory.
Identifying a problem that forms the basis for a research study can come from academic movements and scholarship originating in disciplines outside of your primary area of study. This can be an intellectually stimulating exercise. A review of pertinent literature should include examining research from related disciplines that can reveal new avenues of exploration and analysis. An interdisciplinary approach to selecting a research problem offers an opportunity to construct a more comprehensive understanding of a very complex issue that any single discipline may be able to provide.
The identification of research problems about particular topics can arise from formal interviews or informal discussions with practitioners who provide insight into new directions for future research and how to make research findings more relevant to practice. Discussions with experts in the field, such as, teachers, social workers, health care providers, lawyers, business leaders, etc., offers the chance to identify practical, “real world” problems that may be understudied or ignored within academic circles. This approach also provides some practical knowledge which may help in the process of designing and conducting your study.
Don't undervalue your everyday experiences or encounters as worthwhile problems for investigation. Think critically about your own experiences and/or frustrations with an issue facing society, your community, your neighborhood, your family, or your personal life. This can be derived, for example, from deliberate observations of certain relationships for which there is no clear explanation or witnessing an event that appears harmful to a person or group or that is out of the ordinary.
The selection of a research problem can be derived from a thorough review of pertinent research associated with your overall area of interest. This may reveal where gaps exist in understanding a topic or where an issue has been understudied. Research may be conducted to: 1) fill such gaps in knowledge; 2) evaluate if the methodologies employed in prior studies can be adapted to solve other problems; or, 3) determine if a similar study could be conducted in a different subject area or applied in a different context or to different study sample [i.e., different setting or different group of people].Also, authors frequently conclude their studies by noting implications for further research; read the conclusion of pertinent studies because statements about further research can be a valuable source for identifying new problems to investigate. The fact that a researcher has identified a topic worthy of further exploration validates the fact it is worth pursuing.
III. What Makes a Good Research Statement?
A good problem statement begins by introducing the broad area in which your research is centered, gradually leading the reader to the more specific issues you are investigating. The statement need not be lengthy, but a good research problem should incorporate the following features:
1. Compelling Topic
Simple curiosity is not a good enough reason to pursue a research study because it does not indicate significance. The problem that you choose to explore must be important to you, your readers, and to a the larger academic and/or social community that could be impacted by the results of your study. The problem chosen must be one that motivates you to address it.
2. Supports Multiple Perspectives
The problem must be phrased in a way that avoids dichotomies and instead supports the generation and exploration of multiple perspectives. A general rule of thumb in the social sciences is that a good research problem is one that would generate a variety of viewpoints from a composite audience made up of reasonable people.
This isn't a real word but it represents an important aspect of creating a good research statement. It seems a bit obvious, but you don't want to find yourself in the midst of investigating a complex research project and realize that you don't have enough prior research to draw from for your analysis. There's nothing inherently wrong with original research, but you must choose research problems that can be supported, in some way, by the resources available to you. If you are not sure if something is researchable, don't assume that it isn't if you don't find information right away--seekhelp from a librarian!
NOTE: Do not confuse a research problem with a research topic. A topic is something to read and obtain information about, whereas a problem is something to be solved or framed as a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution, or explained as a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation.
IV. Asking Analytical Questions about the Research Problem
Research problems in the social and behavioral sciences are often analyzed around critical questions that must be investigated. These questions can be explicitly listed in the introduction [i.e., "This study addresses three research questions about women's psychological recovery from domestic abuse in multi-generational home settings..."], or, the questions are implied in the text as specific areas of study related to the research problem. Explicitly listing your research questions at the end of your introduction can help in designing a clear roadmap of what you plan to address in your study, whereas, implicitly integrating them into the text of the introduction allows you to create a more compelling narrative around the key issues under investigation. Either approach is appropriate.
The number of questions you attempt to address should be based on the complexity of the problem you are investigating and what areas of inquiry you find most critical to study. Practical considerations, such as, the length of the paper you are writing or the availability of resources to analyze the issue can also factor in how many questions to ask. In general, however, there should be no more than four research questions underpinning a single research problem.
Given this, well-developed analytical questions can focus on any of the following:
- Highlights a genuine dilemma, area of ambiguity, or point of confusion about a topic open to interpretation by your readers;
- Yields an answer that is unexpected and not obvious rather than inevitable and self-evident;
- Provokes meaningful thought or discussion;
- Raises the visibility of the key ideas or concepts that may be understudied or hidden;
- Suggests the need for complex analysis or argument rather than a basic description or summary; and,
- Offers a specific path of inquiry that avoids eliciting generalizations about the problem.
NOTE: Questions of how and why about a research problem often require more analysis than questions about who, what, where, and when. You should still ask yourself these latter questions, however. Thinking introspectively about the who, what, where, and when of a research problem can help ensure that you have thoroughly considered all aspects of the problem under investigation.
V. Mistakes to Avoid
Beware of circular reasoning! Do not state that the research problem as simply the absence of the thing you are suggesting. For example, if you propose the following, "The problem in this community is that there is no hospital," this only leads to a research problem where:
- The need is for a hospital
- The objective is to create a hospital
- The method is to plan for building a hospital, and
- The evaluation is to measure if there is a hospital or not.
This is an example of a research problem that fails the "So What?" test. In this example, the problem does not reveal therelevance of why you are investigating the fact there is no hospital in the community [e.g., there's a hospital in the community ten miles away]; it does not elucidate thesignificance of why one should study the fact there is no hospital in the community [e.g., that hospital in the community ten miles away has no emergency room]; the research problem does not offer an intellectual pathway towards adding new knowledge or clarifying prior knowledge [e.g., the county in which there is no hospital already conducted a study about the need for a hospital]; and, the problem does not offer meaningful outcomes that lead to recommendations that can be generalized for other situations or that could suggest areas for further research [e.g., the challenges of building a new hospital serves as a case study for other communities].
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