A research problem is a specific issue, a difficulty, a contradiction or a gap in knowledge that is intended to be addressed in research. You can look for practical problems to contribute to change or theoretical problems to expand knowledge.

Keep in mind that some research will do both, but usually the research problem focuses on one or the other. The type of research problem you choose depends on your topic of general interest and the type of research you want to do.

This article helps you identify and refine a research problem. When you write your research proposal or introduction, you will have to formulate it as a problem approach and/or research questions.

Why is the research problem important?

Your topic is interesting and you have a lot to say about it, but this is not a solid enough basis for academic research. Without a well-defined research problem, you’ll most likely end up with an unfocused and inexhaustible project.

You may end up repeating what other people have already said, trying to say too much, or doing research without a clear purpose and justification. You need a problem to do research that brings new and relevant ideas.

Whether you’re planning your thesis, starting a research paper or writing a research proposal, the research problem is the first step in knowing exactly what you’re going to do and why.

Types and content

According to Babbie (2007), 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 good and evil in matters of conduct or conscience through the analysis of moral dilemmas through the application of general rules and the careful distinction of special cases.

Difference investigation problem

It often raises the question, “Is there a difference between two or more groups or treatments?” This type of problem approach is used when the researcher compares or contrasts two or more phenomena.

Descriptive research problem

It often raises the question “what is…?” for the underlying purpose of describing a situation, state, or existence of a specific phenomenon.

Relational research problem

It suggests a relationship of some kind between two or more variables to be investigated. The underlying purpose is to investigate qualities/characteristics that are connected in some way.

What should the approach to the problem contain?

A problem approach in the sciences, according to Todd (1999), should contain:

An introduction that helps ensure that the reader will maintain interest throughout the study

A statement of originality [e.g., mention of a knowledge gap, which would be supported by literature review].

An indication of the central focus of the study, and

An explanation of the importance of the study or the benefits that will be derived from investigating the problem.

Sources of problems for research

Identifying a problem to study can be a challenge, not because there is a lack of topics that can be investigated, but because of the goal of formulating a socially relevant and researchable problem approach that is unique and does not simply duplicate the work of others. To make it easier to select a problem from which to build a research study, consider these three broad sources of inspiration:

Deductions from the theory

These are deductions made from social philosophy or generalizations embodied in life in society with which the researcher is familiar. These deductions from human behavior are then embedded in an empirical frame of reference through research. From a theory, research can formulate a research problem or a hypothesis that indicates the expected results in certain empirical situations. The research asks the following question “What relationship between the variables will be observed if the theory adequately summarizes the state of affairs?”. Systematic research can then be designed and conducted to assess whether the empirical data confirm or reject the hypothesis and therefore the theory.

Interdisciplinary perspectives

The identification of a problem that constitutes the basis of a research study can come from academic movements and scholarships originated in disciplines outside its main area of study. A review of the relevant literature should include examining research into related disciplines, which may expose you to new avenues of exploration and analysis. An interdisciplinary approach to selecting a research problem offers the opportunity to build a more comprehensive understanding of a very complex issue than a single discipline could provide.

Interviewing professionals

The identification of research problems on certain topics can arise from formal or informal conversations with practitioners, which provide insight into the new directions of future research and how to make research results increasingly relevant to practice. Discussions with subject matter experts, such as teachers, social workers, health care providers, etc., offer the opportunity to identify practical “real world” problems that may be little studied or ignored in academic circles. This approach also provides some practical knowledge that can help in the process of designing and conducting your study.

Personal experience

Their everyday experiences can give rise to problems worthy of investigation. Think critically about your own experiences and/or frustrations with a problem in society, your community, or your neighborhood. This may result, for example, from the deliberate observation of certain relationships for which there is no clear explanation or from witnessing an event that appears harmful to a person or group or that is out of the ordinary.

Relevant literature

The selection of a research problem can often result from an extensive and thorough review of the relevant research associated with its area of general interest. This can reveal where there are gaps in our understanding of a topic. Research can be carried out to

1) fill those knowledge gaps.

2) assess whether the methodologies used in previous studies can be adapted to solve other problems.

3) determine whether a similar study could be conducted in a different subject area or applied to a different study sample [i.e. to different groups of people].

In addition, authors often conclude their studies by pointing out the implications for future research; this can also be a valuable source of problems to investigate.

Steps to establish a research problem

Denscombe (2007), proposes the following steps to establish a research problem:

Step 1: Identify a wide problem area

When debating and reading about your topic, look for little-explored aspects and areas of concern, conflict or controversy. Your goal is to find a gap that your research project can fill.

Practical research problems

If you’re conducting hands-on research, you can identify a problem by reading reports, following up on previous research, and talking to people who work in the relevant field or organization. You could look for:

Performance or efficiency issues in an organization

Processes that could be improved in an institution

Areas of concern among professionals in a field

Difficulties faced by certain groups of people in society

If your research is related to a job or internship, you will have to find a research problem that has practical relevance to the organization.

Examples of practical research problems

Voter turnout in region X has declined, in contrast to the rest of the country.

Department A of company B has a high turnover rate, which affects productivity and team cohesion.

The non-profit organization Y is facing a funding gap that forces it to cut some of its programs.

Problems of theoretical research

Theoretical research focuses on expanding knowledge and understanding rather than contributing directly to change. You can identify a research problem by reading recent research, theories, and debates on your topic to find a gap in what is currently known about it. You could look for:

Phenomenons or context that has not been studied in depth

Contradictions between two or more perspectives

Situations or relationship that is not well understood

Disturbing issues that has not yet been resolved

Theoretical problems usually have practical consequences, but do not focus on solving an immediate problem in a particular place (although it could take a case study approach to research).

Examples of theoretical research problems

The long-term effects of vitamin D deficiency on cardiovascular health are not well understood.

The relationship between gender, race and income inequality has not yet been studied carefully in the context of the millennial gigas economy.

Historians of Scottish nationalism disagree on the role of the British Empire in developing Scotland’s national identity.

Step 2: Better understand the problem

Next, you need to find out what you already know about the problem and point out the exact aspect that your investigation will address.

Context and background

Who is affected by the problem?

Is this a long-standing problem or is it a newfound problem?

What research has already been done?

Have solutions been proposed?

What are the current debates on the problem and what do you think is missing from them?

Specificity and relevance

Where, time and/or specific people are you going to focus?

What aspects will it not be able to address?

What will be the consequences if the problem is not resolved?

Who will benefit from solving the problem (e.g. the management of an organization or future researchers)?

Example of specific research problem

The non-profit organization X has focused on retaining its current support base, but does not know how best to target potential new donors. In order to continue its work, the organization needs to investigate more effective fundraising strategies.

Once the problem is narrowed down, the next step is to formulate the problem statement and the research questions or hypotheses.

Mistakes to avoid

Beware of circular reasoning. Do not claim that the research problem is simply the absence of what you propose. For example, if you propose, “The problem with this community is that it has no hospital.”

This only leads to a research problem in which:

The need is for a hospital or the goal is to create a hospital

The method is to plan the construction of a hospital, and

Evaluation is to measure whether or not there is a hospital.

This is an example of a research problem that fails the “what?” test because it does not reveal the relevance of why the problem of not having a hospital in the community is being investigated [for example, there is a hospital in the community ten miles away] and because the research problem does not elucidate the importance of why the fact that there is no hospital should be studied in the community [for example, that hospital in the community ten miles away has no emergency room].

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Bibliographic References

Babbie, E. R. 2007. The basics of social research (4th ed.). Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Denscombe, Martyn. 2007. The good research guide for small-scale social research projects. 3rd ed. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Todd, Roy. 1999. Review of The good research guide for small-scale social research projects, by Martyn Denscombe. Sociology -The Journal of the British Sociologica

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