Block 2
Objective 2: 
Properly stating a research problem

Introduction Identifying the research problem is the first major step when conducting research. Identification of an appropriate problem to research and analyze is not an easy task. In this section, we give you advice to help you complete this important step.

Problem Statement and Clarity

After you decide on a research topic you must clearly state the problem you want to investigate. All research begins with a problem statement. A problem statement is a question you want to answer. For example, your topic may be voting in western democratic nations. The problem you want to answer may be "Why is the voting turnout higher in some western democracies than in other western democracies?"

A preliminary step in your research effort is to clearly state the problem so you can take the appropriate steps to answer the question it poses. State the problem in a complete grammatical sentence, and state it so well that anyone, anywhere, can read, understand, and react to it without benefit of your presence. In addition, state your research problem so that the purpose of your research is clear.

What to Avoid When Writing Your Problem Statement

Do not write your problem statement as a meaningless half-statement. Consider the following statements, for example: "Welfare and mass transit systems" and "A voting turnout study." As stated, these are topics, not research problem statements.

These statements give the reader very little to go on. They also provoke questions of their own. What is the purpose of each study? Where will the studies be conducted? Who are the participants? Following are some possible ways to translate these statements, or topics, into meaningful problem statements:

  • The purpose of this study is to determine the effect that welfare recipients in Houston's Third Ward have on Houston's mass transit system and identify ways to alleviate observed problems.

  • The purpose of this research is to analyze and compare the electoral systems of western democracies in order to identify reasons for differences in voting turnout and ways to enhance overall turnout.

Generally, questions you can answer with a simple yes or no are not appropriate research problems. Research problems must delve deeply into the subject. You must concern yourself with the qualitative differences that distinguish one situation from another. As a result, simple studies about a particular individual, company, or event are not research because data analysis and interpretation to identify situational differences are not part of the process. Thus, comparison is an important characteristic of research problems.

Some students make the mistake of expressing their opinion when writing a problem statement. As a result, instead of expressing a research problem per se, they express an opinion that they want to defend or prove. For example, "The Republican Party is better than the Democratic Party." A possible way to reword this statement so that it meets the requirements of a problem statement is "The purpose of this study is to identify differences between the Republican and Democratic parties in order to identify reasons why Republicans have dominated the executive branch since 1968."

Here are some final comments about problem statements.

  • Make sure your problem is limited.

  • Do not attempt to research too much.

  • Limit your study to a manageable geographical area with a limited population.

  • Remember to consider your time and resource allocations.