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Formulating a Research Problem

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The importance of formulating a research problem
The formulation of a research problem is the first and most important step of the research process. It is like the identification of a destination before undertaking a journey. In the absence of a destination, it is impossible to identify the shortest – or indeed any – route. Similarly, in the absence of a clear research problem, a clear and economical plan is impossible. The research problem serves as the foundation of a research study, if it is well formulated, you can expect a good study to follow.

Initially, you may become confused but this is normal. Remember: confusion is often but a first step towards clarity. Take time over formulating your problem, for the clearer you are about your research problem/question, the easier it will be for you later on. Remember, this is the most crucial step.

Sources of research problems

Most research in the humanities revolves around four Ps:


The emphasis on a particular ‘P’ may vary from study to study but generally, in practice, most research studies are based upon at least a combination of two Ps.

Every research study has two aspects: the people provides you with the ‘study population’, whereas the other 3Ps furnish the subject areas. Your study population – individuals, groups and communities – is the people from whom the information is collected. Your subject area is a problem, programme or phenomenon about which the information is collected

Table 4.1 Aspects of a research problem
Aspects of a studyAboutStudy of Study Population
PeopleIndividuals, organizations,
Groups, communitiesThey provide you with the required information or you collect information from or about them Subject area



PhenomenonIssues, situations, associations, needs, population composition, profiles, etc. Contents, structure, outcomes, attributes, satisfaction, consumers, providers, etc. Cause and effect, relationships, the study of the phenomenon itself, etc.

Information that you need to collect to find
answers to your service
research questions

Considerations in selecting a research problem

1.Interest – Interest should be the most important consideration in selecting a research problem. A research endeavor is usually time consuming and involves hard work and possibly unforeseen problems. If you select a topic which does not greatly interest you, it could become extremely difficult to sustain the required motivation and put enough time and energy to complete it.

2. Magnitude – You should have sufficient knowledge about the research process to be able to visualize the work involved in completing the proposed study. Narrow the topic down to some- thing manageable, specific and clear. It is extremely important to select a topic that you can manage within the time and with the resources at your disposal. Even if you are undertaking a  descriptive study, you need to consider its magnitude carefully.

3. Measurement of concepts – If you are using a concept in your study (in quantitative studies) make sure you are clear about its indicators and their measurement. For example, if you plan to  measure the effectiveness of a health promotion programme, you must be clear as to what  determines effectiveness and how it will be measured. Do not use concepts in your research
problem that you are not sure to measure. This does not mean you cannot develop ameasurement procedure as the study progresses. While most of the developmental work will be done during your study, it is imperative that you are reasonably clear about the  measurement of these concepts at this stage.

4.Level of expertise – Make sure you have an adequate level of expertise for the task you are  proposing. Allow for the fact that you will learn during the study and may receive help from your research supervisor and others, but remember that you need to do most of the work yourself.

5. Relevance – select a topic that is of relevance to you as a professional. Ensure that your study adds to the existing body of knowledge, bridges current gaps or is useful in policy formulation. This will help you to sustain interest in the study.

6.Availability of data – If your topic entails collection of information from secondary sources (office records, client records, census or other already published reports, etc.) make sure that this data is available and in the format you want before finalizing your topic.

7. Ethical issues – In the course of conducting a research study, the study population may be  adversely affected by some of the questions (directly or indirectly); deprived of an intervention; expected to share sensitive and private information or expected to be simply experimental ‘guinea pigs’. How ethical issues can affect the study population and how ethical problems  can be overcome should be thoroughly examined at the problem-formulation stage.

Steps in formulating a research problem

If you do not know what specific research topic, idea, questions or issue you want to research (which is not uncommon among students), first go through the following steps:
1. Identify a broad field or subject area of interest to you. Ask yourself, ‘What is it that really interests me as a professional?’ It is a good idea to think about the field in which you would like to work after graduation. This will help you to find an interesting topic and one which may be of use to you In the future. For example, if you are studying marketing you might be interested in researching consumer behavior. It is imperative that you identify one of interest to you before undertaking your research journey. 2. Dissect the broad area into subareas. At the onset, you will realize that broad areas such as domestic violence, consumer behavior, marketing, etc. have many aspects. For example, there are many aspects and issues in the area of domestic violence as illustrated below in Fig. 4.1. Once you have developed an exhaustive list of the subareas from various sources, you proceed to the next stage where you select what will become the basis of your enquiry.

Subject areaSubareas

Profile of families in which DV occurs
Profile of the victims of DV
Profile of the perpetrators
Domestic ViolenceReasons for DV
(DV)Extent and types of DV
Impact of DV on the family
Impact of DV on the children

Figure 4.1 Dissecting the subject area of domestic violence into subareas

3. Select what is of most interest to you. Just select the issue or area about which you are passionate. This is because your interest should be the most important determinant for selection. You need to choose something that is manageable to you considering the time, your level of expertise and other resources available to you. 4. Raise research questions. At this step ask yourself, ‘What is it that I want to find out about in this subarea?’ Make a list of whatever questions come to your mind relating to your chosen subarea and if you think there are too many, go through with the process of elimination. 5. Formulate objectives. Both your main objectives and subobjectives need to be formulated which grow out of your research questions. The main difference between objectives and research questions Is the way in which they are written. Research questions are obviously that – questions. Objectives transform these questions into behavioral aims by using action-oriented words such as ‘to find out, to determine, to examine’. 6. Assess your objectives. Now examine your objectives to ascertain the feasibility of achieving them through your research endeavor. Consider them in the light of the time, resources and technical expertise at your disposal. 7. Double check. Go back and give final consideration on whether or not you are sufficiently interested in the study and your resources are adequate. Ask yourself, ‘Am I really enthusiastic about this study? Do I really have enough resources to undertake it?’ If not, try to reassess your objectives.

The formulation of research objectives

Objectives are the goals you set out to attain in your study. Since these objectives inform a reader on what you want to achieve in your study, it is extremely important to word them clearly and specifically. Objectives are classified into two:

•Main objectives

The main objective is an overall statement of the thrust of your study. It is also a statement ofthemain associations and relationships that you seek to discover or establish. The subobjectives are the specific aspects of the topic that you want to investigate within the main framework of your study.

The study population

In every study in social science, there is a study population from whom the required information to find answers to your research questions is obtained. As you narrow the research problem, similarly you need to decide specifically and clearly who constitutes your study population in order to select the appropriate respondents. Suppose you decided to study the needs of young people living in a community. In terms of the study population, one of the first questions you need to answer is: ‘Who do I consider a young person?’ Is it those between under 15, those between 15 and 18 or what? Establishing operational definitions

In defining your problem or in the course of your study, you may use certain words or items that are difficult to measure and/or the understanding of which may vary from respondent to respondent. In a research study it is important to define or establish clearly the meaning of the words or items. These definitions are called working definitions or operational definitions. Your working definitions will inform your readers what exactly do you mean by the concepts you have used in your study.

Table 4.2. Operationalisation of concepts and study populations

Concept to be studied Population to be studied
Concepts IssuesStudy populations Issues 1Poverty lineWhat constitutes poverty line?ChildrenWho would you consider a child?

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