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3.2 Formulating the research problem

Once the general topic or problem has been identified, this should then be stated as a clear research problem, that is, taken from just a statement about a problematic situation to a clearly defined researchable problem that identifies the issues you are trying to address.

It is not always easy to formulate the research problem simply and clearly. In some areas of scientific research the investigator might spend years exploring, thinking, and researching before they are clear about what research questions they are seeking to answer. Many topics may prove too wide-ranging to provide a researchable problem. Choosing to study, for instance a social issue such as child poverty, does not in itself provide a researchable problem. The problem is too wide-ranging for one researcher to address. Time and resources would make this unfeasible and the results from such a study would consequently lack depth and focus.

Statement of research problem

An adequate statement of the research problem is one of the most important parts of the research. Different researchers are likely to generate a variety of researchable problems from the same situation since there are many research issues that can arise out of a general problem situation. Your research will be able to pursue only one in depth.

For a problem statement to be effective in the planning of applied research it should have the following characteristics (Andrew and Hildebrand 1982).

  1. The problem reflects felt needs
  2. The problem is non-hypothetical, ie it must be based on factual evidence
  3. It should suggest meaningful and testable hypotheses - to avoid answers that are of little or no use to the alleviation of the problem
  4. The problems should be relevant and manageable

Formulating the research problem allows you to make clear, both to yourself and the reader, what the purpose of your research is. Subsequent elaboration of method should be oriented to providing information to address that problem. The problem statement is therefore a very important device for keeping you on track with your research. It is also one means by which your research will be evaluated - does the research address the problem as stated.