How to define your research problem

A research problem is a specific issue, difficulty, contradiction, or gap in knowledge that you will aim to address in your research. You might look for practical problems aimed at contributing to change, or theoretical problems aimed at expanding knowledge.

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

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

Why is the research problem important?

Your topic is interesting and you have lots to say about it, but this isn’t a strong enough basis for academic research. Without a well-defined research problem, you are likely to end up with an unfocused and unmanageable project.

You might 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 in order to do research that contributes new and relevant insights.

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

Step 1: Identify a broad problem area

As you discuss and read about your topic, look for under-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 are doing practical 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 might look for:

  • Issues with performance or efficiency in an organization
  • Processes that could be improved in an institution
  • Areas of concern among practitioners in a field
  • Difficulties faced by specific groups of people in society

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

Theoretical research problems

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

  • A phenomenon or context that has not been closely studied
  • A contradiction between two or more perspectives
  • A situation or relationship that is not well understood
  • A troubling question that has yet to be resolved

Theoretical problems often have practical consequences, but they are not focused on solving an immediate issue in a specific place (though you might take a case study approach to the research).

Step 2: Learn more about the problem

Next, you have to find out what is already known about the problem, and pinpoint the exact aspect that your research will address.

Context and background

  • Who does the problem affect?
  • Has it been an issue for a long time, or is it a newly discovered problem?
  • What research has already been done?
  • Have any solutions been proposed?
  • What are the current debates about the problem, and what do you think is missing from them?

Specificity and relevance

  • What particular place, time and/or people will you focus on?
  • What aspects will you not be able to tackle?
  • What will be the consequences if the problem is not resolved?
  • Whose will benefit from resolving the problem (e.g. the management of an organization or future researchers)?

When you have narrowed down your problem, the next step is to formulate a problem statement and research questions or hypotheses.

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