The identification of the research problem is the first step in the research process. It is similar to the identification of the destination before a journey. It works as the foundation for the whole research process. In the field of social sciences, a research problem is presented in the form of a question. It helps in narrowing down the issue to something reasonable for conducting a study. Defining a research problem serves three main purposes (Pardede, 2018):
- It presents the importance of the research topic.
- It helps the researcher place the problem in a specific context to properly define the parameters of the investigation.
- It provides a framework that can help in presenting the results in the future.
In absolute terms, a research problem can be defined as a statement regarding the area of concern, a condition that needs to be improved, an unresolved question that exists in the literature, a difficulty that needs to be eliminated or any point that needs some meaningful investigation (Gallupe, 2007).
Descriptive research problems
Descriptive research problems focus on questions like ‘what is ?’, with its main aim to describe the situation, state or the existence of certain specific phenomena. They seek to depict what already exists in a group or population. For such studies, surveys and opinion polls are best suitable because they require systematic observation of social issues.
These problems use two different ways to collect data- cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies. Cross-sectional studies provide a snapshot of data at a certain moment in time. On the other hand, longitudinal studies involve a fixed and stable sample that is measured repeatedly over time. However, in both cases, methods that can be used to collect data include mail, online or offline surveys, and interviews. When a researcher is dealing with a descriptive research problem, there can be no manipulation in the variables and hypotheses as they are usually nondirectional (Hashimi, 2015).
Causal research problems
Causal research problems focus on identifying the extent and nature of cause-and-effect relationships. Such research problems help in assessing the impact of some changes on existing norms and processes. They thus identify patterns of relationships between different elements.
In such cases, experiments are the most popular way of collecting primary data. Here, the hypothesis is usually directional, i.e. explaining how one factor affects the behaviour of another one. Such studies give the researcher the freedom to manipulate the variables as desired. Data for causal research can be collected in two ways:
- laboratory experiments and,
- field experiments.
Laboratory experiments are generally conducted in an artificial environment which allows the researcher to carefully manipulate the variables. On the other hand, field experiments are much more realistic. It is sometimes not possible to control the variables. This makes it difficult for the researcher to predict with confidence what produced a given outcome (Muhammad and Kabir, 2018).
Relational research problem
This research problem states that some sort of relationship between two variables needs to be investigated. The aim is to investigate the qualities or characteristics that are connected in some way.
Thus, this sort of research problem requires more than one variable that describes the relationship between them (Hartanska, 2014).
Summarizing the differences
|Parameters||Descriptive research problem||Casual research problem||Relational research problem|
|Aim/purpose||The aim is to depict what already exists in a group of the population.||To identify the extent and nature of cause and effect relationships.||The aim is to investigate the qualities or characteristics that are connected in some way or the other.|
|Directionality of hypothesis||Non-directional||Directional||Directional|
|Variable manipulation and control||No manipulations in terms of variables and hypotheses.||Can manipulate independent and dependent variables to find the effect.||No manipulation|
|Data collection method||Mail, online or offline surveys and interviews.||Field experiments, laboratory experiments.||Focus groups, surveys, case studies.|
|Research approach||Structured||Highly structured||Structured|
|Example||What are the views of primary teachers on how writing should be taught in a classroom? How do teachers teach writing in the classroom? Both these questions relate to the current state of affairs. To answer the first question there is a need to talk to teachers, ask their views and then describe their views. While in the second question there is a need to observe and then describe. Thus both are descriptive research problems.||What is the impact of advertising campaigns on the voting outcome? In this example, there is a need to test the effect of campaigns on the number of voters.||Do experienced teachers provide more help with corrections during writing than inexperienced teachers? In this example, there is a need to establish a relationship between teachers’ teaching experience and how much help they can provide with corrections while writing.|
How to choose the right research problem type?
While choosing the research problem type one must keep in mind the following points.
- The first step in direction of selecting the right problem type is to identify the concepts and terms that make up the topic. This involves identifying the variables of the study. For example, if there is only one variable then it is a descriptive research problem. If it contains two variables, then it is likely relational or causal research.
- The second step is to review the literature to refine the approach of examining the topic and finding the appropriate ways to analyze it. For example, how much research has already been conducted on this topic? What methods and data did the previous researchers use? What was lacking in their research? What variables were used by them? The answers to these questions will help in framing the best approach to your research.
- The third step is to look for sources that can help broaden, modify and strengthen your initial thoughts. A deeper look into the research will answer critical questions like, is a relational approach better than an investigative one? How will eliminating a few variables affect the outcome of the research?
- Gallupe, R. B. (2007) ‘Research contributions: The tyranny of methodologies in information systems research, ACM SIGMIS Database, 38(3), pp. 46–57.
- Hartanska, J. (2014) ‘THE RESEARCH PROBLEM’, pp. 1–48.
- Hashimi, H. (2015) ‘Types of research questions’, Nursing, 4(3), pp. 23–25.
- Muhammad, S. and Kabir, S. (2018) ‘Problem formulation and objective determination’, (June).
- Pardede, P. (2018) ‘Identifying and Formulating the Research Problem’, Research in ELT, 1(October), pp. 1–13.