Steps in formulating a research problem

The formulation of a research problem is the most crucial part of the research journey as the quality and relevance of your research project entirely depends upon it. As mentioned earlier, every step that constitutes the how part of the research journey (Figure 2.1) depends upon the way you formulated your research problem. Despite the importance of this step, there is very little available by way of specific guidance in other books. This task is largely left either to the teachers of research methodology or to students to learn for themselves. One of the strengths of this book is that it offers a beginner a very specific set of step-by-step guidelines in one place despite the fear of being labelled as prescriptive.

The process of formulating a research problem consists of a number of steps. Working through these steps presupposes a reasonable level of knowledge in the broad subject area within which the study is to be undertaken and the research methodology itself. A brief review of the relevant literature helps enormously in broadening this knowledge base. Without such knowledge it is difficult to ‘dissect’ a subject area clearly and adequately.

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:

Step 1: Identify a broad field or subject area of interest to you. Ask yourself, What is it that really interests me as a professional?’ In the author’s opinion, 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 a social work student, inclined to work in the area of youth welfare, refugees or domestic violence after graduation, you might take to research in one of these areas. Or if you are studying marketing you might be interested in researching consumer behaviour. Or, as a student of public health, intending to work with patients who have HIV/AIDS, you might like to conduct research on a subject area relating to HIV/AIDS. As far as the research journey goes, these are the broad research areas. It is imperative that you identify one of interest to you before undertaking your research journey.

Step 2: Dissect the broad area into subareas. At the onset, you will realise that all the broad areas mentioned above – youth welfare, refugees, domestic violence, consumer behav­iour and HIV/AIDS – have many aspects. For example, there are many aspects and issues in the area of domestic violence, illustrated in Figure 4.1.

Similarly, you can select any subject area from other fields such as community health or consumer research and go through this dissection process. In preparing this list of subareas you should also consult others who have some knowledge of the area and the literature in your subject area. 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.

Step 3: Select what is of most interest to you. It is neither advisable nor feasible to study all subareas. Out of this list, select issues or subareas about which you are passionate. This is because your interest should be the most important determinant for selection, even though there are other considerations which have been discussed in the previous sec­tion, ‘Considerations in selecting a research problem’. One way to decide what interests you most is to start with the process of elimination. Go through your list and delete all those subareas in which you are not very interested. You will find that towards the end of this process, it will become very difficult for you to delete anything further. You need to continue until you are left with something that is manageable considering the time available to you, your level of expertise and other resources needed to undertake the study. Once you are confident that you have selected an issue you are passionate about and can manage, you are ready to go to the next step.

Step 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 to be manageable, go through the process of elimination, as you did in Step 3.

Step 5: Formulate objectives. Both your main objectives and your subobjectives now 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 behav­ioural aims by using action-oriented words such as ‘to find out’, ‘to determine’, ‘to ascertain’ and ‘to examine’. Some researchers prefer to reverse the process; that is, they start from objectives and formulate research questions from them. Some research­ers are satisfied only with research questions, and do not formulate objectives at all. If you prefer to have only research questions or only objectives, this is fine, but keep in mind the requirements of your institution for research proposals. For guidance on formu­lating objectives, see the later section.

Step 6: Assess your objectives. Now examine your objectives to ascertain the feasibility of achieving them through your research endeavour. Consider them in the light of the time, resources (financial and human) and technical expertise at your disposal.

Step 7: Double-check. Go back and give final consideration to whether or not you are suffi­ciently interested in the study, and have adequate resources to undertake it. Ask your­self, ‘Am i really enthusiastic about this study?’ and ‘Do i really have enough resources to undertake it?’ Answer these questions thoughtfully and realistically. if your answer to one of them is ‘no’, reassess your objectives.

Figures 4.2 to 4.4 operationalise Steps 1—7 with examples from different academic disciplines (health, social work/social sciences and community development).

Source: Kumar Ranjit (2012), Research methodology: a step-by-step guide for beginners, SAGE Publications Ltd; Third edition.

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