The Research Question

The research problem provides context for the study
and reveals what the researcher is trying to answer

Research question mark button A Practical Problem

Suppose you're walking along a street one day when a practical problem confronts you. A quick solution to the problem doesn't come to mind. Your search for a solution to the problem motivates you to look further into the topic in hopes of resolving the problem.

You may not have thought of it this way before, but research usually grows out of a practical problem facing someone in the real world.

To solve your practical problem, you first have to think up a relevant research problem about the topic and then solve that research problem. Learning the answer to the research problem will let you understand how to resolve the practical problem.

Practical vs. Research Problem

Someone once put it this round-robin way:

Thinking about a practical problem motivates a research question which defines a research problem which finds a research answer which helps to solve the practical problem.

At first glance, you may think that the difference between a practical problem and a research problem is like splitting a hair. However, the difference is crucial.

A practical problem happens in the real world. It costs you something in time, money, happiness, etc. You'll solve that problem by doing something to change something out there in the real world.

A research problem, on the other hand, starts in your mind when you don't understand something.

Propose a Research Problem

To solve that real-world problem, you first must propose and solve a research problem. Of course, we're not always aware we are posing and resolving a research problem when we solve a practical problem.

Here's an example:
Suppose you're a politician running for re-election. A right-to-life organization is pressuring you to oppose abortion. You ask yourself, "Will I lose if I don't?" You take a poll. You discover, "My constituents support abortion rights." Now, decide whether to reject the right-to-life organization's request.
Before anyone can resolve a practical problem, a research problem has to be posed. Of course, solving the research problem doesn't automatically solve the practical problem.

You don't change anything in the real world when you solve a research problem. Rather, solving the research problem allows you to learn more about something or come to understand something better.

The knowledge gained from solving the research problem is applied toward finding the solution to the practical problem.

Here's another example:
We would like to solve the practical problem of the AIDS epidemic. Medical researchers first must solve a research question about how the virus' mechanisms work. But, even with that problem resolved someday, governments will have to apply that knowledge in solving the practical problem in society.
Good vs. Bad Problems

The word problem often is taken to mean something bad. Actually, a researcher needs a good research problem to work on.

Also, it's easy to confuse a problem with a topic. A topic is something to read up on while a problem is something to solve. On the one hand, when we read up on a topic we just pile up more and more information or data. On the other hand, the search for a solution to a research problem lets you focus your work and bring it to an appropriate end.

You can become frustrated while writing a report about a topic. You'll have too much information and no focus. You won't know what to include and what to leave out. By contrast, a well-defined research problem will let you focus on an appropriate piece of the broad topic.

Pure vs. Applied Research

Academic writers often don't say straight out how their research work will improve the real world. Rather, they show how not understanding one small thing prevents us from understanding a piece of something bigger. In other words, they don't make clear how the solution to a research problem has an application to a practical problem. When stating a research problem, you list the topic, the question and the rationale. The consequences you list in the rationale statement reveal whether you are doing pure research or applied research. Clarifying the Problem

Would you believe most researchers begin their work not completely certain of what their problems are? Often, just clarifying a problem is a major result in itself. In fact, some very good research papers do nothing more than pose an important new problem in search of a solution.

How can you bring your problem into focus?
Write It Up!

You should share your new knowledge and understanding with others. To do that, first put yourself in the shoes of your readers. Think about what they consider interesting questions about problems.

When describing your research results, name your topic, state your indirect question which defines the condition of your problem, and show how the information you are delivering will help your readers understand something important to them.

Academic research may seem disconnected from the real world, but it's not. Research problems in the real world are structured exactly as they are in the academic world.

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Further readings about research questions and methods
This list is brief and not exhaustive. There are many other excellent resources.

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© 2011 Dr. Anthony Curtis, Mass Communication Dept., University of North Carolina at Pembroke    e-mail    home page