Defining the Research Problem
In research process, the first and foremost step happens to be that of selecting and properly defining a research problem.* A researcher must find the problem and formulate it so that it becomes susceptible to research. Like a medical doctor, a researcher must examine all the symptoms (presented to him or observed by him) concerning a problem before he can diagnose correctly. To define a problem correctly, a researcher must know: what a problem is?
WHAT IS A RESEARCH PROBLEM?
A research problem is the situation that causes the researcher to feel apprehensive, confused and ill at ease. It is the demarcation of a problem area within a certain context involving the WHO or WHAT, the WHERE, the WHEN and the WHY of the problem situation.
There are many problem situations that may give rise to research. Three sources usually contribute to problem identification. Own experience or the experience of others may be a source of problem supply. A second source could be scientific literature. You may read about certain findings and notice that a certain field was not covered. This could lead to a research problem. Theories could be a third source. Shortcomings in theories could be researched. Research can thus be aimed at clarifying or substantiating an existing theory, at clarifying contradictory findings, at correcting a faulty methodology, at correcting the inadequate or unsuitable use of statistical techniques, at reconciling conflicting opinions, or at solving existing practical problems. Usually we say that a research problem does exist if the following conditions are met with:
- There must be an individual (or a group or an organisation), let us call it ‘I,’ to whom the problem can be attributed. The individual or the organisation, as the case may be, occupies an environment, say ‘N’, which is defined by values of the uncontrolled variables, Yj.
- There must be at least two courses of action, say C1 and C2, to be pursued. A course of action is defined by one or more values of the controlled variables. For example, the number of items purchased at a specified time is said to be one course of action.
- There must be at least two possible outcomes, say O1 and O2, of the course of action, of which one should be preferable to the other. In other words, this means that there must be at least one outcome that the researcher wants, i.e., an objective.
- The courses of action available must provides some chance of obtaining the objective, but they cannot provide the same chance, otherwise the choice would not matter. Thus, if P (Oj | I, Cj, N) represents the probability that an outcome Oj will occur, if I select Cj in N, then PbO1| I , C1, Ng ¹ PbO1| I , C2 , Ng . In simple words, we can say that the choices must have unequal efficiencies for the desired outcomes.
Over and above these conditions, the individual or the organisation can be said to have the problem only if ‘I’ does not know what course of action is best, i.e., ‘I’, must be in doubt about the solution. Thus, an individual or a group of persons can be said to have a problem which can be technically described as a research problem, if they (individual or the group), having one or more desired outcomes, are confronted with two or more courses of action that have some but not equal efficiency for the desired objective(s) and are in doubt about which course of action is best. We can, thus, state the components of a research problem as under:
- There must be an individual or a group which has some difficulty or the problem.
- There must be some objective(s) to be attained at. If one wants nothing, one cannot have a problem.
- There must be alternative means (or the courses of action) for obtaining the objective(s) one wishes to attain. This means that there must be at least two means available to a researcher for if he has no choice of means, he cannot have a problem.
- There must remain some doubt in the mind of a researcher with regard to the selection of alternatives. This means that research must answer the question concerning the relative efficiency of the possible alternatives.
- There must be some environment(s) to which the difficulty pertains.
Thus, a research problem is one which requires a researcher to find out the best solution for the given problem, i.e., to find out by which course of action the objective can be attained optimally in the context of a given environment. There are several factors which may result in making the problem complicated. For instance, the environment may change affecting the efficiencies of the courses of action or the values of the outcomes; the number of alternative courses of action may be very large; persons not involved in making the decision may be affected by it and react to it favourably or unfavourably, and similar other factors. All such elements (or at least the important ones) may be thought of in context of a research problem.