Any kind of paper requires a problem statement; its mission so to speak. In this short guide, I explain how you can spot a relevant problem and write a sharp statement.
Why the problem statement is important
The problem statement is where you introduce the reader to why your particular study is necessary and important. It’s not the same as a research question, but a definition of a very specific problem and a proposal as to how it can be researched. Research questions guide your study, but their sole purpose is to help you reach knowledge about the problem you presented and propose novel ways on how to handle it.
Traditionally, the problem statement includes a hypothesis – your undocumented proposition as to why the issue exists. So, your study is essentially trying to affirm an idea or perception you have about a given problem in the world – and since the point is to provide answers and solutions, it doesn’t matter if your hypothesis turns out to be wrong.
Start by looking at the world you live in, especially the parts that interest you the most. When you have identified an issue you think is important, you will need to thoroughly investigate the body of research and their approaches. If your problem has been researched before, then a new study cannot be justified unless you bring something new and really important to the table. Remember, there is a fine line between being inspired by and copying others’ work – inspiration is important as long as you reference and give credit to the authors, but copying is essentially stealing and will automatically fail your paper and get you a plagiarism case.
You must know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and be aware of related published research.
Start by asking these three questions:
- What is the overriding problem?
- Where is the problem found?
- What needs to be done to solve the problem?
Identifying a problem
So, what does a problem look like? Sadly, they can be hard to spot. Sometimes the most intriguing issues are right under our noses, sometimes they are just plainly weird, and other times they are so mundane that they are not worth the effort. So how do you tell them apart?
There are no easy answers here, but start by looking for inequities in society and take advantage of your astonishment in something you noticed:
- Access to services, media, or technology
- Discrimination (e.g. gender, age)
- Gaps in social status or class
Remember that society encompasses both macro and micro contexts. Your problem might concern consumers, public institutions or private businesses, whole sectors or markets. It can be social groups, discourses or belief systems. In the end, it depends on what you are focusing on. E.g. a specific consumer segment or business might have problems accessing a type of technology, media, or market. You can find billions of things with variance in society, so curiosity is just not enough. Try to be precise on what the inequity itself causes.
Formulating a statement
There is a lot of confusion here. Conventions and practices vary with cultural contexts. In most English speaking countries, the problem statement is usually between 150 and 200 words (1-2 paragraphs). In Denmark, the problem statement (problemformulering) is by convention more an extended research question and does not include a statement (hypothesis) – usually 1-3 sentences. Be sure to ask your supervisor for particular expectations.
However, most elements are usually the same, just not always presented in the same manner. You can use the following template:
- Society, or one of its institutions, has some pressing problem that needs closer attention.
- You provide evidence that this problem is serious and in need of further study.
- You argue how the problem can be solved with a specific approach.
- You argue how your study can help narrow a particular research gap
Funneling your way through
Creating a coherent, clear and relevant problem statement is an iterative process – it will take many rewrites before you get it right. When you think you’re done, read your problem statement again and check if it adequately answers the following questions:
- What is the overriding problem?
- What is the identifiable sample that is affected?
- Will this study mainly be qualitative, quantitative, or theoretic?
- Which methodology will be used?
- What kind of methods will you apply?
- What type of empirical materials will be collected?
- What possible outcomes are expected?
If you fall short in any of these questions, you will need to address them and rewrite the statement. Remember, your reader must not have any doubt as to what the mission of your paper is.
A last, but very important part (that many forget), is to ask others to read your problem statement. At this stage you must have read the same thing more than 200 times and be sick of hearing your own voice. You have most likely become accustomed to your own internal logic and are therefore completely incapable of evaluating whether it makes sense to others or not. Criticism is your best friend here, so always have someone else give you feedback; even if it stings!
Remember, the problem statement is the foundation of your paper. If you fail to write a good one, you may lose your focus early on.
Good luck finding your problem statement!