Problem Identification and Formulation

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?


A research problem, in general, refers to some difficulty which a researcher experiences in the context of either a theoretical or practical situation and wants to obtain a solution for the same.Usually we say that a research problem does exist if the following conditions are met with:

  1. There must be an individual (or a group or an organization).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 

 We can, thus, state the components1 of a research problem as under:

  1. There must be an individual or a group which has some difficulty or the problem.
  2. There must be some objective(s) to be attained at. If one wants nothing, one cannot have a problem.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


The research problem undertaken for study must be carefully selected. The task is a difficult one,
although it may not appear to be so.

A problem must spring from the researcher’s mind like a plant springing from its own seed.

If our eyes need glasses, it is not the optician alone who decides about the number of the lens we require. We have to see ourselves and enable him to prescribe for us the right number by cooperating with him. Thus, a research guide can at the most only help a researcher choose a subject. However, the following points may be observed by a researcher in selecting a research problem or a subject for research:

  1. Subject which is overdone should not be normally chosen, for it will be a difficult task to throw any new light in such a case.
  2. Controversial subject should not become the choice of an average researcher.
  3. Too narrow or too vague problems should be avoided.
  4. The subject selected for research should be familiar and feasible so that the related research material or sources of research are within one’s reach.
  5. The importance of the subject, the qualifications and the training of a researcher, the costs involved, the time factor are few other criteria that must also be considered in selecting a problem.
  6. The selection of a problem must be preceded by a preliminary study. This may not be necessary when the problem requires the conduct of a research closely similar to one that has already been done. But when the field of inquiry is relatively new and does not have available a set of well developed techniques, a brief feasibility study must always be undertaken.


Quite often we all hear that a problem clearly stated is a problem half solved. This statement signifies the need for defining a research problem. The problem to be investigated must be defined unambiguously for that will help to discriminate relevant data from the irrelevant ones. A proper definition of research problem will enable the researcher to be on the track whereas an ill-defined problem may create hurdles.


Defining a research problem properly and clearly is a crucial part of a research study and must in no case be accomplished hurriedly. However, in practice this a frequently overlooked which causes a lot of problems later on. Hence, the research problem should be defined in a systematic manner, giving due weight age to all relating points. The technique for the purpose involves the undertaking of

the following steps generally one after the other: 

(i) statement of the problem in a general way; 

(ii) understanding the nature of the problem; 

(iii) surveying the available literature 

(iv) developing the ideas through discussions; and 

(v) rephrasing the research problem into a working proposition.


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