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What is the difference between a problem statement and a purpose statement in social sciences research?

There is a distinction between problem and purpose statements in social science research projects. A problem statement describes a situation of concern to the student or scholar. The purpose statement follows logically from the problem statement by describing the student or scholar’s intention of researching the problem so as to be able to propose a solution. The purpose statement includes a description of the methodology to be employed and the parameters within which the research will be conducted.

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A “purpose statement” follows logically from a “problem statement.” Without the former, the latter would serve little or no purpose in the context of an academic exercise intended to display a student or scholar’s skills. After all, it is relatively simple to state a problem; the difficulty lies in determining what shall be done to answer the question or solve the problem. The purpose statement, then, is the student/scholar’s declaration of intent: “I have described a problem. Here is what I intend to propose as an explanation and a solution to the problem.” Both parts of the equation—problem and purpose—have to be refined, usually with the assistance or guidance of one’s academic mentor, so that the project in question falls within certain parameters. In other words, the problem specified must be one the solution to which can reasonably be accommodated within the time and spatial limits established for the completion of the project. The problem cannot be of such magnitude that it would be unrealistic for the student or scholar to contemplate its resolution, and the research that follows must similarly involve that which can be conducted, and the product written, within the constraints inherent in most academic exercises. In short, the project must be realistic.

So, the problem statement precedes the purpose statement. The problem statement, or subject matter, obviously falls within the student or scholar’s field of study. The student’s question specifies “social sciences” as the academic realm, so we can presume the academic field is one like political science or anthropology or economics or sociology. The problem statement, therefore, would reflect an issue of interest or concern, such as why people go to war or why inflationary pressures increase in accordance with the volume of money injected into an economy by its central bank. The problem statement would also include specification of one or more consequence of the problem, such as war or inflation, and it may include a brief description of the ideal situation. A problem statement is not a hypothesis, the latter being a statement of belief to be tested, which is distinct from description of a problem the answer to which is the purpose of the exercise.

Once the problem statement—which should be summarized in one or two sentences—is complete, then the purpose statement is drafted. The purpose statement is the crux of the project. It is the student or scholar’s declaration of intent, a description of the means to be employed in determining a resolution to the problem outlined in the problem statement. The purpose statement should include a discussion of the methodology to be employed and the parameters within which research will be conducted. A purpose statement is also not a thesis statement; it does not state an anticipated conclusion. It merely describes the methods that will be used in arriving at a conclusion. The two, however, often occur within the introductory section of the paper being produced. Whereas a problem statement is a brief, one or two description of a problem to be addressed, the purpose statement can be a paragraph in length. Whereas the problem statement should suggest a problem the scale of which can reasonably be discussed within the parameters of the exercise, the purpose statement should specify those parameters so that the reader can be assured that the research phase, the bulk of the time commitment in most cases, constitutes a viable project.

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In all types of research the investigator has to be very clear as far as what is at stake, what is being investigated, and what is the reason for the investigation. Moreover, you also need to specify to what point your investigation will have any significance once it is completed. All of these factors are important to prove for a research or investigation to get funding, resources and time granted.

When you state the PROBLEM you are basically saying WHAT is the person, place, thing, or idea (theory) that you will be studying, or testing. You have to define the problem stating a rationale for choosing it. The relevance of this problem is also important to know. For instance, if you are a chemistry major looking to become approved for a research, the problem that you choose should be relevant and related to your field of study, not to another field, such as cooking, or arts.

When you state the PURPOSE of an investigation you are going to answer three specific questions: WHY? HOW? WHEN?

You will use action words and active tense to voice your purpose. For example, you are going to "determine", or "disprove", "describe", "contrast" the problem that you described before. This is the place where you say what exactly you plan to do about the problem.

It is important to do all of this prior to naming your investigation. A common mistake that research students do is title their work and then end up doing something other than what they said that they will do. This is because the purpose is not yet well-identified.

In the purpose part you should also add the methodology that you will employ to conduct the research: surveys, phenomenology, and pre/post testing are examples of these methods.

When you do all of this you will be prompted to talk about how your project is significant. This section is separate from the problem and purpose, but its goal is to determine how your project actually gears toward making a difference in the problem that you defined. Moreover, it also will help you as a researcher put the problem in a context and decide whether it is worth your time to research that problem, or if another problem is more important for you and your field.

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Typically, a purpose statement comes out of a problem statement.  The problem statement lays out the problem and the purpose statement outlines what you as a researcher intend to do to study the problem.

Let's say that you are a social scientist and you want to study the negative campaign ads in elections.  Your problem statement might talk about how many campaign ads are negative.  It might talk about how anecdotal evidence suggests that such campaign ads make people disillusioned about politics.  You would then set out the purpose of your research.  You might say that you propose to study the actual effects of negative campaign ads on people's attitudes towards the political process.  You would then need to lay out the steps that you will take to measure those attitudes and the impact of the negative campaign ads.


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