Chapter 3: Developing a Research Question

3.4 Hypotheses

When researchers do not have predictions about what they will find, they conduct research to answer a question or questions with an open-minded desire to know about a topic, or to help develop hypotheses for later testing. In other situations, the purpose of research is to test a specific hypothesis or hypotheses. A hypothesis is a statement, sometimes but not always causal, describing a researcher’s expectations regarding anticipated finding. Often hypotheses are written to describe the expected relationship between two variables (though this is not a requirement). To develop a hypothesis, one needs to understand the differences between independent and dependent variables and between units of observation and units of analysis. Hypotheses are typically drawn from theories and usually describe how an independent variable is expected to affect some dependent variable or variables. Researchers following a deductive approach to their research will hypothesize about what they expect to find based on the theory or theories that frame their study. If the theory accurately reflects the phenomenon it is designed to explain, then the researcher’s hypotheses about what would be observed in the real world should bear out.


Sometimes researchers will hypothesize that a relationship will take a specific direction. As a result, an increase or decrease in one area might be said to cause an increase or decrease in another. For example, you might choose to study the relationship between age and legalization of marijuana. Perhaps you have done some reading in your spare time, or in another course you have taken. Based on the theories you have read, you hypothesize that “age is negatively related to support for marijuana legalization.” What have you just hypothesized? You have hypothesized that as people get older, the likelihood of their support for marijuana legalization decreases. Thus, as age moves in one direction (up), support for marijuana legalization moves in another direction (down). If writing hypotheses feels tricky, it is sometimes helpful to draw them out and depict each of the two hypotheses we have just discussed.


Note that you will almost never hear researchers say that they have proven their hypotheses. A statement that bold implies that a relationship has been shown to exist with absolute certainty and there is no chance that there are conditions under which the hypothesis would not bear out. Instead, researchers tend to say that their hypotheses have been supported (or not). This more cautious way of discussing findings allows for the possibility that new evidence or new ways of examining a relationship will be discovered. Researchers may also discuss a null hypothesis, one that predicts no relationship between the variables being studied. If a researcher rejects the null hypothesis, he or she is saying that the variables in question are somehow related to one another.


Quantitative and qualitative researchers tend to take different approaches when it comes to hypotheses. In quantitative research, the goal often is to empirically test hypotheses generated from theory. With a qualitative approach, on the other hand, a researcher may begin with some vague expectations about what he or she will find, but the aim is not to test one’s expectations against some empirical observations. Instead, theory development or construction is the goal. Qualitative researchers may develop theories from which hypotheses can be drawn and quantitative researchers may then test those hypotheses. Both types of research are crucial to understanding our social world, and both play an important role in the matter of hypothesis development and testing.  In the following section, we will look at qualitative and quantitative approaches to research, as well as mixed methods.


Text attributions This chapter has been adapted from Chapter 5.2 in Principles of Sociological Inquiry, which was adapted by the Saylor Academy without attribution to the original authors or publisher, as requested by the licensor, and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 License.


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