Conceptual Framework No. 4: Working Hypothesis
[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series devoted to tools and frameworks for researchers to plan better projects right from the start. Please read the first post for the general outline of the series.]
In the previous posts, we have analyzed conceptual frameworks for research projects that have more concrete objectives in mind, especially in terms of contributing to policymaking. There are however, occasions in which there is no sufficient knowledge on a given field or problem to launch one of these conceptual frameworks. This might be especially the case in contexts with weak research environments, or in relatively new fields or for emerging policy problems on which there is not yet enough evidence to very concretely define them. In those cases, one option is to deploy a working hypothesis.
What are working hypothesis?
This hypothesis is used as a foundation tool for the research process, and it is not meant to be proven right or wrong. A working hypothesis is an educated guess or assumption to start research. It’s intend is to help the researcher organize its work by connecting ideas in different steps:
– Allowing for hypothesis and sub-hypothesis to be developed. This will create some order about the exploratory topics of the research.
– Organizing the existing research. This is particularly relevant in a new field. It is possible to identify various sources of valuable research. However, since they might be dispersed among different fields, working hypothesis allows the research to organize this background information.
– Finally, a working hypothesis is used to develop the research tools such as questionnaires or interview questions.
Since a working hypothesis is usually employed in a new area of research, or with highly complex questions such as those that emerge when trying to integrate a policy intervention (i.e. social protection policies), it usually employs qualitative methods such as interviews, focus groups, participatory research, etc.
When should you use it?
A working hypothesis model is very flexible and it is linked to exploratory research process. As such, these hypothesis are very useful at the onset of a research project. But this framework is very useful in other occasions as well. For example, research projects that are interdisciplinary in nature (which could potentially very effectively contribute to addressing in a more holistic way certain policy problems that are interdisciplinary by nature), are probably very good candidates for this model. Interdisciplinary projects tend to bring together existing models and knowledge from diverse fields. In this context, working hypothesis are a useful tool to bring together this knowledge in the form of plausible hypothesis to investigate. This is also the case for very practical research questions, which are often needed in public policy. There might be very little practical knowledge on a field, but significant theoretical knowledge, or knowledge from similar cases that might be useful. Working hypothesis is a way to bring all that knowledge to play into a very concrete and practical research question.
If you are interested in the working hypothesis model, some possible reads include:
Chapter 5 of “A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management” by Patricia Shields.
“How to make our Ideas clear”, an essay by Charles S. Peirce.
A different approach to new fields or research may also be analyzed, including grounded theory.