Exercise 9 – Constructing a Research Hypothesis


At this point in the course you’ve selected a topic and reviewed some of the research that has already been done on your subject.  Let’s think more carefully about how you will focus your research report on specific variables.  In this exercise you’ll generate a research question for your project, start thinking of a theoretical frame for your paper, and formulate a hypothesis you’ll test with the data you collect later in the course.

Understanding your Dependent Variable
Let’s start by defining what you’ll be studying in your research report.

In one word, what is the general GSS topic you’ve chosen to research?


In the example project we’ve been working on, I would choose “immigration” as the best word to describe our research topic.

Now, more specifically, what are the name, label, and description of the GSS variable you have selected?

If you need a refresher, look back at your work on the Introduction assignment for the Research Project – this is where you first picked a specific variable to work with.  If your ideas or topic changed while you were writing your literature review, go back to the GSS website and find a new variable you would like to work with.

Here is a sample to help you see where the variable name, label, and description are presented on the GSS website:

Find these elements for your own variable and enter them below:

Variable name:
[TEXTBOX: GSS Variable Name]

In our example project, “IMMRGHTS” is the name of the variable.

Variable label:
[TEXTBOX: GSS Variable Label]

In our example project, “LEGAL IMMIGRANTS SHOULD HAVE SAME RIGHT AS AMERICAN” is the label of the variable.

Variable description:
[TEXTBOX: GSS Variable Description]

In our example project, the variable description is:

“Q 1461. There are different opinions about immigrants from other countries living in America. (By “immigrants” we mean people who come to settle in America). How much do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements? e. Legal immigrants to America who are not citizens should have the same rights as American citizens.”

Generating Possible Independent Variables

The variable you have chosen is your dependent variable (DV).  In your research project, you will be trying to explain or predict the patterns we see in this dependent variable.

What social factors (or independent variables) have been shown in your literature review to impact this dependent variable? What others can you think of that might have an influence?

List five possible independent variables (IVs):
[TEXTBOX: 5 Independent Variables]

Research question:

A research question summarizes the key relationship between an independent and dependent variable you’ll focus on in your report.  Choose the independent variable you think will be most interesting to explore as an explanation for your dependent variable.

Now, I want you to draft an initial research question for your GSS topic:

[TEXTBOX: Research Question]

A possible research question for our example project could be, “How does a person’s level of education influence their attitudes towards immigrant rights?”

Next, use your research question and write a theoretical statement explaining why you think the independent variable will increase or decrease the dependent variable.

[TEXTBOX: Theoretical Statement]

A couple possible ways education could affect immigration attitudes:

  1. People with higher levels of education are more politically liberal than those with low levels of education, so people with higher levels of education will be more supportive of immigrant rights.
  2. People with less education are more likely than people with more education to know someone who has recently immigrated to the U.S., so people with lower levels of education will be more supportive of immigrant rights.

Hypothesis Construction

We’re getting pretty close to having a hypothesis for your research topic.  A hypothesis is simply a more formal way of defining the causal relationship between your dependent and independent variables.

Remember a hypothesis is: “A specified testable expectation about empirical reality that follows from a more general proposition; more generally, an expectation about the nature of things derived from a theory. It is a statement of something that ought to be observed in the real world if the theory is correct.” I recommend rereading pgs 45 to 56 in your text.

Here’s a possible hypothesis for our example research project on immigration:

“People with a college degree will agree more strongly than those with no college degree that legal immigrants should have the same rights as U.S. citizens.”

Things to remember about a hypothesis:

  1. Your hypothesis must be falsifiable.  This means the hypothesis can be proved wrong.  For our example, we will have to be able to observe if education does not have an effect on immigration attitudes.

We state this possibility as a null hypothesis (H0):

“People with a college degree do not agree more strongly than those with no college degree that legal immigrants should have the same rights as U.S. citizens.”

If we are able to reject this null hypothesis, it helps us show that our actual hypothesis is correct.

  1. Your hypothesis must indicate a causal relationship. While the logic of a hypothesis is always that the independent variables causes the dependent variable, we can be more confident that we have found a cause-effect relationship if our hypothesis meets three criteria:
    1. The independent and dependent variables must be related (or correlated) to each other.
    2. It should be clear that the independent variable precedes the dependent variable in time.
    3. The are no spurious variables that affect both our independent and dependent variables and account for the relationship between them.
  2. In your hypothesis, you’ll want to be more specific about how you define the concepts than you were in your research question. For example, our research question for the immigration topic included the concept “education level.”  In our hypothesis, we want to signal how we measure education level – “People with a college degree will agree more strongly than those with no college degree that legal immigrants should have the same rights as U.S. citizens.”  Likewise, instead of just writing “attitudes towards immigration rights” like we did in the research question, for the hypothesis we use the specific attitude measured in the survey question.  If your concept is complicated to measure, you may use proxies (e.g., sex is a proxy for gender socialization; income is a proxy for social class; etc).

Formulate your hypothesis as a predicted relationship between concepts that speak to your research question. Your hypothesis should also reflect the literature you have reviewed on your GSS topic, if only to improve upon preexisting research.  If you thought your articles were off the mark, here is your chance to examine the research problem yourself.

Hypothesis (H1):
[TEXTBOX: Hypothesis]

Null Hypothesis (H0):
[TEXTBOX: Null Hypothesis]

In this exercise you’ve learned how to conceptualize the relationships among several variables. You’ve explored a number of independent variables and thought about how they might influence a dependent variable. Finally, you’ve developed a testable research hypothesis that is grounded in your literature review. We are getting close to formalizing this into an operational research plan!

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