Writing Tips: What Is A Hypothesis?

An important step in the thesis writing (or any other investigation) is the creation and use of a hypothesis. Learn what a hypothesis is and how it will make your work easier.

Hypothesis - the very word conjures notions of complex mathematical formulas, incomprehensible social science, or medieval torture devices. It's a word that is charged with a distinct negative feel for most students and thesis writers.

However, to paraphrase your dorky junior high school teacher, "the hypothesis is your friend!"

Let's take a look at what a hypothesis actually is - let's "demystify it".

Any work that revolves around a hypothesis is, by nature and investigation of some sort. It may be a thesis, a survey, or any number of other investigative type projects.

It isn't an oversimplification to say that any project that involves investigation is in essence a push and pull between two elements - the problem statement and the hypothesis. (some very simple investigations that only try to measure variables and have no interest in their interaction my not include a hypothesis)

Or put another way, a question and answer. (that was easy enough wasn't it??)

Of course a hypothesis in all it's glory is much more complex than that - but in it's most basic nature it is simply an answer to a question.

OK, let's look at it in more detail.

Any investigation is motivated by a question - what causes poverty? Have global temperatures increased?

A very beginning investigator will want to simply respond. Let's go out, collect some data, and answer the question.

However, once you begin to get into an investigation of any depth, you'll find that there are almost in innumerable number of things to look at. Take poverty. We could investigate the roll of education, the roll of abuse, the roll of the world economy, racism, sexism, local zoning policy - the list is virtually infinite.

But the truth is that we probably already have an idea. If we've read up on our subject (and you better have read up on your subject if you're going to investigate) then you know quite a lot about it and already have a hunch or intuition about the correct answer.

You think you know, more or less what the answer is.

In other words, you have a hypothesis.

A potential answer to your question, otherwise known as a hypothesis, is a key to helping you organize your investigation.

If you think that, most likely, a poor educational system is the cause of poverty, then that limits the amount of territory that you have to cover to figure out if you're right or not.

That's the deep value of working with a hypothesis. It helps you take an almost infinite list of potential things to study and investigate and reduces them to one set of structured questions. While a lack of a strict structure may sound liberating, the truth is that in almost any investigation the lack of a strict structure is a guarantee that you'll sink neck deep in so much information and so many leads to follow that you are destined to fail.

The hypothesis is a potential response to the question that your investigation poses, and as such it presents you with a very nice and clean set of things to investigate - namely those things that will help you determine if you hypothesis is in fact the correct answer.

And that leads us the real way most investigations work. Even though it sounds contradictory, they do not try to answer a question straight away. Most worthwhile questions are just to complex to try to "answer" flat out. Your goal will be to take a potential answer, one that you think is probably correct, and see if it is correct or not. That will be the key of most investigations - verifying a hypothesis.

Now you should have a clear idea about what a hypothesis is and how it can help you structure an investigation.

One final tip - make sure that your hypothesis is well defined. As I mentioned, my example of "what causes poverty" is very open ended. In any investigation we'll want to set limits in space and time, and define out terms clearly. In this way a very open question like "what causes poverty" can be clarified to something like "what caused poverty in the American West during the 18th Century?" Just as this question needs to be clear, the potential answer (hypothesis) must also be clearly defined in order for it to be an effective tool for investigating.

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