Identifying a Problem

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following activities:

Many instructors and textbooks tell students to “identify a problem” for their research. When students learn they have to find a “problem,” they often think about an affliction, disaster, or catastrophe. But in the language researchers use, a problem is just something unknown or not understood, similar to the way math gives us problems. When facing a math problem, we ask “What is X?” The “problem” in math – X – is neither good nor bad. In order to get started on a research project, you need a desire for knowledge or understanding about something; that something is your problem. Then, with the research materials you discover, you will try to help your audience better understand that something by making a claim about it. To help you learn how to identify the problem, we include the following passages from Aaron Ritzenberg and Sue Mendelsohn:

Strategies for Generating Scholarly Problems

Notice that each problem requires two parts. Like a rubber band that can only be stretched when you pull each end in opposite directions, a scholarly tension requires two elements to be at odds. For instance, merely noticing that something seems strange doesn’t constitute a scholarly problem until the researcher places it in tension with a second element: what we think of as typical. As you read the highlighted passages, you’ll notice that we have underlined language that indicates the kind of tension the author is calling attention to. As they research, scholars generate problems to drive their research by looking for tensions or dissonances between . . .

Common Understanding and Complication

Begin by observing a tension between the way others have understood the text and some aspect of the text that appears to diverge from that understanding.

Example: In this excerpt from his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon complicates our common understanding of the idea of “wilderness” as a realm separated from civilization (passage highlighted in light yellow). Cronon observes that, in fact, wilderness is a product of civilization (passage highlighted in dark yellow):

The common understanding of wilderness
For many Americans wilderness stands as the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness. Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet. As Henry David Thoreau once famously declared, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
A complication: reasons to rethink the common understanding of wilderness But is it? The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. (7)
Locate this type of problem by first researching the common understanding. Then look for elements that this understanding can’t account for.

Consider the stakes by asking how this new complication might challenge the common understanding of the text.[1]

A problem is something that is not properly understood or is misunderstood. With this definition in mind, a problem is not necessarily a bad thing to have. In fact, it can be a great thing to have! When we try to solve important problems, we advance our knowledge. A problem can be technical like how to design a bridge that withstands wind pressure and soil erosion; philosophical like how to understand the nature of being; economic like how to make our resources go further; political like how to ensure the rights of immigrants; or historical like how to understand why the U.S. government incarcerated approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. The best researchers identify research problems that are rich and rewarding so that they can work on them throughout their careers and leave more work for future generations of researchers. Marie Curie’s research problem was to understand radioactivity. Sigmund Freud’s research problem was to understand how the mind worked. Zora Neal Hurston’s research problem was to preserve and promote African-American culture. Though all three researchers died long ago, other researchers have continued their work. When we “plow the fields” of research established by others, we owe them a debt of gratitude, which we pay by continuing the tradition and passing it on to the next generation of researchers.

In the Humanities, we tend to look for problems that relate to human beings. We seek to understand human qualities in terms of capacities and blind spots. What are humans capable of achieving? Where do they get stuck in foolishness, ignorance, and blindness? These are age-old questions that motivated the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights. They still motivate us today. In general, if your research aims at extending human capacities and addressing human blind spots, you are on a worthy path.

Such discussions find a ready audience and help us join the scholarly conversation. If we think about “Sonny’s Blues,” for example, we can read it as a story about blind spots (Sonny’s self-destructiveness, the narrator’s failure to really know his brother, the society’s blindness about the damage caused by racism), and about human capacities (Sonny’s genius at embodying his personal struggles – and the social situation – in his music, the narrator’s genius at coming to an epiphany and relating it to his audience).

Addressing Problems [2]

When working with math problems, we can say we solved the problem. However, in literary studies, not all problems can be solved definitively. Sometimes, as in the problem of interpreting a literary text, we get an answer that is better than one we had before. We often use the word “address” instead of “solve” in these cases. Thus, we might say that Joseph Campbell addressed the problem posed by the structure of myths. He didn’t solve the problem definitively, since other people have addressed this problem in different ways and have come up with different answers.

To address problems in literary studies, we do research. For example, to address the problem of interpreting an Emily Dickinson poem, we might look for critical texts. Even if you find well-known critical texts, perhaps you see these critical texts differently from how other people see them; your perspective and your insights into them help others better address the problem.

Sometimes, a problem is well studied, like the examples listed above. Sometimes, you discover a new problem and are introducing it for the first time. In literary studies, lots of unknown things are out there, but not all of them are significant or worth knowing. For a problem to be significant, it means that an audience somewhere might care about it. For instance, perhaps we don’t know how many words are in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Just because the answer is unknown, doesn’t mean it is significant. Would the answer help us better understand the text or the author? Maybe not.

Also, consider whether the problem – the unknown something – is too easy or too difficult to answer; then avoid doing either. Using a computer and a text file of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, you could figure out how many words are in it quite easily, much faster than if you counted the words yourself. We should choose problems that are not this easy to answer. In any case, counting words in a novel makes little sense unless you can explain why doing so helps us to address another more significant problem, like whether audiences were consuming longer novels at the time, or whether the length of a novel was a major consideration for publishers. Even then, providing a page count is probably sufficient.

Set aside questions that are too difficult to answer, like the impact of Shakespeare’s work on authors who came after him. Such a project would take an immense amount of research and require years of study, far more than you can do for a term paper. Just because a problem is too difficult for a smaller project, however, doesn’t mean it is not worth pursuing. Measuring Shakespeare’s impact on later authors is an important objective. What you can do in a term paper is manage a smaller part of such a big question. For instance, what impact did Shakespeare’s work have on 20th century playwright August Wilson?

When you address a problem in literary studies, you should consider the history of the problem; have other people addressed it before? Weigh the significance of the problem; is it one that has relevance to a scholarly conversation? Finally, before exploring the problem in great detail, determine whether you can feasibly address the problem given your available time and other constraints.

Later in the book, we explain how to develop a thesis statement: an argumentative claim about the problem. By necessity, your claim should be different, even a little bit, from what scholars already think about a problem. You do not necessarily reject existing knowledge, but instead you extend it to make novel claims. Andy Norman explains that for your thesis to have an impact on your audience, you need to move people from presumptive knowledge to a nonpresumptive conclusion:

What currently passes for good critical thinking instruction leaves students confused: it makes them defensive and leaves them with a distinct impression that we apply our standards haphazardly. The concept of presumption, however, allows us to give them real clarity: more transparent guidance about how to write a good persuasive essay, more insight into the process of building new understanding, and greater clarity about how to think critically. Adept critical thinkers understand this: good argumentation is fundamentally a matter of marshaling presumptive premises to defend nonpresumptive conclusions. Critical thinking is all about finding claims that happen to sit on the wrong side of the ledger, and showing why they need to be moved to the other side [3]

To paraphrase Norman, we are seeking to make and share conclusions that our audience does not already presume to be true or right. To a degree, that means we are seeking to be original, but this originality is built upon claims that are not original (in other words, claims that our audience presume to be right). We defend our claim by warding off objections or counter-claims, showing how these objections or counterclaims are weaker than our claim.

Relation of Problem to Audience

To get a sense of whether a problem is worth addressing, you need to imagine your audience. The audience for your research is other literary critics and scholars. The best way to get to know your audience is by reading what they write: works of literary criticism and scholarship. Your audience may range from novices (such as students) to experts (such as professors). In the writings of these literary scholars and critics, you will come to know what kinds of concerns they have and what problems they find relevant and significant. Your goal is to join the conversation by adding something of value.

But first you need to know which scholarly conversation you are joining. For instance, if you are writing about a Jane Austen novel, such as Mansfield Park, you could consider joining conversations among scholars in Austen studies, Victorian literature studies, post-colonial studies, studies of the novel, women writers, etc. They overlap, for sure, but each group of scholars may have a different set of interests.

Do Problems Need to Be “Original”?

Originality may or may not be the most important consideration for literary scholars and writers; we can be original by doing something strange or unexpected but that otherwise has no clear purpose or value. The most recognized works of literature, or criticism and theory, are often those that show startling originality and are valued by other scholars. Learning how to recognize value, in your own work and others, is the hallmark of excellence in our field. Typically, it involves acquiring a lot of knowledge about the field.

By reading works of literary criticism and scholarship, you will find many significant problems. Great scholars are great problem-finders, but they don’t always have time to solve all the problems they discover. Sometimes, they leave them for other people – like you – to work on. For your research project, you don’t necessarily need to come up with an “original” problem, unless your instructor asks you to do so, because literary criticism, unlike math, usually has more than only one possible answer. Literary criticism and scholarship are more like law; each legal case is a “problem,” and we may come to different interpretations of evidence and of the law itself. Let’s say you find works of literary criticism discussing the problem of the color line in the work of Langston Hughes. You can still address this problem in your research project because you might have something new or different to say about it. You can add value by uncovering new information or by taking a different perspective on the problem.

On the following pages, we will discuss how to evaluate the relevance and purpose of the problem you’ve identified.

Key Takeaways

Good research problems:

Poor research problems:

Address an unexplored problem or propose a new solution to an old problem. Propose a well known solution to a well known problem.
Identify a tension between common understanding and complications. Propose unproven, common understandings.
Address the problem as a challenging yet manageable task. Are too easy or too difficult to answer.
Make audiences care about it. Make no one care about it.
Join a scholarly conversation in critical literature. Are unrelated to a scholarly conversation in critical literature.
Might have something new or different to say about the problem. Are unlikely to have anything new or different to say about the problem.

Identifying a Problem [Refresher]

Take this quiz to check your comprehension of this section.
If you are using an offline version of this text, access the quiz for this section via the QR code.


  1. How does the discussion on this page change your understanding of the word “problem” as it pertains to literary research?
  2. What is your plan for researching what problems your audience considers to be “significant” and “relevant”?
  3. Identify a problem you wish to research. It must be a problem related to literature and must focus on a particular literary work (or works). Problem identification can be provisional (subject to change) for now.
  4. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  5. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

More Resources

Discover how to establish a Problem Statement that helps the reader understand the relevance of your research.

  1. Aaron Ritzenberg and Sue Mendelsohn. How Scholars Write. Oxford University Press. 2020, 22.
  2. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Identifying a Problem.
  3. Andy Norman. Mental Immunity Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think. Harper Wave, 2021.


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